Christine based her defense of the dignity of women on both Scriptures and the example of virtuous women in church history. She even took a Latin proverb that men used to slander women (“God made women to weep, talk and spin”) to show how Christ had compassion on the tears of many women.
Christine de Pizan was the first professional woman writer in France, if not Europe. She is normally seen as an early feminist rather than as a theologian and a mother. But many of her writings are based on her study of Scriptures and the church fathers, and her questions about the role of women were triggered by her struggles as a single mother in a dangerous and cruel world.
Christine’s Early Life
Christine’s life started out joyful. Her father, Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano, was an esteemed physician and astrologer at the University of Bologna. Her mother was the daughter of a counselor of the Republic of Venice, where Tommaso transferred in 1357, and where Christine was born about eight years later.
Soon after Christine’s birth, Tommaso moved to Paris, France, on invitation by King Charles V, who appreciated his skills as both physician and politician. Tommaso’s family joined him later. Taking advantage of the cultural opportunities and the impressive library they found there, Tommaso took care of giving Christine a thorough education.
At 15 years of age, Christine married Etienne Castel, the royal secretary, a man she described as handsome, “kind and fair.” Their union brought her much happiness, and produced three children: two boys and one girl.
Things began to change in 1380, when King Charles died, leaving the throne to his underage son. Because of this, the court was troubled by contests for power. Tommaso kept his position, but his salary decreased. His health also began to fail, until he died, sometimes before 1389, leaving his family in debt.
But the greatest turnabout of Christine’s life was the sudden death of her husband in 1390, due to the plague. He was 34, and Christine 25.
A Single Mother in a Cruel World
Overnight, she became a single mother, responsible for the care of her children, her aging mother and a niece. Since, in those days, most husbands didn’t share economic matters with their wives, she was unprepared for her new task and ignorant of the household’s financial situation. This led creditors to demand more than it was due, and debtors to ignore their obligations. When an investor she had trusted with some of her funds pretended he was robbed and disappeared, the courts turned a deaf ear. In fact, she lost additional money on lawsuits that she invariably lost.
But widowhood gave Christine more time to study, something she had always loved to do, and she decided to put her talents to work. She had already written some poems on a large variety of subjects, including fond memories of her husband. Now she worked at refining them.
She soon found sponsors for her writings, and was able to turn it into a profession – something unusual for a woman of her day. In fact, she openly attributed her success to the fact her female voice was seen as an oddity. By the time she wrote her autobiography, she had written 15 major volumes and some minor works. Her writings included politics (as well as military tactics and diplomacy) and explored ways in which Christian men and women could best contribute to common welfare.
Seeing God in Adversities
But writing is rarely a solid means of support, and her popularity didn’t mark the end of her financial troubles. In her autobiography, she employs a common writing technique of her times to describe how she came to accept her trials as wise acts of her omniscient God.
As the philosopher Boethius did in the early 6th century, she imagined the intervention of personified Philosophy, who rebuked her for attributing the painful events in her life to Fortune : “Because with respect to the death of the king and others, it is God who had ordained that they take place at that time as being to their benefit, as He does with all things. And if it had been better to leave them alive, He would have done so. And although God’s judgments may seem astounding to you, it is not up to you to boldly dispute them. Being omniscient, He knows exactly what He is doing.”
Philosophy encouraged Christine to think of those who suffered or had suffered much more than she did, to the point of losing every earthly good, including health and limbs. “What shall we say about them and others who experience various tribulations in many forms? That they are unhappy, unfortunate, and hated by God? No, on the contrary! … Instead, they are the most blessed, since they come closest to the life of Jesus Christ in this world in every tribulation for your example.”