The Mutations of Fortune: How Christine de Pizan became the first professional female writer

By Ramani Chandramohan

Women in medieval literature are often depicted as damsels in distress, waiting at the top of a tower for a knight in shining armour to come and rescue them. The life of the writer Christine de Pizan was about as far from that trope as you can get.

As a child, she moved to France from Italy in 1368 with her father, Thomaso di Benvenuto da Pizzanoa, who was an astrologer at the court of King Charles V. From this young age, Christine was crucially exposed to a culture of letters through the vast royal library of Charles V, otherwise known as Charles the Wise. This would later become part of the Bibliothèque Nationale of France. The learned allusions Christine made throughout her works surely stemmed from her reading of the likes of Boethius and Ovid in the court library. Indeed, Christine’s education as a whole was remarkable for the Middle Ages: firstly, her father was determined that she had the same liberal arts education as her brothers and secondly, she was able to access a form of instruction usually only available to the highest nobles in society.

Marriage in 1379, at the age of 15, did not spell the end of Christine’s acquisition of knowledge – her husband Étienne de Castel, who would become Charles V’s secretary, also supported her dedication to her education. Just ten years later however, the relative stability of Christine’s life would be overturned when her husband died unexpectedly of the plague.

The passing of her father and Charles V in the preceding years left her for the first time without a male protector in a deeply patriarchal society, but Christine rejected the usual choices for a widow at the time: remarriage or retreat to a convent. At 25, she became the sole provider for her three children and her elderly mother.

In the allegorical dream narrative the Mutation of Fortune (c.1403), Christine compares this experience of taking on the traditional male roles and responsibilities to taking on the helm of the ship after the storm of her family bereavements and. She  even describes how the character of Fortune physically transforms her into a man at this point in her life. As a result of the unresolved financial affairs of her father and husband, Christine spent many years trying to secure her inheritance in the medieval legal system, which was in no way prepared to deal with a woman defending herself. Yet this intense period of loss for Christine was marked by an incredible gain – that of her voice as a writer.

It has often been argued that Christine de Pizan was the first female professional author, or indeed the first professional writer of any gender. Her patrons, whom she came across through the network of connections she had developed in Paris, included Queen Isabella of Bavaria; the 4th Earl of Salisbury; Philip II, the Duke of Burgundy and Louis I, the Duke of Orléans.

Christine also took literal ownership of her works, being involved in the production of her manuscripts and illustrations.  These illustrations would play a crucial role in asserting her authority as a writer in a space uniquely owned by male clerks and monks – for instance, in an illustration to her Moral Proverbs (1410), she is depicted sitting in the cathedra, the usual seat of learning for men in the Middle Ages, consulting a book in front of her and engaging in a traditional debate with men of intellectual authority, in a setting typical of a medieval university (see below).

Details of a miniature from the Moral Proverbs, France (Paris), c. 1410. Now in the British Library, Harley MS 4431, f.259v

Although she began her career writing conventional lyric poems in 1393, she would experiment with many literary forms over the course of her lifetime, producing over twenty-one works (each exceeding 1,500 lines in length) in addition to ten collections of lyric poetry. For instance, Christine’s prose text the Book of Peace (1412-1414) followed the genre of mirrors for princes, acting as a source of moral, spiritual and political guidance for the Dauphin, Louis of Guyenne.

She was equally at ease when writing dream allegories, such as the Path of Long Study (1402-1403) in which Christine’s persona, goes on a journey guided by the Sibyl in a manner reminiscent of Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy. She witnesses a debate in heaven over who would be the best ruler of France, the outcome of which she is instructed to deliver on Earth. For medieval scholars, the rarity and value of such a wide range and large volume of works produced by a single author, let alone a female writer, cannot be overstated.

Christine’s literary importance should also be seen in terms of the content, not just the scope, of her works. She often tackled subjects that were the domain of men, notably warfare. Indeed, Henry VII used William Caxton’s English translation of the Book of the Deeds of Arms and Chivalry to keep his knights informed about the latest military technology, though he insisted that her name was removed from the cover, presuming that his knights would not follow the advice of a woman. Given that the Hundred Years’ War was the backdrop to her life, she used writing as a political tool to try to make sense of the conflict and in-fighting between both the French and English and different factions within France itself. She deftly managed the tensions amongst her patrons, presenting the arch-rivals the Duke of Burgundy and Orléans with copies of the Mutation of Fortune.

Christine also supported the advancement of fellow women in her writing. Crucially, away from her apparently abstract allegories, Christine also gives the women of her day practical advice, for example, explaining how to manage their estate when their husbands are away in the Book of Three Virtues (1405). Her praise of Joan of Arc in Le Ditie de Jehanne d’Arc (1429) is an historically important document as the first work about her in any language. It was the only one to have been written during her lifetime. Yet as Christin’s last work, it is also the culmination of her proto-feminist ideas, showing Joan of Arc to be, as Jay Ruud puts it, “a divine vindication of the female sex, including the author herself[1]”.

Christine reflects her own education by presenting learned women reading and writing in her works – for instance, the Path of Long Study starts with a description of her own persona reading Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and Christine is sat in her study, completely surrounded by books, at the beginning of the Book of the City of Ladies. Her assertion of authorship and of her own authority is notable in her works through her use of “je”, the first-person pronoun in French, for instance in the Book of the Vision (1405): “One day, a man criticised my desire for knowledge, saying that it was inappropriate for a woman to be learned, as it was so rare, to which I replied that it was even less fitting for a man to be ignorant, as it was so common[2]”.

