Transnational Research Associates

Christine de Pizan: A Woman for All Time

Art Madsen, M.Ed.




It is phenomenal that Christine de Pizan has enjoyed such a universally acclaimed reputation six hundred years after her lifetime.  There are literally hundreds of poems, manuscripts and entire novels that have been preserved over the centuries so that we might learn quite thoroughly about her life, her times and her ideology. All three of these concepts are certainly worthy of extensive analysis.  However, this report will focus on the themes that have guaranteed her fame throughout the ages.  In a sense, then, the present effort will review her ideology, as expressed in several key works, and will attempt to situate her as a high ranking poet, author, and feminist within the larger circle of writers and creative people both in her time and long after.


On the basis of supporting evidence, it will be argued, therefore, that Christine de Pizan was greater than her Master, Eustache Deschamps, himself a luminary of the time, and that she emerged, even from as far back as the Late Middle Ages, a brilliant star in the constellation of noteworthy women of all time. Specific evidence of her greatness will be offered to bolster this argument, even though Christine has detractors, as well, whom this report will mention in passing.


Referring to those who find Christine de Pizan less of a luminary than is the case will place her into proper perspective and will give texture and meaning to the primarily complimentary points that will be brought to bear on this argument. The preponderance of evidence consulted indicates that Christine’s writings were widely accepted in her time and in the two centuries to follow.  A gap presumably ensued and it has been only recently that Christine has risen on the wave of 20th Century Feminism, thus supporting this paper’s primary hypothesis.


Preliminary Indications of Prominence and Greatness


 Although Christine was heavily influenced as a young woman by the writings of Dante, and studied under Eustache Deschamps for a period of time, her style and approach to writing is more an imitation of Machaut, according to Pierre Le Gentil, a professor at the Sorbonne  (1968, 158). However, it surpasses the status of mere imitation by virtue of its individuality, its breadth, its consistency of purpose, and its sheer volume.  Because of her having been widowed only ten years after her marriage, with a young son to support, Christine studied and wrote under the patronage of her father’s patron, Charles V and, later, under Charles VI’s brother, Louis of Orleans, who shielded her and her son from the harsher realities of life (Sartori et al., 1991).  Even if those who surrounded her in her early writing years were kind, she was still compelled to compose poems (mostly in Medieval French style, using the rondeau, the virelai, and the dit) in order to survive and remain under the patronage of her father’s and husband’s former friends and protectors. She was a courageous and strong-willed woman who understood the dynamics of life’s treachery and deceit; yet, she remained upbeat and humorously cheerful in much of her writing.


            Her talent was recognized by those around her, and, even though she shifted allegiance back and forth to various kings (Richard II of England, at one point) and aristocrats, such as the Duc de Bourgogne, she managed to protect her young son and herself, in a harsh world.  This accomplishment influenced her thinking and, therefore, the thematic content of her work greatly (Ingoglia, 2000).  Events in Christine’s life are recorded, vicariously, in many of her characterizations and in a number of plots and sub-plots.  The richness of her style, even though it is excessively tedious in some places, is directly linked to her real life experience, as is the thrust of her ideology, an ideology that, in today’s terms, would be considered feminist and somewhat moralizing.  These were qualities, in my estimation, that led to her lasting fame over the ages.


            Building on these notions, what seemingly made her a great writer were the far-reaching comparisons, the rich metaphors, the grasp of historical figures, and the ornate texture of her accounts and narratives.  Blumenfeld-Kosinski (1996) points to the feeling nature of her writing, offset and complemented by her physical presence as a woman. Christine’s ability to project her sensitivities and inner-thoughts to the reader is highly developed.  In her Cité des Dames, for example, Christine is able to transmit her pride, assertiveness and personal verve, along with descriptive narratives of the lives of prominent women. We also learn in this book that she sought to demonstrate that women apparently possess natural affinities, or interconnectedness, for all areas of social activity (Pizan, 1994). Much of what she asserts in her various books is open to question, from an historical standpoint, but Christine, having been schooled thoroughly in belles lettres, the arts, and history, is careful to build her tales on at least the foundations of truthfulness (Pizan, 1994). In doing so, she strengthens her case in the reader’s eyes and reaps the rewards that posterity has bestowed upon her.


