ENGL 203: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

A Woman's Voice: Christine de Pizan


Read carefully the introduction in The Selected Writing of Christine de Pizan, pp. xi-xvi, as well as the headnotes to the works of which we are reading selections. Know Christine's lifespan (ca. 1364-ca. 1431 -- see back cover), social class, national origin, personal history, and the dates (or approximate dates) of EACH assigned reading (check the headnotes).  Be aware of the LANGUAGE in which she wrote and make a note of the DATE, GENRE and FORM of each assiged reading (see headnotes -- while most are in standard octosyllabic rhyming couplets, a few are in prose!)  Know what sorts of work Christine did and did not write and for whom. 

Christine is identified in the introduction as the first professional woman writer -- that is, the first woman actually to support herself (and her family) through her literary production. Her work offers implicit confirmation of the Wife of Bath's contention that while misogynistic male clerics can't write anything nice about women (except women saints), things would be different if WOMEN were the writers (see WBP lines 694-716, NA pp. 297-298). The struggles of Christine, a learned woman, to reconcile her reverence for literary auctoritas with clerkly misogyny and her status as a woman writer is a recurrent theme in her works.

Look at the images pp. 3-4 and 116. How is she presented in each? How do these images define her? (Recall that Christine herself supervised the preparation of the manuscripts in which these images appear, and thus presumably directed the artists who painted the miniatures.) Do these images coincide well with the descriptions or view of Christine which we derive from the texts?

Contexts for Christine de Pizan: 
Romance of the Rose, Selections III

[Readings are on Electronic Reserve in the Required Readings folder on PolyLearn; PRINT THEM OUT AND BRING THEM WITH YOU TO CLASS!]

Like Chaucer (who translated parts into English), Christine knew the Romance of the Rose exceedingly well. Consider these final selections from the poem both for their intrinsic interest (remember that the Romance of the Rose was the "best-seller" of the 13th and 14th centuries) and as a context for reading Christine de Pizan. 

Passage 1 (Electronic Reserve Rose selections 3, pp. 133-137): An example of the crude language in parts of Jean de Meun's poem that offended Christine. Lady Reason (an allegorical figure) lectures the Lover/Dreamer about the fact that "naughty" words are just words and should not offend anyone. Male and female genitalia are part of God's creation and necessary for the propagation of the species, and there's nothing wrong with naming them by their names. Note the scholarly tone (references to learned sources and statements about "glossing" the meaning of a text; recall similar statements in the Prologue to the Lais of Marie de France).  Another passage where linguistic crudeness is coupled with references to male, authoritative scholarly tradition is found in Electronic Reserve Rose Selections 2, passage 2 (p. 239, assigned to be read along with the Wife of Bath).  Here the Old Woman's talks about the Trojan War and other battles she claims were waged by men for the sake of a woman's con (Old French for, ahem, "cunt" -- and the etymological origin of that naughty word). In the same sentence, she praises the written records which preserve the memories of these battles (compare similar laudatory statements about writing in the prologues of Marie de France and of Chrétien de Troyes's romances Erec and Enide, Cligés and the Knight of the Cart.). 

Passage 2 (Electronic Reserve Rose selections 3, p. 80): Guillaume de Lorris's most explicit statement concerning the completeness of his poem. Note that everything he says it is "right" for him to tell about IS told by the time his section of the poem is completed (review the end of Guillaume's poem at Rose pp. 86-88, passage one in Electronic Reserve Rose selections 2.) Note that Guillaume puts the seizing of the Rose outside the framework of what it is appropriate and "right" to tell in his poem. (His is a courtly work, and a courtly lover is NOT supposed to "kiss and tell"!) His poem is geared toward pleasing the beloved lady, in hope that she might grant him the gift of her "rosebud"; it is NOT a place to gloat about plucking it or to describe that event in graphic terms! Jean de Meun's purpose and tone will be very different from Guillaume's.

Passage 3 (Electronic Reserve Rose selections 3, pp. 322-30). Despite his protestations to the contrary (review Electronic Reserve Rose selections 2, passage 3, pp. 258-9, read for last class), Jean de Meun is clearly one of the misogynistic clerics that so irritated the Wife of Bath (and Christine!).  Here "Genius," an allegorical representation of the sexual drive, talks about the necessity of procreation. Notice that some of his arguments rejoin those of the Wife of Bath, who similarly defends sexual activity against those who would preach chastity. But unlike the Wife of Bath, Genius takes an exclusively male perspective. The metaphors used to describe sexual activity equate male genitalia with styluses, hammers and plows, while female genitalia are tablets, anvils, and fallow fields. In all of these metaphors, men are those that act, while women are that which is acted upon. Men are subjects, while women are objectified. According to the Wife of Bath, this is precisely the problem with much misogynistic writing BY men ABOUT women. It is interesting to note that the metaphor of the stylus and the tablet equates the penis with a writing instrument while woman is what men write on -- an apt illustration of the "phallocentric" literary tradition of clerical misogyny to which both the Wife of Bath and Christine de Pizan react. 

