Christine de Pizan: Renaissance Woman (1365-c. 1431)

Christine de Pizan was a French lady born in Venice, and is sometimes considered the first woman of letters produced by France. The daughter of a medical doctor / astrologer who had been trained at the University of Bologna and was later appointed to the court of Charles V, Christine obtained an excellent education and familiarity with court life. This was done with the approval of her father, but with the disapproval of her mother, who considered the life of learnign “unladylike.”

At fifteen, Christine was married to Etienne de Castel, who had graduated from the University of Paris and became a secretary in the court of Charles V. Unfortunately, the same year that Christine and Etienne were married, Charles V died, and in the shufflings of court that attended the succesion, the new family was left in a state of great poverty. Etienne died in 1390, leaving Christine a 24 year old widow with three children, her mother, and her orphaned niece to support. To this end, Christine put her education to work by engaging in the life of letters. Her works often focused on the plight of women in a male-dominated society, and matched many learned men’s diversity by focusing on a wide range of subjects: poetry, biography, politics, chivalry, war, religion, and philosophy. This short sketch will focus on excerpts from her works The Book of the City of Ladies and The Book of the Body Politic.

“The City of Ladies”

As part of her case for celebrating the nobility of spirit of women and trying to liberate them from the slanders of men and the injustices of society in general, Christine envisioned an ideal “City of Ladies” to which women can come to be judged by their own merits rather than the merits of male accomplishments to which they might happen to be related.:”(“The City of Ladies,” as excerpted in The Renaissance Reader, ed. Kenneth J. Atchity [New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996], pp. 25-29.)”: As Christine and Lady Reason begin to lay the foundations for their City, they dialogue about the condition of women on earth and the liberation they are trying to bring about.

Christine’s explanation of why men so readily denigrate all women is interesting. Such attacks, she has Lady Reason say, are contrary to Nature, “for no connection in the world is as strong as the great love which, through the will of God, Nature places between a man and a woman.” The reasons for them are varied. For one, some men attack all women generally “with good intentions, that is, in order to draw men who have gone astray away from the company of vicious and dissolute women, with whom they might be infatuated, or in order to keep these men from going mad on account of such women, and also so that every man might avoid an obscene and lustful life.” Indeed, “They have attacked all women in general because they believe that women are made up of every abomination.” Lady Reason says this argument is fallacious because it would be like arguing that fire, “a very good and necessary element” is itself bad because some people get burned, or that water is bad because some people drown in it. It is true that “[T]here is nothing which should be avoided more than an evil, dissolute, and perverted woman, who is like a monster in nature, a counterfeit estranged from her natural condition, which must be simple, tranquil, and upright,” and so men would do better if they would distinguish good from evil women rather than attack all women::”(Ibid., 26.)”:

A second reason for the general male attack on women is men who are trying to draw attention away from the fact that they themselves “spent their youths in dissolution and enjoyed the love of many different women, used deception in many of their encounters, and have grown old in their sins withotu repenting, and now, regret their past follies and the dissolute life they lived.” Their natural affections have grown cold, and in jealousy over the fact that their own youth is gone and the current crop of youth are enjoying what they once enjoyed, they attack all women “hoping to make women less attractive to other men.”:”(Ibid., 26-27.)”:

A third reason for the general attack on women is related to the second. Lady Reason speaks of “those [men] who are moved by the defect of their own bodies have impotent and deformed limbs but sharp and malicious minds.” These are out to “avenge the pain of their impotence” and so think “to divert others away from the pleasure which they cannot personally enjoy.”:”(Ibid., 27.)”:

A fourth reason for general male attacks on women generally is that some men are simply jealous of women who “have greater understanding and are more noble in conduct than they themselves.” Such men jealously intend “to demean and diminish the glory and praise of such women” like the man who wrote a book called De Philosophia in which he maligned women for transforming philosophy, the love of wisdom, into “philofolly,” the love of folly.

This sort of man brings up a fifth reason for male attacks on women generally: a wicked love of slandering others. Such a man “is most ungrateful and fails to recognize the good deeds which women have done for him, so great that he could never make up for them, no matter how much he try, and which he continuously needs women to perform for him.” This sort of man forgets that “there is no naked beast anywhere, nor bird, which does not naturally love its female counterpart,” and so in his slander he acts contrary to Nature and Reason and does most wickedly.:”(Ibid.)”:

A sixth reason for male attacks on women generally is that some men, lacking creativity and wisdom and virtue of their own, simply repeat what they have read in other men’s books, believing that just because learned men have said it, it is true. These sorts of men are guilty of “discussing the behavior of women or of princes or of other people, while they themselves do not know how to recognize or to correct their own servile conduct and inclinations.” Unfortunately for women, “simple people, as ignorant as they are, declare that such writing is the best in the world.”:”(Ibid.)”:

