Chaste, pious and silent: the example of the saints to the average medieval woman.
Thankfully for us, there are plenty of real life examples of medieval women refusing to conform to these restrictions and achieving dramatic lifestyles and fascinating roles usually reserved for men.
On International Women’s Day, I would like to celebrate such an historical figure, who I find to be inspiration to me as an aspiring writer.
Christine de Pizan – a rare 14th century female author.
Christine was born in 1364 in Venice.
Her father was Thomas de Pizan, who served Charles V of France as physician and astrologer. It is undeniable that this comfortable and intellectual start in life was what gave Christine the chance to pursue her academic interest, and considerable talent, while many women were unable to achieve their potential due to a lack of education.
Like many women in the medieval age, she was married at only 15 years old. Then, after 10 years’ marriage, her husband passed away and Christine found herself short of money as her husband’s estate was tied up in a complex inheritance lawsuit.
Unusually, Christine began writing in order to support herself and her family.
To begin with, she wrote love ballads. These appealed to the taste of rich court patrons who commissioned her to continue to write about their romantic deeds and she became quite prolific.
After establishing herself in the court circle, she moved to write more complex political treatises, epistles and poetry. She is considered the only professional female writer of her age.
Her most famous work is the Book of the City of Ladies.
This work presents a fictional ‘ideal’ city, populated by women. In the convention of the day, she uses allegorical figures, in this case Reason, Justice and Rectitude, and writes a dialogue to express a theological or social point. What makes this work stand out is its use of purely female voices.
Christine tells the stories of multiple women from fiction and history. The aim of the work is to show how their contribution to society is crucial and should be valued.
Women such as the Queen of Sheba, Dido and Medea are explored in the first part. The second features women such as Agrippina the Elder, Cassandra and Deborah.
In the third part, Lady Justice explains to Christine tales of the female saints and Christine crowns the Virgin Mary as Queen of the city to mark its completion.
Of course, although her work seems on the surface to be a hugely positive take on female history, there is much debate over whether Christine should be considered a ‘feminist’. Many historians cry anachronism when we try to apply the title to a woman who would have found the concept entirely alien.
Christine makes some questionable conclusions by our standard. Her stance of marriage is often cited as proof of her indoctrination in the sexism of her culture.
Yet Christine de Pizan states very clearly that part of the aim of The Book of the City of Ladies is to use female examples to prove “that God loves the female sex by showing that He endows women, just as He did men, with the strength and fortitude needed to suffer terrible martyrdom in defence of His holy faith.”
Anything he can do, she can do better…
Christine explores themes including the criminalisation of rape, the promotion of education for women and the advocacy of women’s ability to govern.
It is hardly surprising that her take on these themes are not up to our modern standard. What is most important is the knowledge that these were things women thought about, wrote about and struggled against.
Remember, you are endowed with strength and fortitude, as much as any man.
Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, ed. Rosalind Brown-Grant (London: Penguin, 1999)