The Life and Triumphs of

Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan was able to become successful in a time when women had no legal rights and were considered their father's or husband's property. Her life was a product of the fortunes and misfortunes she endored. Her first fortune was in being the daughter of an educated physician. Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano was a graduate of the University of Bologna, where he continued to be a lecturer in astrology. In the medieval period the study of constellations was strongly believed to be connected to medical practice. The Pizzano family was from the village of Pizzano in the outer skirts of Bologna. In 1357 Tommaso moved to Venice, where Christine was born in 1364. Chrisitne's second fortune came when Tommaso accepted an invitation to Charles V Court as royal astrologer. Tommaso had not only that invitation from the French Court, but also from the Hungarian Court. In December of 1368, Tommaso moved his family to the French capital of Paris.

Tommaso was a man ahead of his time and allowed Christine to get an education similar to that of boys her age. Paris provided the perfect backdrop for Christine to learn classical languages, history, literature, and religion. It must be noted that while Tommaso encouraged Christine's education, her mother disapproved because it was unlady like.

Christine's education was cut short due to her marriage to Etienne de Castel at age fifteen. Etienne was twenty-five and a graduate of the University of Paris. In 1380, the year Christine and Etienne married, Etienne was made a royal secretary. Royal secretaries were in those times the intellectual elite. They often represented the court in diplomatic events. It was a lifetime appointment. This year also marked a historic change as Charles V died on September 16. The Death of the king left the Pizan family "in a previously unknown position of poverty and debt." [1]

Etienne passed away ten years later in 1390 in Beavais, France. The cause of death is not certain except to say it was an epidemic. Christine and Etienne's marriage had been a happy one, which left Christine with two children, Marie and Jean. (A third died in childhood, his name is unknown). Christine was also left with the sole responsibility to care for her mother and niece. Christine's father had passed away in 1387. These three tragedies set the way for Christine's literary career. There was no man of the house, so Christine had to take the responsibility for providing for the family. As she herself later explains in The Mutation of Fortune, she had to "become a man," so that she could take on the responsibilities of man in a man's world: [2]

Excert from Mutation of Fortune
I wish to tell my history,
'Twill seem to some pure mystery.
But even though they won't believe,
I'll tell the truth and won't decieve.
It all happened to me, really;
I was twenty-five, or nearly,
It was no dream when it occured,
No need to evoke the absurd
When one has seen what I have seen,
These wonders that have really been,
That we do not see every day
Because of Fortune's clever way,
Of disguising her mutations,
Those deceptive situations
Which I hope to unveil here...
...Before my discourse grows in size,
Let me summarize, this moment,
Just who I am, what all this meant.
How I, a woman, became a man by a flick of Fortune's hand
How she changed my body's form
To the perfect masculine norm.
I'm a man, no truth I'm hiding,
You can tell by how I'm hiding
And If I was female before-
It's the truth and nothing more-
It seems I'll have to re-create
Just how I did transmutate
From a woman to a male:
I think the title of my tale
Is, if I'm not being importune,
"The Mutation of Fortune." [3]

Christine's emotional distress of losing her husband lead her to begin writing poetry. Her poems were in form of court poetry, which used the structure of ballads, lays, and rondeaux. Her grief over Etienne is most evident in these poems, along with the love she trully had for him.

Rondeau I: Like the Mourning Dove

Like the mourning dove I'm now all alone,

And like a shepherdless sheep gone astray,

For death has long ago taken away

My loved one whom I constantly mourn.

It's now seven years that he's gone, alas

Better I'd been buried that same day,

Like a mourning dove I'm all forlorn.

For since I have such sorrow borne,

And grievous trouble and disarray,

For while I live I've not even one ray

Of hope of comfort, night or mourn.

