Christine de Pisan was the first woman in history to make a living from writing.
Christine de Pisan was born around 1364 in Venice, Italy; the family was from the village of Pizzano, just outside Bologna. Her father, Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano, was a graduate of the University of Bologna and was a lecturer in astrology at the university, but moved to Venice in 1357. In the late 1360s Tommaso was invited to join both the Hungarian and the French royal courts. He chose France and moved his family, including Christine and her two brothers Paolo and Aghinolfo, to Paris, in December 1368, becoming royal physician and astrologer to Charles V. Christine’s father paid particular attention to his daughter’s education, allowing her to be taught to the same standards as a boy of her age, although her mother disapproved. She was tutored in history, literature, religion and the classical languages.1
In 1380, at the age of fifteen, Tommaso arranged a marriage for Christine with Etienne de Castel. Ten years older than Christine, Etienne was a graduate of the University of Paris and became a royal secretary in the year they married. The position of royal secretary was a lifetime appointment and only open to the intellectual elite, as they were often involved in diplomatic events. In the same year, on 16 September, Tommaso’s patron Charles V died, leaving the family in a precarious financial position. Christine was further challenged by a series of tragedies toward the end of the decade. Her father, Tommaso, died in 1387, leaving Christine’s mother and niece in his daughter’s care. Around the same time, Christine lost a child, his name unknown; although two children, Marie and Jean, survived infancy. In 1390 her husband Etienne passed away at Beauvais and Christine was left with the responsibility of providing for herself and her young children, as well as her mother and niece.
Christine explained herself, in her book Mutation of Fortune, how she had to take on the mantle of the man of the house,
Let me summarise this moment,
Just who I am, what all this meant.
How I, a woman, became a man by a flick of Fortune’s hand
How she changed my body’s form
To the perfect masculine norm.2
Etienne had taken care of all the family’s financial dealings and it was a steep learning curve for Christine to learn to manage the accounts and pay off the family’s debts. Shortly after Etienne’s death, Christine found work as a copyist for a number of Parisian manuscript workshops. Eventually, around 1399, she began to compose her own prose and poetry as a means of supporting her family, and it was the grief of losing Etienne that informed Christine’s early works of poetry. Initially, she would send her works to members of the court, who sent her money in gratitude, with patrons eventually including Louis, Duke of Orléans, the Duke de Berry and France’s queen, Isabella of Bavaria. And as Christine’s fame spread beyond France, she could also count Philip II the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and Thomas Montagu, 4th Earl of Salisbury, among her patrons. Writing in ballads and lais (poetry put to music), Christine could express her love and grief for Etienne and the sense of loss and loneliness she now felt,
Like the mourning dove I’m now alone,
And like a shepherdless sheep gone astray,
For death has long ago taken away
My loved one whom I constantly mourn…3
Christine de Pisan’s poems, amounted to ten volumes of verses, including L’Épistre au Dieu d’Amours (Letter to the God of Loves) which was published in 1399. In the early 1400s she also published Letters on the Debate of the Romance of the Rose, a response to Jean de Meun’s Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose) attacking the traditional view of women causing the sins of men. Christine is, above all, remembered and revered for her work, Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies), published in 1405. Well received in France, even in her own lifetime, it was later translated into Flemish and English. The book tells of the lives of past and present heroines, including pagan, Hebrew and Christian ladies who were renowned for being examples of exemplary womankind, famed for their chastity, loyalty and devotion. It included the lives of female saints who remained steadfast in their devotion to God in the face of martyrdom. City of Ladies was Christine’s response to the misogynistic portrait of womankind that was present in many works of the era, in which women were blamed for the misery in which men found themselves. The book suggests that women were capable of being anything, from warriors to artists and teachers, but stops short of suggesting that her contemporaries should pursue such careers.4
In the same year, 1405, the sequel to City of Ladies, entitled Le Livre des Trois Vertus (The Book of the Three Virtues) was also published. This text was more of an instructional treatise, showing women how they should behave and how they could make a significant contribution to society from their various social spheres. In it Christine recommends that women should be modest and obedient as virgins, tolerant and humble as wives, and courageous and dignified as widows. It is possible that Le Livre des Trois Vertus was written as a book of instruction for eleven-year-old Marguerite de Nevers, the daughter of the Duke of Burgundy and bride of Louis of Guyenne, the heir to the throne of France. Although the book appears to be a contradiction of Christine’s own life, when she was making a name for herself as a writer to support her family, it has to be remembered that Christine was living in a male-dominated era, rather than the 21st century. She has often been advanced as the first feminist, but while she wanted to correct the negative view of women and improve the conditions of women, advancing arguments for better education and a role beyond the home, she was not intending to be revolutionary.
