Medieval Studies Christine de Pizan
Tracy Adams Rechtschaffen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0093


The prolific writer Christine de Pizan (b. c. 1364–d. c. 1431) was an innovative lyric poet, early champion of women, and political writer. Although some of her political allegories seem obscure to the nonspecialist, the autobiographical sketches that characterize many of her works make her attractive to popular as well as scholarly audiences. Born in Venice, she moved to Paris as a small child when her father was invited by King Charles V to serve as royal astrologer and physician. She remained in France the rest of her life. With the deaths of Charles V in 1380, her father in 1387, and her beloved husband in 1389, she and her three children and mother entered a period of financial hardship, as we know from autobiographical references in her works. During this difficult period, she turned to writing for solace and to earn a living, drawing upon the education she had begun under the guidance of her father and had furthered through independent study. Her works became popular among important lords and ladies of medieval Europe, gaining for her an array of patrons that included the English duke John of Salisbury and King Henry IV of England; Giangaleazzo Visconti, duke of Milan; Louis, duke of Orleans; Jean, duke of Berry; Philip, duke of Burgundy; and Queen Isabeau of Bavaria. Christine’s earliest works were love lyrics, but she rapidly branched out into other genres. The poet was a witness to the feud between the Orleanists, led by the king’s brother, Louis of Orleans (known as the Armagnacs when Bernard Count of Armagnac took the lead in 1410, the Burgundians having assassinated Louis in 1407), and the Burgundians, led by the dukes of Burgundy. This feud was occasioned by the episodic madness of King Charles VI, which began in 1392. She composed numerous works treating the conflict. After the Burgundian massacre of the Armagnacs in Paris in 1418, Christine, an Armagnac and supporter of the dauphin, the future King Charles VII, retired to a convent. Her final work was a poem celebrating Joan of Arc, the young military leader whose initial successes vindicated the poet’s defenses of women. In addition to writing, Christine was active in manuscript production, overseeing and possibly even copying many of her own manuscripts, publishing her collected works for the first time in 1399. She supervised several luxury manuscripts of her own works, including what is known today as the Duke’s Manuscript, presented to Duke Jean of Berry and now broken into sections, all residing at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (BNF fonds français 835, 606, 836, 605, and possibly 607), and the Queen’s Manuscript, presented to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria (Harley 4431 of the British Library in London). The exact year of her death is not known, but a reference to her as the “late” Christine de Pizan indicates that it must have been around 1431. Christine was recognized as an important writer during her lifetime and for the first hundred years after her death. She then lost popularity and was denigrated as a bluestocking for more than three hundred years. Her work was approached with interest by isolated scholars during the 19th century. In the mid-20th century she was recognized again as a major literary figure and gained wide popularity as women’s studies became part of university programs in the English-speaking world during the 1970s.

General Overviews

Biographies of Christine include general overviews of the poet’s entire corpus and her cultural milieu. In addition to these works, a number of specialized studies cover different elements or phases of her writing career. As early as 1838 Raimond Thomassy produced a monograph on her significance as a political writer (Thomassy 1838), although his lead was not followed until the 20th century. Recently Laidlaw 1983 has traced the poet’s career through her manuscript production, and Kelly 2007 has discussed her theories of knowledge by following her developing attitudes toward “opinion.” Cayley 2006 has shed new light on the place of love poetry in courtly social life. More broadly, Krynen 1981, Krynen 1993, and Cerquiglini 1997 offer overviews of the intellectual milieu within which the poet worked. Poirion 1965, the seminal study on courtly French poetry of the late 14th and early 15th centuries, remains indispensable background reading.

  • Cayley, Emma. Debate and Dialogue: Alain Chartier in His Cultural Context. Oxford: Clarendon, 2006.

    Although this is a study of Alain Chartier’s work, its discussion of the literary culture within which the courtly debate arose and developed is indispensable for scholars of Christine. Christine’s contribution to the quarrel of the Roman de la Rose receives part of a chapter.

  • Cerquiglini, Jacqueline. The Color of Melancholy: The Uses of Books in the Fourteenth Century. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

    A study of the attitude of sadness that pervaded literature of the late Middle Ages. Cerquiglini, an expert on Christine de Pizan, devotes special attention to the poet.

  • Kelly, Douglas. Christine de Pizan’s Changing Opinion: A Quest for Certainty in the Midst of Chaos. Cambridge, UK: Brewer, 2007.

    The development of Christine’s epistemology over her career is the focus of this study. It concentrates on her early works (through 1405), considering her changing attitude toward opinion or how one knows. Kelly details how Christine uses reason and experience to test the truth of popular opinion, which she opposes throughout her corpus to certainne science and religion.

  • Krynen, Jacques. Idéal du prince et pouvoir royal en France à la fin du Moyen Âge (1380–1440). Paris: Picard, 1981.

    This study is valuable for understanding the intellectual milieu within which Christine worked.

  • Krynen, Jacques. L’Empire du roi: Idées et croyances politiques en France, XIIIe–XVe siècle. Paris: Gallimard, 1993.

    Study of the political ideas of the period as manifested in its literature. An excellent introduction to the main currents of thought on kingship.

  • Laidlaw, James C. “Christine de Pizan: An Author’s Progress.” Modern Language Review 78 (1983): 532–550.

    DOI: 10.2307/3730228

    Using manuscript evidence, this article traces how Christine revised her work throughout the years. Laidlaw now believes the Queen’s Manuscript to have been composed in 1413, not 1410 or 1411.

  • Poirion, Daniel. Le Poète et le prince: L’évolution du lyrisme courtois de Guillaume de Machaut à Charles d’Orléans. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1965.

    This pioneering study of composers of courtly lyric poetry of the 14th and 15th centuries devotes a chapter to Christine. Although renowned primarily for its emphasis on the social and intellectual contexts within which courtly poetry developed during this period, the study also provides tables of data drawn from formal analyses of the poets’ works.

  • Thomassy, Raimond. Essai sur les écrits politiques de Christine de Pisan, suivi d’une notice littéraire et de pièces inédites. Paris: Debécourt, 1838.

    Once indispensable for its appendix containing editions and partial editions of some of Christine’s writings, this study remains significant as the earliest analysis of her importance as a political writer.

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