“The feminist voices in medieval Europe: Christine de Pizan as an example” – Nadine Saghir

Christine de Pizan (sitting) lecturing to a group of men (standing)
(©British Library, Harley MS 4431, f.259v)

The European misogynist tradition is very old in history and dates back to ancient Greece, probably influenced by the Greek great philosopher Aristotle[1], who flourished in the fourth century BCE and postulated the philosophical and medical theories of male superiority. Thus, in medieval European society misogyny had been established for so long, and negative perceptions of women were expressed like those of Antiquity; society is patriarchal, and inheritance is confined to men.

The process of dismantling the misogynistic tradition was very arduous and began in the 13th century in Italy, with the advent of the ‘Humanism movement’[2] led by male personalities who accepted the traditional evaluation of women yet opened the door to free women from social subordination and cultural prejudice. However, women’s voices began to rise in medieval Europe, defending their rights and claiming equality in social life, and feminist altercations began to appear in riposte to male injustice.

In this essay, I will present the early proto-feminist voices arousing in Europe, from ancient Greece, which legislated patriarchal hegemony in Europe, to medieval Spain before arriving in France in the 14th century when the first gender war took place. I will briefly cite examples of medieval misogynist literature, in riposte of which the feminist literature emerged.

The feminist activity of Christine de Pizan– who sparked the first gender war in history, known as the Quarrel of the Rose, and whose works later became manifestos for successor feminist movements–will be particularized in this essay before breifly citing examples of the most significant gender debates known in the English language during the 16th and 17th centuries.

 

I. Male profeminist voices from Ancient Greece and Muslim Spain

Plato[3] was the first Greek philosopher to argue gender equality and had a different view regarding man superiority and female inferiority than his pupil Aristotle. Elaine Hoffman Baruch, in her book Women in Search of Utopia, published in 1984, pointed out that Plato “argued for the total political and sexual equality of women, advocating that they be members of his highest class… those who rule and fight”[4].

In Book five of Plato’s The Republic, the Greek philosopher imagined an ideal state where women worked alongside men, received equal education, and shared equally in all aspects of society, except works requiring physical strength, as we can read in this excerpt from Jowett’s translation of the work:

Are dogs divided into hes and shes, or do they both share equally in hunting and in keeping watch and in the other duties of dogs? Or do we entrust to the males the entire and exclusive care of the flocks, while we leave the females at home, under the idea that the bearing and suckling their puppies is labour enough for them?[5]

The first proto-feminist voice in medieval Europe came from Muslim Spain, where the Islamic philosopher and trained jurist of Cordoba Ibn Rushd[6]— latinized into Averroes– commented on Plato’s reviews on gender equality in The Republic. In the 12th century, the Andalusian Qadi (judge) epitomized Plato’s Republic and developed his own woman-supporting views within a Platonic framework gliding from ‘He (Plato) says’ to ‘We say’. In this excerpt translated by Ralph Lerner, Ibn Rushd endorses Plato’s view that women are not only fit for ‘procreation’, but they can ‘share with the males in war and the rest’ if ‘trained in the same way’:

The competence of women is unknown, however, in these cities since they are only taken in them for procreation and hence are placed at the service of their husbands and confined to procreation, upbringing, and suckling. […] and it is clear from the case of the females that they are to share with the males in war and the rest [i.e., ruling] –it is fitting that, in choosing them, we seek for those very natures that we sought for in men and that they should be trained in the same way through music and gymnastic[7].

 

II. Misogyny in medieval literature

The story of literary misogyny began in the 13th century France when The Romance of the Rose, a poem in old French, was composed in 1230 by Guillaume de Lorris. The second part of the poem, which is considered misogynistic, “is more extensive with its 19,000 lines, [and] was written forty years later by Jean de Meun, [who] included poetic digressions and violent satire against women. There is a modern English version by F. S. Ellis (Temple Classics, 3 vols., 1900)”[8].

The Romance of the Rose, which was presented as an allegorical dream vision of love affair and female sexuality, has the primacy of being the first misogynistic work in medieval literature which started the first woman question debate.

A second French misogynistic tract was achieved in 1295 by Mathieu of Boulogne, or Matheolus[9], who wrote the Liber lamentationum Matheoluli in Latin, translated as The Lamentations of Matheolus. The French cleric had taken inspiration from Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose to corroborate his anti-feminist arguments, complaining about the myriad of ways a woman can bring bad luck to her husband, thus denigrating marriage and femininity.

