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Woodcut image of the goddess Othea and Hector of Troy.
Christine de Pizan, Epitre d'Othéa à Hector. Paris : Philippe Pigouchet, [ca. 1499-1500]. Rosenwald Collection 449. Library of Congress. Woodcut images echo the miniatures painted in the illuminated manuscripts.

Christine de Pizan, Professional Writer and Voice for Women in the Middle Ages

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“Do not offer good reasons to those who cannot understand them” advises the goddess Othea to her young pupil, the fifteen-year-old Hector of Troy, in Christine de Pizan’s Epistre d’Othea (Letter of Othea). Writing just after the year 1400, Christine de Pizan (1364-c.1430) had her own good reasons to create this pseudo-classical goddess of prudence and to cast her as the authoritative voice in a poetical allegory that plays within a popular tradition of advice literature about the ideals of good governance.

Illuminated image of goddess presenting a letter to a prince, who kneels before her.
Goddess Othea provides Hector of Troy with her letter. British Library, Harley MS 4431, fol. 95v. 1410-1415. Attributed to the Master of the Cité des Dames and workshop. CC-BY.

In the year 1400, prudent political leadership was in short supply in France. King Charles VI (1368-1422) was battling a psychosis that periodically caused him to forget his own identity. France was in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) with England. The Western Schism (1378-1417) was in full-swing, and European principalities were divided in their alliances with competing papal courts.

In the midst of this political and ecclesiastical instability, Christine de Pizan found herself widowed, in debt, and with three children to support. She first became a scribe in order to make money, but increasingly she began writing her own works. Called by many France’s first woman of letters, she is certainly the first woman known to have made a living by her pen. This was no small accomplishment. In an era when it was rare for women to support themselves or to comment on public life, Christine was unprecedented in her ability to do both.

Christine did not just write; she wrote well. Her father had been the official prognosticator in the court of Charles V (1338-1380), and by his direction, prior to her marriage, Christine had received an education that rivaled what a male scholar at the time might have received. Having access to the court library, Christine was enormously well-read. As a consequence, Othea’s council to the Trojan hero in Epistre d’Othea draws upon classical, patristic, biblical, and poetic sources.

Illuminated manuscript showing a female scribe in her study surrounded by Gothic architecture.
Miniature of Christine de Pizan in her study at the beginning of the ‘Cent balades’. British Library. Harley 4431 fol 4. 1410-1415. Attributed to the Master of the Cité des Dames and workshop. CC-BY.

Famous for her views on the inherent value and virtues of women in society, Christine de Pizan’s writing became increasingly proto-feminist over the course of her career. She is now best remembered for Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies), a spirited defense of women in the face of the misogyny that she disliked in Jean de Meun’s popular Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose). Finding repellent a courtly love tradition that promoted seduction narratives, Christine subtly subverted the sources on which she relied for much of her formal inspiration. She wove women’s stories into her writing in such a way as to emphasize their strength and contribution to the fabric of society, all the while remaining engaged with popular literary conventions such as the epistolary advice genre of Epistre d’Othea.

Though her work was popular during and just after her lifetime, Christine’s writing fell out of fashion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and was all but lost until its rediscovery at the end of the nineteenth century. Early printings of Christine de Pizan’s works are now scarce. The Rare Book and Special Collections Division’s copy of the Epistre d’Othea, printed around 1499 by Philippe Pigouchet, is one of only six known copies, and it is the only copy located outside of Europe.

 

PRIMARY SOURCES

ISTC record for Rosenwald 449: https://data.cerl.org/istc/ic00470000

British Library Manuscript Harley 4431: https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=8361&CollID=8&NStart=4431

Christine de Pizan Digital Scriptorium: https://dlmm.library.jhu.edu/viewer/#pizan

 

FURTHER READING

Altmann, Barbara K. and Deborah L. McGrady, eds. (2003). Christine de Pizan : a casebook. New York : Routledge. https://lccn.loc.gov/2002068028

Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate and Earl Jeffrey Richards, eds. (2017). Othea’s Letter to Hector. Toronto, Ontario : Iter Press ; Tempe, Arizona : Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. https://lccn.loc.gov/2017012842

Curry, Anne (2003). The Hundred Years’ War, 1337-1453. New York, NY : Routledge. https://lccn.loc.gov/2003009687

Hindman, Sandra (1986). Christine de Pizan’s “Epistre Othéa” : painting and politics at the Court of Charles VI. Toronto, Ont., Canada : Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, c1986. https://lccn.loc.gov/87129999

Margolis, Nadia (2011). An introduction to Christine de Pizan. Gainesville : University Press of Florida. https://lccn.loc.gov/2010054039

Ouy, G. and C. Reno (1980), “Indentification des autographes de Christine de Pizan,” Scriptorium 34 pp. 221-238.

Rollo-Koster, Joelle and Thomas M. Izbicki, eds. (2009). A companion to the great western schism (1378-1417). Leiden ; Boston : Brill. https://lccn.loc.gov/2009027555

Schieberle, Misty, ed. (2020). Christine de Pizan : Advice for princes in Middle English translation : Stephen Scrope’s The epistle of Othea and the anonymous Lytle bibell of knyghthod. Kalamazoo, Michigan : Publication of the Rossell Hope Robbins Research Library in collaboration with the University of Rochester Department of English and the Teaching Association for Medieval Studies by Medieval Institute Publications, 2020. https://lccn.loc.gov/2020012648

Vernet, André, ed. (1988). Histoire des bibliothèques françaises. Promodis-Editions du Cercle du librairie. https://lccn.loc.gov/89116030

Villela-Petit, Inès (2020). L’atelier de Christine de Pizan. Paris : Bibliothèque nationale de France. https://lccn.loc.gov/2020503228

 

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Comments

  1. What a pleasure to read this and be reminded of one of the most impressive women in European history. I appreciated the links to help with historical context. Beautiful images from the Rare Book Reading Room as well.

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