An Early Renaissance Education
Christine de Pizan (also Pisan) was born on September 11, 1364, in Venice, Italy, just as the Italian Renaissance (meaning "rebirth" among the Italian city-states; roughly from 1300 to 1400) was leading Europe from the Middle Ages. The distinction between these eras was described by the young and newly educated class of scholars and writers of the time in terms of "Via Moderna" (modern life), or separation of rationalism from biblical belief, and "Via Antica" (old life), which meant retaining reason exclusively embedded in religion.
There are many other differences between these designations. Serious literature of the Renaissance began to be written in the vernacular instead of Latin to serve the broader base of a literate population. A sense of universal humanity (which to some small degree included literate women, but not with any legal rights whatsoever) marked reasoned logic, and artists began to sign their names to their works. A sense of individual self-worth and responsibility to improve station in life and social rank (as opposed to accepting a birth status as defined by God's placement) was particularly significant to the slow and gradual rise of a middle class of professionals that, over subsequent eras of European history, came to vie with both the Church and the aristocracy for political power.
De Pizan's father, as a product of this new Italian modernity, was an educated and enlightened Italian professional. When de Pizan was still a girl, her father accepted a post as physician and astrologer at the French court of Charles V, and de Pizan lived in France for the rest of her life. De Pizan's father saw to it that his daughter received a solid education in both arts and sciences. While it was not unusual for young women of de Pizan's time to be educated in reading, it was unusual for them to also be trained in the skill of writing.
A Lady of Letters
Most women who had the time to study and write in de Pizan's time were not wives and mothers whose lives centered on household duties, but rather nuns of religious orders who wrote in Latin. While women authors were not unknown in Medieval Europe into the Renaissance, de Pizan is unique among them in being the first woman to make her living writing in French.
As was the custom of her time, de Pizan was married at age 15 to Etienne de Castel, who obtained a professional position at the French court of Charles V as a court secretary. De Pizan probably assisted her husband in this work as a copy clerk, and she asserts in poems written to the memory of her husband that he supported and encouraged her further education and writing. Upon her husband's death 10 years later, de Pizan gradually managed to support herself and dependents by writing.
Throughout her writing career, de Pizan wrote in a wide variety of genres, and her works fall within three distinct phases. During the first phase of her output, she penned her own poems, which were love ballads in memory of her husband. Noble patrons at the French court valued de Pizan's poetry, for which she earned gratuities. In time, these patrons commissioned de Pizan to write longer works, such as biographies of aristocratic personages. Her reputation spread beyond the French court as she numbered among her esteemed patrons and admirers Philip, Duke of Burgundy; Queen Isabeau of Bavaria; and Louis, Duke of Orleans, and brother of King Charles VI.
The second period of de Pizan's writing engages the discussion of virtue and vice as a human struggle in The Book of the City of Ladies, for which she is most well known today. This work was followed up with its sequel, The Book of the Three Virtues (1405), which is also known as The Treasure of the City of Ladies. This phase of writing for de Pizan takes issue with misogynistic opinions (that is, a hatred of women as a gender) that women are inferior to men simply because they are women. She presented considered rebuttals to several very popular misogynistic treatises in circulation at the time.
De Pizan first questioned the defamation of women as a sex espoused in The Romance of the Rose, an allegorical narrative about love begun by French poet Guillaume de Lorris (c. 1240) and finished by French writer Jean de Meun (c. 1275). She framed her arguments first in a series of letters exchanged with "other leading intellectual figures of her day" between 1400 and 1402. The Book of the City of Ladies includes many of the arguments tested in these letters. She drew upon a wide range of classical writings of antiquity—pagan, Jewish, and Christian—to bring forward many examples of virtuous women who had been left out and ignored by authors for the purpose of proving the inferiority of the female sex. Using the same arguments as these critics, de Pizan turns the tables on them to emphasize the idea that "neither virtue nor vice is the prerogative of one sex to the exclusion of the other." Following the success of The Book of the City of Ladies, it was translated into Flemish in 1475 and English in 1521.
The third period of de Pizan's writing included an autobiographical story of her life, "L'Avision de Christine" (1405), intended to respond to her detractors through an allegory. She also wrote several commissioned works on courtly behavior and a biography of King Charles the Wise (1404). Translator Rosalind Brown-Grant said of de Pizan, "We need to pay Christine's critique of misogyny the respect it deserves and to see it as a dialogue with the society and culture of the late Middle Ages, rather than judging it by the standards of the late twentieth century."
Following the death of Charles V and the onset of madness in his successor Charles VI, discord threatened to throw France into civil war. De Pizan weighed in on this trend with treatises in favor of peace and stability. In 1418 she is believed to have taken refuge at the convent of Poissy where her daughter was a nun. She did complete a work in support of French war hero and later saint Joan of Arc in 1429, but she evidently did not live to know that two years after Joan's participation in the crowning of Charles VII at Rheims, Joan was burned at the stake. Christine de Pizan died c. 1430.