Of Six Mediaeval Women (1913)/Christine de Pisan


Christiene de Pisan, Italian by birth, French by adoption, may be regarded not merely as a forerunner of true feminism, but also as one of its greatest champions, seeing that in her judgment of the sexes she endeavours to hold the scales evenly. Possessed of profound common sense and of a generous-hearted nature, she is wholly free from that want of fairness in urging woman's claims which is so fatally prejudicial to their just consideration. Although, strictly speaking, Christine was not original, she was representative, and interests us for that very reason. She was perhaps one of the most complete exponents of the finer strain of thought of her time. She stands before us, at the dawn of the fifteenth century, Janus-headed, looking to the past and to the future, a woman typical of a time of transition, on the one hand showing, in her writings, a clinging to old beliefs, and on the other hand asserting, in her contact with real life, independence of thought in the discussion of still unsolved questions.

Christine was born at Venice in 1363, where her father, Thomas de Pisan, of Bologna, distinguished for his knowledge of medicine and astrology, had settled on his marriage with a daughter of one of the Councillors of the Republic. When five years of age, she was taken by her mother to Paris to join her father, who had been summoned thither some time before by the King, Charles the Fifth, to serve as his astrologer. At the end of the fourteenth century astrology played a very real and important part in men's lives. Before wars or journeys were undertaken, or additions to castle or chapel made, or even a new garment put on, the stars were consulted for the propitious day and hour. So deeply was Charles the Fifth imbued with a belief in the efficacy of this occult art that when he wished to confer some special honour, or to express his gratitude for some service rendered to him or to the State, he sought to enhance his bounty by sending an astrologer as part of his gift. By the time little Christine arrived in Paris her father had gained the confidence and esteem of the King, and was settled at Court with substantial maintenance. Here she was brought up as a maiden of quality, surrounded by much magnificence, for Charles loved beautiful things, and never stayed his hand to procure them, even when the gratification of his desires involved hardship to his people. He possessed many virtues, but economy was not one of them. The dismal castle of the Louvre, which had been the home of the French kings since the days of Philip Augustus, found no favour in his sight as a place of residence, and he quickly set about building the sumptuous Hôtel de St. Paul, in what is now known as the "Quartier de l'Arsenal." The Louvre he destined for official functions, for an arsenal, and for his library. To form a library was no new thing in Paris. Some thirty years earlier Richard de Bury, Bishop of Durham (1333) and sometime Chancellor of England, speaks of his frequent ambassadorial visits to "Paris, the Paradise of the World, with its delightful libraries, where the days seemed ever few, for the greatness of our love." And he adds, "unfastening our purse-strings, we scattered money with joyous heart, and purchased inestimable books." But whilst it is true that Charles's predecessors had collected books, none before had thought of forming a library for public use, and Charles's work, as M. Delisle remarks, was really the first germ of the Bibliothèque Nationale.[1] To collect books was one of his greatest delights, and he spared no trouble or money to make his library as complete as possible. This taste for books he may have inherited from his father, King John, who, learning to read from a beautiful Book of Hours, early acquired a love of books from his mother, Jeanne of Burgundy. Charles also loved to lend or make presents of books, and among his many gifts, one—an offering to Richard the Second—may be seen in the British Museum (Royal 20, B VI.). The library was considerably depleted during the reign of Charles the Sixth, when it was used as a sort of storehouse from which presents were made to prince and prelate, or to any to whom it was desired to make a gift, or a recognition of services rendered. On the death of Charles the Sixth, in 1425, it was bought by the Duke of Bedford, Regent of France, and doubtless some of its treasures were transferred by him into England. Those that were left, and some that gradually found their way back to France, may now be seen in the Bibliothèque Nationale and in other libraries of France, and also in various libraries in other countries, but out of the 1200 books collected by Charles the Fifth, rather less than a hundred are now known to us.

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Bib. Royale, Brussels.


To face page 119.

To increase the usefulness of his library, Charles employed a number of translators, not only of Greek and Latin authors, but also of the most important Arabic writings, thus bringing both the classics and the science of the day within the reach of the many students privileged to make use of it. It was in this library that Christine spent long days reading and meditating on the thoughts of the greatest minds, thus fitting herself for the part she had to play when life had ceased to be a gay dream. We can get from a miniature in a Book of Hours, now at Chantilly, and painted by the brothers Limbourg for Jean, Duc de Berri, a brother of the King, some idea of what this old residence of the Louvre was like. In this miniature we see represented a square grim castle, with a large tower at each corner and narrow slits for windows, suggestive more of a place of refuge in time of war and tumult than the home of a peace-loving, enlightened king. When Charles determined to beautify this sombre structure, statues were set up without and tapestries hung within. One of the towers was fitted up for the library, panelled with rare woods and furnished with some thirty small chandeliers and a large central silver lamp, kept lighted both night and day so that work could go on at all hours. In the courtyard an outside circular staircase (one of the earliest, if not the earliest, of the kind) was added to give, as was said, a note of gaiety. But the idea of gaiety seems somewhat ironical when we learn that as it was difficult to get a sufficient number of large slabs quarried quickly, headstones from the cemetery of the Holy Innocents were taken for the purpose!

