Christine de Pizan: A Fifteenth Century Champion of Women
By Daphne Palmer Geanacopoulos
Writing Across the Curriculum, Volume 4 (2008)
Introduction: Many think of power in the Middle Ages as a male-dominated sphere. In many ways it was. History records that men held what was called the formal, direct exercise of public authority. They controlled the Church and the aristocracy, the two power centers in medieval culture. Their decisions influenced the social, economic and political life of society, and touched the lives of every citizen.
In fourteenth-century France, women were generally thought to be inferior and subordinate to men. The ruling men—the two groups with the least familiarity with women, formed ideas about women. “On the one hand was the clerkly order, usually celibate, and on the other, a narrow caste who could afford to regard its women as an ornamental asset while strictly subordinating them to the interests of its primary asset, the land.”
These factions defined women’s lives: they determined, among other things, the concept of marriage and the status of women under law. Since both agreed women should be in subjection to man, women were denied access to the power, privilege and prestige these men created for themselves. The history of misogyny dates back to the time of antiquity.
Power can and should be defined in another way, in a less conventional way, as the ability to act effectively and influence others. Despite the obstacles faced by women in the late medieval period, one woman without recognized public authority created her own authority and wielded power in a significant way. That woman was Christine de Pizan.
Christine de Pizan used her skills as a writer to defend her gender against misogyny. Her actions set an example for other women. A careful analysis of her writings and a discussion of her life shows that Christine was an early “modern” woman who used her life experiences and self-taught knowledge to affect change. The study will also define power in a broader sense, as that exerted by Christine de Pizan.