Memories

Day 14 of the Omer

So, I said I’d recount what I remember of Christine de Pisan, before I reread the book I just got (although I’ve never seen this edition before) or research what’s up on the web about her. I’ll expand on what I said to (enthused at) the man in the charity shop yesterday. He seemed rather intrigued by the time I finished, and I almost felt I should have left him the book to read!

I first came across de Pisan when I was about 15, and perusing the Classics section of one of the larger bookshops in Dublin. There was a fairly new translation of The Treasure of the City of Ladies, which was either the first ever, or the first in several hundred years, into English, apparently. The Book of the City of Ladies, had been translated at various intervals, including the version I first read it in, from the late 1990s, and the one I got yesterday, from 1982. I read The Treasure with very great interest, and then a few months later we got set to do a major project on any topic of our choice for school, so I decided to research Christine. As it happened there was only so much information I could find out about her without reading Medieval French, and so my appendix on other women writers of the period became about half of the project, but I did the thing as well as I could, including going to a one day seminar on the latter subject at TCD. (I learnt from de Pisan to use my connections…) I didn’t win any prizes for that project, but I did get a mention at the end of the year. Apparently no-one else in my school had ever chosen to research some obscure Medieval woman writer, but they weren’t that surprised that I would…

Christine de Pisan was born in about 1364[5], in Italy. Her father, Tommaso [di Benvenuto] da Pizzano, became a favourite [and court astrologer] of King Charles V of France, and brought his family to Paris in about 1370, where their names were used in the French style, so the father became Thomas de Pisan, and little Cristina became Christine. The family did very well at the French court, and in her mid-teens Christine married Estienne Somebody [de Castel] most happily. They had two or three children, and then in quick succession [a decade, 1380-1389] the King, her father and her husband all died, leaving Christine, her mother, children and much younger brothers (and a nephew/niece?) with no obvious means of support.

What Christine did have, and used most effectively in supporting her family, were connections, especially in the older part of the Court (the Duc de Berry was a strong Patron of hers), and a developing skill for writing. Her authorship showed itself in a huge range of genres, from poetry of all kinds, to Instruction for Princes, to her Book of Feats of Arms and Chivalry (which was among Caxton’s early translations and publishing[?], except that in English it wasn’t credited to her, because such a book would sell better if assumed to have been written by a man) to a biography of Charles V. She was involved in the debate on the Roman de la Rose, after the second author [Jean de Meung] turned made it highly misogynistic, and also wrote in support of Joan of Arc (this presumably near the end of Christine’s life, after she had been silent for many years). She was (nearly?) the only contemporary to mention Jeanne d’Arc before her trial records [at least in her honour], and some of those who write about Christine seem to rather hope she died before all her hopes for the good Joan might do were dashed in about 1429, as de Pisan is not heard from after that.

Christine de Pisan was the first woman (in Western Europe?) known to have supported herself (and her family) by her pen, and she wrote The Book of the City of Ladies as an allegory of how the women of the world (or at least France) could join together with the Virtues and build a perfect city [also giving many examples of virtuous and productive female leaders, educators, craftswomen and more]. She then later wrote The Treasure of the City of Ladies as an instruction manual for the ladies in (and out) of that city, addressing all women, from the Queen right down to the commoners, as to how they could improve and should behave. Although she sought patronage from the Court Ladies, Christine does not refrain from mentioning some of their stumbling blocks.

Alright, that’s all from memory. I don’t want to leave up inaccuracies, so I’ll make clear what I change on a little bit of research now…

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