Visible Women

The true story of Christine de Pisan, the French writer who pushed for equality

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we take a look at the life of Christine de Pisan, the first woman to write professionally in France. 

Christine de Pisan was writing at the same time as Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer became known as the ‘father of English literature’ and there are probably thousands of A-Level students swotting up on him right now. Over in France, meanwhile, De Pisan was writing poetry and stories about interesting historical women (sounds familiar), but with less fanfare and acclaim, even though she was the first woman to write professionally in France.

Born in 1364 in Venice, Christine grew up in the studious atmosphere of Charles V’s French court: her father was his personal astrologer. She married young but was widowed in her early 20s; she became a writer to support her three children. De Pisan started off with a few ballads about her dearly departed husband, which were well received in court, then began to experiment with other forms of verse including lais (lyrical narrative poems), rondeaux (short poems with a repeated refrain) and complaints (tragic poems). She wrote 10 volumes of verse, as well as some prose. They were successful and by 1400, she’d picked up some royal patrons. She self-deprecatingly claimed this was because “poetry written by a woman was such a novelty”. In 1402, she released her first collection, One Hundred Ballads, and went on to have an extensive literary career. In 1415 she retired to a convent.

Why was she a trailblazer? 

De Pisan was one of the first French writers to set things down from a woman’s point of view – moreover, she is considered to be one of the first writers ever to push for women’s equality in print. 1399’s Epistle To The God Of Love was a clever response to the ‘big’ poems of the Middle Ages, the Roman de la Rose, which were all about the wooing of a woman from a man’s point of view. De Pisan was not impressed and published a takedown of its irritating misogyny. She continued with her brand of Middle Ages feminism with texts about women’s rights, education, and oppression: The Book Of The City Of Ladies dealt with the under-representation of women in literature, and The Book Of The Three Virtues expounded her advanced ideas on how women should behave in society, setting forward her vision for a more equal world.

What influence has she left behind today?

In the 20th century, writer Simone de Beauvoir assured Christine’s place in the annals of feminist history when in her book, The Second Sex, she declared de Pisan’s Epistle as “the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defence of her sex”. As France’s first female writer, she has influenced all others who have gone after her.

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Illustration: Bijou Karman bijoukarman.com