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Christine de Pizan (ca.1365 - ca.1429)


Italian-born French poet and scholar, a medieval feminist and probably the first professional woman writer since antiquity. Christine de Pizan's most famous work is Le Livre de la cité des dames (1405, The Book of the City of Ladies), which defended the capabilities and virtues of women against misogynist writings of the day. Its sequel, Le Livre des trois vertus (1405), examined women's roles in medieval society and gave moral instructions. Her works cover a wide range of subjects, including literary debates, courtesy manuals, lyric poetry, biographies of kings, and treatises on chivalry.

Then Lady Reason responded and said, "Get up, daughter! Without waiting any longer, let us go to the Field of Letters. There the City of Ladies will be founded on a flat and fertile plain, where all fruits and freshwater rivers are found and where the earth abounds in all good things. Take the pick of your understanding and dig clear out a great ditch wherever you see the marks of my ruler, and I will help you carry away the earth on my own shoulders." (from The Book of the City of Ladies)

Christine de Pizan (sometimes written de Pisan) was born in Venice. The exact date of her birth is not known and little facts is also available of her early life, except what she wrote in L'Avision de Christine (1405). Some of her poems seem to be autobiographical, but on the other had, she has cautioned her readers that "some people could misjudge the fact that / I write love poems about myself." Never forgetting the country where she was born Christine referred to herself in Livre des fais d'armes et de chevalier (1408-09) as a "femme ytalienne," but he allegiance lay with France and her history, which was inseparable from her own and her family's fate.In the Great Schism of the Western Church she supported Avignon Pope Clement VII, sided by Charles V of France (1338-1380).

Christine's father, Tommaso di Benvenuto Pizzano (Thomas de Pizan), was an Italian academic. When Tommaso was appointed astrologer and physician to the French king Charles V, the family moved in 1368 to Paris. At the court Christine learned Latin and she was allowed to use the large library, where she broadened her education by reading books of philosophy. Education become one of her favorite topics – schools and universities were mostly closed to women. In The Book of the City of Ladies she mentions that her father encouraged her to study, but her mother followed the common custom of women and wished to keep her "busy with spinning and silly girlishness." The court library was her university.

At the age of fifteen Christine was married to Étienne de Castel, an ambitious official in the royal government, who gained the position of court secretary. Charles V died in 1380 and Tommaso lost his royal patronage. Ten years later both Étienne and Tommaso died. Christine was left with three children, an elderly mother, a niece, and a large household. There was also her husband's debts, which she had to pay. Her first poems, in which she expressed her loneliness, were composed to the memory Étienne. "Alone and in great suffering in this deserted world," starts one of her frequently anthologized ballads.

Alone and in great suffering in this
deserted world full of sadness has my
sweet lover left me. He possessed my
heart, in greatest joy, without grief.
Now he is dead; I'm weighted down by
grievous mourning and such sadness has
gripped my heart that I will always weep
for his death.

(from One Hundred Ballads, completed before 1402, translated by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski)

Christine's verses were well-received, and she could earn her livelihood as an author. Like Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, and Marie de France, also Christine succeeded against seemingly impossible odds. Between 1393 and 1412 she wrote about three hundred ballads, and many shorter poems. Her early lyric poetry was written for the amusement of the Valois court.

Using her contacts to the royal household, Christine received commissions from patrons, sometimes to write accounts of their amatory exploits. "It was a great pity," complained Ford Madox Ford in The March of Literature (1938), "for in such real poetry as she had time to write, she left very beautiful and delicate things behind her." However, the patronage system promoted the work of celebrated writers. In social hierarchy, salaried court poets were above artists, and it was not uncommon that poets aspired to be teachers of their patrons.

Christine de Pizan was the most prolific woman writer of the Middle Ages, equally adept in prose and poetry. She was also one of the first vernacular writers to supervise the copying and illuminating of her own books. From 1399 until her death (c. 1429) she wrote more than twenty books. In general, her works were formally experimental and innovative. Christine's prose style, modelled on Latin, was more complex than her ballads, which often come close to the intimate and subtle spirit of contemporary paintings.