Thematic Material Forming the Groundwork of Christine’s Renown


With respect to her early poems, there is a noteworthy number of them falling into the category of the medieval Love Debate in which Christine examines the vicissitudes of amorous relationships (Altmann, 1998; Kennedy, 1999).  She sometimes focuses on the position of men, even though her primary interest seems to be how women perceive the love relationship.  Although she was still in the early stages of her literary career at the time of these poems, i.e. before 1399, her insights are fairly profound and her mastery of the three mentioned poetic styles then in vogue at Court was commendable, even superior to her Master, Deschamps, in the estimation of some critics, notably Le Gentil (1968) who seems to extol the virtues of Christine’s verse, in close juxtaposition to a less glowing article on Deschamps in his referenced volume.


Christine’s early poetry, much admired for its lilting lyric quality, did much to increase her visibility during her lifetime, even though her personal existence would be considered quite tragic and precarious by today’s standards, due to the death of her husband and the need to offer her 13-year old son to aristocratic ‘protectors?in England and later in France.  Under these sad circumstances, Christine presented a lovely poem to her son, stating essentially, that she was without money, but could offer him wise advice.  These two stanzas from “Christine to Her Son? excerpted from a well-reputed D.C. Heath publication on the Middle Ages, are especially poignant:

Before the world has borne you far,
Try to know people as they are.
Knowing that will help you take
The path that keeps you from mistake.

Pity anyone who is poor
And stands in rags outside your door
Help them when you hear them cry!
Remember that you, too will die.

(Crook, et al., 1995)

With sentiments expressed in terms such as these, even more beautiful in the original French, it is not surprising that Christine de Pizan’s reputation was enhanced over the ages.  We see, here, a mother, surrounded by rapacious men, trying to defend herself and her young child from the hardships of life in the late 14th Century, giving her son advice on how to “try to know people?and their true character, and how to be kind to the poor, in spite of her own impecunious state and inability to offer more tangible assistance and guidance due to distance between herself and her son, not to mention other intervening social factors.  The emotion and poignancy, therefore, of her situation is not lost on the reader of this poem, nor of hundreds of others written with equal grace and profundity. 

As Christine’s poetic period drew to a close, she wrote longer poems and dealt with more serious subject matter.  She turned to techniques involving irony and wry humor in order to project her feelings about men’s frequently insincere thoughts and actions toward women. Because of this approach, Christine’s works gained popularity in centuries to follow and achieved a certain depth and degree of seriousness that at least challenged her contemporaries, such as Eustache Deschamps and Alain Chartier, who praised Joan of Arc, as did Christine later in life. This added to her general appeal, particularly among scholars over the centuries who began to place her into proper perspective.  They invariably assigned her the station of a great author by virtue of sheer volume, and equally so, because of the thematic content of her writings.

Shortly after writing The Letter to the God of Love in 1399, marking a turning point in her literary development, Christine became embroiled in an ideological dispute that also contributed to her fame in later years (Le Gentil, 1968).  Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose), written earlier by Jean de Meung, had criticized women as being flighty and superficial.  Christine thought very much the contrary and gained a reasonable amount of publicity in her own lifetime by refuting Jean de Meung’s thesis. 

There were dozens of major works penned by Christine during the mid-years of her career, forming the apogee of her life in many respects, and increasing her fame then and now.  One such work was The Book of Deeds of Arms and Chivalry (Williard, 1999) in which she advances her hypotheses and themes on the perhaps noble, but futile, nature of warfare, most of which remain constant throughout the body of her work.  Another is her book of Moral Proverbs some of which are reflected in other works as underlying motifs (Pizan, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1970).  One that echoed the themes of the Cité des Dames because of its allegorical figures was the Book of Three Virtues, as translated by Garay and Jeay (1989).  Christine thrived on thematic material that promoted her main thrust, and that thrust was what essentially led to her reputation during her lifetime, two centuries later (Perret, 1996), and to her fame in modern times, as well, ?arguably leaving only a few chronological gaps due to overshadowing figures in the Renaissance, throughout Classicism, and during the European Romantic Period of the 19th Century. This recognition, notwithstanding the mentioned gaps, is in keeping with the hypothesis of this paper, to the effect that Christine was, and remains, a brilliant star in the literary firmament.

Toward the end of her life, Christine sought refuge in a convent, the Abbaye de Poissy, which escaped destruction during wars with the British, where she ultimately passed away (Sartori, et al.1991).  Her final great work was a rousing tribute to the 16 year old girl who saved France, Joan of Arc.  It came roughly during the timeframe when she learned that her son had died in 1425, and she devoted the last years of her life, not only to Joan of Arc, a fabulous feminist iconic figure, but to a tragic, forlorn work poignantly revealing the love of a mother for her son, entitled The Hours of Contemplation of the Passion, commemorating The Virgin Mary’s grief over the body of her crucified Son.  It contained an admixture of strong feeling, light feminist views and (mostly) maternal love  (Solterer, 1995).

