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An educated lady
In the 15th century, men read Christine de Pizan
Your father, who was a great scientist and philosopher, did not believe that women were worth less by knowing science; rather, as you know, he took great pleasure from seeing your inclination to learning.” So Christine de Pizan, the first European woman known to have made her living by writing, reassured herself in La cité des dames, or Book of the City of Ladies, a 1405 work that catalogued female accomplishment and argued that women should have access to the kind of education she had enjoyed. Considered by many to be the inaugural text in the field now known as women’s studies, the book helped establish de Pizan as one of the most popular authors of her day.
By her own account, Christine de Pizan became a professional writer through an accident of necessity, although her good fortune in being born to a forward-thinking, well-connected father played no small part. She was the eldest child of Tomas de Pizan—a physician, a professor of astrology at the University of Bologna, a medical counselor in Venice (where, around 1365, Christine was born), and, from about 1368 to 1380, the personal physician and astrologer to the French King Charles V.
Married at 15 to Etienne du Castel, one of the king’s secretaries, and widowed some 10 years later, Christine turned to writing to support herself, her three children, and her mother. The body of work that resulted is remarkable for its depth and breadth: As well as an historian of women and an early voice in the querelle des femmes, the emerging “debate on women,” she was a poet, a moral philosopher, an autobiographical chronicler, a devotional writer, and a political counselor.
Christine was not a humanist, strictly speaking, but she used classical antiquity, together with the state of relationships in her own family, as tools for understanding her place in history. In City of Ladies, she cast herself as a philosopher oppressed by adversity, to whom a celestial interlocutor—Lady Philosophy—appears. Dispirited that so many classical and early Christian sources, not to mention male contemporaries, believed educating a woman made her a domestic liability, Christine is reminded by Lady Philosophy that this is not the view of all men, and certainly not of the wisest. The most immediate such wise man was, to be sure, Tomas; however, Lady Philosophy/Christine evokes two additional figures. The first is the ancient Roman orator Quintus Hortensius, who, she tells us,
had a daughter, named Hortensia, whom he greatly loved for the subtlety of her wit. He had her study letters and the science of rhetoric, which she mastered so thoroughly that she resembled her father, Hortensius, not only in wit and lively memory but also in her excellent delivery and order of speech. . . . During the time when Rome was governed by three men, this Hortensia began to support the cause of women and to undertake what no man dared to undertake. There was a question whether certain taxes should be levied on women and on their jewelry during a needy period in Rome. [Hortensia thought women had been targeted, and without a voice.] This woman’s eloquence was so compelling that she was listened to, no less readily than her father would have been, and she won her case.
She then cites an example geographically and chronologically closer to home:
Giovanni Andrea, a solemn law professor in Bologna not quite 60 years ago, was not of the opinion that it was bad for women to be educated. He had a fair and good daughter, named Novella, who was educated in the law to such an advanced degree that when he was occupied by some task and not at leisure to present his lectures to his students, he would send Novella, his daughter, in his place to lecture to the students from his chair. And to prevent her beauty from distracting the concentration of her audience, she had a little curtain drawn in front of her. In this manner she could on occasion supplement and lighten her father’s occupation.
Late-medieval conduct literature was far from silent on the issue of noblewomen’s education, with one of the most influential texts, the Livre du Chevalier de la Tour Landry, or Book of the Knight of the Tower (1371–72), also professing a father-daughter theme. Here, though, literacy was desirable only in the service of chastity: The knight teaches his daughters to read so that they can better distinguish good from evil and avoid sexual transgression. He has no interest in teaching them to write, that skill presumably being irrelevant to safeguarding their virtue. Christine’s conception of education for women was broader, and strikingly more progressive: Her principal argument was that women have the same aptitudes as men, and thus the right to the same education. In this assertion, as the University of Notre Dame medievalist Astrik Gabriel has pointed out, she was following “her own father’s advanced ideas.”