Christine, as a child, showed an extraordinary capacity for learning, and this her father zealously fostered and developed. At the age of fifteen she married, and married for love, the King's notary and secretary, Etienne de Castel, a gentleman of Picardy. Her happiness and well-being seemed assured, but Fortune, whose wheel is ever revolving, though sometimes so slowly as to lull us into forgetfulness, had decreed otherwise. For Christine it revolved all too quickly. Two years after her marriage the King died (1380), and her husband and father lost their appointments. Gradually anxiety and sorrow crept like some baneful atmosphere into the once happy home. First she lost her father, and then, two or three years later, her husband died, leaving her, at the age of twenty-five, with three children to provide for. Like many another, she turned to letters as both a material and a mental support. Endowed with an extraordinary gift of versification, she began by writing short poems, chiefly on the joys and sorrows of love, expressing sometimes her own sentiments, sometimes those of others for whom she wrote. But she tells us that often when she made merry she would fain have wept. How many a one adown the centuries has re-echoed the same sad note!

"Men must work and women must weep." So says the poet. But life shows us that men and women alike must needs do both. And so the sad Christine set to work to fit herself, by the study of the best ancient and modern writers, to produce more serious matter than love-ballads, turning, in her saddest moments, to Boëthius and Dante for inspiration and solace. "I betook myself," she says, "like the child who at first is set to learn its ABC, to ancient histories from the beginning of the world—histories of the Hebrews and the Assyrians, of the Romans, the French, the Bretons, and diverse others—and then to the deductions of such sciences as I had time to give heed to, as well as to a study of the poets." Her master was Aristotle, and she made his ethics her gospel. "Ancelle de science," she calls herself, and remains a humble worshipper at the shrine of knowledge, for knowledge, she says, is "that which can change the mortal into the immortal." We can picture her to ourselves at work in the library of the Louvre, amidst its 900 precious MSS., and in the library of the University of Paris, to which she had access through her friend Gerson, the renowned Chancellor. In a miniature at the beginning of one of her MSS. she is seen seated, in a panelled recess, on a carved wooden bench, dressed in a simple blue gown and a high white coif. She is working at a folio on a large table covered with tapestry, with a greyhound lying at her feet. It is quite possible that this may be either a conventional setting, or one due to the imagination of the artist, but as the miniaturists of those days were, as far as they could be, realists, it is more than possible that we here see her represented at work in her favourite nook in the Louvre library, together with the favourite dog who shared her lonely hours. Gradually solace came to her through work, and having found so precious a treasure for herself, she, like our own modern sage, never tired of preaching to others the gospel of its blessedness.

Whilst Christine wrote and lived her student life—"son cuer hermit dans Termitage de Pensée"—her fame went forth, and princes sought, by tempting offers, to attach her to their courts, but without success. Of these, Henry the Fourth of England, already acquainted with her poems, and Gian Galleazo Visconti, Duke of Milan, were the most importunate, and particularly the former, who was unaccustomed to rebuff and failure. But Christine, with repeated gracious thanks and guarded refusals, remained firm. No reason for her decision is recorded, but it may well be believed that her patriotism would not allow her, even with the certainty of ease and emolument, to quit France at that critical time, or to serve the enemy of her adopted country.

Although Christine's reading was very varied and extensive, there were two subjects—the amelioration of her war-distraught country, then in the throes of the Hundred Years' War, and the championship of the cause of womankind—which specially appealed to her as a patriot and a woman, and for which she strove with unceasing ardour. In all her writings she so interweaves these two causes that it is only by approaching them in the same way that we can understand her view of their psychological unity. To Christine these interests were essentially identical, for she recognised how paramount is woman's influence in the making or marring of the world—how, in truth, in woman's hand lies a key which can unlock a Heaven or a Hell.