Christine’s dialogue turns to examples of great women. She interacts with Bocaccio, who in his Concerning Famous Women speaks somewhat condescendingly of a woman who “who abandoned all feminine activities and applied her mind to the study of the greatest scholars.” Using the examples of the Roman poetess Cornificia (ca. 85-40 B.C.) and the Greek poetess Sappho (ca. 630 to ca. 570 B.C.), Christine argues that “God has given [women] such beautiful minds to apply themselves, if they want to, in any of the fields where glorious and excellent men are active, which are neither more nor less accessible to them as compared to men if they wished to study them, and they can thereby acquire a lasting name, whose possession is fitting for most excellent men.”:”(Ibid., 28.)”:

The Book of the Body Politic

Though herself a commoner, Christine’s work The Book of the Body Politic (ca. 1407) was written for the instruction of the then fourteen year old heir to the French Throne, Charles of Guyenne, and so it belongs in the classical and Medieval genre known as “the mirror for princes.”:”(As translated by Kate Forhan in Readings in Medieval Political Theory: 100-1400 [Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., 1993, rep. 2000], pp. 230-247.)”:

The metaphor of the “body politic” had been in use in Christian political discourse since the 12th century work Policraticus by John of Salisbury, who made the king the head of the political community, the soldiers and administrative officers the hands, and the common people the feet. Christine aims Part III of her work on the body politic at the nature and functions of the common people, whom she makes an integral part of the body: “just as the human body is not whole, but defective and deformed when it lacks any of its members, so the body politic cannot be perfect, whole, nor healthy if all the estates of which we speak are not well joined and united together…in so far as one of them fails, the whole feels it and is deprived by it.” If indeed the common people are the feet of the body politic, “they are the support and have the burden of all the rest of the body” and so the good ruler must love, guard, and defend them. Likewise, the people must love, reverence, and obey their good ruler.:”(Ibid., 231-232.)”:

Intriguingly, Christine uses what she calls a “moral fable” to describe what happens to the body politic if all its members do not cooperate. As a piece of Christian political rhetoric it obviously hearkens to the Apostle Paul’s portrayal of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:

Once upon a time there was a great disagreement between the belly of a human body and its limbs. The belly complained loudly about the limbs and said that they thought badly of it and that they did not take care of it and feed it as well as they should. On the other hand, the limbs complained loudly about the belly and said they were all exhausted from work, and yet despite all their labour, coming and going and working, the belly wanted to have everything and was never satisfied. The limbs then decided that they would no longer suffer such pain and labour, since nothing they did satisfied the belly. So they would stop their work and let the belly get along as best as it might. The limbs stopped their work and the belly was no longer nourished. So it began to get thinner, and the limbs began to fail and weaken, and so, to spite one another, the whole body died.:”(Ibid., 232.)”:

Christine takes up the duties of subjects to their rulers, and, fittingly because she is a Christian, her first recourse is to the Holy Scriptures. She cites Romans 13 (rulers are God’s ministers, and he who resists them resists God), Titus 3 (be subject to the rulers), 1 Peter 2 (be subject to the rulers even if they are bad), and Matthew 22 (give to Caesar what is Caesar’s). Her conclusion is that “All subjects ought accordingly to be loyal towards their prince, and evil comes from doing the opposite.” As a learned woman writing to learned men, Christine supplements the witness of Scripture with several important examples from classical history of the great loyalty of subjects to their rulers. The moral of these stories? Virtue obeys the rulers and is rewarded; vice rebels against the rulers and is punished.:”(Ibid., 234-235.)”: As will be seen shortly, and almost paradoxically, for Christine the principle of virtue’s reward and vice’s punishment also applies to the rulers.

As with Dante and other Christian Renaissance thinkers, who expound and defend Christian theology with the best of classical learning, virtue and vice are important themes in Christine’s work. In discussing the clergy, for instance, who study not just Scripture but all branches of learning, “the clear and healthy fountain” of the highest learning makes one able “to understand the choice of virtue and the avoidance of vice as it counsels the one and forbids the other.”:”(Ibid., 235.)”: Obtaining wisdom is worth any labor; those who obtain it are noble, rich, and perfect. Good students will understand from the classical examples of virtuous men that “books of such topics can teach them knowledge in order that they may increase in goodness and virtue,” and those who, not having performed the necessary studies, feign wisdom in order to gain the praise of men “resemble such people who die of hunger with food near them.”:”(Ibid., 236-237.)”: Also following the classical teaching (and Scripture as well), Christine recommends that hard study be frequently punctuated by “joyful work or sport” (leisure), which will refresh the scholar. “If they give themselves no recreation, those whose work is study become melancholy because the mind is overworked, and if they go to sleep they will suffer from bad dreams.”:”(Ibid., 237.)”:

