Christine de Pizan (also seen as de Pisan) (1363–c.1434) was a writer of the medieval era who strongly challenged misogyny and stereotypes that were prevalent in the male-dominated realm of the arts. Pizan completed forty-one pieces during her thirty-year career (1399–1429). She earned her accolade as Europe’s first professional woman writer. Her success stems from a wide range of innovative writing and rhetorical techniques that critically challenged renowned male writers, such as Jean de Meun who, to Pizan’s dismay, incorporated misogynist beliefs within their literary works.
In recent decades, Pizan's work has been returned to prominence by the efforts of scholars such as Charity Cannon Willard and Earl Jeffrey Richards. Certain scholars have argued that she should be seen as an early feminist who efficiently used language to convey that women could play an important role within society. This characterization has been challenged by other critics who claim either that it is an anachronistic use of the word, or that her beliefs were not progressive enough to merit such a designation.
Christine de Pizan married Etienne du Castel, a royal secretary to the court, at the age of fifteen. She bore three children, a daughter (who went to live at the Dominican Abbey in Poissy in 1397 as a companion to the king's daughter, Marie), a son Jean, and another child who died in childhood. Pizan’s familial life was threatened in 1390 when her husband, while in Beauvais on a mission with the king, suddenly died in an epidemic. Following Castel’s death, Pizan was left to support her mother, a neice, and her three children. When she tried to collect money from her husband’s estate, she faced complicated lawsuits regarding the recovery of salary due to her husband. In order to support herself and her family, Pizan turned to writing. By 1393, she was writing love ballads, which caught the attention of wealthy patrons within the court. These patrons were intrigued by the novelty of a female writer and had her compose texts about their romantic exploits. Pizan's output during this period was prolific. Between 1393 and 1412, she composed over three hundred ballads, and many more shorter poems.
Pizan’s participation in a literary quarrel, in 1401–1402, allowed her to move beyond the courtly circles, and ultimately to establish her status as a writer concerned with the position of women in society. During these years, she involved herself in a renowned literary debate, the “Querelle du Roman de la Rose”.Pizan helped to instigate this debate by beginning to question the literary merits of Jean de Meun’s the Romance of the Rose. Written in the thirteenth century, the Romance of the Rose satirizes the conventions of courtly love while critically depicting women as nothing more than seducers. Pizan specifically objected to the use of vulgar terms in Jean de Meun’s allegorical poem. She argued that these terms denigrated the proper and natural function of sexuality, and that such language was inappropriate for female characters such as Madame Raison. According to Pizan, noble women did not use such language. Her critique primarily stems from her belief that Jean de Meun was purposely slandering women through the debated text.
The debate itself is extensive and at its end, the principal issue was no longer Jean de Meun’s literary capabilities. The principal issue had shifted to the unjust slander of women within literary texts. This dispute helped to establish Pizan’s reputation as a female intellectual who could assert herself effectively and defend her claims in the male-dominated literary realm. Pizan continued to counter abusive literary treatments of women.
By 1405, Christine de Pizan had completed her most successful literary works, The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies, or The Book of the Three Virtues. The first of these shows the importance of women’s past contributions to society, and the second strives to teach women of all estates how to cultivate useful qualities in order to counteract the growth of misogyny (Willard 1984:135).
De Pizan’s final work was a poem eulogizing Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who took a very public role in organizing French military resistance to English domination in the early fifteenth century. Written in 1429, The Tale of Joan of Arc celebrates the appearance of a woman military leader who, according to de Pizan, vindicated and rewarded all women’s efforts to defend their own sex (Willard 1984:205). After completing this particular poem, it seems that de Pizan, at the age of sixty-five, decided to end her literary career (Willard 1984:207). The exact date of her death is unknown. However, her death did not diminish appreciation for her renowned literary works. Instead, her legacy continued on because of the voice she established as an authoritative rhetorician.
In the “Querelle du Roman de la Rose,” de Pizan responded to Jean de Montreuil, who had written her a treatise defending the misogynist sentiments in the Romance of the Rose. She begins by claiming that her opponent was an “expert in rhetoric” as compared to herself “a woman ignorant of subtle understanding and agile sentiment.” In this particular apologetic response, de Pizan belittles her own style. She is employing a rhetorical strategy by writing against the grain of her meaning, also known as antiphrasis (Redfern 80). Her ability to employ rhetorical strategies continued when de Pizan began to compose literary texts following the “Querelle du Roman de la Rose.”
In The Book of the City of Ladies de Pizan creates a symbolic city in which women are appreciated and defended. De Pizan, having no female literary tradition to call upon, constructs three allegorical foremothers: 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 (Campbell 6). These constructed women lift de Pizan up from her despair over the misogyny prevalent in her time. 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. De Pizan, through Lady Reason in particular, argues that stereotypes of woman can be sustained only if women are prevented from entering the dominant male-oriented conversation (Campbell 7). Overall, de Pizan hoped to establish truths about women that contradicted the negative stereotypes that she had identified in previous literature. She did this successfully by creating literary foremothers that helped her to formulate a female dialogue that celebrated women and their accomplishments.
In The Treasure of the City of Ladies de Pizan highlights the persuasive effect of women’s speech and actions in everyday life. In this particular text, de Pizan argues that women must recognize and promote their ability to make peace. This ability will allow women to mediate between husband and subjects. She also claims that slanderous speech erodes one’s honour and threatens the sisterly bond among women. De Pizan then argues that "skill in discourse should be a part of every woman’s moral repertoire" (Redfern 87). De Pizan understood that a woman’s influence is realized when her speech accords value to chastity, virtue, and restraint. De Pizan proved that rhetoric is a powerful tool that women could employ to settle differences and to assert themselves. Overall, she presented a concrete strategy that allowed all women, regardless of their status, to undermine the dominant patriarchal discourse.
De Pizan specifically sought out other women to collaborate in the creation of her work. She makes special mention of a manuscript illuminator we know only as Anastasia who she described as the most talented of her day.