There was sore need of a patriot, and in Christine one was found. It has been well said of her, and by a Frenchman too, that "though born a woman and an Italian, she alone at the Court of France seemed to have manly qualities and French sentiments." France was in a sorry plight. There was war in the land, there was war in the palace. The sick King suffered more and more from attacks of madness, and during these periods the Dukes of Orleans and Burgundy fought for the regency. Christine began her patriotic work by fervent appeals to Isabella, the Queen (to whom she offered a MS. now in the British Museum),[2] to use her influence to put an end to these dissensions which so greatly added to the troubles of the kingdom. She also lost no opportunity of proclaiming in her various writings the duties and responsibilities of kings and nobles to the people, and the necessity, if there was ever to be peace and prosperity, of winning their regard. At the command of Philip le Hardi, Duke of Burgundy, and uncle of the King, she wrote in prose, from chronicles of the time and from information obtained from many connected with the King's household, Le Livre des faits et bonnes mœurs du roi Charles V, recounting his virtuous life and deeds and their advantage to the realm, and introducing a remarkable dissertation on the benefit to a country of a strong middle-class. She, of course, reasoned from Aristotle. The subject is a commonplace one now, but in the case of any one living at the beginning of the fifteenth century, and brought up, as Christine had been, at a magnificent Court, it shows rare independence and breadth of thought to have grasped and proclaimed with such firmness and clearness as is displayed in her treatise the germ of the policy of all modern civilised nations—that a middle-class is essential to bring into touch those placed at the opposite extremes, the rich and the poor.

To Christine belongs an honour beyond that of having been a patriot and a champion of her sex—the honour of having revealed Dante to France.[3] Scattered up and down her writings are many allusions to the Divina Commedia, showing how real a place it must have filled in her soul's life. She especially recommends it for profitable study in the place of the "hateful" Romance of the Rose, concerning which she gave the warning to her son:—

Se bien veulx et chastement vivre,
De la Rose ne lis le livre.

Like Dante, sad and lonely—"souvent seulete et pensive, regretant le temps passé"—like him she also realised the thirst for knowledge as an ever-present want of the soul, and that its ultimate perfection is only to be attained by following after virtue and knowledge. Although, as regards profundity, her conception of the world and of life cannot be compared with that of her great prototype, or even with that of such an one as St. Hildegarde, still she had read with unflagging diligence a vast number of profane and ecclesiastical writers, and seems to have been well versed in the varied knowledge of her time, especially history. But whilst it is possible to criticise her learning, tempered as this was by her character and the needs of her day, it is at the same time possible to acknowledge that in spite of flaws and an often over-elaborated setting, moral truth sparkles gemlike throughout her writings. One of her biographers speaks of her thus: "Her morale is so pure and so universally human that not only does it remain true to-day, but it will retain imperishable value as long as ever human society is based on a pure and healthy moral foundation."

In her poem Le Chemin de long Estude—a title taken from Dante's appeal to Virgil at the opening of the Inferno—Christine begins by acknowledging her debt to the immortal poet, saying that much that she has to tell has already been told by "Dante of Florence in his book." Virgil as guide is replaced by the Cumean Sibyl, who appears to Christine in a dream, and offers to conduct her to another and a more perfect world, one where there is no pain and misery. To this Christine consents on condition that "sad Hades, whither Æneas once was taken," is not included in the journey. The Sibyl therefore promises to reveal to her, instead, in what manner misfortune came upon earth, whilst at the same time showing her on the way all that is worth seeing in this world, from the Pillars of Hercules, "the end of the world," to distant Cathay. However exhausting this programme may appear to us, Christine, knowing the real passion of the late Middle Ages for travel—for even those who could not travel in reality did so in imagination,—makes use of it as a setting for the introduction of a discussion on the qualities most necessary to good government. This she does, even at the risk of incurring displeasure in high quarters, recalling how Dante's patriotism led to banishment and death in exile, but she adds, "Qui bien ayme, tout endure." She pours forth her classical examples in a chaotic stream, but when she leaves earth, and ascends to the celestial regions, she not only shows herself versed in the astronomy of the time, but also expresses some beauty of thought. The order of the firmament, where all obey law without ceasing, so that harmony ensues "like sweet melody," reminds her of Pythagoras and Plato, and suggests to her what life on earth might be if good laws were made and observed. In furtherance of her idea, she appeals to Reason, who presides over the Virtues or Divine Powers, to interrogate the three earthly disputants, Nobility, Riches, and Wisdom. In the end Reason awards the prize to Wisdom, condemning Riches as the great enemy of mankind. Thereupon Wisdom appeals to the verdicts of Juvenal, Boëthius, St. Jerome, and others to establish that it is Virtue alone that is of worth, and ennobles a man, and then sets forth the qualities of a good sovereign. But as this leads to some difference of opinion, Christine, who was withal a courtly lady, descends to earth in order to ask the King, Charles the Sixth, to decide the matter. This dream-poem she dedicates to her royal master for his diversion in his saner moments, and thus once again introduces into high places the subject so near to her heart. She lets it be seen that she herself, like Dante, did not believe in the blending of the spiritual and the temporal powers. And as regards temporal power she adds—perhaps borrowing the idea from Dante's De Monarchia, and anticipating Napoleon's dream—that in order to ensure peace on earth, it is necessary that one supreme ruler should reign over the whole world. "La sua volontade e nostra pace," sang a soul in Dante's heaven of the Moon—the lowest in the celestial system—when questioned whether it was content with its lowly place. The poet therefore adds, "ogni dove in cielo e paradise." Christine, echoing these thoughts, would fain apply them to life on earth, giving them their deepest and fullest meaning.

