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

Christine de Pizan II: The Path of Long Study

Recall that Christine lived ca. 1364 - ca. 1431 (see back cover of text), roughly a century after Dante, whose Commedia is the model for her Path of Long Study (1402-3).  In a number of important ways, this dream vision prefigures the concerns she develops more fully in the Book of the City of Ladies (1404-5), which we read pieces of earlier this quarter.

1) Context:  Prologue to the Letter from Othea (29-33, including the "gloss") and final chapter (40-41, on the Sibyl of Cumae). Read the Prologue for another bief autobiographical account suggesting Christine's complicated relationship to prior literary tradition. Although she describes herself as an "ignorant woman" (30), Christine undertakes to write a scholarly work like those traditionally written by male authors (auctores), the representatives of literary "authority" (auctoritas). This work, which comprises text, gloss and allegorical interpretation, is modelled on the medieval tradition of "authoritative" scholarly commentaries on that quintessential Latin auctor (and misogynist),  Ovid (see headnote 29-30). If you'd like, sample Christine's glossing and commentary pp. 32-41; this is NOT required reading with the exception of pp. 40-41, which introduce the Sibyl of Cumae, Christine's guide in The Path of Long Study. Note the Sibyl's characterization as a learned woman from whom men would do well to learn--an alter ego for Christine?

2) As you read the Path of Long Study, look for the ways in which Christine transforms Dante's Commedia and adapts it to reflect her personal experience as an intellectual woman and writer. Note that her guide, the Sibyl of Cumae, whom she calls Almethea, was the wise woman who guided Aeneas in his visit to the underworld in Virgil's Aeneid-- the model for Dante's Commedia. The fact that Christine follows the Sibyl as Dante followed Virgil suggests several ways in which Christine's poetic ambitions differ from Dante's. Christine apparently aspires to be a wise and learned woman like the Sibyl, while Dante aimed to be, like Virgil, the great epic poet of his age.  Note the presence of Christine's father, who encouraged her learning, among the poets on mount Parnassus; her mother was less supportive (note how she awakes Christine from her dream at the end of the reading).  Recall similar characterizations of Christine's parents in the autobiographical writings.

Note specific parallels with Dante's epic--e.g. the visit to an intellectual's Earthly Paradise which includes Mount Parnassus and Mount Helicon, where poets and philosophers once lived (corresponds to Dante's Limbo).  But Christine replaces Dante's trip through Purgatory with a world tour.  Whereas Dante visits Heaven, Christine visits the heavens (by climbing the ladder of speculation).  She is considerably more modest than Dante in her claims-- she says for example that she can't visit the garden of Eden, since there's an angel guarding the entrance with a wall of flame; and unlike Dante, she does not visit the Empyrean (the highest sphere of heaven). Whereas Dante visits the whole Cosmos, Christine visits the whole earth.

Unlike Dante, Christine's primary concerns are political and personal rather than theological.  Her poem deals with the desire for intellectual enlightenment through long study here on earth rather than with eternal salvation after death.  Overall, Christine's goals are more practical and pragmatic and rooted in the here-and-now than is true of Dante (consider e.g. her appeals to potential patrons: she can achieve a certain measure of security by pleasing powerful patrons who can help her earn a living). Note references to her pleasure in learning and in writing.  As is true in Dante, Christine claims she was asked to write down what she sees to remember it and to communicate what she has learned to others.

Consider some of the parallels between the Path of Long Study and the Book of the City of Ladies.  In both cases, the vision occurs when Christine falls asleep after reading a book-- the misogynistic writings of Matheolus in the City of Ladies, and Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy in the Path of Long Study.  What other parallels or reversals, common themes, characters and motifs connect the two works?

Review the selections from the City of Ladies; note that Christine encounters three allegorical ladies, Reason, Rectitude and Justice, who teach her to trust her own experience (131) and to recognize that the misogynistic writings of Matheolus and other literary "authorities" hostile to women are false.  They then ask her to build a castle to protect virtuous women from the attacks of misogynistic writers.  She will clear the building site in the "field of letters" (126) of the bad stones of misogynistic writings (128) using the picks of understanding and inquiry (127); the stones of which she builds her edifice are the stories of good women that male authors have failed to tell.  The Book of the City of Ladies can thus be seen as a direct response to Christine's comments in the God of Love's Letter that literature would treat women differently if women had written it (cf. 22-3; 145)--a statement that itself echoes the Wife of Bath's comments concerning Janekin's Book of Wikked Wives, WB 694-702.

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

Click here for Dante's Commedia Study Questions

Click here for Christine de Pizan I: Biographical and Literary Texts Study Questions

Click here for Wife of Bath Study Questions

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