If any one subject heading could be assigned, however, to the entire body of Christine’s work, it would be her analyses of love and a man’s relationship to women, all viewed through a feminist prism.  By refining her techniques and taking full advantage of her knowledge-base, she was able to achieve a degree of literary notoriety and immortality, as confirmed in the scholarly works of Blumenfeld-Kosinski (1997) and Huot (1999).

The Relevance of Christine’s Thematic Focus

to Her Fame Over the Centuries

            Looking at Christine’s wide-ranging and sophisticated contribution to the literature and cultural erudition of her time and relating it to the relative continuity of her fame is not an especially difficult task, in spite of some critics who seem convinced that her thinking is superficial. In reality, the writings I was able to survey briefly seem filled with quite impressive material relating to mythology (Huot, 1999) and to Roman figures such as Diocletian, notably in her work The Body of Policy, an attack on the inane conduct of men in major historical or critical situations (Kennedy, 1998; Pizan, 1971).  She is mentioned in an impressive array of academic sources, such as in book reviews and articles, also praising her insight, particularly in the distinguished journal Medium Aevum (Huot 2000).  All of this can be construed to contribute meaningfully to Christine’s primacy in relation to many of her contemporaries, not to mention those men and women to follow in her footsteps.

            It would be foolish to argue that a writer’s fame is not linked to the stature and breadth of his or her writing. There are certainly those qualities that contribute to fame and longevity, but there are certainly others. In the case of Christine de Pizan, the relevancy of her quite sophisticated maternal, womanly and feminist themes to her fame has been, I feel, adequately demonstrated in this report.  Because of their ageless topicality, these themes have won the hearts and minds of both men and women in many cultural settings. The initial premise of this report was that Christine overshadows even her early Master, Eustache Deschamps, himself a renowned lyricist, and has achieved excellence beyond most of her contemporaries, largely due to the grasp of her knowledge, the sweep and command of her more than 20 famous books, and the emotional plea for ongoing persistence and courage that she has made, from deep within the 14th Century, to all women of the future.  There seems little doubt but that this premise has been adequately supported by the information brought to bear in these pages. Christine de Pizan was, indeed, a woman for all time.


Altmann, B. The Love Debate Poems of Christine de Pizan, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 1998.


Blumenfeld-Kosinski, R.,  ?Femme de corps et femme par sens? Christine de Pizan's saintly women? Romanic Review, March 1996, 157-175

Blumenfeld-Kosinski, R., Editor, The selected writings of Christine de Pizan: New Translations, Criticism / Translated by Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Brownlee, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, N.Y., 1997.

Crooke, D., Frick, S., Hanaway, M., Major-Harper, C. The Middle Ages: Creating an Environment,.D.C.Heath and Co, Lexington, MA,1995. Also available on the WWW:

Huot, S.,  “Dynamic Dichotomy - Book Review? Medium Aevum, 69:1 (2000) 158-159.
Huot, S. “Reading Myth - Book Review? Medium Aevum, 68:2, 1999, 333-334.
Ingoglia, R., Reviewer,  “Christine de Pizan and the Moral Defence of Women:  Reading
Beyond Gender?by Rosalind Brown-Grant, Choice, Middletown, Jul/Aug 2000.
Kennedy, A. “Florus and Diocletian: a crux in Christine de Pizan's Livre du
corps de policie.?   Medium Aevum, 67:2 1998, 313-15.
Kennedy, A.  “The love debate poems of Christine de Pizan? Medium Aevum, 68:2, 1999, 350-351. 
Le Gentil, P. La Littérature Française du Moyen Age, Armand Colin, Paris, 1968.
Perret, D. “Va Lettre Va? The Sixteenth Century Journal, Spring '96, 299-300.
Pizan, C. The Body of Polycye,/ Livre du corps de policie, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum / Da Capo Press, New York, N.Y.1971. 

Pizan, C. Book of the City of Ladies: Translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards, Persea Press, New York, N.Y., 1994.

Pizan, C. Le Livre des Trois Vertus, Translation by Garay and Jeay, H., Champion, Paris, 1989. 22-23.

Pizan, C. The morale prouerbes of Christyne. Proverbs moraux, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum /Da Capo Press, New York, N.Y., 1970.

Sartori, M. and Zimmerman, D., French Women Writers, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1991.
Solterer, H. “Flaming words: verbal violence and gender in premodern Paris? Romanic
Review, March 1995, 355-378. 

Willard C., Editor, Christine de Pizan: The book of deeds of arms and of chivalry / Livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie: Translated by Sumner Willard, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, 1999.