Like the mourning dove I'm now all forlorn.[4]

Virelay I. This Mask No Grief Reveals
My eyes may overflow,
But none shall guess the woe
Which my poor heart conceals.
For I must mask the pain,
As nowhere is there pity;
Greater the cause to gain,
The less the amity.
So no Plaint nor appeal
My aching heart can show
And mirth, not tears, bestow;
Those my gay rhymes conceal.
May this mask no grief reveal.
So it is I conceal
The true source of my ditty,
Instead I must be witty
To hide the wound that does not heal.
Let this mask no grief reveal. [5]

Christine herself claims that her literary career began in 1399, but the poem Like the Mourning Dovewas written in 1397, and before this poem, there were many others. These two poems are just two example of how Christine's works were really very personal poems that were written to simply console her, after her husbands death.

It wasn't long before her works took a turn toward more serious themes like religion, politics, morals, and feminism. What most influenced Christine's writing to be more serious, than just poems on courtly love was what has come to be known as "the Quarrel of the Rose." This quarrel was over Jean de Meun's novel, The Romance of the Rose. This debate was started by a royal secretary by the name of Jean de Montreuil in the spring of 1401. It was Christine who introduced the feminist factor. Two years earlier, Christine looked into Meun's attitude toward women in Cupid's Letter. "It was this feministic aspect of the debate that caught popular attention, since to find a woman rising in defense of her sex against the sort of attack that was traditional throughout the Middle Ages was quite unheard of" [6].

One of her consistent theme is, "widowhood and its frustrations." [7] This is the theme that reads loud and clear from The Mutation of Fortune. Christine felt that the unsympathetic social order added to the persecution of widows [8]. Being a single mother in the 1990 is difficult, but being a single mother in the middle ages lead women to desperate measure. Christine felt that one almost had to become a man in order to scrap together a living.

Christine explored women's contributions and oppression in society in greater depth in The Book of the City of Ladies and The Book of the Three Virtues. These works declared Christine's position of woman in society: more consideration, a better chance for education, and a role beyond the home. It was in 1405 that Christine continued in her effort to aid the progress of women, by writing The Book of the Three Virtues. In the summer of 1405, the Duke of Burgundy's oldest daughter, Marguerite of Nevers, married the heir to the French throne, Louis of Guyenne. Marguerite was eleven, and as duty would have it, would have to leave her family to go to the French court to learn her future role. Thus, the first part of the book seems to be written for Marguerite. The book is more addressed for noble woman, but in the Middle Ages, it would be only the noble woman which would read her books, because lower class woman were illiterate. This book is a recipe for how to play a significant role in society.

Christine also has the credit of having written a historical account of Charles V called, The Book of the Deeds and Good Character of King Charles V The Wise. Political and military were also genres Christine explored in The Book of the body Politic and Feats of Arms and Chivalry. I found it interesting that Feats of Arms and Chivalry was published anonymously becuase Christine believed it would not be taken seriously if it was known that a woman wrote it. in this book Christine emphasizes fighting wars only to defend the kingdom, not for revenge or grudges.


1. A Celebration of Women Writers: Christine de Pizan. at www.cs.cmu.edu/~mmbt/women/pisan/christine.html

2. Willard, Charity Cannon. Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works (New York: Persea Books,1984), 48

3. Pizan, Christine de. "From the book of the Mutation of fortune" in The Writings of Christine de Pizan trans. Nadia Margolis ed. Charity Cannon Willard (New York: Persea Books, 1994), 110 & 112.

4. Pizan, Christine de. "Rondeeau I: Like the Mourning Dove" in The Writings of Christine de Pizan trans. and ed. Charity Cannon Willard (New York: Persea Books, 1994), 52.

5. Pizan, Christine de. "Virelay I: This Mask No Grief Reveals" in The Writings of Christine de Pizan trans. and ed. Charity cannon Willard (New York: Persea Books, 1994), 55.

6. Willard, Charity Cannon. Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works (New York: Persea Books, 1984), 73.

7. Willard, Charity Cannon.The Writings of Christine de Pizan (New York: Persea Books, 1994), xi

8. Willard, Charity Cannon.The Writings of Christine de Pizan (New York: Persea Books, 1994), 4.

*******Charity Cannon Willard's biography of Christine de Pizan, Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works is highly recommended to anyone interested in Christine De Pizan. For excerts from Christine de Pizan go to Sunshine For Woman

Go To Home Page