Christine de Pizan, conversing with a woman in armor [Minervia?]. shown here is a detail of a fifteenth-century image that is often associated with Christine's Fais d'armes et de chevalerie, and is held by Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels.
Christine de Pizan
Christine was born in Venice, in 1364, to parents who both were graduates of the University of Bologna. Her father, Tomasso de Pizzano, was appointed as the court physician to King Charles V of France. Christine was five years old when her family moved to Paris, where the spelling of the family name was changed to 'Pizan'. In Paris, Christine received an excellent education, and lived in an environment of a court renowned for its support of intellectual pursuits and its possession of the finest library in Western Europe. She spoke French and Italian, and was familiar with Latin. In 1380, Christine married a young scholar and court secretary, Etienne du Castel. Late in that same year, however, her idealic life began to disassemble.
Charles V died at the end of 1380, and Christine's father lost his prestigious position in the court, and received a diminished income until his death in 1387. Christine's husband died of the plague in 1390, leaving her to support her three children and her mother. However, her unique intellectual abilities and her access to the royal court allowed her to sustained herself by writing poems and similar works. The course of her life is briefly outlined in a chronology below. Modern medievalist scholars have shown considerable interest in her life and her many literary works. See the links to other webpages and bibliography given at the end of this webpage. This page focuses on Christine's generally less publicized contribution to the success of the Valois cause in the Hundred Years' War -- her manual on warfare, and her last poem that could be viewed as the first 'call to arms' of an emerging French nation.
Fais d'armes et de chevalerie
[The Book ofDeeds of Arms and of
Christine's The Book of Deeds of Arms was a fusion of many works, much of these from of late antiquity, on the topic of warfare. Her work is impressive if only for its remarkable breath of ideas and broad awareness of literature on the topic. She was in an unusual position to have access to the libraries of the French and Burgundian courts. Some the referenced earlier works were still in Latin and not yet translated in to medieval French. Christine was also in a unique position to access translations of ancient works being made by Italian scholars of her time. Her stated purpose was not merely collecting and transcribing the early works. Her goal was to take electively form the early works and from some contemporary to her time, and to present it in as organized and comprehensive instruction to young francophone noblemen on the conduct of warfare. Her The Book of Deeds of Arms, written in the French vernacular of her era, is known to have been in the libraries of the leading French leaders under Charles VII, such as the constable de Richmont. A testament as to its perceived value is that it was among the first works to be published in print when that medium beginning to blossom at the end of the fifteenth century -- published in French in 1488 and in English in 1489.
Many modern students of history have not seriously examined Christine's Fais d'armes et de chevalerie [The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry]. The work stands outside the context of her well known poems and allegorical pieces that advocate a strong and positive roll for women in society -- a topic most popular with the majority of modern medieval scholars. Further, it "is unexpected in any era to find a woman writing a book on the art of warfare, but in the fifteenth century it was unbelievable." Not surprisingly, Christine de Pizan's The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry, written around 1410, has been generally ignored by military historians. Part of the problem has been that until recently the work remained in late medieval vernacular text. Hurriedly examined, The Book of Deeds of Arms has often been dismissed, as simply copying or pilfering of earlier military manuals and chivalry treatises.
Easily missed by military historians is Christine giving one of the few contemporaneous and descriptive accounts of gunpowder artillery at the mid point of the Hundred Years' War. This was the period when that type of weapon was maturing sufficiently to have undeniable impact in sieges. Part II, section XXI of Christine's The Book of Deeds of Arms departs from the author referencing Vegetius' De re militari [fourth century], or mulling over the same chivalry concerns as Bouvet's [Bonet's] Arbre des batailles [Tree of Battles] [late fourteenth century]. It is here that Christine records what has been told to her by some "wise knights" of her time. The modern editors of her work make the reasonable assumption that these 'wise knights' would have been nobles and leaders who had served in the recent successful campaigns of the duke of Burgundy.
William Caxton's early English translation of Christine's Fais d'armes et de chevalerie, was printed by Caxton in 1489 as The Book of Faytes and Arms and of Chyvalerye. This work was edited by A.T.P. Byles and published in London in 1932, and again with corrections in 1937. While Byles editorial remarks remain very important, Caxton's ‘English' version needs further 'translation' for any satisfactory modern assessment of the work. Recently, a modern English translation of Christine's The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry has been provided by Sumner and Charity Cannon Willard.
Their faithful English translation, of The Book of Deeds of Arms contains much that is original to Christine's 'military manual' which informs the modern reader a great deal about the strategy, tactics, and technology of medieval warfare. The Willards correct inaccuracies in earlier translations and recast the text in a clear and easy-to-read translation, supplemented with notes. Sumner Willard, was a professor at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, known for his translation of J. F. Verbruggen's The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages (Elsevier, 1977; revised edition, Boydell, 1997). Charity Cannon Willard, is a preeminent Christine de Pizan scholar in the United States. She has translated Christine's A Medieval Woman's Mirror of Honor: The Treasure of the City of Ladies (Persea, 1989) and written a biography, Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works (Persea, 1984).
