Shin-kickers from History: Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan (1364–1430) was one of the most important European writers of the late Middle Ages and the first woman known to make a living as a writer (1).

She was born in Venice. When her father was appointed royal astrologer to the French king Charles V, the family moved to Paris, where she received an education unusual for a woman (or for that matter a man) of her time. Her father insisted that she learn to read and write, as if she were a boy. Then she was given permission to use the royal library, which consisted of more than 900 books. By all accounts she made good use of her access to all those books.

She married when she was fifteen, to a man who seems to have been as supportive of her intellectual interests as her father. When she was 25, her father and husband died, leaving their financial affairs in disarray. De Pizan took up writing as a way to support herself and her three young children, making good use of both her education and her family’s widespread connections in the intellectual world of the time.

Her earliest works were poems of courtly love, the medieval equivalent of romance novels. As her popularity grew, she went on to write biographies of noble patrons. She ultimately used her fame to challenge traditional attitudes about the role of women in society. She is best known today for her pioneering books for and about women, such as The Book of the City of Ladies and The Book of the Three Virtues.

De Pizan argued in favor of educating girls. Among other things, she instructed noblewomen that they must learn military skills in order to defend their own property: “She ought to have the heart of a man, that is, she ought to know how to use weapons and be familiar with everything that pertains to them, so that she may be ready to command her men if the need arises. She should know how to launch an attack, or defend against one” It was good advice. Noblewomen and queens often found themselves leading the defense of a keep, castle, or manor (2)—even if they didn’t have “the heart of a man”.

She knew what she was talking about when it came to military theory. She wrote a textbook for noblemen on how to wage war., titled The Book of Deeds of Arms and Chivalry. It included a discussion of the morality of war as well as practical information on strategy, tactics, and technology, including one of the few medieval accounts of how to use artillery in war. She wrote it anonymously, assuming, no doubt correctly, that no one would take her military manual seriously if they knew a woman wrote it. (Some things don’t change.) By the mid-fifteenth century, the book was on the shelves of leading French military commanders. It remained a standard work through the end of the century—important enough that King Henry VII had it translated into English.

De Pizan retired to a convent in 1415. The last book she wrote was a praise poem inspired by the victories of Joan of Arc, who was alive and leading troops at the time. In what can only be described as an early Girl Power anthem, she declared “What an honor for the female sex…the whole Kingdom—now received and made safe by a woman.” She appears to have died before Joan of Arc was captured, tried and beheaded. We can only imagine what she would have had to say about that!

(1) With the usual caveat that we can’t really know because so many women’s stories have been erased from history. Not to mention that well-known author, anonymous.
(2)Occasionally, not-so-noble women also found themselves under siege. Margaret Paston (1423–1484), the wife of a wealthy landowner and merchant, defended besieged properties three times against noblemen’s attempts to seize them by force.


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