Wednesday, August 24, 2016

WITMonth Day 24 | Christine de Pizan | Thoughts

One of my personal victories from WTMonth is discovering Christine de Pizan. You might argue that it's more a sign of my earlier flaws as a reader (that I didn't know of her existence until two years ago...), but I choose to view it more positively. Here was a woman writing of feminist ideas before feminism even existed, exploring gender dynamics and topics of utmost importance to women (even today!) in 1405! And I found her!

I began with The Book of the City of Ladies, which was, in fact, better than I had expected. I came prepared to be somewhat bored, to find the text exhausting in its casual sexism and racism, reductionist and absurd all at once, while intriguing in its concept. Yet while it's obviously an old text and the cultural context is very different from our current one, Christine's writing felt shockingly modern. In fact, parts felt like they could have just as easily been written by a modern feminist blogger today.

The Treasure of the City of Ladies continued along a similar vein. The two books are very different in their message (and thus their morality...), but both had this undercurrent vibe of: You're raising the exact same issues modern feminists raise today, but you're reaching completely different conclusions. Christine's morality is inherently tied to Christianity (and a very specific type of Christianity at that), further influenced by general cultural norms of the time. That means it's lacking much of the inclusive warmth modern feminism has rightly adopted (and intersectionality as a notion is pretty much limited to Christine pointing out that women of lower social classes are not meaningless, though she spends little time arguing the point...), and there is a rigid expectation of conduct that makes little sense in today's world.

This can make for uncomfortable reading in parts, though I found it fascinating. Take, for instance, Christine's advice on how women ought to treat their husbands. On the one hand, she advocates for wives to be docile and adhere to their husbands rule (even when those husbands may be cruel or abusive). But beneath that seemingly anti-feminist message lurks another odd little piece of advice: Wives, be wise enough in the workings of your estate and your husband's work to be able to advise him. While clearly sticking to the existing tradition by which wives must serve their husbands (and suffer in silence), Christine also pointedly fights for women to have basic (and not so basic) education. Don't be passive, she argues. Don't be ignorant. Don't...

Don't let men take advantage of you when you're widowed. Because that's what it appears happened to Christine upon her husband's death. In her memoirs, she writes almost dispassionately about the various men who saw an opportunity to swindle a young widow and about the legal woes she was forced into as a result. It makes you wonder, though, how much of the advice Christine gives in The Treasure is borne of bitterness. She so often dwells on how a wife must be kind and accommodating to her husband's friends, but what happened to her? Was she taken advantage of by friends, or rather did those kinder men help her? Is the advice ironic, through clenched teeth, or is Christine again recognizing a world which would hurt women in every possible way and one tiny way which might help them?

It was the moments of pure feminism, though, that fascinated me most. Imagine the audacity of a 15th century woman writing pointedly that no woman has ever encouraged rape or sought it out. Or discussing - flatly, furiously, ferociously - that women are not inherently less intelligent than men, nor less virtuous, nor more frivilous, nor incapable of learning, nor lesser beings. The Book of the City of Ladies is a treasure-trove of passionate arguments against claims that are still depressingly prevalent, with immediate retorts to things like "women's vanity" (Christine coolly points to the prevalence of deeply vain men in the French court), rape (she was asking for it has apparently been the argument for hundreds of years, but feminists weren't having it then and they won't have it now), women's intelligence (including Christine smugly referencing her own intelligence, in a rather gratifying bit of self-glorification) or education (for which Christine strongly advocates). These are the sorts of topics I still find fascinating today.

And I also loved the way things weren't the same. I loved seeing the differences between Christine's demands for basic rights as compared to modern feminist theory. I loved seeing the way Christine almost predicts the sorts of questions women will be asking 600 years later, or the problems they might face (even if her suggestions seem hilariously outdated). I loved having to put on my 15th-century glasses in order to try to rebuild Christine's truest meaning. I loved her observations, her sharpness, her breadth, her passion and her insistence. Here was a woman who recognized the important role she played. Yes, that is radical.

I've now read 2.5 books of Christine de Pizan's writing (multiple translators and editions); I hope to read everything of hers that has been translated into English. While representing only one perspective (I would love, for instance, to read contemporary texts from other parts of the world!), Christine is a sharp, witty, intelligent writer with a lot to say and her works are well worth reading. Not just her pre-feminist texts either, but also her poetry, her stories, her criticism...

Then I wonder... Why isn't Christine de Pizan on the list of the greats? Why is she not more frequently discussed as a pre-feminist, an important stepping stone to equal rights long before the feminist movement even existed? Or is she actually that prevalent... and only I was unaware...?



*** I also find myself wondering why the academic consensus seems to be to refer to her as "Christine" (and nothing further); if it's just an overly-familiar sexist thing or for some other reason...?

1 comment:

  1. I ADORE Christine de Pizan, and like you, only found her a few years ago. I think she got literarily buried--for English-speakers, anyway--for centuries; she was only translated into English in something like 1980, and until then English literature academics don't seem to have known her. This may be partly because she wasn't writing in English anyway, and academics used to be pretty iffy about reading translations, but mostly it was because she was a woman and argued with men. (Marie de France stayed known, though...) Maybe French lit academics knew her better?

    Laurel Thatcher Ulrich featured her in the book "Well-behaved Women Rarely Make History," so if you haven't read that you could see what she says; I don't remember now.

    Did Christine de Pizan have a last name she was known by? We call Leonardo da Vinci Leonardo, because da Vinci is where he's from, not his last name. Christine was from Pizan, so we can't call her 'de Pizan' any more than we can call Leonardo just 'da Vinci,' unless we are Dan Brown and very ignorant.

    Anyway, I certainly think Christine belongs up there with the greats.

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