Christine's Book of Deeds of Arms surprises many with her unusual detailed description of gunpowder weapons [as compared to anything else written at the time]. In their introduction, the Willards make note of this, and they are not alone. Bert Hall's Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe, Gunpowder, Technology and Tactics (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1997) gives considerable attention to Christine's description on pp.61-63. In particular, Christine gives a rather explicit description of the artillery of her day, relating different sizes and the logistical considerations.
The Willards take their observations further and make a convincing argument that Christine's work, in her contemporary French, made the references of the earlier Roman authors more available to many of the new, young military leaders of her time. When reading her text, she is careful not to merely quote from the many earlier authors, but she explains what is still used, and omits the obsolete.
It is interesting to consider the extensive attention the modern medievalist scholars have shown toward the male authors of the time, such as Charles, duc de Orléans and René d'Anjou. The first, wrote romantic poetry during his 25 years captivity in England, yet not even wrote a poem on 'The Maid' who led an army to rescue his key city. The second, proved to be an incompetent warrior who became famous for his romantic poetry and his support of tournaments and celebrations of staged chivalry. Neither seemed to ever write a paragraph on warfare that was being conducted during their lifetimes.
There is another remarkable footnote to Christine's story. She was an unabashed supporter of the Valois cause, daringly pronouncing in her the ode to Jeanne d'Arc, composed right under the noses -- so to speak -- of the Burundian and English occupation forces at Paris in 1429. She had been living in the convent at Poisey since 1418. Her Le Ditié de Jehanne d'Arc [Hymn to Joan of Arc], written in 1429, clearly praises Jeanne as a savior of France and calls for the English to get out. There is evidence that her work was being followed closely by many English nobles -- most of whom spoke and read French. Her 'Ditié de Jehanne' was written the same year that the English regent, duke Bedford was calling the Pucelle "a disciple and limb of the Fiend." Christine de Pizan certainly may be included among the company of Yolande d'Aragon and Jeanne d'Arc.
- Christine de Pizzano born in Venice, Italy.
- Christine's father, a famous physician and astrologer, was invited to serve in the French court of Charles V. The family moved to Paris, and changed their name to 'de Pizan'.
- Christine married Etienne de Castel, a 25 year-old scholar and a notry in the court. Charles V died later in the year, and Christine's father lost his court position.
- Thomas de Pizan died.
- Etienne died of an epidemic, leaving Christine a widow who had to support 3 children and her mother.
- Christine began writing poems. She had probably started as a copyist in a workshop where manuscripts were being prepared. Her first literary success grew out of contacts with the court of duc Louis d'Orléans.
- Christine's daughter, Marie, went to the Abbey of Poissy with a dowry from the king Charles VI, probably as a companion to his daughter who was there.
- Christine wrote Le Dit de la Rose (The Tale of the Rose).
- Christine wrote Mutation of Fortune.
- Christine finished biography of Charles V: Le Livre des Fais et Bonnes Meurs du Sage Roy Charles V.
- Christine's son, Jean, returned from service in the household of the English earl of Salisbury and joined the household of the duc de Burgundy. Christine later followed her son to the Burgundian court.
- Wrote Le livre de la cité des dames (The Book of the City of Ladies).
- Wrote Livre des trois vertus [The Book of the Three Virtues] and Christine's Vision [Dedicated to Marguerite of Burgundy]
- The Book of the Livre du corps de policie [Body Politic],
addressed to Louis, duc de Guyenne in 1407. Vegetius was an important source
- Christine accompanied Marguerite, daughter of Jean the Fearless of Burgundy, as Marguerite moved to the French court to live with her young husband. Maguerite was married in 1404 to the French dauphin, Louis de Guyenne, eldest surviving son of Charles VI of France and Isabeau de Bavaria. [Only months after her birth, Maguerite had been betrothed to Louis' older brother, who died in 1401. The remaining royal French princes were: Jean duc de Touraine [who would die in 1417] and Charles [VII].
- Christine completed Fais d'armes et de chevalerie [Feats of Arms and Chivalry], and received 200 livres from the royal treasury in early 1411..
- Christine wrote Le Livre de la Paix [The Book of Peace].
- Wrote L'epistre de la Prison de Vie Humaine [A Letter Concerning the Prison of Human Life] -- written to console the women after the Battle of Agincourt.
- Christine joined the convent at Poissy [northwest of Paris].
- Christine wrote Le Ditié de Jehanne d'Arc [Hymn to Joan of Arc].
- Christine died.
Links to webpages on Christine de Pizan:
Pizan, Christine de, The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry, Edited by Charity Cannon Willard. Translated by Sumner Willard. (Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania, 1999).
Pizan, Christine de, Writings of Christine de Pizan, edited by Charity Cannon Willard, (Persea Books, New York, 1994).
Hall, Bert S. Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe, Gunpowder, Technology and Tactics (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1997), pp.61-63.