Passage 4 (Electronic Reserve Rose selections 3, pp. 346-54). The end of Jean's poem uses the same metaphors found in passage 3 (plowing, writing, etc.) to recount the Dreamer's final conquest of the Rose (he "deflowers" her, so to speak). These pages don't need much commentary -- they are fairly self explanatory. Note the extreme crudeness -- even obscenity -- of the allegory. Comparison of what Jean de Meun sees as the appropriate ending of the poem with what Guillaume thought was the appropriate ending (see passage 2, above) makes clear the difference in tone, attitude and purpose of the two poems. While Guillaume is highly respectful of women, Jean regards them as little more than sexual objects. It's no wonder that Christine de Pizan (like many ENGL 203 students) found/find his work offensive and objectionable. 

Selections from the Work of Christine de Pizan

1) Reactions to the Rose: The God of Love's Letter (pp. 15-29) and the "Debate on the Romance of the Rose" (pp. 41-5).  Read carefully the headnotes in The Selected Writing of Christine de Pizan, pp. 15-16 and 41-42. As you read these pieces, note what Christine objects to in the Romance of the Rose and how she responds to clerical traditions of misogyny.  Notice also where her arguments coincide with the opinions of the Wife of Bath and how they differ. (If you have not purchased the Christine de Pizan textbook, these readings are available on e-reserve; print them out and be sure to bring them with you to class!)

The God of Love's Letter (written in 1399) was Christine's initial response to the Romance of the Rose (in which the God of Love also played a prominent role). Compare Christine's God of Love with those found in both parts of the Rose (for Guillaume de Lorris, see Electronic Reserve Rose Selections 1 [GP], passage 2; for Jean de Meun, see Electronic Reserve Rose Selections 1 [GP], passage 3). Whose God of Love, Guillaume's or Jean's, would you expect this Cupid most to resemble? It is not surprising that Christine would wish to "rewrite" Jean's God of Love (whom we might more rightly call a God of Lust). But might she have had some issues with Guillaume's ostensibly more respectful attitude toward women as well?  Later this quarter we will meet up with a final "rewriting" of the God of Love, who appears several times in Dante's Vita Nuova.) 

Between 1400 and 1402, Christine played a prominent role in a polemical literary debate on the Romance of the Rose, a short sampling of which is found pp. 41-5. While the excerpt from the Debate is fairly dry, note how gutsy it was for Christine to defy convention and engage in a public debate in which she holds her own against prominent male adversaries (whose reactions to her range from patronizing condescension to outright hostility). Recall that a woman's rightful "place" was thought to be the private sphere of home and family -- an opinion largely shared by Christine, who would willingly have remained "only" a wife and mother had her husband not died, leaving her with a family to support. So while Christine vigorously defends a woman's right to an education and attacks the misogynistic writings of clerical tradition, she was by no means a modern-day "feminist."  It is telling that Christine characterizes her own entry into the public sphere as a metamorphosis, a "mutation of Fortune" which transformed her from a woman into a man.  Apparently only a man -- or at least an honorary one -- could rightfully participate in public discourse, which Christine still saw as an exclusively male domain. (See in this regard the article by Beatrice Gottlieb, "The Problem of Feminism in the Fifteenth Century," pp. 274-97; as well as Sheila Delaney's "'Mothers to Think Back Through': Who Are They? The Ambiguous Example of Christine de Pizan," 312-28.  Also excellent reading:  Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski's "Christine de Pizan and the Misogynistic Tradition," 297-311.) 

2) Autobiographical Writings: from The Book of Fortune's Transformation (1403),  pp. 88-95 and 99-107, and from Christine's Vision (1405), pp. 173-201.  Read through these selections quickly. You can ignore most of the allegory; look for details about Christine's personal history, in particular her relationship to her parents, her love of learning, her love for her husband, the difficulties she encountered after his death, and her efforts to win acceptance as a writer or intellectual. Note in particular the notion that by entering the public sphere, Christine becomes an "honorary man."

3) Symbolic Autobiography: on being a Woman Writer.  From The Book of the City of Ladies (1404-5), pp. 116-37 and 147-9.  Again, you can read these selections over quickly -- don't worry about all the details of the allegory itself. But DO look carefully for evidence of Christine's feelings as a scholarly woman confronted with the overwhelming misogyny of "authoritative" literary tradition (see e.g. headnote pp. 116-8 and the opening of Christine's dream vision -- an implicit answer to that famous medieval dream vision, the Romance of the Rose?). Notice that Christine's allegorical Lady Reason is very different in character and tone from Jean de Meun's! And note in particular references to women's learnedness, reading and writing.

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2019

Click here for The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale Study Questions

Click here for Rose Selections 1 Study Questions

Click here for Rose Selections 2 Study Questions

Click here for Christine de Pizan II Study Questions

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