Though she laboured so unceasingly for the good of her country, she also did her utmost to defend her sex from the indiscriminate censure which had been heaped upon it, for the evil spoken seemed to her far to outweigh the good. A century before, Dante had also idealised woman—even if, as some think, he personified some abstract quality—and placed her in heaven beside the Deity. Chivalry had also idealised woman, but in an exotic, exaggerated manner, which was bound to reach its zenith, and bound also to have its darker side. So we find that to speak good or ill of womankind became a conventionalism in the Middle Ages. Black or white was the tone chosen by the artist in words. There was no blending, no shading. Women were either deified, or held to be evil incarnate. The material side of life men understood, and could depict with some exactness, but to grasp in any way its subtler aspects required an education which could be attained only by slow degrees, since it meant the gradual modification of the long-cherished illusion that brute force is the world's only weapon. A want of capacity to discern is often responsible for a depreciatory opinion, and we can but ascribe this strangely narrow-minded and superficial attitude towards woman to some such want. Christine set herself the task of trying to remedy this evil, not by shouting in the market-place, but by studying men and women as God made them and as she found them. Before she began her work, a new day seemed to be dawning. Just as, when classicism was in full decadence, Plutarch wrote De mulierum virtutibus (of the virtue of women), so, in the fourteenth century, Boccaccio gave to the world De claris mulieribus (of right-renowned women). We do not expect to find woman treated on a very high plane by Boccaccio, but we recognise that, in a way, this work forms a fresh starting-point in the eternal controversy. Perhaps we should not have had this curious collection of stories of women, virtuous and vicious, mythological and historical—stories which are certainly very inferior as art to those of the Decameron—had not a crisis occurred in Boccaccio's life. One day a Carthusian monk came to him with a warning message from the dead, and, much troubled in mind, he resolved to try to begin life afresh. But he was a better story-teller than a moraliser. He would fain save his soul, but he liked and courted popularity, and knew well the deeper meaning of the proverb, "A terreno dolce, vanga di legno." And so he mingles virtue and vice, hoping, as he says, that "some utility and profit shall come of the same." To us of to-day, the chief interest of this work is that Boccaccio's fame perhaps gave a definite impetus to the discussion of the sex, instead of wholesale assertion, and also that it probably suggested to Chaucer the idea for his Legend of Good Women. How refreshing to find ourselves in the atmosphere of the kindly Chaucer! Let us pause for a moment, and recall what he says of women, he who was not only a knightly Court-poet, but also a popular singer, well versed in the practical wisdom of life. In the prologue we read, "Let be the chaf, and wryt wel of the corn," and in allusion to his library of sixty books, old and new, of history and love-stories, he says that for every bad woman, mention was duly made of a hundred good ones. Time and experience in no way dull this appreciation, for when, later, The Canterbury Tales appear, his estimate has risen ten-fold, since in the prologue to "The Miller's Tale" we read, "and ever a thousand gode ageyn one badde." From this time onwards, literature on the subject increases almost ad infinitum. Treatises and imaginary debates seem to vie with each other for popularity. All these make intensely interesting reading, for these fanciful discussions, which are supposed to take place, sometimes between a man and a woman, sometimes between a mixed company in a garden or villa or some bath resort where many are gathered together, are really a record of the intellectual amusements of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. "Que devezvous préférer, du plaisir qui va vous échapper bientôt, ou d'une espérance toujours vive, quoique toujours trompée?" "Which sex loves the more easily or can do the better without love?" "It is not enough to know how to win love, but one must also know how to keep such love when it has been won." Such-like were the subtle problems which on these occasions folk set themselves to solve.

