Carol Dawkins, English Major at Winthrop University
ENGL 510 Christine de Pisan in Art and Literature
Professor: Dr. Laura Rinaldi Dufresne.
“ There’s just as many different kinds of feminism as there are women in the world.” Kathleen Hanna
Christine de Pisan’s final Chapter: The Song of Joan of Arc
Mark Twain once said, “It is no wonder that the truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” In many ways, the life of Joan of Arc seems fictional at best, outright propaganda at worst. If one were to look to only historical accounts, perhaps few would believe she was anything but a mythical creation used to espouse and pass down the values of the day, as myths are designed to do. Christine de Pisan, however, with her poem, “The Song of Joan of Arc,” made it impossible for anyone to doubt either the existence or the heroism of this virgin warrior. Christine writes in her poem, “The Song of Joan of Arc:
But I wish to tell you how
God through his grace brought this about,
Let God grant me the gift right now
To tell it, and leave nothing out.
One by One, in order queued,
These deeds may live in memory,
For they are worth to include
In chronicles and history!
Deborah Fraioli explains the importance of getting a true picture of historical events by using not only military records and political accounts of wars and treaties, but also by using literature written by authors who lived and wrote during the historical event. “Far from obscuring the historical reality of Joan of Arc, literature reveals more of that reality than can be determined from the facts alone. In certain cases literature seems even to shape the historical reality” (811). The reality is that Joan of Arc not only saved France from the English, but she was also the epitome of Christine’s argument that not all women were “vile” creatures, as male authors had written. Christine argued that the majority of women loved God and were righteous, as well as courageous.
Christine de Pisan, considered the first Feminist of recorded time, wrote during the 15th century, when both France and women were under siege. Although women were not physically at war with men as France was with the English, Christine lived during a time of heightened misogyny. No doubt, this hatred of women was widespread and unchallenged in literature because there were few published women writers. While some nuns wrote and were published, Pisan was the “…first to earn her living exclusively from her pen” (City of Ladies xvii). Both the words and the artist renditions of scenes depicted in medieval literary works showed women in a subordinate role. The picture to the left illustrates a male writer who is being given inspiration by Lady Truth. At first glance, this picture appears to discredit the idea that women were not respected. The man is in a contemplative pose and Lady Truth is providing wisdom. Writers like Christine, however, found many problems with not only the picture, but also with what men said about women. To begin with, in this picture, Lady Truth is an idealized woman, and her words are coming from the mind of a man – a man who uses the literary opportunity to belittle women and to make sexually charged comments about them.
Christine, writing in many genres, from poetry to treatises, biographies, to instructional books, won her place in history by using her pen and parchment to take male authors to task on their errant views of women. In fact, in the picture to the right, the artist portrays Christine as the lecturer. She is dispensing wisdom and rather than being in a contemplative stance, she looks as one in authority. One could easily imagine her correcting these men for the misogynistic views they have spread in their books about women. Alcuin Blamires, ed., in Women Defamed and Women Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts explains that, “She was the first woman in the Middle Ages to confront head-on the tradition of literary misogyny or anti-feminism that pervaded her culture” (Blamiers). While militant feminists today might laugh at the idea of a woman who wrote books on how to be a good princess, maiden, or wife being labeled a feminist, when one considers the time in which Pisan was writing, there is little doubt that she earned her title and even paved the way for feminists today.
It is doubtful that Pisan set out to earn the title of a Feminist, and it is certain that Joan of Arc never intended to validate Christine’s argument; however, both women paved the way for a new deference for women. Rather than earn any title, what Pisan aimed to do was to confront and refute the misogynistic statements that prevailed in the male-dominated literary world. Although Christine creates a Utopian society for women, she does not deny that like some men, some women are “vile.” In fact, in her book The Treasure of the City of Ladies, she addresses prostitutes. She tells them to “Consider the great filth of your way of life, so abominable that besides your being the object of God’s wrath, the world also disdains you” (158). She goes on to question how these women can bring themselves so low. Instead of ignoring the fact that some women are vile, she provides advice on how those women can become respected members of society and then she says, “By means of this course of action she would be able both to serve God and earn her living, so one penny earned in this way would do her more good than a hundred received in sin” (160). It was Christine’s belief that vile women could not be useful for society, but virtuous women could change the world. While misogyny did not stop once Pisan’s books were distributed, she was still successful in her attempts to improve the views on women because her books were distributed throughout Europe by such royalty as Anne of Brittany, who educated young girls in her court with The Treasure of the City of Ladies as well as Anne of France who was the regent when her brother was too young to rule. (Lecture Notes Dufresne 07/28/15).