Christine’s most famous and enduring work – The Book of the City of Ladies – is perhaps the first revisionist history of women written by a woman and currently features on women’s writing reading lists in universities. For instance, at the University of Oxford, Christine’s text is read alongside those of George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir and Assia Djebar as part of the ‘French Women’s Writing’ module. The Book of the City of Ladies was written in response to the recently translated Lamentations of Matheolus, which did no less than claim that women were among the worst of God’s creations. By contrast, Christine’s work celebrates hundreds of female figures in history and literature, from ancient Greece to the Old Testament to female saints to early French queens, including Sappho, the Amazonians, Eve, Mary Magdalen, Helen of Troy, Saint Afra and Blanche of Castile, who acted as a regent of France during her son Louis IX’s reign. This community of women across the ages is brought together by the author, who refers to them as “dames” – the Old French term for noblewomen of moral virtue – regardless of their actual race or class.

Although dismissed in Christine’s day as a novelty, the text nevertheless garnered much interest, being translated into English by John Lydate in 1430. It is no exaggeration to say the work is unique in the history of literature. Christine completely rewrites On Famous Women by her contemporary Boccacio, using a similar format but taking on his misogynistic views and those that had been established by male authors for millennia, from the time of Aristotle, who claimed that women were inferior versions of men in the Poetics.

The power of the Book of the City of Ladies lies especially in its imagery, which concretises Christine’s proto-feminist rhetoric. For instance, when Christine, along with the allegorical figures of Reason, Rectitude and Justice, clears the “Field of Letters” to start laying the foundations for the City of Ladies, they throw away stones which represent misogynistic works and thus literally and metaphorically reshape the landscape of feminine discourse.

In addition to Christine’s output as a writer, she also contributed to medieval literature as a literary critic, confronting the male authors of her day. One of the most popular works in the Middle Ages was the Romance of the Rose, an allegory of a courtly love affair. However, the second half of the text, written by Jean de Meun, was especially noted for its diatribe against women, particularly in its episode of the wife-beating Jealous Husband, who claims that “All of you [women] are, will be, and have been in deed or in intention, unchaste[3]”.

Christine wrote three works – L’Epistre au dieu d’Amours (1399), Le Dit de la rose (1401) and Les Epistres sur le Rommant de la Rose (1401) – highlighting its torrent of abuse and its failure as a didactic text to feature positive examples of behaviour and wittily rewriting sections of it. Along with Jean Gerson, the Chancellor of the University of Paris, Christine took on the prominent defendants of the work, including Jean de Montreuil, the secretary to King Charles V. She was the only one to offer a woman’s perspective in the academic debate.

Whilst Christine’s name may not be instantly recognisable even today, she has received growing recognition since the 1960s, when the rediscovery of her works coincided with a burgeoning interest in women’s role in history. Indeed, Simone de Beauvoir would go on to describe her as the “first woman to take up a pen to defend her sex[4]”.

Of course, Christine’s influence raises certain questions: can she be anachronistically be called a feminist, given that the term came into use over four hundred years after her death? She did not necessarily conceive of equality between the sexes in the way we might today, seeming rather to promote greater respect for women as men’s constant companions from cradle to grave in in the God of Love’s Letter (1399). She also occasionally presented herself as a scribe or “antigraphe” in the Book of the Vision, highlighting to the reader that take the apparent message of her works should not always be taken at face value.

However, the use of a term such as “proto-feminist” goes some way to acknowledging the complexities of her relationship to the modern movement as we know it today and her general alignment with feminism, despite certain grey areas. Christine’s legacy is perhaps best summed up by Charity Cannon Willard, a critic who worked extensively on her oeuvre: “Christine de Pizan was no ordinary woman…at the time when she wrote she was altogether phenomenal, but in view of the scope and variety of her works she would have been impressive in any era[5] .”

For me, Christine should be especially remembered for the way she confronted a deeply patriarchal literary tradition both in her own works and in her critical responses to the misogynistic authors of her time. Through the networks of patrons she established over the course of her life, Christine provided a precedent where there was none for female authors, and indeed authors as a whole. She was a ‘strong, independent woman’ six centuries before the term would appear in Western popular culture. Most brilliantly of all, Christine proved that women could thrive on their own, and on their own terms, in a society that defined every aspect of their existence in relation to their male counterparts.

Additional resources

BBC Radio 4, In Our Time programme on Christine de Pizan – https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08sksb4

Tracy Adams, Christine de Pizan and the Fight for France (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014)

Barbara K. Altmann and Deborah McGrady (eds.), Christine de Pizan: A Casebook (New York: Routledge, 2002)

[1] Arden H.M., Christine de Pizan’s Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc: History, Feminism, and God’s Grace. In: Astell A.W., Wheeler B. (eds) Joan of Arc and Spirituality (The New Middle Ages) (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 195.

[2] Christine de Pizan, ‘L’Avision Christine’ in The Writings of Christine de Pizan, ed. Charity Canon Willard (Persea Books, 1994), p. 16.

[3] Christine de Pizan, The Romance of the Rose (translated by Frances Horgan) (Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 140. 

[4] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (Random House, 2010), p. 120.

[5] Charity Cannon Willard, The Writings of Christine de Pizan (Persea Books, 1993), p. 140.

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