Christine de Pisan (also seen as de Pizan) (1365 – c. 1434) was a Venetian-born woman of the medieval era who strongly challenged misogyny and stereotypes prevalent in the male-dominated realm of the arts. As a poet, she was well known and highly regarded in her own day.
She spent most of her childhood and all of her adult life primarily in Paris and then the abbey at Poissy, and wrote entirely in her adoptive tongue of Middle French. Her early courtly poetry is marked by her knowledge of aristocratic custom and fashion of the day, particularly involving women and the practice of chivalry. Her early and later allegorical and didactic treatises reflect both autobiographical information about her life and views and also her own individualized and protofeminist approach to the scholastic learned tradition of mythology, legend, and history she inherited from clerical scholars and to the genres and courtly or scholastic subjects of contemporary French and Italian poets she admired. Supported and encouraged by important royal French and English patrons, Christine had a profound influence on fifteenth-century English poetry. Christine completed forty-one pieces during her thirty-year career (1399–1429). She earned her accolade as Europe’s first professional woman writer. Her success stems from a wide range of innovative writing and rhetorical techniques that critically challenged renowned male writers, such as Jean de Meun who, to Christine’s dismay, incorporated misogynist beliefs within their literary works. She married in 1380, at the age of 15 and was widowed 10 years later. Much of the impetus for her writing came from her need to earn a living for herself and her three children.
In recent decades, Christine's work has been returned to prominence by the efforts of scholars such as Charity Cannon Willard, Earl Jeffrey Richards and Simone de Beauvoir. Certain scholars have argued that she should be seen as an early feminist who efficiently used language to convey that women could play an important role within society. This characterization has been challenged by other critics who claim either that it is an anachronistic use of the word, or that her beliefs were not progressive enough to merit such a designation.
By 1405, Christine de Pizan had completed her most successful literary works, The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies, or The Book of the Three Virtues. The first of these shows the importance of women’s past contributions to society, and the second strives to teach women of all estates how to cultivate useful qualities in order to counteract the growth of misogyny (Willard 1984:135).
Christine’s final work was a poem eulogizing Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who took a very public role in organizing French military resistance to English domination in the early fifteenth century. Written in 1429, The Tale of Joan of Arc celebrates the appearance of a woman military leader who, according to Christine, vindicated and rewarded all women’s efforts to defend their own sex (Willard 1984:205). Besides its literary qualities, this poem is important to historians because it is the only record of Joan of Arc outside the documents of her trial. After completing this particular poem, it seems that Christine, at the age of sixty-five, decided to end her literary career (Willard 1984:207). The exact date of her death is unknown. However, her death did not diminish appreciation for her renowned literary works. Instead, her legacy continued on because of the voice she established as an authoritative rhetorician.
In the “Querelle du Roman de la Rose,” Christine responded to Jean de Montreuil, who had written her a treatise defending the misogynist sentiments in the Romance of the Rose. She begins by claiming that her opponent was an “expert in rhetoric” as compared to herself “a woman ignorant of subtle understanding and agile sentiment.” In this particular apologetic response, Christine belittles her own style. She is employing a rhetorical strategy by writing against the grain of her meaning, also known as antiphrasis (Redfern 80). Her ability to employ rhetorical strategies continued when Christine began to compose literary texts following the “Querelle du Roman de la Rose.”