the loneliness of Christine de Pizan in narrow-mindedness

While not an institutional leader nor as learned as the great medieval woman authors Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, Hildegard of Bingen, and Heloise of the Paraclete, Christine de Pizan is probably now the most well-known medieval woman author. Christine is celebrated today for her gynocentric The Book of the City of Ladies {Le Livre de la Cité des Dames}, which built upon Giovanni Boccaccio’s About Famous Women {De mulieribus claris}. Christine also wrote a large body of lyrical poetry. Her lyrical poetry poignantly depicts a woman’s loneliness. Scholars in their narrow-mindedness have failed to consider adequately why Christine might have felt lonely.

Medieval women sang of languishing in love for a beloved man. They sang of grieving for a beloved man departing at dawn from their bed. Christine de Pizan wrote a poem in that tradition:

This month of May all is joy,
except for me, who am full of woe,
for I don’t have my long-held boy
and I weep with a voice that’s low.
I had a love that made me glow,
but now he’s staying far from me.
Alas! Come back, come soon, ami!

In this month when all turns green,
let us go sporting in the park
or hear the nightingale who preens
or listen to the warbling lark.
You know where. So please do hark
to a voice that whispers lovingly,
Alas! Come back, come soon, ami!

Yes, in this month Love’s little boy
goes forth to prey, and he commands
every lover to find some joy,
every lady with her man.
None should be left to go single-hand,
night or day, it seems to me.
Alas! Come back, come soon, ami!

This heart of mine for your love grieves.
Alas! Come back, come soon, ami!

{ Ce moys de may, tout se resjoye,
Ce me semble, fors moy, lassette,
Qui n’ay pas cil qu’avoir souloie,
Dont je souspire a voix bassette:
C’estoit ma belle amour doulcette
Qui ores est si loings de my.
Hé las! reviens tost, mon amy.

En ce doulz mois ou tout verdoye,
Si yrons jouer sus l’erbette
Ou orrons chanter, a grant joye,
Rossignolz et mainte allouette,
Tu scez bien ou. A voix simplette,
Encor te pry, disant: ay my!
Hé las! reviens tost, mon amy.

Car en ce mois ou Amours proye
Prent souvent, m’est vis que c’est debte
A tout amant qu’il se resjoye
Avec sa dame et s’amiette.
Ne la doit pas laissier seulette,
Ce me semble, jour ne demy.
Hé las! reviens tost, mon amy.

Pour t’amour, mon cuer fent par my;
Hé las! reviens tost, mon amy. }[1]

This poem offers no insight into the man’s concerns and feelings. Why would a man not return to a woman who loves him?

loving man presenting a complaint to a woman

In medieval Galician-Portuguese “songs about a beloved man {cantigas d’amigo},” women describe their difficulties in love with men. One woman was unwilling to take the lead in asking her boyfriend for sex:

My boyfriend can’t have any favors
from me, friend, you see why not.
He doesn’t tell me, so help me God,
and I don’t tell him, this is what happens.
He, out of fear, doesn’t dare mention it,
and I, friend, can’t be the one to ask.

And it’s already been a long time, in good faith,
that he could have had my favors,
yet he never dared to say it to me,
and I’ll tell you how the matter stands.
He, out of fear, doesn’t dare mention it,
and I, friend, can’t be the one to ask.

And for a long time I’ve understood —
because they told me — but he was afraid
to upset me, and by Our Lord,
I would like to, and we stay like this.
He, out of fear, doesn’t dare mention it,
and I, friend, can’t be the one to ask.

And it would make sense for this relation to climax,
but there’s nobody willing to take the lead.

{ O meu amigo non pod’ aver ben
de mi, amiga, vedes por que non:
el non mho diz, assi Deus mi perdon,
nen lho dig’ eu, e assi nos aven:
el con pavor non mho ousa ’mentar;
eu, amiga, non o posso rogar

E gran sazon á ja, per bõa fe,
que ele meu ben podera aver
e ja mais nunca mho ousou dizer
e o preito direi vos eu com’ é:
el con pavor non mho ousa ’mentar;
eu, amiga, non o posso rogar

E gran temp’ á que lho eu entendi,
ca mho disseron, mais ouv’ i pavor
de mi pesar e, par Nostro Senhor,
prouguera m’ end’ e estamos assi:
el con pavor non mho ousa ’mentar;
eu, amiga, non o posso rogar

E o preito guisad’ en se chegar
era, mais non á quen o começar }[2]

Like many women, this woman narrow-mindedly interprets sex as a “favor” that a woman does for a man. But a man having sex with a woman is similarly a “favor” to her, particularly in circumstances where men have no reproductive rights. If women valued men’s sexuality equally to their own, they would be more willing to take the lead in soliciting sex with men. Women should appreciate more men’s seminal blessing!

Christine de Pizan seems to have led her husband Etienne du Castel in their marital sexual relationship. She wrote a poem in praise of marriage and in praise of him:

A sweet thing is marriage.
I can well prove it by my own experience.
It is true for one who has a good and wise husband
like the one God helped me to find.
Praised be He who wanted to save him for me,
for I can strongly vouch
for his great goodness,
and surely the gentle man loves me well.