Although her books and earlier poems garner much attention, it is Pisan’s last known literary work that provides the best example for what women can and do accomplish. After being silent for nearly ten years, in 1429 Christine wrote “The Song of Joan of Arc.” Christine’s tone is happy and somewhat prophetic as she sings the praises of this maiden warrior. Her inspiration had to come not only from the fact that her beloved France was free, but also from the fact that Joan of Arc was proving with her sword what Christine had used her pen to prove for many years. Nadia Margolis, in her article, “Christine de Pizan: The Poetress as Historian” agrees: “Joan of Arc was the epitome of Christine’s active virtue” (374).
The first way Joan of Arc becomes this epitome is in her love of and devotion to God. In Christine’s book, The Treasure of the City of Ladies, she instructs women to love and fear “…Our Lord, for this is the cardinal principle of wisdom, from which all the other virtues spring” (5). Joan of Arc exemplified this principle. Not only was she dedicated to God, but she also chose an active rather than contemplative way of serving God. Christine says that those following the active life, “…render service to everyone for the love of God” (Treasure 15). From childhood until death, Joan of Arc followed this active life model. Albert Bigelow Paine, author of The Girl in the White Armor, paints the picture of a young girl who, much like the Virgin Mary, was called by God and accepted this call without regard for her personal comfort or safety. She knew God would care for all of her needs and she loved him too much to ignore his voice. Paine says that when speaking to the saints, or voices, Joan of Arc heard in the woods she “…pledged her maidenhood ‘for so long that is pleased God.'” Paine goes on to describe Joan of Arc as a “hardy country girl, of great endurance; capable, and with plenty of temper and determination…but being also deeply devout, she was moved to accept whatever came as by divine command” (17). Christine praises Joan of Arc in her poem for her love and devotion to God in Stanza XXXII:
But by my faith, her holy life,
Shows well that she is in God’s grace,
So that I more believe in her.
Whatever enemy she may face,
She always keeps God in her mind,
She calls upon him, him she serves
With all her heart in word and deed,
Her love for Him never ebbs or swerves.
It is important to remember that Christine wrote this poem during the time Joan of Arc was alive. She would have known of and seen the works and life of Joan of Arc first-hand. Other writers employ the knowledge they have gleaned from historical accounts, biographies written centuries later, and military records, but Christine’s poem was written from her heart after having witnessed the battles and acts of heroism herself. Christine’s poem shows that with love and devotion to God, Joan of Arc not only freed France, but also brought a deference for her gender. Christine shows that because of her love for God, she was chosen to do what no other man could do, for if men could have defeated the English, they would have had no need for this maiden warrior.
Joan of Arc was the living example of how women can and do love God, and she is also the representation of righteousness that Christine writes about in Part II of The Book of the City of Ladies. The image below, “Joan of Arc Delivering New Orleans” shows the righteousness of this maiden warrior. The artist shows Joan of Arc in battle armor, but with only her banner as a weapon. The artist seems to be saying that with God on her side, Joan of Arc needed nothing but righteous to win. In Part II, Rectitude helps Christine build the walls of the city with ladies who were “extraordinarily knowledgeable,” had the “spirit of prophecy,” were, “chosen by God,” were “wise and virtuous” and those”who have brought good into the world” (Part II). Joan of Arc encompassed all of these attributes.
War seems to be an unrighteous act by Christine’s standards because she advocated for peaceful options. She encouraged those women who read her book to do whatever they could to promote peace. She wrote, “Ladies in particular ought to attend to this business, for men are by nature more courageous and more hot-headed, and the great desire they have to avenge themselves prevents their considering either the perils or the evils that can result from war”( 23). This quote from Christine shows how much she values peace. In fact, Susan J. Dudash exposes why Christine may have written so much about a woman’s responsibility to keep peace. In the article, “Christine de Pizan and the Menu People” Dudash reveals, “One of Christine de Pizan’s most enduring visions was of a France governed harmoniously to the benefit of the French peuple” (DuDash 789). However, because of Christine’s desire for peace, as well as her understanding of human nature, it is not surprising that obedience to the call of war is seen by her as an act of righteousness.