The Lamentations of Matheolus[10] was translated in 1371 by French writer Jean Le Fèvre, who wrote later a second pro-feminine book titled Le Livre de Leesce (The Book of Gladness) in 1389, wherein he apologized for ever having translated the misogynistic Lamentations and attempted to reconcile the slander against the feminine gender. Thus, Le Fèvre’s Book of Gladness is the first pro-woman work written by a man in medieval literature.

In the mid-fourteenth century, the Florentine author Giovanni Boccaccio[11] wrote in 1355 his famous novel Il Corbaccio (The Crow), whose theme had a direct misogynistic expression, as he reiterated the traditional arraignments against female nature. Boccaccio is also known for his collection of novellas The Decameron (1351), another work of ambiguous anti-feminist trend.

In 1361 Boccaccio wrote another work entitled De Mulieribus Claris (Concerning Famous Women), a collection of biographies of historical and mythological women. His book was considered misogynistic, although purported to be a humanist treatise depicting 106 notable women.

Boccaccio’s outlook nevertheless was unfriendly to women, for it singled out for praise those women who possessed the traditional virtues of chastity, silence, and obedience. Women who were active in the public realm—for example, rulers and warriors—were depicted as usually being lascivious and as suffering terrible punishments for entering the masculine sphere. Women were his subject, but Boccaccio’s standard remained male[12].

 

III. Christine de Pizan sparked the first feminist debate in Europe: The Quarrel of the Rose

In medieval Europe, many questions concerning the status of women in society were debated by authors of both sexes who wrote a myriad of books and pamphlets. These works tackled woman question by itemizing the achievements of famous women, refuting charges against women, or arguing for equality in the education of both genders. The whole literary phenomenon has been called the Querelle des Femmes, a French phrase meaning the woman quarrel, or more formally Woman Question.

The opening volley of these battles was sparked by Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) in France at the outbreak of the 15th century. She was a Venetian-born woman author who served as a writer at the court of King Charles VI of France and several French dukes including Louis I of Orleans, Philip the Bold of Burgundy, and his son John the Fearless.

In the most audacious retaliation of Christine against the literary merits of Jean Clopinel de Meun’s anti-feminist Romance of the Rose, she exchanged letters, from July to October 1401, with two French humanists and royal secretaries, Jean de Montreuil and Gontier Col. Christine de Pizan’s feminist arguments were later supported by Jean Gerson, one of Europe’s leading theologians, when the debate became public.

The controversy began when the royal secretary Jean de Montreuil, also provost of Saint-Pierre de Lille, published a short treatise–which is now lost– praising the work of Jean de Meun, The Romance of the Rose. The feminist author reacted vigorously in an open letter sent to Jean de Montreuil in July 1401, published by C. Ward in ‘The Epistles on the Romance of the Rose’[13], wherein Christine assailed Jean de Montreuil’s commentary and rejected the misogynistic work which claimed that women were the epitome of evil and sin and reproached its author Jean de Meun for the indecency of his words, and the finale of his story which was both amoral and shocking. She argued also against what she considered to be misrepresentations of female virtue and vice and denounced calling the Romance of the Rose ‘an art of loving’, and that she would rather call it ‘the art of bad tricks to deceive women’. She warned from attacking ‘le chastel Jalousie’ (the castle of jealousy) for fear of delivering men to debauchery, as connoted in “epistle 4 written in old French.”[14]

The cleric Jean de Montreuil replied indirectly through two of his colleagues, the brothers Pierre and Gontier Col, who exchanged letters with both Christine and Jean Gerson, also chancellor of the University of Paris, who joined the debate supporting Christine’s views.

In February 1402, Christine sent the exchanged letters to the Queen of France, Isabeau of Bavaria, with a dedicatory letter to her, asking for the queen’s support in the debate against clerical anti-feminism (epistle 1)[15].

At the end of the debate, Christine published La Querelle du Roman de la Rose (Letters on the Debate of the Rose), which can be read in Ward’s collection of epistles mentioned above.

The Quarrel of the Rose is the name given by critics of our time to the collection of these epistles and other documents, including poetry.

