In a landmark 1929 essay on the role of women in society, English author Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) remarked that literary creativity ultimately depended neither on genius nor inspiration but quite simply on “a room of one’s own.” For her, authors could not produce anything of value if they did not have a place or space to which they could withdraw themselves; they needed to cut themselves off from the cares and duties of daily existence. This was the reason why, particularly prior to 1700, women hardly made it to the canon of famous authors. Financially dependent on men and exclusive bearers of household responsibilities, they could not practise and participate in the solitude upon which the production of art is so contingent. Moreover, unlike male authors who had plenty of literary forefathers, females could not derive inspiration and encouragement from an ancestry of “foremothers”. There is much truth in here. Yet, writes Rosalind Brown-Grant – professor of late medieval French literature at the University of Leeds:
…the work of recent feminist scholars suggests that Woolf may have been too pessimistic in her assessment of the obstacles confronting female creativity in the pre-modern period. Thanks to their endeavours, a lost literature by women of previous generations is now starting to be recovered. For the Middle Ages, in particular, a period which Woolf dismissed as being one of the least productive for female writers, an authoritative body of evidence now exists which suggests that women could frequently overcome the obstacles which, to Woolf, appeared to be insurmountable.
Christine de Pizan (c. 1364-1430), an Italian by birth who lived most of her life in France and wrote exclusively in French, was one such medieval woman who managed to find a ‘room of one’s own’. Unique amongst female authors in the Middle Ages, most of whom (such as Hildegard of Bingen) were nuns in established orders, Christine was the first to earn her living exclusively from her pen. She produced many works across a wide range of genres: from interventions in literary debates to courtesy manuals, from lyric poetry to treatises on chivalry, and from biographies of kings to books of pious devotion. Yet Christine was not only a groundbreaking author in terms of her personal career. She was also the first woman in the Middle Ages to confront head-on the tradition of literary misogyny or anti-feminism that pervaded her culture.
The Book of the City of Ladies (a manuscript in the original language from the National Library of France is available from the World Digital Library), Christine de Pizan’s most important work (finished around 1405) belongs to a genre of biographical catalogue – celebration of the lives of famous men and women – established in classical antiquity. The book is a formal response to The Romance of the Rose (1275) written by French authors Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. It begins when Christine, frustrated after reading a male writer’s tirade against women, has a dreamlike vision where three virtues – Reason, Rectitude and Justice – appear and instruct her to build an allegorical city in which womankind can be defended against slander. Its walls and towers are constructed from the examples offered by famous women of both history and Christine’s time – warriors, inventors and scholars to prophetesses, artists and saints.
Although Christine de Pizan left an ambiguous legacy (she did not emphatically demand that women in reality assume the many positive images she conjured for them), in claiming that women can match men in terms of their military prowess, leadership, ingenuity and intelligence, she did, writes Brown-Grant “anticipate some of the key tenets of twentieth-century feminism”.
Indeed, I was astounded that such a fine craftsmen could have wished to make such an appalling object which, as these writers would have it, is like a vessel in which all the sin and evil of the world has been collected and preserved. This thought inspired such a great sense of disgust and sadness in me that I began to despise myself and the whole of my sex as an aberration in nature.
With a deep sigh, I called out to God: ‘Oh Lord, how can this be? Unless I commit an error of faith, I cannot doubt that you, in your infinite wisdom and perfect goodness, could make anything that wasn’t good. Didn’t you yourself create women especially and then endow her with all the qualities that you wished her to have? How could you possibly have made a mistake in anything? Yet here stand women not simply accused, but already judged, sentenced and condemned! I just cannot understand this contradiction! If it is true, dear Lord God, that women are guilty of such horrors as so many men seem to say, and as you yourself have said that the testimony of two or more witnesses is conclusive, how can I doubt their word? Oh God, why wasn’t I born a male so that my every desire would be to serve you, to do right in all things, and to be as perfect a creature as man claims to be? Since you chose not to show such grace to me, please pardon and forgive me, dear Lord, if I fail to serve you as well as I should, for the servant who receives fewer rewards from his lord is less obligated to him in his service.’
Featured: Christine de Pizan lecturing men, Wikimedia Commons.