On our wedding night
I was immediately able to recognize
his great worth, for he never did anything
to offend me or cause me pain.
But before the time had come to arise,
he had kissed me a hundred times, I vow,
without ever demanding any other base conduct.
And surely the gentle man loves me well.

And he said, with such sweet words:
“God guided me to you,
sweet beloved, and I believe
He had me nurtured for your use.”
Thus, he went on dreaming
without otherwise losing control.
And surely the gentle man loves me well.

{ Doulce chose est que mariage,
Je le puis bien par moy prouver,
Voire a qui mary bon et sage
A, comme Dieu m’a fait trouver.
Louez en soit il qui sauver
Le me vueille, car son grant bien
De fait je puis bien esprouver,
Et certes le doulz m’aime bien.

La premiere nuit du mariage
Très lors poz je bien esprouver
Son grant bien, car oncques oultrage
Ne me fist, dont me deust grever,
Mais, ains qu’il fust temps de lever,
Cent fois baisa, si com je tien,
Sanz villennie autre rouver,
Et certes le doulz m’aime bien.

Et disoit, par si doulz langage;
“Dieux m’a fait a vous arriver,
Doulce amie, et pour vostre usage
Je croy qu’il me fist eslever.”
Ainsi ne fina de resver
Toute nuit en si fait maintien
Sanz autrement soy desriver,
Et certes le doulz m’aime bien. }[3]

Many men would be offended by a wedding night limited to kissing. So too would many women. Medieval authorities didn’t regard sex within marriage to be “base conduct {villennie}.” Christine’s husband seems to have been subservient to her. He told her that God had created him “for your use {pour vostre usage}.”

Women who insist on having power and control over beloved men are more likely to lose them. If a woman shows contempt for a beloved man, he might get angry at her. If a woman refuses to acknowledge a man’s justified anger with her and refuses to go to him to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, she’s not likely to see him again. A woman in a medieval Galician-Portuguese song apparently lost her boyfriend through attempting to dominate him emotionally:

My boyfriend got angry with me
and doesn’t want to talk with me any more.
If he thinks that I would go to him —
if I find out that he thinks so —
I’ll make sure that love keeps him
in such sorrow that he comes to me.

And once my boyfriend finds out
that I’ll do this, he won’t wait
for me to go to him, but will come right away
to me, and if he does anything else,
I’ll make sure that love keeps him
in such sorrow that he comes to me.

My boyfriend will never have the power
to get angry in any way with me —
more than I might want him to be —
and if he acts in any other way,
I’ll make sure that love keeps him
in such sorrow that he comes to me.

{ O meu amigo, que xi m’ assanhou
e que non quer ja comigo falar,
se cuidou el que o foss’ eu rogar,
se lh’ eu souber que o assi cuidou,
farei que en tal coita o tenha
por mi amor que rogar me venha

E, pois que o meu amigo souber
que lh’ esto farei, non atenderá
que o eu rogue, mais logo verrá
el rogar a mi e, se end’ al fezer,
farei que en tal coita o tenha
por mi amor que rogar me venha

Nen averá meu amigo poder
de nulha sanha filhar contra mi
mais que eu non quiser que seja assi,
ca, se doutra guisa quiser fazer,
farei que en tal coita o tenha
por mi amor que rogar me venha }[4]

A woman who insists on controlling her boyfriend’s anger and sorrow doesn’t truly love him. If her boyfriend has any respect for his own humanity, he will leave her and never return.

Some women in their narrow-mindedness don’t recognize hypocrisy in concern for gender equality. For example, some women pathologize angry men, yet sacralize their own anger:

I’m going to give you very good advice,
oh my boyfriend, so may I have pleasure.
If you see that I’m going to get angry,
do not hold my anger in disdain,
because otherwise I know well what will happen —
if I get angry, someone will be whining.

If I get angry, don’t do anything else
but put up with my anger in your heart,
because I can do you favors or harm.
It’s only right that you put up with it,
because otherwise I know well what will happen —
if I get angry, someone will be whining.

And since I have such great power over you,
and will have too, as long as I’m alive,
you can never have any happiness
if you cannot put up with my anger,
because otherwise I know well what will happen —
if I get angry, someone will be whining.

{ Quero vos ora mui ben conselhar,
ai meu amig’, assi me venha ben,
se virdes que me vos quer’ assanhar,
mha sanha non tenhades en desden,
ca se non for, mui ben sei que será:
se m’ assanhar, alguen se quexará

Se m’ assanhar, non façades i al,
e sofrede a sanha no coraçon;
pois vos eu posso fazer ben e mal,
de a sofrerdes faredes razon,
ca se non for, mui ben sei que será:
se m’ assanhar, alguen se quexará

E, pois eu ei en vós tan gran poder
e averei en quant’ eu viva for,
ja non podedes per ren ben aver
se non fordes de sanha sofredor,
ca <se non for, mui ben sei que será:
se m’ assanhar, alguen se quexará }[5]

A man shouldn’t hold his girlfriend’s anger in disdain. If he acted wrongly toward her, he should seek forgiveness from her. If she’s angry at others or at the world, he should attempt to comfort and console her. He shouldn’t whine in response to her anger. Moreover, if she uses her anger to exercise power over him and to make him whine submissively to her, he should leave her and never return.