Christine's son Jean Castel returned from England after his patron, Sir John Montague, was killed in January 1400. About this same time she started to write primarily in prose. Christine's poetry includes love lyrics, a patriotic glorification of Joan of Arc, and philosophical poems. Her first long work was Epistre d'Othéa (c. 1400, The Letter of Othéa); while writing it she read Ovid's Metamorphoses. The allegorical story, one of her most popular works, described the moral and spiritual education of a young knight. She also wrote treatises on education, warfare, religion, philosophy, and history. Some texts were intended as manuals of good government for the Dauphin, the future Charles VI (1368-1422).

In several works Christine attacked misogynist opinions of the day. She also founded a poetic Order of the Rose to reward knights who defended the honor of women. Some feminist critics have castigated her for failing to advocate reform of the social order or to demand equal rights for women. Le Livre des trois vertus (1405) has frequently been attacked for holding the traditional view of women as "second class citizens".

When chivalric poetry had idolozed women as superior beings, the vagrantes, wandering clerics and scholars, differed from troubadours mainly in that they spoke of women with contempt, and in fact they created whole anti-feminist and anti-romantic literature. L'Épistre au Dieu d'amours (written in 1399) was Christine's answet to the famous Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose), in which Jean de Meun (or de Meung, c.1250 - c.1305) satirized the artificial glorification of women. The cause was taken up by another poet, Martin LeFranc in Le Champion des Dames. With her vigorous polemic against Jean de Meun, Christine initiated France's first literare debate, known as the "Quarrel of the Rose," in her letters to Jean de Mountreuil, an early humanist scholar, and Gontier Col, First Secretary and Notary to King Charles VI. Her major concern was not social, but moral – the entire femine sex is not full of every vice – and intellectual rights.

Refuting the tendency to lay responsibility for male chastity on to women, Christine argued that it is up to the lover to find an honourable woman to love. Jean de Montreuil refused to reply to Christine directly. She continued the debate in The Book of the City of Ladies, based in part on De claris mulieribus (1360-74, Concerning Famous Women) by the Italian writer Boccaccio. The title of the book referred to St. Augustine's City of God, but as an utopia the City of Ladies was related to Plato's Atlantis and anticipated Thomas More's Utopia (1516), Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1629), and Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun (1637).

City of Ladies was divided in three parts. Its first section introduced the three virtues (Reason, Rectitude, and Justice). Christine then continued with stories of women from all levels of society. The story of her own life was basis for the allegorical L'Avision de Christine (1405), which has been the principal source of information of her life. At the request of the regent, Philip the Bold of Burgundy, she wrote the official biography of Charles V, Le Livre des fais et bonners meurs du sage roy Charles V (1404). In its second part, entitled "Chivalry," she portaryed the king as a man who qualified as a military leader in spite of his poor health and unwillingness to lead troops in a battle.

After the French were defeated by the English at Agincourt in 1415, and France became an occupied country, Christine entered the Dominican convent at Poissy, where her daughter was a nun. Her last known composition is Le Ditié de Jehanne d'Arc (The Song of Joan Arc, 1429), which celebrated the victory of Joan of Arc over the English at Orleans. It was the only French-language eulogy written during Joan's lifetime, only two weeks after her crowning of the dauphin in Reims. Joan was not only an answer to her prayers of peace, she was the embodiment of the feminine essence of Divinity.

Christine's books remained popular after the invention of printing. In the 15th century her works were featured in French printing along with other writings of the court circle, including Pierre Michault's Doctrinal de la Court, and the Abuzé en cour, attributed to King René, Jean d'Arras' Mélusine, the Procès de Bélial, and works of Alain Chartier. Christine de Pizan and her father probably gave Shakespeare historical models for Helena and her father in the play All's Well That Ends Well (1602-1604).