 

IV. Other feminist ripostes against misogyny by Christine de Pizan

The feminist pioneer Christine argued against misogynistic views of her time and set into motion an argumentative rebuttal by writing many works using Le Fèvre’s pro-feminist Book of Gladness as a source. Her first feminist defense against Meun’s Romance was known two years before the Quarrel of the Rose when she composed in 1399 the Epistre au dieu d’Amours (Letter to Cupid, the God of Love), wherein she mocked the ingenuity of Meun’s misogynist work that gathered ‘much science and many clerics’ for merely deceiving ‘virgin girls’, stating that such a work is like assaulting a ‘low place with a big army’, as we can read in this excerpt which I have translated from lines 389-397 of the original text:

And Jean de Meun or The Romance of the Rose,

What a long trial! what a difficult thing!

And science and clerics and obscurity

He puts it there with big adventures!

So many people you whisper and dream

And sorrows and ruses you find

To disappoint a virgin, and nothing more!

And that’s the end of it, by fraud and by cautery!

For such a weak place is it necessary a big assault?

The original old French text is taken from the Librairie de Firmin Didot edition, Paris 1891:

Et Jehan de Meun ou Romant de la Rose,

Quel long procès ! quel difficile chose !

Et sciences et cleres et obscures

Y met il la et de grans aventures!

Et que de gent soupploiez et rovez

Et de peines et de baraz trouvez

Pour decepvoir sanz plus une pucelle,

S’en est la fin, par fraude et par cautelle!

A foible lieu faut il donc grant assault?[16]

After the Quarrel of the Rose, Christine continued her attacks against Meun’s slanderous views towards women by writing the Book of the Duke of True Lovers, and Le Dit de la Rose (The Tale of the Rose) in 1402. In the latter verse, she declaimed ‘all renowned and dear ladies, all honorable women, wise, courteous, and pleasant’, as we can read in the original old French text:

A toutes dames renommées

Et aux damoiselles amées,

A toutes femmes honnorables,

Saiges, courtoises, agréables.[17]

Her first most influential feminist work was the Book of the City of Ladies[18], which was written in 1405 in response to Boccaccio’s misogynistic book De Mulieribus Claris mentioned above, wherein he portrayed female virtue as exceptional, a reason for which she included in her book a second collection of famous women depicting female virtue as universal, even female leaders have been portrayed as chaste despite the licentious approaches of men recounted about them. She also mentioned women who were visionaries or brave martyrs.

Using likewise Le Fèvre’s Book of Gladness as a source, she battled the misogynistic tradition of both Matheolus and Meun. In the introduction of her book, she argued against Matheus’s Lamentations and questioned how “such a worthy artisan would have deigned to make such an abominable work?”[19]

She also connoted that she wrote her woman-defending work in response to his anti-feminist work The Lamentations, as we can read in this excerpt:

Just the sight of this book…. made me wonder how it happened that so many different men……are so inclined to express both in speaking and in their treatises and writings so many wicked insults about women and their behaviors[20].

In her feminist masterpiece, Christine de Pizan stipulated a vindication of the female sex and a vision of an ideal community of women, as we can read in this quote from Part I, chapter 9 of Pizan’s work:

The man or the woman in whom resides greater virtue is the higher; neither the loftiness nor the lowliness of a person lies in the body according to the sex, but in the perfection of conduct and virtues.[21]

Her second feminist masterpiece was The Treasure of the City of Ladies[22], also known as The Book of the Three Virtues, a sequel of the first book written in the same year and includes a classification of women’s roles in medieval society and a collection of moral instructions for women in the various social spheres, thus challenging traditional misogynistic prejudices and enhancing the importance of women in society, as we can read in this quote from the book:

She should avoid oppressing her men, since this is the surest way to incur their hatred. She can best cultivate their loyalty by speaking boldly and consistently to them, according to her council, not giving one reason today and another tomorrow. Speaking words of good courage to her men-at-arms as well as to her other retainers, she will urge them to loyalty and their best efforts.[23]

Christine’s last feminist work is her lyrical poem entitled Le Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc (The Tale of Joan of Arc), which was written in 1429, one year before her death. It is reputed to be the only French-language work written during Joan of Arc’s lifetime, wherein Christine eulogized the heroine an in a long epic of 51 stanzas. We can perceive Christine’s feminist visions when she boasted of the victory of Joan of Arc who achieved to her homeland ‘what men could not have done’, and considered that victory as an ‘honor for the female sex’, as we can read in my translation of stanza 34 of the heroic poem:

What honor for the female sex!

That God has special regard for it

When all these wretched people

By whom the whole Kingdom was destroyed

By a woman recovered and made safe

What men could not have done

And the traitors exterminated.

Before that they would not believe.

The original old French text of the poem is taken from Herluison’s edition printed in 1865:

Hée! Quel honneur au féminin

Sexe Que [Dieu] l’ayme, il appert.

