From Ashes to Impossible, From Impossible to Success: Christine de Pizan

Bottoming out for Christine de Pizan meant losing her husband. In Medieval France, she not only lost her partner but the financial means he provided. Female professionalization was quite limited at the time and in order to provide for herself and her children, she either need to professionalize or remarry.

Pizan could have been practical. She could have found a new husband, perhaps someone with influence and wealth. But she did not decide to be practical, not at all. In fact, she decided to do something even more unpractical—become a professional writer as her sole source of income. She had virtually no examples of professional female writers. Sure, there were some letter writers and other great thinkers of the time, but not a woman who was sponsored by patronage and paid for her writing. Further paid enough to support a family.

Pizan would be the first.

But before that, she had to hit bottom.

I can only imagine there was a moment of soul searching, a time of self-doubt, mired in sorrow over her loss. She was quite aware that her womanhood was an obstacle. She mocks society’s low esteem of women in The Book of the City of Ladies, saying, “I was astounded that such a fine craftsmen (God) could have wished to make such an appalling object (women)…”[1] That is to say, if God is exalted for his creations, wouldn’t women also be among those things?

Yet her work indicates that she was impacted by the lack of professional women. “But I would then ask you whether you know of any women who, through the strength of emotion and subtlety of mind and comprehension, have themselves discovered any new arts and sciences which are necessary, good, and profitable…”[2]

6a00d8341c464853ef019103d990ca970c-500wiBut in hindsight also speaks through the incarnation of reason in order to calm these fears. “Rest assured, dear friend, that many noteworthy and great sciences and arts have been discovered through the understanding and subtlety of women, both in cognitive speculation, demonstrated in writing, and in the arts, manifested inmanual works of labor…”[3]

It was through her poems, seemingly written as an outlet for her sorrow that gained her the initial attention. She was well-placed already as both a daughter and wife of a royal official. Through these connections, she found patronage. Eventually, her popularity led to solid and comfortable earning that allowed Pizan to not only remain unmarried but gain economic independence. But she did play to the industry which supported her, instead she used her unique position as an opportunity to oppose misogyny. Her most well-known work, The Book of the City of Ladies, turns depictions of women in medieval literature on its head. Instead, she builds up historical and mythological women, seeking to recognize their strength, abilities and contributions. She directly challenges the idea that women are mere objects of desire and scorn.

These are big challenges for this time period. No one advocated for women in the public sphere, Pizan took the opportunity her position afforded to address misogynistic sentiments, particularly in literature. Certainly, she took a certain risk in order to do so.

Pizan found economic success, but more importantly she gained the freedom to choose her own path and give women a voice.

 

Endnotes

[1] Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, (London: Penguin, 2000), 6.

[2] Christine de Pizan, “The Book of the City of Ladies,” Millersville University, accessed 23 June 2017, http://web.archive.org/web/20001205161800/http://www.millersv.edu:80/~english/homepage/duncan/medfem/pizan.html.

[3] Ibid.