Inventing the Woman Question, and Giving Women a History of Their Own (not in the 19th century, but the 15th )

By Dr Anne Lawrence

If you think that the ‘Woman Question’ was a Victorian invention you are technically correct, but the ‘Women Debate’ was launched in fifteenth-century Paris by a celebrated scholar, author and historian – who was also a woman. Christine de Pisan was born in Italy in c1365 and emigrated to France when her father was appointed court astrologer and alchemist to Charles V. She studied her father’s books, was given access to the royal library, and became a formidable polymath as well as a happy wife and mother. This ideal existence was marred by two things: the first was the unhappiness caused by the rampant misogyny in much of what she read; the second was the early death of her husband, which left Christine a widow at the age of about 24. Convinced that a second marriage could only be less happy, Christine embarked on a career as a writer to keep herself and her family.

This was unusual enough, in an age when women were not considered ‘safe’ unless married or in a convent, and when their views were regarded as ill-informed if not (like Eve’s) downright dangerous. What is still more remarkable is that Christine not only took on this established misogyny but also built a successful career and gained widespread patronage and support. Her patrons included Charles VI of France, Queen Isabeau of France, the Earl of Salisbury and King Henry IV of England. Christine is an ideal heroine for Women’s History Month, since she wrote the first history of women based on scholarly research and explicitly intended to challenge dominant views about women.

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The manuscript known as the Book of Queen, which is now in the British Library, contains many of Christine’s most famous works, together with images of the author, her patrons, and highlights from her works. The opening image, shown above, is relatively unchallenging in showing the author exclusively in the company of women. Later, however, we see Christine and her powerful male patrons (in this case Charles VI):

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Here Christine is humble, as would be expected of a subject before a king; but the book also conveys the belief that a woman could be a scholar, a moralist and a teacher – and could even dare to teach men! This unusual view is conveyed by the image which illustrates Christine’s collection of moral teachings:

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Christine’s anger at how women were discussed and treated is clear in several of her works, and would be striking enough on its own. What makes her still more impressive is her determination to do something about this. It was her Book of the City of Ladies (1405) which combined polemic against misogyny with a gallery of women from the biblical, classical and more recent pasts, explicitly designed to show that women were as clever, as inventive, as rational, as practical, as loyal and as good (meant in every possible way) as men.

Amongst the controversial – and still topical – subjects tackled here is the issue of rape. Christine first ridicules the belief that a beautiful woman will obviously be sexually voracious. She presents a catalogue of figures from history to prove her point, and concludes: ‘I do not think that in any previous time there were so many men prepared to slander women for no reason as there are today.’ Inspired to go further, she says: ‘I am troubled and grieved when men argue that many women want to be raped, or are not bothered by being raped, even after they have protested.’ The conclusion is that this also is absolutely untrue, and that ‘rape is the greatest possible sorrow for women’. A series of examples from classical history proves this, and the courage with which women have fought against rapists. It is perhaps not surprising that one aim of this text is to give women a citadel and place of safety – inside the covers of the book, if not yet in the outside world. One of its opening images is of the construction of this fortress, with Christine consulting with her heroines and wielding a trowel :

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Another central argument is that women should be educated. Christine reflects that ‘Men maintain that women’s minds can retain only a little learning’. The answer here is that ‘if it were customary to send daughters to school like sons, and if the girls were then taught the same subjects as the boys, they would learn as well and understand as clearly as boys’. The point that ‘men would never admit this, since they always say that men know more than women’ receives the answer that this is only the case because ‘women are kept at home, running the household’ and are ‘prevented from having the range of experience and exercise enjoyed by men’.

For Christine, women’s potential was enormous. In other works she celebrated the achievements of her contemporary heroine, Joan of Arc, as well as arguing that women could be scientists and could understand the whole structure of the universe. Triumphantly, she concluded her philosophical arguments about women by envisaging the Virgin as Queen, not only of Heaven, but also of the City of Ladies.

(All images are from BL Ms Harley 4431, and are without known copyright restrictions)

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