Friday, October 19, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works. A Biography by Charity Cannon Willard

Something else I feel I should have read in college – Christine de Pizan’s work. A late fourteenth-early fifteenth century French intellectual, writer, defender of women, Christine has been called France’s first woman of letters. She is perhaps best known for The Book of the City of Ladies, but she has a very impressive list of literary accomplishments. Somehow, despite majoring in French and having a particular interest in medieval French, I managed to not read anything of hers.

All right. I still haven’t. But I did read Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works. A Biography by Charity Cannon Willard. This is a well-researched account of the life of this extraordinary woman who was born in Italy but who spent most of her life in France. She was brought up in the court of King Charles V. (Her father was a court scientist/astronomer.) She married well-a royal secretary. She and her husband had three children and were happily married for ten years. Little seems to be known about this part of her life. But when she was about twenty-four, things changed for Christine.

King Charles had died and his heir was given to bouts of insanity which worsened over time. This made things difficult for those in his court who depended on his patronage. And, worse for Christine, her husband died, leaving her to support their three children.

And so, Christine begins her career as a writer, first as a poet and then as a writer of political, historical, educational, and moral treatises. Most of these are dedicated/gifted to various members of the royal family as a way to seek patronage and a way to build her following. The impressive thing is, Christine does gain an ever increasing audience for her writing. Despite the fact that she is a woman, her work is widely praised and she was respected for her learning and intelligence not only throughout France but in England and Italy as well.

Christine de Pizan is remembered now mainly for her writing in defense of women and against the misogynistic writings of her male counterparts. However, she also wrote a biography of Charles V and a military instruction manual. She seems to have studied widely and mastered quite a breadth of knowledge.

The biography is subtitled "Her Life and Works." The book does do a good job of summarizing the works and putting them in context within a complex historical framework. It was interesting, but dry. While I definitely learned about the writing, I don’t feel that I got a very good look at the life of the writer. Willard provided only an outline of what was going on around Christine de Pizan as she was writing the different pieces, with some inclusion of major life events. It’s unfortunately probable that the types of details I would have liked to see are unrecorded and lost to history. Still, I’d like to read more about this fascinating woman and to read some of her work for myself.


I read this as part of my Mount TBR challenge because this book has been on my shelf for a long time.