But whilst love problems could be treated as a pastime, they also had their serious side. Of this there is an example in Christine's story of The Duke of True Lovers. Although much in its narration is evidently the mere invention of the poetess, it is quite possible, nay even probable, that it has some historical basis. Christine begins her story by saying that it had been confided to her by a young prince who did not wish his name to be divulged, and who desired only to be known as "The Duke of True Lovers." It has been suggested, with much likelihood, that this is in truth the love-story of Jean, Duc de Bourbon, and of Marie, Duchesse de Berri, daughter of the famous Jean, Duc de Berri, and the inheritor of his MSS. When the story opens, the heroine of it, whoever she may have been, is already wedded. Hence all the difficulties of the hero, and indeed of both. Christine, with her womanly sympathy and psychological insight, makes all so intensely real that we are quite carried away in imagination to the courtly life of the fifteenth century. We read of the first meeting; of the Duke's love at first sight; of Castle daily life; of a three days' tournament given in honour of the lady; of devices for secret meetings and the interchange of letters; of the inevitable scandal-monger; of a letter from a former gouvernante—whose aid as go-between had been sought—containing a most comprehensive and remarkable treatise on feminine morality, the dangers of illicit love, and the satisfaction of simple wifely duty; of the separation which the position of the lady, and the gallantry of her lover, alike demanded; of meetings at intervals; of the mutual solace of short love-poems; and then the story, perhaps to evade identification, ends vaguely. But as we finish the story, we cannot help feeling that even if Christine's setting is fiction, she yet gives us a glance of real life.

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Photo. Macbeth.


Harl. MS. 4431, Brit. Mus.

To face page 132.

When Christine turned to her serious work in the cause of womankind, she began by attacking two books, Ovid's Art of Love, and The Romance of the Rose, both of which, in the Middle Ages, it was deemed wellnigh sacrilegious to decry. Her challenge, L'Epistre au Dieu d'Amours, took the form of an address to the God of Love, professing to come from women of all conditions, imploring Cupid's aid against disloyal and deceitful lovers, whose base behaviour she largely attributes to the false teaching of these two books. This argument appeared in 1399, and she soon discovered that she had stirred up a hornet's nest. But she had attacked advisedly and fearlessly, and was quite prepared for any counter onslaught. Her position was considerably strengthened by the alliance and co-operation of her staunch friend Gerson, the Chancellor, who himself, in the name of the clergy, took up arms against the flagrant scurrility to be found in the portion of The Romance of the Rose contributed by Jean de Meun. Other powerful allies joined the cause, and, to help to crystallise their efforts, species of "Courts of Love" were instituted, not alone for discourse on love, as heretofore, but also in the defence of women. All who united in this meritorious fellowship undertook to wear a distinctive badge, and thus proclaim their confession of faith. Among these Orders one was styled "L'Escu vert à la dame blanche," another, "L'Ordre de la Rose," and so on, suggestive of their purport. The first-named was founded by the brave soldier Jean le Meingre, Maréchal de Boucicaut, whose portrait may be seen in his superb Book of Hours, painted between 1399 and 1407, now in the Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris.[4] Its membership was restricted to thirteen knights, who swore to defend the honour of women against all detractors. To distinguish them from others less gallantly disposed, they wore on the sleeve an ornament in the shape of a small shield, enamelled green on the outside, and with the representation, on the underside, of a woman, enamelled in white.

.… Vous portez la dame en verde targe
Pour démonstrer que de hardi visage
Vous vous voulez pour les dames tenir
Contre ceulz qui leur porteront dommage!

Of the Order of the Rose and its foundation, Christine, in one of her poems, gives most picturesque and interesting particulars, interesting because they are evidently taken from an actual scene, though Christine, in her role as poetess, feels it necessary to add touches suggestive of fairyland rather than of real life. A numerous assembly, with goodwill at heart, has met together in the magnificent dwelling of Louis, Duke of Orleans, the King's brother, Christine being one of the number. Suddenly there comes into their midst one personifying the Goddess Venus, surrounded by maidens garlanded with roses and carrying golden bowls filled with them. The bowls placed on the table, the Goddess proceeds to announce the rules of the Order, above all enjoining those present to avoid envy, and in no way to perjure themselves, since this would be a most heinous and hateful sin. The badge chosen is a fresh rose, but if any member of the Order should happen to be in a country where such is not attainable, or when the season is unpropitious, then a rose fashioned in gold or silver, or one embroidered in silk, will suffice. With pledges of loyalty,