Christine’s writing proved so successful that she managed to pull herself out of debt and make a living at it; she was the first woman to ever become a professional writer. Her ability to write for varied audiences meant her work was often sought after. She eventually started receiving commissions to write specific items for her noble patrons, including political and moral works. A biography of Charles V, Le Livre des Fais et des Bonnes Meurs du Sage Roy Charles V (The Book of the Deeds and Good Character of the Wise King Charles V), which Christine wrote in 1404, was commissioned by the late king’s brother Philip, Duke of Burgundy. Her other works included The Book of the Body Politic and Feats of Arms and Chivalry. The latter was published anonymously as Christine doubted it would be taking seriously if a woman was identified as the author.
As Charles VI increasingly slipped into bouts of madness in the early 15th century, and France found itself on the verge of civil war, Christine would write about peace and the necessity of stable government. However, as France was dragged back into the Hundred Years War against England, she became increasingly marginalised. She retired from public life and retreated to the convent at Poissy, where her daughter was a nun. Her last work, in 1429, Le Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc (The Poem of Joan of Arc), extolled the virtues of Joan, the Maid of Orléans, as valiant and brave, chaste and pure; it was the only work written about Joan during her own lifetime. Writing at the height of Joan’s success. It portrayed the Maid, the leader of the revival of French fortunes in the war against the English, as the embodiment of the women Christine had written of in City of Ladies. However, Christine does not appear to have lived long enough to see the final chapters, and the tragedy, of Joan’s life – her imprisonment and death at the hands of the English. Christine probably died in 1430, the year before Joan.
Christine de Pisan was one of the most remarkable women of her age. In her world, women were denied their own voice and independence. There were strictures placed on every aspect of their lives, by tradition and society. And yet she circumvented these strictures, not only by writing, but by writing to make a living, and by giving a voice and identity to women everywhere. She was not a feminist; the notion of feminism simply did not exist. However, she was a forerunner for the feminist movement, and a sign of the independence that women would eventually achieve.
The poet, political and social observer Christine de Pisan was the culmination of a series of remarkable female trailblazers, including Hildegard of Bingen, Heloise ( of Heloise and Abelard fame) and Marie de France. She proved that women were just as capable as men of making successful careers as writers.
1. The Life and Triumphs of Christine de Pizan (article), faculty.msmc.edu; 2. The Writing of Christine de Pizan translated by Nadia Margolis, edited by Charity Cannon Willard; 3. ibid; 4. The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pisan, translated by Rosalind Brown-Grant
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King John’s Right-Hand Lady: The Story of Nicholaa de la Haye is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword Books, bookshop.org and Amazon UK. (I will hopefully have a US release date shortly)
In a time when men fought and women stayed home, Nicholaa de la Haye held Lincoln Castle against all-comers. Not once, but three times, earning herself the ironic praise that she acted ‘manfully’. Nicholaa gained prominence in the First Baron’s War, the civil war that followed the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215.
A truly remarkable lady, Nicholaa was the first woman to be appointed sheriff in her own right. Her strength and tenacity saved England at one of the lowest points in its history. Nicholaa de la Haye is one woman in English history whose story needs to be told…
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US, and Bookshop.org.
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword, Amazon, and Bookshop.org.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon, and Bookshop.org.
Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, and Bookshop.org.
Alternate Endings: An anthology of historical fiction short stories including Long Live the King… which is my take what might have happened had King John not died in October 1216. Available in paperback and kindle from Amazon.
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