Charles V’s library was among the best of the age, including numerous commissioned works and translations from Roman and Greek authors. Tomas intended his daughter, no less than his two sons, to benefit from this literary largesse—not just to shape her moral character, but to carry forward the de Pizan intellectual legacy. His sons might have seemed more obvious choices, but little is known of their pursuits. The death of Charles V, in 1380, followed by Tomas’s death, between 1385 and 1389, apparently diminished the young men’s position in Paris and forced them to return to Bologna. Whether Christine was educated literally alongside her brothers has not been established, although many scholars believe she was. Certainly, her writings contain no animus about any differences in the intellectual inheritance of the siblings.
Nor does she seem to have viewed her early marriage as a hindrance to her educational progress. Lamenting her widowhood in the autobiographical Lavision-Christine (1402), she regrets above all the loss of intellectual companionship with her husband, as well as with her father. The impediment she does cite is not a man at all, but rather her mother. Lady Philosophy, who also figures in this text, reminds Christine that an honorable and pious mother is one of life’s blessings. And indeed, in matters of morality, Christine’s mother is exemplary, her influence benign. But in matters of the mind, her mother represents entrenched practice. Christine observes that her mother was “the major obstacle to [her] being more involved in the sciences,” wanting Christine to keep “busy with spinning and silly girlishness, following the common custom of women.”
Being a mother herself, however, was crucial to Christine’s literary presentation. Her two children to survive infancy—a daughter whose name is unknown, and a son named Jean du Castel—both appear in Lavision. Christine suggests that she stepped into her father’s role, ensuring an extensive education for her children without regard to gender. In practice, however, Jean received the bulk of her attention. Christine refers to her daughter’s good sense and implies that she engaged with the family’s literary heritage to some extent—Lady Philosophy praises the young woman’s “life of contemplation and devotion” and her “sweet and pious letters, wise and full of understanding.” But it is Jean who embodies his mother’s aspirations and successes, having, as Lady Philosophy says, “mastered [the] most important branches of knowledge—not one other can be found who is more naturally apt than he is in grammar, rhetoric, or poetic diction.”
Christine explicitly links her son’s early career to her literary fortunes, securing—or attempting to secure—positions for him with patrons who were her supporters too. She notes that his first patron, the Earl of Salisbury, offered him a place at court after becoming an admirer of her work. After Salisbury’s death—the earl was beheaded for his loyalty to the deposed King Richard II—Christine tried to situate Jean with Louis, Duke of Orléans, a man known for his artistic patronage. Writing to Louis in about 1400, she speaks of her creative and biological “offspring” almost as if they were inseparable, offering her verses and her son as simultaneous gifts (the duke declined, however, to take the boy in). Jean eventually obtained a place with Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, quite possibly as the fruit of a similar strategy; soon thereafter Philip commissioned Christine to write the life of his brother, the deceased Charles V.
Christine de Pizan was able to pursue an independent literary career, and use that career to further her son’s, because of the training she received within her family—because of her father’s educational influence and connections. She conceived of that family as an academic nucleus, with the household as school, her father as tutor, her mother as the countervailing force of custom, and herself as intellectual heir, author, and mother. Her example challenges a long-standing scholarly argument that the early-modern learned woman had to function as a kind of secular nun. Although Christine did not remarry, her ties to her son and her ability to extend her patronage to him kept her role as a mother—a family woman—in the foreground.
In all of this, Christine considered her gender an asset. She describes offering literary gifts “as novelties” to noblemen who received them gratefully, an outcome she attributes, in a bit of a rhetorical ploy, “not to the dignity of [her] works, but rather to the fact these had been written by a woman—something that had not been done in quite some time.” Yet it is hardly the case that she was read mainly for novelty value. Her unusual status may have been one element of her success, but skill—nurtured and framed by intellectual kinship—was the deciding factor.
Sarah Gwyneth Ross is an assistant professor of history at Boston College. Electronically reporduced by permission of the publisher from The Birth of Feminism by Sarah Gwyneth Ross, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2009.