Christine de Pizan: A Feminist Way to Learning
By Ester Zago
Equally in Gods’s Image: Women in the Middle Ages, edited by Julia Bolton Holloway, Joan Bechtold, Constance S. Wright (Peter Lang, 2005)
Introduction: Christine de Pizan, a widow at the age of twenty-five, had to overcome her bereavement and to provide for herself, her children, her mother and her niece. Years after the death of her husband she was still fighting legal battles to obtain a pension. It was during these difficult times that she succeeded in establishing herself as a writer, a profession which had been the uncontested domain of men. Christine was well aware of the unconventionality of her situation. She refused to remarry and instead put herself through an intensive, self-directed program of study. It was a courageous way of coping with adversity.
Christine received the typical upbringing of a young lady of the upper classes. Her father, Tommaso da Pizzano, had accepted the invitation of King Charles V to become his court astrologer. He moved to France with his Venetian wife and daughter. Christine was then four years old. Raised in an Italian household while living at the French court, she grew up as bilingual. In spite of her mother’s opposition and thanks to her father’s better judgment she learned Latin. In 1369, at the age of fifteen, she married the man her father had chosen for her. It was a happy marriage, but her husband died after only ten years. During that time, Christine necessarily neglected her education, occupied as she was with household duties and childbearing. The youngest of her three children only lived a few years. When her surviving daughter was accepted as a nun at the convent of Poissy, and her son left for England as a pade to the Earl of Salisbury, Christine was free to devote herself to her literary career.
Most of her works have been carefully edited and studied, notably those, such as The Book of the City of Ladies and The Book of the Three Virtues, dealing with the role and status of women in society. Her defense of women in the Querelle du Roman de la Rose has been much discussed. But Le Livre du Chemin de Long Estude, written between 1402 and 1403 for Charles VI and the Princes of the ‘Fleurs de Lys’, instead is neglected. This dismissal is strange in the light of the fact that it was Le Livre du Chemin de Long Estude which first established Christine de Pizan, in the eyes of her contemporaries, as the first important woman writer. In this poem she displayed, even more than in her earlier work, the mastery of the cultural knowledge and rhetorical skills which were regarded as the marks of a serious and committed writer. In addition, the works holds an important place in Christine’s oeuvre; in it she addressed for the first time those political and ethical problems which would be the predominant themes of her subsequent, mature works.