When the Quill is mightier than the Sword

History was written by the chroniclers of the times and it must be said – they were all men. But in the 14thC a woman’s voice rose up enough to be heard, maybe not over the top of the male voices, but it was certainly given recognition, audience and patronage. The lady’s name was Christine de Pizan.

She was heard most loudly in the celebrated literary controversy of the Middle Ages when a debate arose over the poem of the era called The Romance of the Rose. This poem, in immensely long allegory, recounts the seduction and winning of a lady by her lover. Ah, but what is allegory, I hear you ask? This is where, in a story, the characters are symbols for ideas. We’ve all heard of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ from the Book of Revelation, yes? Known as Pestilence, War, Famine and Death, these four gentlemen are portrayed riding horses of white, red, black and pale.

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The portrayal of Pestilence, War, Famine and Death as four horsemen is often interpreted as an allegory of the harbingers (one who heralds the approach of something) of the end of the world or Judgement Day.

In The Romance of the Rose the young lady in question is portrayed as a prize rose growing in a garden studiously guarded by Mistresses Danger and Jealousy, two suspicious old crones. It is here our adventurous youth, Amant, is shot with arrows by ‘The God of Love’ (sounds suspiciously like Cupid) and thus he becomes enamoured by one particular flower.

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The poem was started around 1230 by Guillaume de Lorris and was continued more than forty years later by Jean de Meung, 1275 – 1280. I’m not really sure how that works and I’m guessing some thought it should have not.

In Guillaume’s hands, the personified likenesses of anti-courtly vices are arrayed on the walls (one can almost imagine the figures looming over with the menace of vulturine gargoyles) and they provide a contrast to the figures of courtly virtue within the garden.

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The God of Love gives specific lessons to Amant on the conduct of becoming a lover. But a stolen kiss alerts the crones who guard the rose and they place it behind even stronger fortifications and our poor lad is left lamenting his loss.

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It was a work on the ‘art of romantic love’ but in Jean de Meung’s hands the poem concludes with a bawdy account of the plucking of the rose, achieved through deception which is unlike Guillaume’s conception of the love quest.  Indeed, Jean’s characters, Reason, Nature and Genius add lengthy commentary on subjects barely connected. Genius, who is Nature’s priestly confessor, launches a controversial argument on sodomites! And within his verses Jean de Meung introduced a strong element of misogyny (hatred of women).

Christine de Pizan attacked the poem’s immorality in her Letter to God of Love in 1399, saying that she objected to the generalisations made about women when men owed their very existence to them. To all who agreed with Jean de Meung, she asked, had they no feelings for the women in their lives – their mothers, sisters, wives or daughters? Had they always known only immoral women? Had they never met any virtuous women? Indeed, (sink the boot in, Christine) had they known women at all? This was, without doubt, quite outspoken for a woman in the 14th century.

But Christine did not lack support. She had three powerful allies in her quest, namely the chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, the provost of Paris, Guillame (William) de Tignonville, and Marshall Jean II le Meingre Boucicaut.1  But opposing them were three equally commanding men, the provost of Lille, the canon of Paris and the king’s secretary. After a three year literary battle and some twenty treaties and letters, they eventually had to agree to disagree.

This led Christine to the writing of two books teaching women of the 14thC how to lead exemplary lives and be the quiet strength in a male dominated world. It is very fair to add she never sought to overthrow this hierarchy, merely wrote a guide for ladies on how to survive it, amongst other practicalities. The books were again, allegorical. In the first, ‘The Book of the City of Ladies’ Christine builds a city for the ladies to come and be securely sheltered. This represents her plea for recognition for women’s contribution to culture and social life. She is assisted by three ‘Ladies of Virtue’ – Reason, who aids with the excavation and lays the foundations for the city, Rectitude (moral rightness), who helps build the walls and enclosures, and Justice, who designs and erects the towers, palace, and houses. In the second book, ‘The Treasure of the City of Ladies,’ the ladies of the now populated city attend class and are instructed by the three Virtues.

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This book is divided into three parts of instruction; one part each for princesses, one for the ladies and maidens of the court, and one for women of rank in towns and cities, wives of merchants etc, until finally including women of all class so that ‘all women may experience our instruction.’  And what sort of lessons did she include? Well, you can be sure it was more delicate than the advice for men from Daniel of Beccles,  ‘do not openly excavate your nostrils by twisting your fingers’ (see last blog) and more on ‘the behaviour that ought to be instilled into a newly married princess,’ or ‘how to conduct herself towards her husband.’ This goes into great detail for his care and keeping and here is but one example – ‘She will be overjoyed to see him, and when she is with him she will try hard to say everything that ought to please him, and she will keep a happy expression on her face.’ (Are you smiling, ladies?) Other lessons included are humility, the caring of others, a keen eye on finances, how not to have envy, and even a lesson on bereavement, for widowhood was a real possibility. Here she speaks from experience for Christine, herself, was a widow.  In fact, her lessons are all about honouring God first, then honesty to fellow man and the respect and caring for others – lessons which still hold true today but seem to be sadly lacking in our modern society.

As Christine de Pizan’s reputation and popularity grew, she was wooed by both the English and Italian courts but her love of France was stronger. She had an impressive following of admirers including powerful members of the royal family. Christine always presented a copy of her work as a gift every New Year to Duc Jean de Berri2 who was well known for his exquisite acquisitions.

As one by one, she lost her companions to death, Christine de Pizan retired in 1418 to the safety of a convent as the Burgundians seized control of Paris (civil conflicts between Burgundians and the opposing Orleanist party known as the ‘Armagnacs.’3)  From her sanctuary she wrote some prayers for the consolation of bereaved women, and there were plenty after the devastation of the French nobility in 1415, but it is believed her final work was ‘The Hymn to Joan of Arc.’ How Christine must have loved Joan! This earthly angel exemplified both the heroism of women and the victory of good over evil, never denying her femininity but remaining virtuous in the name of God. Christine passed away somewhere around 1429 and one can be thankful that she did not live to see Joan’s demise when the Burgundians handed the ‘Maid of Orleans’ over to the English.  If she had, she would have died then and there of a broken heart.

Oh, and speaking of a broken heart, just in case you were wondering, in The Romance of the Rose, after some 20,000 lines, Jean de Meung did allow our young hero, Amant, to win his fair rose.

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Doesn’t such romance, dedication and passion of those times just make you sigh?

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1.      His father, Jean I le Meingre Boucicaut,  Maréchal de France, is mentioned in ‘The Lily and the Lion’ on page 277 at the tourney when Cécile, leaning from the inn window, recognises him with much admiration.

2.     Mentioned in the opening scene of ‘The Lily and the Lion’ when Cécile’s betrothal to the Duc has just been severed. Duc de Berri appears in Book Three ‘The Gilded Crown.’

3.     Led by Bernard d’Armagnac – grandson of Jean I d’Armagnac, second son of Jean le Bossu, Cécile’s foster father and foster brother respectively.

Christine de Pizan is destined for an appearance in series two of ‘Lions and Lilies.’

Cathy T

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