Have you ever noticed that once you hear about someone for the first time, they often come back to haunt you? Christina de Pizan is like that for me. I had never really registered her before interviewing Alison Weir this past February when she came up. Now she seems to be everywhere for me.
Most recently, I have discovered an album by VocaMe in which the poetry of Christina de Pizan has been arranged in contemporary music. So I decided I’d best learn a thing or two about this woman who is often credited as being one of the earliest feminists in Europe.
In an age where most women couldn’t even sign their name, Christina was a writer and all around creative bohemian living in Paris around 1400. She was the court writer for several dukes, including Louis or Orleans, Philip the Bold of Burgundy, and John the Fearless of Burgundy, and was also at the French royal court. In addition to her court writings, she wrote poetry – ballades that took the idea of courtly love and spun it around to a female perspective, and wrote books of advice for women.
Her early life wasn’t particularly unusual. She was born in Italy but moved to France when her father accept an appointment at the court of Charles V to be the king’s astrologer, alchemist, and physician. As I’ve written before about John Dee, the idea that you could be both a physician and astrologer was completely normal in the medieval world. Christina was able to complete a humanist education, learned languages and was exposed to a large library in Charles’ royal archive. She was married at age 15, and when her husband died in an epidemic ten years later she was faced with the need to support herself and her family, including her two children. Her attempts to collect money from her husband’s estate were complicated by lawsuits, and she wasn’t able to recover the money she was owed.
She turned to writing in order to support herself, and started writing love ballads which became popular at court. Noble patrons were interested in the novelty of a female writer, and they had her compose poetry about their own romantic history. Between 1393 and 1412 she composed over 300 ballads, and many short poems.
She involved herself in a literary debate that enabled her to establish herself as a serious writer who stood up for the position of women in society. There was a famous poem written in the 13th century, the Romance of the Rose written by Jean de Meun. It satirizes the conventions of courtly love and critically portrays women as nothing more than seducers. Christina objected to the use of vulgar terms, and said that these terms denigrated the natural functions of sexuality. Her critique centered around the belief that the poem purposely slandered women. Because of this many contemporary scholars believe that she should be seen as an early feminist, though there are others who challenge this assertion saying it is a misrepresentation of her writing.
In 1405’s The Book of the City of Ladies Christina created a symbolic city in which women are appreciated and defended. She constructed three allegorical figures – Reason, Justice, and Rectitude. She enters into a dialogue, a movement between question and answer, with these allegorical figures that is from a completely female perspective. Together, they create a forum to speak on issues of consequence to all women. Only female voices, examples and opinions provide evidence within this text. Christina, through Lady Reason in particular, argues that stereotypes of women can be sustained only if women are prevented from entering into the conversation.
The VocaMe album that has been dominating my Spotify the past few days stems from the fact that one of her ballads, Dueil agnoisseus (Anguished Grief), a poem about melancholy an solitude, was put to music by a Flemish contemporary. It’s likely that other works of hers were put to music, and they just haven’t survived. VocaMe then used an approach that was widely used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, which was to recycle already existing elements – either text or melodies – to create a new work. They chose to set her love poetry to the music of melodies that had been popular almost a century before her time, assuming that through her humanist and liberal education, she would have perhaps been familiar with them. It creates an interesting lens through which to experience her poetry.
Whether she would have called herself a feminist or not seems to me to be irrelevant. The fact is that she was a woman who needed to support herself and her family, and she was able to capitalize on her unique talents to do so, and stand up for women at the same time. For that, I label her an all around badass, and she has quickly become one of my historical heroines. I also love the connection that Alison Weir made, suggesting that Anne Boleyn would have been familiar with her writing from her time in Burgundy and France, and it likely would have influenced her own opinions of the role of women, which ultimately may have caused her to lose her head. So, you know, you could make a case that Christina de Pizan was to blame for Anne’s beheading, but I suppose that has less to do with her feminism, and more to do with her inability to birth a male heir (which, of course, was entirely Henry’s fault – the sex of the child is down to the man in the whole operation).
Anyway, if you’re interested in reading more about Christina de Pizan, her writing is available on Amazon:
Chansons & Ballades – the album from VocaMe