A bonne amour je fais veu et promesse
Et à la fleur qui est rose clamée,
A la vaillant de Loyauté deesse,
Par qui nous est ceste chose informée,
Qu'à tous jours mais la bonne renommée
Je garderay de dame en toute chose
Ne par moy ja femme n'yert diffamée:
Et pour ce prens je L'Ordre de la Rose,[5]

all the company deck themselves with roses. The charter is given by the Goddess into the safe-keeping of Christine, who describes it as written on fine parchment in letters of azure, and fastened with a silken cord of the same colour. From this cord hangs a rare gem, on one side of which their patroness, the Goddess of Love, and on the other Cupid, with his feet on a leopard, are depicted. This moral and literary contest is perhaps the most brilliant of the many discussions that took place in the Middle Ages in honour of women. The highest and the wisest in the land joined in it, but all the honour must be given to Christine for having, by her brave and reasonable attitude, caused the problem, which henceforth was to evolve like truth itself, to be treated on a rational basis. "Toute la foy remaint en une femme," says Christine. Were not her words, nearly 500 years later, echoed by Renan when he says, "Après Jésus, c'est Marie de Magdale qui a le plus fait pour la fondation du Christianisme"?

L'Epistre au Dieu d'Amours is an extraordinary product of worldly wisdom and common sense, seasoned with satire. One of the complaints against disloyal suitors, and one which strikes a singularly modern note, is that they make protests of love, and false promises, which must be either paid for dearly, or rejected with scorn. Then the hero, if he has won the day, proclaims his victory in taverns and other places of resort, and even in mixed company. Or if, as is more often the case, he has lost it, he still tries, by suggestive hints, to appear to his fellows a successful gallant. Surely the worldling of to-day does not seem to differ very essentially from his brother of the fifteenth century, or to have progressed any farther along the path of loyalty!

Christine's line of argument is that the many must not be condemned for the shortcomings of the few, and that even when God made the angels, some were bad. To the charge that books are full of the condemnation of women, she replies with the simple remark that books were not written by women. Where is the shade of the worthy Christine to-day? Does it walk the earth with a flag of triumph or a laurel wreath whilst its sisters in the flesh are writing on every subject in heaven and earth and sea? "De nos jours, le monde est aux femmes."

Is it marvellous, asks Christine, that a woman—"une chose simplète, une ignorante petite femmellette," as she expresses—it should be betrayed by man, when even the great city of Troy was, and when all the books and romances are full of the betrayal of kings and kingdoms? And if a woman is not constant by nature, why should Jean de Meun, in The Romance of the Rose, devise so many tricks to deceive her, seeing that it is not necessary to make a great assault upon a feeble place? Then she deftly turns the tables on the other sex, reminding each that he is the son of his mother, and that

Se mauvaise est il ne peut valor rien,
Car nul bon fruit de mal arbre ne vient.

And so on to the end, all is argument and banter. The repute of her letter must have travelled quickly, for whilst Christine was still combating with dissentients, an epitomised rendering of it appeared (1402) in English from the pen of Hoccleve, the pupil of Chaucer, entitled The Lettre of Cupide, God of Love.

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Bib. Royele, Munich.


To face page 138.

Later, Christine, with Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus before her, writes La Cité des Dames, an account of the building of an imaginary city which is to shelter within its strong ramparts the women of all times and all countries who have distinguished themselves by good and heroic deeds. This has been aptly called "The Golden Book of Heroines." It may certainly be considered her masterpiece on her favourite subject. She urges that philosophers and poets, with one accord, have defamed women, and she appeals to God, asking why such a thing should be, seeing that He Himself made them and gave them such inclinations as seemed good to Him, and that in no way could He err. She maintains that God created the soul, and made it as good in woman as in man, and that it is not the sex, but the perfection of virtue, that is material. Combating the suggestion that women are not fit to plead in Court because they have not sufficient intelligence to apply the law when they have learnt it, she refers to history to prove that women who have had the management of affairs have shown that, far from lacking intelligence and judgment, they have possessed both in large measure. At the same time, whilst defending their capability when necessity arises, she does not think it necessary for women

Of Six Mediaeval Women face138.jpg

Bib. Royele, Munich.


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to interfere in matters which seem essentially man's business. Her remarks on the subject of marriage are certainly practical, and at the same time disclose a strange unloveliness in contemporary manners. She is not of St. Paul's opinion that it is better not to marry, but all the same she suggests that, unless without means, that woman is happier who does not marry a second time, seeing that the life of a married woman is often worse than if she were in the hands of the Saracens—the terror of the Middle Ages,—and that frequently after her husband has been out enjoying himself, her only supper, on his return, is a beating. She counsels the education of women, and condemns those who suggest that this will conduce to unseemly ways. In truth, her wonderful sense of justice, and her enlightened opinions generally, make it a marvellous résumé of statesmanship as far as it goes. It is a real Utopia. Perhaps to Christine it was a glimpse of the Promised Land! As we read her views on the education of boys and girls together, in this happy city, we feel that she might be discussing with us the problems of to-day. She says that if boys and girls are taught the same subjects, girls can, as a rule, learn just as well, and just as intelligently, as boys, and so on. In this conclusion she forestalls the learned Cornelius Agrippa, a doctor and philosopher of the sixteenth century, and one of the most original and remarkable men of his time, who boldly asserts that sex is merely physical, and does not extend to soul or rational power. She sums up by strongly advocating study and learning, both for self-improvement and as a consolation and possession for all time.