There is no evidence to say that Joan of Arc craved war, instead she was simply answering her righteous call of God. The image to the left shows a triumphant Joan of Arc as she took Oreans. She is in the midst of two warring sides with only her battle armor on as she carries her banner. Catherine Delors, historical novelist, writes of this image in her blog, “Versailles and More.” She says, “Lenepveu shows us Jehanne before the walls of Orléans, where she forces the English troops to lift the siege of the city. Here I am reminded of her statement at trial, when asked which she liked better, her banner or her sword: ‘Better, forty times better, my banner than my sword!'” The people of France needed a savior and while Christine addresses a woman’s responsibility for peace, she also spends a lot of time in her books showing women examples of female warriors. Like Christine, if given the option, Joan of Arc would have chosen peace, but a peaceful end was not an option by the time she answered the call to war. Even so, Joan of Arc was not like many warriors who simply grew stronger with each drop of spilled blood. Albert Bigelow Paine says, “Exalted by her victories, the Maid was not without moments of deep sorrow, for she loathed the shedding of blood” (114). Like the righteous women in Christine’s writings, Joan of Arc understood her calling and accepted the fact that blood must be shed if France was to be free.
With righteousness on her side, Joan of Arc was destined to be courageous. Women of courage were a concept Christine had covered in Part I of The Book of the City of Ladies. In this book Christine goes so far as to say there are so many examples of female warriors that it would be “tedious to tell you all their names” (38). She does, however, speak of one Amazon queen whom she describes as “brave as she was wise.” This queen, Thamiris, defeated the king of Persia – a feat no man or army had been able to do. Thamiris, however, upon learning that this king was after her land, used her brains rather than her brawn and simply outwitted the king. She let him believe he was coming into her land without opposition, only to find once he in the middle of her land in unfriendly terrain without a way out, women warriors were waiting for him. They pulverized the men with rocks that ultimately crushed his army (38). Neither the queen’s behavior, nor that of the ladies was typical or expected; however, it was necessary, just like that of Joan of Arc.
The Amazonian warriors in the City of Ladies as well as the martyrs found throughout the book almost foreshadow a heroine that would come to save France. When this heroine arrived in the form of Joan of Arc, Christine was once again inspired to write. In Stanza IV, she writes:
Thus my song has turned away,
from deepest sorry into glee,
Since the time I had to stay
Shut in; And what I longed to see,
The glorious season they call Spring,
then everything appears like new,
Has come, thank God, and now will bring,
A shift from brown to green in hue
Not only does Christine rejoice because her beloved France was saved, but also because it was saved by a chaste, virtuous, courageous maiden. She rejoices when she writes, in Stanza XI:
It clearly a miracle
It is well worth remembering,
That the Almighty through a Maid–
This story is true! —
His grace did bring
and His great grace on France was laid.
The truth is certainly stranger than fiction in many cases. Today, with the technological advances, strong governments, and weapons of mass destruction available, it is difficult to imagine a young girl of sixteen garnering the support of an army that had failed at nearly every turn. To believe that this young maiden could ignite a new fire of courage and optimism for the French army that had been so defeated seems almost absurd by today’s standards. It must have also been hard for Christine, during her early years of writing, to envision women of her time leading the French army. In fact, that task, likely never crossed her mind, but both things happened – literature and historical accounts attest to this fact. Stanza XXXV of Christine’s poem shows that she understands how unbelievable the feats of Joan or Arc were: “A girl of only sixteen years, Does this not outdo Nature’s skill?” Joan of Arc conquering the English at New Orleans, Paris, and numerous other towns did not end the Hundred Years War, nor did it rid the world of future conflict. Her devotion to God and her acts of righteousness and courage, however, did prove what Christine de Pisan had written about for much of her life. Just like men, there are women who are heroes and worthy of honor and respect. Women can and should be judged by their own merits and not by what men say about them.
Blamires, Alcuid, et. al ed. (1992). Women Defamed and Women Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Christine De Pisan Lecturing Man. 1411. British Library. Web.
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Dudash, Susan. Christine de Pizan and the “Menu Peuple” Speculum, 78(3), 788-831.
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nRisPag=48&prmset=on&ANDOR=and&xesearch=jeanne&ricerca_s=jeanne&SC_PROV=RR&SC_Lang=ita&Sort=9&luce=. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Aug. 2015.
Margolis, Nadia. “Christine De Pizan: The Poetress as Historian.” Journal of the History of Ideas47.3 (1986): 361-75. Print.
Paine, Albert Bigelow, and Joe Isom. The Girl in White Armor: The Story of Joan of Arc. [New York: Macmillan, 1967. Print.