Christine de Pizan has a strong claim to being the first professional author of any gender. Born in 1364, she was the daughter of an astrologer at the court of Charles V of France. She grew up in a highly cultural and intellectual society, and could have made use of the royal library. She married a court secretary and had two children by him, but was widowed at just 25. It was at this point that her writing career began, with ballads dedicated to her husband’s memory. These drew the attention and patronage of the French aristocracy. For the rest of her life she would be obliged to continue writing in order to support herself and her family.
At a time when there were few female intellectuals, Christine was keen to depict herself as a professional and a scholar in her own texts. Her most famous work, The City of Ladies, begins:
“According to my habit, which has been my life’s work – that is, learning and studying literature – one day I was sitting in my room surrounded by various books on different subjects…”
She also filled her works with references to other professional women, most notably Anastasia, a contemporary artist who illustrated Christine’s manuscripts. Christine emphasises that none of the artists in Paris (the vast majority of whom were male) can surpass Anastasia’s skill. In fact, The City of Ladies is largely composed of a list of women who excelled in all sorts of fields, from politics and combat to academia and theology.
For Christine was deeply Catholic, and her faith influenced her writing greatly. It may seem difficult to reconcile feminist ideas and Catholic doctrine, which teaches that a woman cannot lead Church services, must always submit to her husband, etc. But Christine saw no contradiction there; in fact, she made it her mission to combat the misogyny of her era with arguments based on Christian teachings. She pointed out that it was through a woman – the Virgin Mary – that spiritual salvation was possible; furthermore, the very first person to spread the news of Jesus’ resurrection was a woman: Mary Magdalen. Ultimately Christine implied that if men did not respect women, they were not true Christians.
Certainly Christine had no qualms about challenging the intellectual patriarchy of the day. One of the most popular French texts of the middle ages was an epic poem called the Romance of the Rose. The plot centres around a man trying obtain a “rose” – a crude metaphor for a girl’s virginity. At the end of the poem, there is a graphic description of the main character using violence to pluck a rose by force. Christine vehemently argued that the text was immoral and unfair on women. She challenged various male intellectuals who defended the poem, writing public letters attacking their arguments. Essentially she stoked what was, as far as I am aware, the first ever Comments War.
But even when her works were addressed to men, Christine was writing for men and women equally. She wanted to improve how women saw themselves by challenging the negative stereotypes of women’s capabilities and roles. And she wanted to force men to accept that women had played a significant role in the creation of their civilised society. At the very dawn of the Renaissance, she focused on issues that are still relevant today, such as the role of women in Christianity, the contributions women have made to professional fields, and the way men treat women.
Written for Sheroes of History by Louise Naude
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Watch this short video about Christine’s life: