WOMPO - Women's Poetry Listserv
Christine de Pizan (ca. 1364 - ca 1431)
by Ellen Moody
by Ellen Moody
I begin with No. 17 from Christine de Pizan's "One Hundred Ballads"
If all my writings are about sadness,
it's no surprise, for a heart in mourning
cannot have joyous thoughts. Asleep or
awake, every hour finds me in sadness. To
find joy is difficult for a heart that
lives in such sadness.
I can never forget this great,
incomparable suffering which brings my
heart to such torment, which puts into my
head such grievous despair, which
counsels me to kill myself and break
my heart. To find joy is difficult for a
heart that lives in such sadness.
I cannot write sweet things. Whether I
want to or not, I must complain bitterly
about the evil which I must bemoan. It
makes me tremble like a leaf, this pain
that attacks me. To find joy is difficult
for a heart that lives in such sadness.
[I note the idea that melancholy attacks us is one found repeatedly in poetry about depression from the 15th through later 18th century. Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea addresses "Melancholy" as her "old inveterate foe".]
[It's often asserted that women are more inclined to depression than men, and it's said this is the result of the conditions of their lives. In one round of the "Hundred Ballads" Pizan suggests the power of the husband and attitudes towards a woman's sexual body are at the heart of a woman's crazed despair]
What are we going to with this jealous
husband? I pray to God that we could just
skin him. He keeps such watch over us
that we cannot come near each other. If
we could only tie him with a filthy rope,
the dirty, vile, villainous man,
disfigured by gout, who angers and annoys
us so much!
If only his body could be strangled by
wolves for what good is he, except to
be a hindrance! What is he good for, this
old man with his cough, except to argue,
grimace, and to spit? Not even the devil
could hold him dear, I hate him, broken,
old and coming apart, who angers and
annoys us so much!
Ha, he deserves to be beaten, the baboon,
who does nothing but spy around his
house! And what a house! Shake him down a
little so that he will go to bed, or make
him go down the stairs without walking!
Give it to him, this villain who lies in
wait for us, who angers and annoys us so
[I note the story is of a young woman with a lover. In medieval fabliau such a female type would be anathematized by crude laughter and presented as unchaste. The reality was men traded women, and young women were often coerced into marrying men much much older than they; Katherine Philips, a 17th century poet was married at age 17 to a man of 54 who was her father's business partner.]
From "One Hundred Ballads of a Lover and A Lady." This is a cycle of poems which critiques the conventions of courtly love from a woman's standpoint. All the major themes are there and changed strongly because of the reversed outlook. The lover in the form of Love insists the lady must succumb to sexual experience. She cannot escape this. She wants to though:]
10. Love to the Lady
Your vanity is crazy, sweet and fair girl. Do
you believe that Love will let your youth go by
without your devoting yourself to the pleasures
of love which distribute things in many cases:
sometimes joy, sometimes pain?
This was not your desire, but Love certainly
does not agree. I tell you that your young and
joyful heart must feel the arrow of Love which
will send you thoughts of desire in many
different ways, sometimes in joy, sometimes in
And if you're forced, whether you like it or
not, to accept a frank, sweet glance, without
waiting too long, what's the use of being
so slow and langorous? I send you sighs,
more than thirty, some in joy, some in pain.
Little sweetheart, who sings so well, do you
think you can escape from the happy times that
are approaching, sometimes joyful, sometimes painful
[There is great resentment against women called blue stockings from the 17th century on. I suggest the origin is she thinks she can have a life outside sex which is better than sex; she is resented.]
[After much nagging, the lady agrees; she is tormented because she believes the lover's assertions are filled with deceits. They go to bed but then gossip begins. Thus Christine explains the origin of the demands for secrecy as part of the courtly love code.]
38. The Lady
Come to me, sweetest friend, at the usual hour,
do not fail to come, for the gossip mongers want
to attack our love, which makes me tremble with fear.
Beware of them, be wise, for they are
determined to hurt us, I am sure of it. We have
to be very careful, I have heard all about their
ways. They will harm us, may hell fire burn them!
And don't make the mistake of coming too late or
too early, for I will not fall asleep. God help
me, I desire you with the loyal heart of a lover.
And if you feel the same desire put on a brown
habit and cloak to disguise yourself, I beg you,
so that you will deceive the guard they have put
around me, this is not a joke. They will harm us,
may hell fire burn them!
I am so impatient, sweet friend that I am crying.
May I be with you in an hour and a half, I know
and ask for no other good, without you I feel
dazed. Watch out for what "they" do before you
leave, for my reputation will suffer if one sees
you, and so, though I am impatient, I am afraid
of being found out by them. They will harm us,
may hell fire burn them!
Oh, sweet friend, I would be so reassured if I
were in your arms. I am such a coward in face of
the gossip mongers and their false designs. They
will harm us, may hell fire burn them!
[She is a nervous wreck partly; she is defying intense taboos. We see her also intense intrasex antagonisms. The gossips are women. This cycle of poems traces a history where he goes off to war, gradually comes less and less often; he accuses her, but she becomes ill: her body will turn to ashes.]
I find Pizan's prose more eloquent and uplifting than her poetry. It's in her prose she speaks of her love of reading and her many hours of study and tells a good deal about her life, her relationship with her mother for example. Her inspiration was her reading. In The Path of Long Study we have a Sybil taking Christine by the hand on a journey: journey not to a hell or but a place where she can study, and we get a vision of a beautiful paradise.
The forms of poetry of the time do not permit her really to bring in the kinds of experience she really wants to tell of; that she gets in by her semi-autobiographical books. For example, from The Book of Fortune's Transformations, we learn father was a physician and astrologer at the French court of Charles V, Thomas of Pizan. The two went together: the way people tried to cure themselves included divining what was happening in the stars; in the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's physician spends time trying to make someone's four humors cohere with the disposition of the stars. He left Italy for France and Christine and her mother followed in 1368. She was four. She does seem to have been the couple's only child.
The father wanted her to develop her gifts, but because she is a woman she has not been able to keep up her studies or use them. We get a discouraging picture of her mother. She tells us it was her mother who discouraged her from learning; her mother was against it and was a continual obstacle. The mother is disruptive. While mother has no other children and delights in her, does not allow her to fulfill her gifts. There are though many touching picture of her and her mother later in life.
In many passages of her books she recounts how badly she was made to feel about herself 1) as a mother; 2) as an intelligent person; 3) for her serious approach to life which was jeered at and mocked. There are many passages about how it felt growing up as an intelligent girl with gifts in The Book of the Path of Long Study: for example, the court itself a miserable place filled with continual backbiting (perhaps think of some aspects of academic life. It may be that these experiences are what this type of person would encounter today in school and at work and among others. That does not detract from their reality; in fact it just tells us some truths and what's astonishing is she writes it down. Pehaps she was the first to write personally in this way to lay bare the realities of life -- even though she resorts to allegories. She loves learning and a solitary life.
Here is not an unhappy story; a real life. She did have some luck. Around 1379, she was a married to man who seems to have been about 5 years older than she (more typical is much older); she was 15. Again typical. She had three children with him. His name was Etienne de Castel, a notary which suggests intellectuality. He was a secretary at the royal court. They were happy, 3 children, two sons and a daughter, and in one book she tells of early joyous time.
Still disaster comes (Fortuna) and we see how precarious were these positions at court: court life was where the plums and wealth were. King dies (Charles V, 1380) and his successor (Charles VI) not as keen on Christine's family. Her father and husband lost much of their pay; the father dies between 1384 and 1389; her husband dies in an epidemic. She is left a widow with three children, an aging mother and a niece. She was 25. Life was short in medieval times.
Then she has to do something and she turns to living like a man; dealing with people on a one-to-one level, seeking patronage, networking, selling her work, trying to keep her home and bring up her children. There are scenes between her and mother as they grow older. Her problems included not having been shown what to do at all. Fear of shame for debt.
We have records of how she was involved with the production of her manuscripts; she tells us truthfully and explicitly where her sources come from. There is nothing like this before her or for male writers. English literature is not just about beauty and universal truths and commentary on life; it is also a reflection of book history, real conditions, and we see how a woman who may connect psychologically and through bonding, who is more willing than a man to delve her deep feelings frankly presents a face very different from male writers.
As well as reacting to literature and female characters differently. She is refreshing on Dido and Aeneas. She defends Guenevere from an unusual point of view: of course she had to be coy and secret. She does resemble Chrétien in her hatred of slander and spite -- perhaps particularly bad in courts.
She had to flee Paris after invasion of British forces; she went to live in an abbey where her daughter was a nun; wrote an evocation of Joan of Arc, and died sometime after. Her son had died in 1425.
So in the prose we hear a real voice of a real woman and see the world and literature from her point of view as fully as she can make it; not suffused by false pious religious metaphors though her examples from classical literature and myth may be a bit stultifying. In "Christine's Vision," she answers people who accuse her of complaining. She says she is right to complain; those today who talk about complainers as if protests against the order of the world are nothing but "whiners" are those in power who like the way things are.
As to her work, she wrote verse, polemics, a pastoral romance, as well as books on behalf of women. She develops her ideas from the point of view of a woman which is also new. Marie de France writes Arthurian legend as if she were a man, as anti-Guenevere (so too does Mary Stewart). The poetry is limited by the forms she had available to her. She likes refrains :). I like it for its bitterness.
There are many sites on the Net for Christine de Pizan. Much of the above comes from the Norton Critical Edition of The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan, edd. Renate Blumenfeld- Kosinski, and translations are by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Kevin Brownlee.
I found on the Net quite a while ago an imagined drawing or picture of Christine which I put on my Women Writers Through the Ages list as an emblem: