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Definition: Pisan, Christine de from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(krēstēn' dӘ pēzäN'), 1364–c.1430, French poet, of Italian descent. She wrote many verse romances and works in prose, as well as the lyric poems for which she is most famous. Remarkable in character and learning, Christine sought to express the dignity of woman. Her writings include Le Livre des fais d'armes et de chevalerie, first translated and printed by Caxton as The Book of Fayttes of Armes and of Chivalrye (1489; new ed. 1932) and Le Livre du duc des vrais amans (tr. The Book of the Duke of True Lovers, 1908).

Summary Article: Christine de Pizan
from The Classical Tradition

French author (1364-1430). Though born in Venice, she was raised in Paris, where her father, Tommaso da Pizzano, served as astrologer to Charles V. During his reign (1364-1380), Charles V promoted the translation of Latin texts into French and commissioned manuscripts for an extensive royal library that laid the foundation for the vernacular humanism of late medieval Paris and helped shape Christine's career as a writer.

In her autobiographical text, Avision-Christine (1405), she recounts her childhood interest in intellectual pursuits. Although her gender excluded access to formal education, she did receive some informal instruction, presumably from her father, over the objections of her mother, who thought it more suitable that she learn to spin rather than acquire literacy in Latin. Whatever Christine's educational opportunities were, they ended with her marriage at age 15 to Etienne du Castel, a royal secretary, and she devoted herself to the tasks of running a household until she was widowed at the age of 25. With dependent children and a mother to support, she turned to composing poetry and prose treatises, many on topics drawn from the classical tradition. As a woman writing in French, Christine offers a unique perspective on the reception of classical texts in the medieval vernacular.

Describing her entry into the profession of letters, she speaks of the remnants of Latin she retained from her education. Though Christine could read Latin, she knew most classical texts in their French versions, versions that often included commentary as part of the translation. She read Nicole Oresme's translations of Aristotle's Ethics and Rhetoric; she knew Ovid's Metamorphoses in the anonymous Ovide moralisé, Ovid's Ars amatoria in the anonymous Art d'amours, and the story of Troy—including the narrative of the Aeneid—in the second redaction of the prose compilation of universal history, Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César. She frequently appealed to the authority of such texts to address the political and social issues of her day. Her Epistre Othea (1399) develops a reading of classical mythology as a tutorial in chivalric values; since Christine was involved in the production of illustrated manuscripts of the Othea, this text offers a visual interpretation of the classical tradition and marks the origin of the iconography of the "children of the planets." Her Mutacion de Fortune (1403) offers a narrative of universal history in verse, and her Livre de la cité des dames (1405), a prose treatise in defense of women, includes an extensive survey of women from classical myth and history, so that Cité des dames can be read as a feminist critique of the classical tradition. In the Livre du corps de policie (1406-1407), she drew on Oresme's translations of Aristotle in a prose treatise on political theory. She also composed a large number of texts on courtly as well as devotional themes, but her contributions to the translatio studii that is vernacular humanism—and her awareness of the gendered structures of literary history—constitute a significant aspect of her literary legacy.

  • Desmond, Marilynn and Sheingorn, Pamela, Myth, Montage, and Visuality in Late Medieval Manuscript Culture: Christine de Pizan's "Epistre Othea" (Ann Arbor2003).
  • Fenster, Thelma, "'Perdre son latin': Christine de Pizan and Vernacular Humanism," in Christine de Pizan and the Categories of Difference ed. Desmond, Marilynn (Minneapolis1998).
  • Hindman, Sandra L., Christine de Pizan's Epistre Othéa: Painting and Politics at the Court of Charles VI (Toronto1986).
  • Cannon Willard, Charity, Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works (New York1984).
M. DE.
© 2010 Harvard University Press (cloth) © 2013 Harvard University Press

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