March 17, 2012

Androgynous Femmes in History: Christine de Pizan (1363 to circa 1430)

Oh hey there gender blenders,

Recently, via feminist historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's book Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, I was introduced to the 14th-15th century scribe/artist/translator/poet/essayist Christine de Pizan, who also qualifies as a bit of a gender blending lady. I habitually find it really hard to make much of a connection to historical and literary figures who predate approximately pre 19th century. (Shakespeare's cross-dressing women and other such people/characters being the exceptions--Twelfth Night's Viola anyone?) But Ulrich's chronicle of Christine's life somehow hit me differently.

Christine de Pizan was born in Italy in 1365, but from the age of three grew up in the French royal court of Charles V after her father became a philosopher/counselor therein. Ulrich describes Charles V's court as being deeply invested in learning, philosophy, and the arts, so that Christine, under her father's direction, had an "unusually fine education," not only for a woman, but for a person of the time.

Married at 15 and widowed at 25, Christine made use of her education to support her mother, two brothers, and her own three children, her father having died not long before her husband. Ulrich writes, "scholars have identified at least fifty-five manuscripts written in whole or in part in her hand" (11). The printing press was not invented until circa 1440, so books were rare works of art produced painstakingly by hand. To be a scribe was to be an artist.

No wonder she wasn't satisfied with the male representation of women in the books she read: "I could hardly find a book on morals where, even before I had read it entirely, I did not find several chapters or certain or certain selections attacking women" (3-4). This realization sparked her to write The City Ladies in 1405, a chronicle of historical, mythology, and biblical women enlivened by a female perspective.

A page from the opening of Cites des dames (The City Ladies):
Christine receives her guides Reason, Rectitude, and Justice (left)
& Reason helps Christine build the walls of the city of ladies (right).
Christine was a woman defined by more than her domestic position as a widow and mother. Ulrich echoes scholar Jacqueline Cerquiglini when she writes that Christine transforms into "the son of her father" as she claims the identity of a scribe/artist/writer and "redifin[es] the boundaries of womanhood" (13). Her presence in the public sphere, her artistic influence over the manuscripts she produced, and the expression of her voice in her own writing were all things almost exclusively reserved for the domain of men. Christine's presence in this domain challenges the binary conditions imposed on gender roles and identities. She was something other-than-woman in a time when "woman" was defined as domestic, voiceless, and often illiterate.