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Christine de Pisan

Christine de Pisan, showing the interior of an apartment at the end of the 14th or commencement of the 15th century

Christine de Pisan (circa 1365 - circa 1430) was a French poet and arguably the first female author in Europe to make a living from being a writer (Marie de France being the other likely candidate). She is viewed by many feminists as the originator of the feminist movement since she espoused female achievements and was the spokesperson for the rights of women in her time.

Pisan writingWhen she was 24 her husband, Étienne du Castel, died which led to Pisan becoming a writer in order to support her three children. In her works, she attacked the then popular view that women were second class citizens. She was spurred on by events occurring around her, in which men were trying to restrict female inheritance of land and guild membership. Her most notable work was The Book of the City of Ladies which was written in 1405. She also wrote about the victory of Joan of Arc at the Battle of Agincourt and attacked the misogyny of Romance of the Rose written by Jean de Meung.

Biography of Christine de Pisan

She was born in Venice, Italy. When she was four years old she was brought to her father, a councillor of the Venetian Republic, in Paris, where he held office as astrologer to King Charles V. At fifteen Christine married Étienne du Castel, who became Charles's notary and secretary. After the king's death in 1380 her father lost his appointment, and died soon after; and when Christine's husband died in 1389 she found herself without a protector, and with three children depending on her. This determined her to have recourse to letters as a means of livelihood.

Her first ballads were written to the memory of her husband, and as love poems were the fashion she continued to write other--lais, virelais, rondeaux and jeux a vendre--though she took the precaution to assure her readers (Cent balades, No. 50) that they were merely exercises. In 1399 she began to study the Latin poets, and between that time and 1405, as she herself declares, she composed some fifteen important works, chiefly in prose, besides minor pieces.

The earl of Salisbury, who was in Paris on the occasion of the marriage of Richard II with Isabella of France (1396), took her elder son, Jean du Castel (b. 1384), and reared him as his own; the boy, after Salisbury's death (1400) being received by Philip of Burgundy, at whose desire Christine wrote Le Lure des faitz ci bonnes manneurs du sayge roy Charles (1405), valuable as a first-hand picture of Charles V and his court.

Her Mutation de fortune, in which she finds room for a great deal of history and philosophy, was presented to the same patron on New Year's Day, 1404. It possesses an introduction of great autobiographical interest. In La Vision (1405) she tells her own history, by way of defence against those who objected to her pretensions as a moralist. Henry IV of England desired her to make his court her home, and she received a similar invitation from Galeazzo Visconti, tyrant of Milan. She preferred, however, to remain in France, where she enjoyed the favour of Charles VI, the dukes of Berry and Burgundy, the duchess of Bourbon and others.

Christine was a champion of her own sex. In her Dit de la rose (1402) she describes an order of the rose, the members of which bind themselves by vow to defend the honour of women. Her Epitre au dieu d'amour (1399) is a defence of women against the satire of Jean de Meun, and initiated a prolonged dispute with two great scholars of her time, Jean de Montreuil (d. 1415) and Gonthier Col, who undertook the defence of the Roman de la Rose.

Christine wrote about 1407 two books for women, La Gild des dames and Le Livre des trois vertus, or Le Trésor de la cite des dames. She was devoted to her adopted country. During the civil wars she wrote a Lamentation (1410) and a Livre de la paix (1412-1413), but after the disasters of the campaign of Agincourt she retired to a convent.

We have no more of her work until 1429, when she broke her silence to write a song in honour of Joan of Arc. Of the circumstances of her death nothing is known but it probably took place about this time. Her Cite des dames contains many interesting contemporary portraits, and her Livre des trois vertus contains details of domestic life in the France of the early 15th century not supplied by more formal historians.

Poetry of Christine de Pisan

Her poems were edited by Maurice Roy for the Société des anciens Textes francais (1886, etc.), and her Livre du chemin du long éstude, by Puschel (Berlin, 1887). There are monographs by Raimond Thomassy (Paris, 1838); E.M.D. Robineau (Saint-Omer, 1882); and Friedrich Koch (Goslar, 1885). It is possible that Jean Castel, who was chronicler of France under Louis XI, was Christine's grandson. Hoccleve imitated her Epitre au dieu d'amour, in his "Letter of Cupid" (Chaucerian and other Pieces, ed. W. W. Skeat, 1897). A translation of her Epitre d'Othda was made (c. 1440) by Stephen Scrope for his stepfather, Sir John Fastolf, and is preserved in a manuscript at Longleat. This was edited (1904) for the Roxburghe Club by W.G.F. Warner as The Epistle of Othea to Hector, or the Boke of Knyghthode. The Moral Proverbs of Christyne de Pise, translated by Earl Rivers, was printed in 1478 by Caxton, who himself translated, by order of Henry VII, her Livre des faitz d'armes, ci de chevalerie, a treatise on the art of war, based chiefly on Vegetius. Her Cite des dames was translated by Brian Anslay (London, 1521).



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