Quant tout ce grant peuple chenin

Par qui tout le règne ert désert,

Par femme est sours et recouvert,

Ce que pas hommes fait n’eüssent,

Et les traittres mis à desert

A peine devant ne crussent.[24]

 

V. The early woman quarrels in England

The gender debate triggered by Christine de Pizan in the fifteenth century encouraged other European authors of both sexes to tackle woman question in Latin and in vernacular languages, and subsequently, other Querelles des Femmes resurfaced over the next three hundred years.

In this short paragraph, I will cite only the most noteworthy debates known in the English language during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Jane Anger was the first feminist author who penned a full-length defense of women’s rights in the English language at the closing of the 16th century, when women did not really write books, apart from religion. She wrote her pamphlet as a retort to the misogynistic views done by a male opponent; the work was entitled: “Her Protection for Women. To defend them against the scandalous reports of a late Surfeiting Lover, and all other like Venerians that complaine so to bee overcloyed with womens kindnesse.[25]

Her proto-feminist work was printed in 1589 by Richard Jones and Thomas Orwin in London.

In seventeenth-century England, many Querelles des femmes have been identified, the most significant of which was triggered by John Swetnam’s misogynist tract ‘The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women, which was published in 1615 provoking three women to respond to him: Rachel Speght, Ester Sowernam, and Constantia Munda.

Rachel Speght was the first to retort in 1617 when she wrote ‘A Mouzell for Melastomus followed in 1621 by another feminist tract entitled ‘Mortalities Memorandum, both published under her own real name.

Ester Sowernam, a pseudonym, is the second English woman to riposte in her pamphlet Ester Hath Hang’d Haman published also in 1617, refuting Swetnam’s misogyny, and arraigning the male sex.

Constantia Munda (Moral Constancy) gave the third retaliation through her feminist pamphlet The Worming of a mad Dog or a Sop for Cerebus the Jailor of Hell.

In the 1680s another Querelle des Femmes was elicited in England by Sarah Fyge Field Egerton (1670-1723) who wrote at the young age of 14 years a feminist polemic responding to another misogynistic tract of the time, Robert Gould’s A Late Satyr Against the Pride, Lust, and Inconstancy, etc. of Woman, published in 1682. She replied in1686 in a poem entitled “The Female Advocate, or an Answer to a Late Satyr Against the Pride, Lust, and Inconstancy, &c. of Woman”[26] positing that women were even superior to men.

Sarah Egerton composed other feminist poems, such as her 39-lines poem entitled Emulation composed in 1719, wherein her feminist voice was even more audacious than in The Female Advocate.

So, English women’s contribution to the woman question went from non-existent to vitriolic in less than two centuries after Christin de Pizan’s first feminist voice.

Conclusion

Christine de Pizan is considered the most notable woman writer of medieval Europe, as well as the forebear of feminism, as she was the first woman to fight against misogynistic visions of the patriarchal society of France in the 15th century, to argue against misrepresentations of female virtue, and publicly discuss gender equality and women’s rights.

In her historical Quarrel of the Rose, she did not hesitate to denounce the misogynist literature of her time and to reject clerical anti-feminism.

Her heroic responses emerging from social debates and the subsequent literature that she wrote to vindicate the female sex and defend woman question became the prototypes of a ponderous and long feminist literature in Europe for three centuries.

Christine de Pizan’s legacy offered a vivid account of the first major gender controversy in history that paved the way for the future Enlightenment of the 18th century and subsequent feminist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.

 