For further reading: 'Christine de Pizan' by S. Solente, in Revue d'histoire litteraire de France, 40 (1974); 'The Franco-Italian Professional Writer: Christine de Pizan' by C.C. Willard, in Medieval Woman Writers, ed. by K.M. Wilson (1984); Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works by Charity Canon Willard (1984); Christine de Pizan's "Epistre d'Othea" by Sandra Hindman (1986); 'Mothers to Think Back Through: Who Are They?' by Sheila Delany, in Medieval Texts, Contemporary Readers, ed. by Laurie A. Finkle and Martin B. Shichtman (1987); Allegory of Female Authority by Maureen Quilligan (1991); Politics, Gender, and Genre: The Political Thought of Christine de Pizan, ed. by Margaret Brabant (1992); Christine de Pizan and the Categories of Difference, ed by Marilyn Desmond (1998); The Love Debate Poems of Christine De Pizan by Barbara K. Altmann (1998); Christine de Pizan and the Moral Defence of Women: Reading beyond Gender by Rosalind Brown-Grant (2000); Christine De Pizan and Medieval French Lyric, ed. by Earl Jeffrey Richards (2000); Myth, Montage, and Visuality in Late Medieval Manuscript Culture: Christine De Pizan's Epistre Othea, ed. by Marilynn Desmond et al. (2003); An Introduction to Christine de Pizan by Nadia Margolis (2012)

Selected works:

  • L'Épistre au Dieu d'amours, 1399
  • Epistre d'Othéa, 1400
    - The Epistle of Othea to Hector; or, The Boke of Knyghthode (tr. from the French of Christine de Pisan, with a dedication to Sir John Fastolf, K.G., by Stephen Scrope, ed., from a manuscript in the library of the Marquis of Bath, by George F. Warner, 1904) / The Epistle of Othea to Hector (edited from the Harleian manuscript 838 ... by James D. Gordon, 1942) / The Epistle of Othea (translated from the French text of Christine de Pisan by Stephen Scrope; edited by Curt F. Bühler, 1970) / Christine de Pizan’s Letter of Othea to Hector (translated with introduction, notes, and interpretive essay by Jane Chance, 1990)
  • Dit de la Rose, 1402
  • Cent Ballades d'Amant et de Dame, Virelyas, Rondeaux, 1402
  • Chemin de long estude, 1403
  • La Pastoure, 1403
  • Le Livre des fais et bonners meurs du sage roy Charles V, 1404
  • Le Livre de la cité des dames, 1405
    - The Book of the City of Ladies (translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards, 1998; with an introduction and notes by Rosalind Brown-Grant, 1999) / The City of Ladies (translated by Rosalind Brown-Grant, 2006) 
  • Le Livre des trois vertus, 1405
  • L'Avision de Christine, 1405
    - Christine's Vision (translated by Glenda K. McLeod, 1993) / The Vision of Christine de Pizan (translated from the French by Glenda McLeod, Charity Cannon Willard; with notes and interpretive essay by Glenda McLeod, 2005) 
  • Livre du corps de policie, 1407
    - The Book of the Body Politic (edited and translated by Kate Langdon Forhan, 1994)
  • Livre des faits d’armes et de chevalerie, 1408-09
    - Boke of the Fayt of Armes and of Chyualrye (translated and printed by William Caxton, 1489) / The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry (translated by Sumner Willard; edited by Charity Cannon Willard, 1999)
  • Livre de la mutation de la fortune, 1410
  • Livre de la paix, 1413
    - The Book of Peace (edited, translated, and with an introduction and commentary by Karen Green et al., 2008) 
  • Ditié de Jeanne d'Arc, 1429
  • Les cent histoires de Troye: l’Epistre de Othea, deesse de prudence, enuoyee a lesperit cheualereux Hector de Troye, auec cent hystoires, 1499-1500
  • Œuvres poétiques de Christine de Pisan, 1886-96 (3 vols., edited by Maurice Roy)
  • Livre des fais et bonnes mœurs du sage roi Charles V, 1936-41
  • Christine de Pisan's Ballades, Rondeaux, and Virelais, 1965 (edited by Kenneth Varty)
  • The Writings of Christine Pizan, 1992 (edited by C.C. Willard)
  • Pizan: The Book of the Body Politic, 1995 (edited by Kate Langdon Forhan)
  • The Selected Writings of Christine De Pizan: New Translations, Criticism, 1997 (edited by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski)

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