Of her poetical writings on love and the sexes, perhaps the most enchanting is Le Livre du Dit de Poissy. In it she takes us, on a bright spring morning, with a joyous company, from Paris to the royal convent of Poissy, where her child is at school. She describes all the beauties of the country, the fields gay with flowers, the warbling of the birds, the shepherdesses with their flocks, the willow-shaded river bank along which they ride, the magic of the forest of St. Germain, a little world apart of greenery and shade, filled with the song of the nightingales. Laughing and singing by the way, they reach the convent gate. Then follows a description of the beautiful carved cloisters, the chapter-house, the nuns' dress and their dormitory, the garden scented with lavender and roses, with one part, where small animals are allowed to run wild, left uncultivated, and the ponds well stocked with fish. As the day wanes, they bid farewell to the nuns, who offer them gifts of purses and girdles embroidered in silk and gold, worked by their own hands. They return to the inn where they are to spend the night, and after supper wander forth to listen to the nightingales, then dance a carole, and so to bed. The ride back to Paris in the morning, during which a discussion on love matters is introduced, is painted with the same impressionist touch, and it is with real regret that we take leave of these happy folk as they alight in Paris city from their stout nags.

Harley 4431 f. 81 Christine and courtiers riding.png

Photo. Macbeth.


Harl. MS. 4431, Brit. Mus.

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Another similar discourse, Le Débat de deux amants, has for setting a gala entertainment, taking place, like the founding of the "Order of the Rose," under the auspices of Louis, Duke of Orleans, who ever extended a princely protection to Christine. Louis had married Valentine Visconti, daughter of Gian Galleazo Visconti, founder of the Certosa, near Pavia, a princess well versed in art and letters, and withal in pomp and splendour. It is on a day in May, the garden gay with gallants and fair ladies. We hear the minstrels play, and watch some of the company, decked with garlands, dancing under the trees. In the palace there is music and singing. Christine is seated in a tapestried hall with one or two esquires who prefer to discourse of love to joining in the jollity. After a time the talk turns on fickle men, and Christine brings forth from her vast storehouse of knowledge classical and mediæval examples. As she mentions Theseus, and recalls his baseness to Ariadne, she points to the tapestry on the wall before them, where the story is woven. This little touch makes the scene very real to us, for the record of the purchase of this tapestry, with the price of twelve hundred francs paid for it, may still be found amongst the royal inventories.

There is such a volume and variety of works from Christine's pen that it is no easy task to make a fair selection. One of the most significant, since it deals with a subject which permeated mediæval thought, and on which she was wont to dwell, is La Mutation de fortune, "Fortune more inconstant than the moon," says Christine. In it she writes with her heart in her hand, as it were, telling first of the sore havoc Fortune has wrought amongst those most dear to her. Yet though her own heart has been torn on the Wheel of Fortune, she stands before her fellow sufferers like some figure of Hope pointing upward, where, she says, wrong is surely righted. And thus she turns to the world in general, not in the spirit of the pessimist, but rather in that of the philosopher. She well knows that Fortune is no blindfolded goddess turning writhing humanity on a wheel, but a something rooted in ourselves, and she has pity for "la povre fragilité humaine." Though so independent and advanced in thought, she is still found clinging in her writings to mediæval forms. As a setting for her thoughts on Fortune's changes, she makes use of the favourite simile of a castle—here the Castle of Fortune—as representing the world, wherein the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, jostle one another. She criticises all men, from the prince to the pauper, but not women, since these have been sufficiently criticised and decried. It is like the prelude to a Dance of Death. Then she tells of the paintings on the walls of this imaginary castle, and uses this mediæval fancy, itself borrowed from the classics (Met. ii. 5. 770), to give what is really a history of the world as she knew it, written to demonstrate the instability of all earthly conditions.

Once again, with her versatile gifts, she turns from philosophy to a treatise on military tactics and justice, Le Livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie. However devoid of interest, except as a landmark in the history of military strategy and customs, this work may be to-day, it was thought of sufficient importance in the reign of our Henry the Seventh for the king to command Caxton to translate and print it (1489) with the title of The Book of Faytes of Arms, a book still sought after by our bibliophiles. It was further honoured by being quoted as an authority in the reign of Henry the Eighth. Considering the nature of its contents, this seems quite an extraordinary tribute to the judgment and ability of the writer.

