The picture of Christine de Pizan and our knowledge about her life show that this is not true. Christine de Pizan (1364 – c. 1429), born as Cristina da Pizzano in Venice, was a poet and author at the court of King Charles VI of France. Christine produced a large number of vernacular works, in both prose and verse. Her works include political treatises, mirrors for princes, epistles, and poetry.
This very famous miniature is an illustration from a book, handwritten in the years between 1410 and 1414 and preserved at the British Library in London (Harley MS 4431, Vol. 1, fol. 4 r). This manuscript contains texts by Christine de Pizan and is called The Book of the Queen, as it had been produced on behalf of and dedicated to Isabeau of Bavaria, wife of King Charles VI of France. There is another miniature showing Christine on her knees dedicating the book to the French queen. Christine can be identified by her facial features and style of dress.
In the centre of the aforementioned picture, a woman is shown sitting at a table and writing into a voluminous book. With her left hand, she is erasing coloured letters with a knife and with her right hand correcting them. This dynamic gesture of self-correcting fills her working situation with life. On her head is a headdress typical for a widow, the guimpe/wimple. Around the desk, we see some fictive architecture with a broad symbolic meaning: it shows a room which is specifically tailored to an intellectual working woman but also opens to the outside, as there are windows, an arch, and entryways. The roof of another storey marks the building as a town house. Though the scene is an interior one, the colours on the woman are bright, and there are warm red colours around her. This is different from older pictures showing clerical female authors in the narrow, closed rooms of a cloister.
‘Je, Christine’: An independent author defining her role in society
The picture shows a professional female author in an urban context in the process of writing a book and working for the public, where she is honoured as being part of the highest level of society. There are similar pictures with Christine sitting behind her desk with an open book and people coming and arguing with her in a lively manner. In one, a young man, who has been identified as her son, stands in front of her and speaks to her. Another one shows four men visiting her in her room and discussing her writings with her. Sitting Christine, standing men: the arrangement shows that the guests will leave soon. Such encounters are also atypical for a cloister, which is said to be the usual space for educated women.
As experts see it, it was Christine herself who ordered the illustrator to characterise her in this manner. Several autobiographical comments of hers document that she liked to show herself living this individualist intellectual lifestyle. Traditional scholars call this typical for the Renaissance, which began a bit after Christine’s lifetime. Very often in her books we find ‘Je, Christine’ (‘I, Christine’), at the beginning of a chapter.
Christine’s life story
Christine was born in Venice in 1364 as the daughter of a doctor of medicine and astrology. He was called to the French court in Paris. Christine married a royal secretary and had three children. But then her father, her husband, and the king who had supported the family died. Christine was 25 years old and had to care not only for her children but also for her old mother and younger relatives living with her. She decided not to marry again but to support her living by writing. Her oeuvre contains poems alongside utopian, philosophical, historian, didactical, allegorical, and autobiographical texts. Noble families ordered her books and paid her well. In her old age, she escaped from the civil war in Paris to a cloister nearby where she died around 1429.
The first secular female author in Europe
With her Italian-French background, Christine is an example for the migration of intellectuals in southern Europe in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. She was not herself noble but came from an academic family and remained near the court. She was privately educated, mostly by her father, and also educated herself using the offer of the erudition centre in France. Living within a totally Christian cosmos with a spiritual way of thinking, she was not a clerical but rather a secular woman. In her books, she fought for gender equality, especially in education, as well as for recognizing the extraordinary performances of women in the past and in her own time. She wanted this knowledge to be part of a new understanding of history. She sharply protested against texts which reduce women to sex objects. With her pugnacious notes, she provoked the first literary quarrel about femininity and masculinity in Europe, the ‘Querelle des Femmes’.
The masculinisation of literacy and education in the modern era
In premodern Europe, competencies in literacy were considered more or less ‘feminine’. Girls learned to read at least the Bible to their families; noblewomen were taught languages and literature to be able to marry into different countries. The ideal for masculinity was fighting strength; sitting with books seemed to be viewed as non-masculine. Many kings and noblemen were illiterate. This changed in modern times. Literacy became part of the public world and school education developed as a privilege of men.
In the colonial period, Europeans attempted to impose this central European order on the African colonies: women were relegated to the private sphere, while men had the privilege of acting in public, which was more valued. The colonisers argued these gender roles were anthropologically fixed constancies, and they had the civilising mission of transferring this pattern to their colonies. But African scholars insist that in precolonial times, polar structures of different worlds for men and women did not exist, exactly as they had not in premodern Europe.
Conclusion: Confirming non-dualistic, fluid gender concepts
As we still need to fight against the discrimination of women and girls in educational systems worldwide, the message of the picture might be encouraging. This visual icon helps to deconstruct a common myth about Europe and to reject static ideas about continuities of bipolar gender structures. Even in the European Middle Ages, independent female authors were shown, combining inside and outside worlds. To see that it was different in history motivates us to see the hybridity of gender structures on both continents, which do not merely follow the dualistic scheme of men working in public professions and women working as housewives.
- Christine de Pizan: Le Livre de la Cité des Dames. Stock 1986 (French).
- Christine de Pizan: The Book of the City of Ladies (Penguin Classics) rev. 2000 (English).
- Christine de Pizan: Das Buch von der Stadt der Frauen. Originally in Middle French. Translated and with commentary and an introduction by Margarete Zimmermann, Orlanda Buchverlag Berlin 1986, dtv 1999 (German).
- Roberta L. Krueger: Towards Feminism: Christine de Pizan, Female Advocacy, and Women’s Textual Communities in the Late Middle Ages and Beyond. In: Judith M. Bennett, Ruth Mazo Karras (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe. Oxford University Press 2016, pp. 590-606.
- Henry Kam Kah: The Sacred Forest. Gender and Matriliny in the Laimbwe History (Cameroon), c. 1750-2001. Berlin 2015.
- Oyewumi, Oyeronké: Colonizing Bodies and Minds. Gender and Colonialism. In: ibid (ed.): Invention of Women. Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minneapolis, MN 1997, pp. 121-156.
Edited by Kelly Thompson.
published August 2020