CLIO TALKS BACK: The First Woman to Support Herself as a Writer: Christine de Pizan

Throughout history, many women have attempted to support themselves by writing. Few have succeeded. Not until the nineteenth century did self-support through writing and publishing become possible for more than a very few.

The Irish writer Lady Morgan (Sydney Owenson, 1776-1859) was the first financially successful woman writer of that time. She wrote many novels about Ireland and in 1840 published an important work in women’s history, Woman and Her Master. The illustrious French author, George Sand (Aurora Dupin, baroness Dudevant, 1804-1876), published novels, short stories, and plays; her works were widely translated. And today, J. K.Rowling, author of the world-renowned Harry Potter series, has become one of the wealthiest women in England through her writing.

However, the first women known to have supported herself as a writer was Christine de Pizan (c. 1364/1365, in Venice - c. 1420). As a small child, she came to the French court with her father (appointed as court astrologer) and was educated there. Widowed in her mid-twenties, and with three little children, she had to support her family.

In the days before printing made bound books more widely available (not to speak of paperbacks, photocopies, and the Internet), Christine successfully gained substantial royal commissions for her manuscript works, which were then copied by others and often bound in elegant covers. She wrote over twenty works on the history of France, French monarchs, war, and on the history of women.

The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) is undoubtedly the most famous of these works; in it, Christine denounced misogyny and celebrated the virtues of women. In fact Christine de Pizan can be considered the first (published) feminist, having produced (in the words of Christine’s translator) “the first work by a woman in praise of women.”

Christine had begun to notice how important French men were publicly maligning women in certain manuscript works then circulating throughout literate circles. In The City of Ladies, she recounts her depression over one such book, The Lamentations of Matheolus, which portrayed women as vile creatures. In her story, Christine then receives a visit from three allegorical women, Reason, Rectitude and Justice. These three women provide Christine with new, more positive ways of thinking about women, and it is decided that Christine will build a citadel – a fortified city – for worthy women, whatever their rank or class. The foundation of the City of Ladies will be prepared by digging out the “dirt” of misogyny, deemed an unnatural and irrational phenomenon.

The Book of the City of Ladies became a beautifully illuminated manuscript, featuring illustrations of women actually building the city of ladies. Some twenty copies still exist, which now reside in major libraries in Europe. More than that, Flemish weavers produced six massive sets of tapestries made from these illustrations in the later fifteenth century, to be presented to princesses and queens. These tapestries hung in the most prestigious Renaissance courts of Europe, including that of Queen Elizabeth I. But, unfortunately, the tapestries did not survive into our own times. Even so, as Susan Groag Bell has written, her quest for the tapestries provided “evidence that Christine de Pizan’s ideas had continued to exert substantial cultural, aesthetic, and political influence for about two centuries after her death.”

Today, Christine’s celebrated book has become very well-known. It has been republished, translated, and discussed. Her other works are also studied in universities. Today there is even an International Christine de Pizan Society whose members meet every three years to revisit her literary contributions. Many entries concerning Christine and her works can be found on the Internet.

Clio celebrates Christine de Pizan and her contributions to women’s well-being. She provides a wonderful example of a woman “taking action” as well as “talking back.”

Suggested reading:

Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards. Foreword by Marina Warner (Persea Books, 1982; many reprints).

Susan Groag Bell, The Lost Tapestries of the City of Ladies: Christine de Pizan’s Renaissance Legacy (University of California Press, 2004).

The next meeting of the International Christine de Pizan Society will be in Poznan, Poland, in 2012.