But the misery of France is ever increasing. Ceaseless civil war and foreign invasion impoverish the people, and make desolate the land. The dissolute Court is extravagant and filled with discord. Christine, fired with patriotic fervour, once more makes an effort, which proves to be her final one, to arouse the pleasure-loving nobility to some sense of its obligations to the nation. Le Livre des trois vertues, and Le Livre de la paix, appear one after the other. In the former, which she dedicates to the Dauphine, Margaret of Burgundy, she merely adds another to the long list of discourses for the guidance of women which, in Christian times, begins as early as the second century.[6] This theme forms the subject of so considerable a didactic literature that it can only be hinted at here. Whether treated from a religious or from a social point of view, or the two combined, the sum-total of the teaching is moral training with a view to self-restraint and subordination. Christine addresses herself to all women, from the highest to the lowest, but her principal theme is the influence a princess may and should have on Court life. She further counsels not princesses alone, but all well-born women, not to attach too much importance to the things of this world, to be charitable, and to see to the education of their children, and so to inform themselves that they may be capable of filling their husbands' place when they are obliged to be absent at war or at the Court. She adds a plea for the country, that war should be opposed, and one for the poor, that pity should be shown to them. Then she addresses herself to the townswoman, advising her to see to her household, not to fear to go into the kitchen, and to avoid all luxury; then to servants, counselling them on no account to take bribes, adding the practical touch that as God is everywhere, and only asks of each a good heart, it is not necessary for them to go to Mass every day; then to the wife of the labourer, bidding her to guard well her master's flocks and to encourage her husband to work; and, finally, she has a word of sympathy for the poor, holding out to them hope of recompense in heaven for misery endured here, and exhorting them to have patience meanwhile. From this patriotic and practical advice to women she turns to men, and in Le Livre de la Paix sets forth the duties of princes and of those in power to the people, importuning them to exercise clemency, liberality, and justice.

But it is too late. The sand in the hourglass is running low. Disaster follows disaster, until the final blow is struck at Agincourt (1415), where the flower of the French nation is cut off, and princes of the blood are carried away into exile. Christine, with bleeding heart, and worn with trouble and disappointment, retires to the convent of Poissy, "un très doux paradis," perchance to find peace and consolation within its tranquil walls, and to implore Heaven's aid for her sore-stricken country. For fourteen years no sound from her reaches the outside world. Then, inspired by the glorious advent and deeds of Joan of Arc, with all her old passion she pours forth a final hymn of praise and thanksgiving to the woman who has at last aroused France to patriotism, and so dies in peace at the solemn moment of Charles the Seventh's consecration at Rheims.

O Thou! ordained Maid of very God!
Joanna! born in Fortune's golden hour,
On thee the Holy Spirit pours His Flood
And His high grace is given thee for dower.
Now all great gifts are thine:—O blessed be He
That lent thee life!—how word my grateful prayer?
No prayer of thine was spoken fruitlessly,
O Maid of God! O Joan! O Virgin rare! ****** Mark me this portent! strange beyond all telling!
How this despoilèd Kingdom stricken lay,
And no man raised his hand to guard his dwelling,
Until a Woman came to show the way.
Until a Woman (since no man dare try)
Rallied the land and bade the traitors fly.
Honour to Womankind! It needs must be
That God loves Woman, since He fashioned Thee! ****** O strange! This little maid sixteen years old
On whom no harness weigheth overmuch.
So strong the little hands! enduring hold
She seemeth fed by that same armour's touch,
Nurtured on iron—as before her vanish
The enemies of her triumphal day;
And this by many men is witnessèd;
Yea, many eyes be witness of that fray! ****** Castles and towns, she wins them back for France,
And France is free again, and this her doing!
Never was power given as to her lance!
A thousand swords could do no more pursuing.
Of all staunch men and true she is the Chief,
Captain and Leader, for that she alone
Is braver than Achilles the brave Greek.
All praise be given to God who leadeth Joan!

  1. L. Delisle, Recherches sur la libraire de Charles V, Paris, 1907.
  2. Harley, 4431.
  3. A. Farinelli, Dante e la Francia, vol. i. p. 192, 1908.
  4. "Le Musée Jacquemart-André," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, August 1912.
  5. "Le Dit de la Rose," 197-204, Œuvres poétiques de Christine de Pisan, t. ii., pub. par Maurice Roy, 1891.
  6. A. A. Hentsch, De la littérature didactique du moyen âge s'adressant spécialement aux femmes, Cahors, 1903.