Christine de Pizan: A Feminist Historian (Classroom Activity)

From an early age Christine de Pizan showed a fascination for books. She came to the conclusion that one of the reasons women were considered to be inferior to men was the way they were portrayed in literature. Christine believed that if women rather than men had written the books, the situation would have been very different.

Christine de Pizan decided to try and earn a living as a writer, and applied herself to a course of training in history, science and poetry. In 1393 she began writing love poems, songs, and ballads. They were well received and she was encouraged to continue. By the late 1390s she was earning her living as a writer and is the "only known professional author in medieval Europe who was a woman".

Christine de Pizan's The City of Ladies was published in 1405. It was the first history book written about women from the point of view of a woman. In the book Christine argues that male historians had given a distorted picture of the role played by women in history. The book attempted to redress the balance by providing a positive view of women's achievements and included a collection of stories about heroines of the past.

Christine had now reached the conclusion that the male-dominated society in which she lived made it difficult for women to reach their full potential. Christine's next book, Three Virtues (1406), attempted to deal with this problem. This book gave advice on how women could improve their situation. Most of the book dealt with the lives of rich women. For example, Christine spent some time explaining how women could run their estates while their husbands were away from home.

After her death her books continued to be popular and when William Caxton started up the first printing works in England, one of the first authors he published was Christine de Pizan. In 1489 Henry VII asked Caxton to print a special English edition of Christine's book, Faytes of Arms, so that his knights would have the latest information on military technology. However, as it was feared that the knights would not be willing to listen to the advice of a woman on military matters, Christine's name was left off the cover of the book.

Primary Sources

Christine de Pisan presents her book to Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France
(Source 1) Christine de Pizan writing in her study (c. 1405)

(Source 2) Christine de Pizan, City of Ladies (1405)

One day I was surrounded by books of all kinds... my mind dwelt at length on the opinions of various authors whom I had studied... it made me wonder how it happened that so many different men - and learned men among them - have been and are so inclined to express... so many wicked insults about women and their behaviour... it seems that they all speak from one and the same mouth... Thinking deeply about these matters, I began to examine my character and conduct as a woman and, similarly, I considered other women whose company I frequently kept, princesses, great ladies, women of the middle and lower classes, who had told me of their most private and intimate thoughts... No matter how long I studied the problem, I could not see or realise how their (male writers) claims could be true when compared to the natural behaviour and character of women.

(Source 3) Christine de Pizan, City of Ladies (1405)

I am amazed by the opinion of some men who claim that they do not want their daughters or wives to be educated because they would be ruined as a result... Not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it upset them that women knew more than they did.

Christine de Pisan instructs her son, Jean de Castel (c. 1413)
(Source 4) Christine de Pizan instructs her son, Jean de Castel (c. 1413)

(Source 5) Christine de Pizan, City of Ladies (1405)

I know a woman today, named Anastasia who is so learned and skilled in painting manuscript borders and miniature backgrounds that one cannot find an artisan in all the city of Paris... who can surpass her... People cannot stop talking about her. And I know this from experience, for she has executed several things for me which stand out among the paintings of the great masters.

(Source 6) William Caxton explaining why he printed Christine de Pizan's book on military tactics, Faytes of Arms. (1489)

The manuscript... in French was delivered to me by my sovereign lord King Henry VII... The King... desired and willed me to translate this said book... and to print it to the end that every gentlemen born to arms and all men of war, captains, soldiers and all (who) should have knowledge how to behave... in battles.

(Source 7) Christine de Pizan, Joan of Arc (1429)

She (Joan of Arc) drives her enemies out of France, recapturing castles and towns. Never did anyone see greater strength, even in hundreds of thousands of men... What honour for the female sex... the whole Kingdom - now recovered and made safe by a woman... And so, you English, draw in your horns... A short time ago, when you looked so fierce, you had no idea that this would be so... You thought you had already conquered France and that she must remain yours. Things have turned out otherwise, you treacherous lot! Go and beat your drums elsewhere, unless you want to taste death, like your companions.

Christine de Pisan presents her book to Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France
(Source 8) Christine de Pizan presents her book to Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France (c.1415)

(Source 9) Kirstin Olsen, Remembering the Ladies (1988)

Christine de Pizan was unquestionably one of the most extraordinary women of her age, yet few people today, except for some feminist scholars and historians, have heard of her. She was one of the West's first feminists, its first professional writers of her day, and one of the first vernacular authors to oversee the illustration of her books - all remarkable accomplishments, especially since at the time most women could neither read nor write.

(Source 10) Andrea Hopkins, Heroines: Remarkable and Inspiring Women (1995)

Christine de Pizan was the only known professional author in medieval Europe who was a woman. She was celebrated writer in her day, although her work was somewhat neglected until interest in feminist studies revived her importance...

Part of the reason we know so much about Christine de Pizan is that many of her works contain autobiographical details, something quite rare among medieval writers. Her major works began with her long poem The Changes of Fortune, in which she used examples from her own life as well as those of more famous characters to show how fortune can cast down the the prosperous and raise up the humble.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Read the introduction and study sources 2 and 3 and explain why Christine de Pizan decided to write City of Ladies (1405). Select another source in this unit to illustrate her approach to history writing.

Question 2: Christine de Pizan commissioned an artist, Anastasia, to illustrate her books. Study sources 1, 4 and 8. What do they tell us about Christine de Pizan?

Question 3: Why did Henry VII instruct William Caxton to publish Christine de Pizan's book, Faytes of Arms? Why was her name left off the cover of the book.

Question 4: According to Kirstin Olsen (source 8) and Andrea Hopkins (source 9), why is Christine de Pizan an important figure to study in history?

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.