Nadine Saghir, Master 2 Etudes anglophones


Bibliography

  • ANGER, Jane, Her Protection for Women, to defend them against the Scandalous Report of a late Surfeiting Lover. Londres, printed by Richard Jones, and Thomas Orwin, 1589 (Gutenberg copy)
  • BARUCH, Elaine H., Women in Search of Utopia, in ROHRLICH, Ruby ; BARUCH Elaine H., eds., Schocken, 1984
  • EGERTON, Sarah Fyge. The Female advocate. London, John Taylor, 1686.
  • KING, Margaret L. ; RABIL, Albert Jr., “The old voice and the other voice”, in KING, Margaret L. ; RABIL, Albert Jr (eds.), The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe, Chicago series, 1996-2010.
  • LERNER, Ralph, Averroes on Plato’s Republic, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, Agora paperback editions, 2005 (originally published un 1974)
  • PISAN, Christine de, Collected works (The Book of the Queen), c 1410-1414; British Library, Harley MS 4431, f.259v
  • PISAN, Christine de,  Le Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc, éd. par Henri Herluison, 1865
  • PISAN, Christine de, Le Livre de la Cité des dames, Bibliothèque nationale de France [en ligne], 1405
  • PISAN, Christine de, Le trésor de la cité des dames, Bibliothèque nationale de France [en ligne], 1412
  • PISAN, Christine de, Oeuvres poetiques de Christine de Pizan, tome 2, Paris, Librairie de Firmin Didot et Co., 1891
  • PLATO, The Republic (Translated by Benjamin Jowett), third edition, Oxford, 1888
  • “Roman de la rose”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 31 Mar. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Roman-de-la-rose. Accessed 11 January 2022
  • WARD, Charles Frederick,  The Epistles on the Romance of the Rose and other documents in the debate, University of Chicago [en ligne], 1911

[1] Aristotle: (384–322 BC) was a Greek philosopher and polymath, who was taught by Plato.

[2] Humanism: is a system of education and mode of inquiry that originated in northern Italy during the 13th and 14th centuries and later spread through continental Europe and England. Source: Britannica

[3]  Plato: (428- 348 BCE) was a student of Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE), teacher of Aristotle, and founder of the Academy. Source: Britannica

[4] Baruch, Elaine Hoffman, Women in Search of Utopia, in Ruby Rohrlich and Elaine Hoffman Baruch, eds. Publisher: Schocken (1984); pp. 209 and 211.

[5] Plato, The Republic, Translated by Benjamin Jowett, third edition, Oxford 1888, pp. 143

[6] Ibn Rushd or Averroës (born 1126 in Cordova- died 1198 in Marrakesh) was a physician and philosopher who integrated Islamic traditions with ancient Greek thought. Source: Britannica

[7] Lerner, Ralph, Averroes on Plato’s Republic, Translated. Originally published in 1974. Agora paperback editions. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005; pp. 59

[8]  Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, “Roman de la rose”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 31 Mar. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Roman-de-la-rose. Accessed 11 January 2022.

[9] Matheolus (c.1250-1320): a French priest and poet.

[10] Matheolus, Le Livre de Matheolus. Translated by Jean Le Fèvre; edited by Alexandre Primet. [Lyons: Claude Dayne, c.1497-98].

[11] Giovanni Boccaccio: (1313-1375) Italian poet and scholar, best remembered as the author of the earthy tales in the Decameron. With Petrarch he laid the foundations for the Humanism of the Renaissance. Source: Britannica.

[12] King, Margaret L. and Rabil Albert Jr., The old voice and the other voice; Web

[13] Ward, C. F.,  The Epistles on the Romance of the Rose. The University of Chicago, 1911

[14] Ward, C. F.,  The Epistles on the Romance of the Rose; Epistre (Epistle) 4.

[15] Ward, C. F.,  The Epistles on the Romance of the Rose; Epistre (Epistle) 1.

[16] Pizan, Christine, Oeuvres poetiques de Christine de Pizan, Tome 2; Paris, 1891, pp. 13

[17] Pizan, Christine, Oeuvres poetiques de Christine de Pizan, Tome 2; Paris, 1891, pp. 29

[18] Pisan, Christine, Le Livre de la Cité des Dames, Bibliothèque nationale de France; manuscript, 1405

[19] Pizan, Christine, The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), . Excerpts from the text. Web

[20] Pizan, Christine, The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), . Excerpts from the text. Web

[21] Quotepark: Christine de Pizan; Web. The original old French text of the quotation from Pizan’s Le Livre de la Cité des Dames; Part I, ch. 9 is as follows: Cellui ou celle en qui plus a vertus est le plus hault, ne la haulteur ou abbaisement des gens ne gist mie es corps selon le sexe mais en la perfeccion des meurs et des vertus.

[22]  Pisan, Christine de, Le trésor de la cité des dames, ou Livre des trois vertus a l’enseignement des Dames, 1412. Bibliothèque nationale de Francel digital copy

[23] Bukrate quotes. Web: https://bukrate.com/quote/384540

[24] Pisan, Christine de, Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc, éd. par Henri Herluison, 1865, pp. 28.

[25] Anger, Jane. Her Protection for Women; London 1589.

[26] Egerton, Sarah Fyge Field, The Female Advocate


Texte édité par Khawla Kacem (M1 Etudes anglophones), membre du comité de lecture Investigatio


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