Expanding her earlier treatment of the duty of subjects to obey their rulers, Christine takes note of the fact that the common people are often aggrieved by the policies of their rulers, and something does have to be done about this so that revolution will not destroy the body politic. She recommends that those who have the rank of “citizens” (the middle and merchant classes) “must take care that the common people are not hurt, so that they have no reason to conspire against the prince or his council.” This is because the common people do not usually have much prudence or insight into political matters, and so require intercessors with the prince so that their grievances may be properly stated and addressed. “[T]he wise should teach the simple and the ignorant to keep quiet about those things which are not their domain and from which great danger can come and no profit.”:”(Ibid., 238-239. It should be noted that the basic concept at work here, where “citizens” are only those who have insight into political matters and also the leisure time to engage in rational deliberation about political matters, is Aristotelian. In the Politics Aristotle discusses the different groups of people in a city and notes that the common laborers are unable to be “citizens” because their lives are consumed by toil and they have neither the time nor the ability to rationally engage in political activity.)”: This is confirmed, for Christine, by Exodus 22 (don’t complain about great rulers nor curse the princes) and by Ecclesiastes 5 (don’t betray the king in your thoughts).

Nevertheless, Christine brings out several classical examples of evil rulers who came to an evil end as a result of their vices. Denis (probably Dionysius I), tyrant of Sicily, and Ptholomeus Phiton of Egypt, were both evil and vicious men, and were overthrown and killed by their own people. Thus, even though Christine has already advocated the duty of obeying even bad rulers, she notes that “Thus the child bears the burden of the misdeeds and evil of his father. As it written in Holy Scripture [Ezekiel 18:2], ‘The fathers eat the sour grapes and their children suffer from toothache.’ It is also written [Lamentations 5:7], ‘Our fathers sin and we bear their iniquities.’”:”(Ibid., 241.)”:

Returning to the theme of the common people (Aristotle’s artisans and agricultural workers) as the “feet” of the body politic, Christine repeats that no harm should be done to them, “The varied jobs that the artisans do are necessary to the human body and it cannot do without them, just as a human body cannot go without its feet. It would shamefully and uselessly drag itself in great pain on its hands and body without them…”:”(Ibid., 243.)”: Still, the common people must take great care in how they live their lives, for they above the rest are tempted to lechery and licentiousness. Christine here nicely weaves together Aristotle’s critcism of “vulgar” laborers who “live like beasts” with Holy Scripture’s warning that it is the ungodly who say that because life is short men should enjoy it to its fullest without regard for moral concerns. Christine is here citing Chapter 2 of the Wisdom of Solomon, which for Protestants is apocryphal but evidently for Christine fully Scripture, and in this light her conclusion is interesting: “the people especially ought to follow preaching and sermons on the Word of God, since for the most part they are not learned in the teachings of Holy Scripture.”:”(Ibid., 244.)”:

Those who treat the “simple labourers” (the farmers) evilly act sinfully and irrationally, for “without [them] the world would end in little time.” Indeed, “It is a sin to be ungrateful for as many services as they give is!,” and again, they are the very feet and support of the body politic. Their estate is noble, not ignoble, for they are like “the two heads of the world” – Adam whom God made to cultivate the earth, and Noah, whom He charged with replenishing it. In some ways, the common farmer is much better off than the prince. Christine illustrates this point with a story about Diocletian, who retired from his duties as Roman emperor to a farm. When certain worthies came to ask him to take up again his power, Diocletian replied, “Ah…if you had seen the beautiful cabbages that I planted with my own hands, you would not require me to return to the empire.” Says Christine, “better to have things to one’s liking than to carry a burden so large and perilous as an empire,” and “the estate of simple labourer or others of low estate shoudl not be denigrated.”:”(Ibid., 245.)”: And again, “happiness [is] sufficiency and not wealth, because in wealth one cannot have sufficiency, at least, not security, but instead a lot of concerns, and a plenitude of fears and worries.”:”(Ibid., 246.)”:

In some ways a woman of her times and in other ways far ahead of her times, Christine de Pizan shows us yet one more interesting example of how classical learning wedded to Christian piety and a deep knowledge of the Scriptures can produce work of superior value and lasting influence.


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