Just as for most men throughout history, no words of Etienne du Castel have survived. He is remembered only as Christine’s husband. Typically he’s characterized by the work he did to earn money to support Christine and their three children. Christine regarded Etienne as a good husband. He died from the plague ten years after he married Christine.[6]

Christine de Pizan apparently felt lonely after her husband died. She never remarried. Deprived of a husband providing her with money, she wrote for money:

Alone am I and alone I want to be,
alone as my sweet love left me,
alone am I, no friend nor master near me,
alone am I, grieving and yet angry,
alone am I, and so in languor suffer,
alone am I, living without a lover.

Alone am I at every door and window,
alone am I concealed in some corner,
alone am I to feed on tears of sorrow,
alone am I, grieving perhaps or calmer,
alone am I, nothing can please me better,
alone am I, enclosed within my chamber,
alone am I, living without a lover.

Alone am I, everywhere, in every way.
alone am I, whether walking or seated,
alone am I, more than any other this day,
alone am I, from whom all folk retreated,
alone am I, brought low now and defeated,
alone am I, bathed in tears forever,
Alone am I, living without a lover.

{ Seulete suy et seulete vueil estre,
Seulete m’a mon doulz ami laissiée,
Seulete suy, sanz compaignon ne maistre,
Seulete suy, dolente et courrouciée,
Seulete suy en languour mesaisiée,
Seulete suy plus que nulle esgarée,
Seulete suy sanz ami demourée.

Seulete suy a huis ou a fenestre,
Seulete suy en un anglet muciée,
Seulete suy pour moy de plours repaistre,
Seulete suy, dolente ou apaisiée,
Seulete suy, riens n’est qui tant me siée,
Seulete suy en ma chambre enserrée,
Seulete suy sanz ami demourée.

Seulete suy partout et en tout estre.
Seulete suy, ou je voise ou je siée,
Seulete suy plus qu’autre riens terrestre,
Seulete suy de chascun delaissiée,
Seulete suy durement abaissiée,
Seulete suy souvent toute esplourée,
Seulete suy sanz ami demourée. }[7]

Christine sought sympathy from rich and influential potential patrons:

Princes, sad now is my every morrow,
alone am I menaced by every sorrow,
alone am I, than any dark dye bluer,
alone am I, living without a lover.

{ Princes, or est ma doulour commenciée:
Seulete suy de tout dueil menaciée,
Seulete suy plus tainte que morée,
Seulete suy sanz ami demourée. }

Christine’s lyric poetry isn’t meant to be overheard in the way of early Romantic poetry. In contrast to prevalent narrow-mindedness in reading Christine de Pizan’s work, one should ponder the authenticity of her loneliness, why she might have felt lonely, and what action she could have taken to be less alone.

* * * * *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Christine de Pizan, The Hundred Ballades of a Loving Man and a Lady {Les Cent Balades d’Amant et de Dame}, Ballade 79, Middle French text from Cerquiglini-Toulet (1982), English translation (modified slightly) from Wilhelm (1990) p. 181. Christine apparently wrote these poems from 1407 to 1410. They have survived in only one manuscript: the Book of the Queen, London, British Library, Harley MS 4431. In accordance with dominant gynocentric ideology, Pious (2018) translated Les Cent Balades d’Amant et de Dame as 100 Ballades of a Lady and a Lover.

Les Cent Balades d’Amant et de Dame should be distinguished from an earlier ballade collection that Christine wrote, probably from 1399 to 1402. That earlier collection is known simply as The Hundred Ballades {Les Cent Balades}. Kline (2020) provides a complete English translation of the 1399-1402 ballade collection, while Pious (2018) provides a complete English translation of the 1407-1410 collection, along with the Middle French text of Cerquiglini-Toulet (1982). For earlier Middle French text of both collections, Roy (1886-96), vol. 1, pp. xxvi-xxx, 1-100 et 297-300 (first 100 ballades), vol. 3, pp. 209-308 (second 100 ballades). Part 1 of Tarnowski (2018) provides a helpful review of editions, translations, and study resources for Christine’s works.

In writing her Les Cent Balades and the subsequent collection, Christine drew upon the form that five men poets had earlier established. In 1398, Jean le Senseschal, Philippe d’Artois, De Boucicaut le Jeune, and Jean de Crésecque collaborated to compose The Book of a Hundred Ballades {Le Livre des Cent Ballades}. Unlike Christine’s lone-author books, the men’s book was a collaborative effort and open to further contributions. Pious (2018) pp. 24-5. Many men enjoy relationships with others as well as relational efforts that have continuing potential for further fruit. The men’s book has attracted much less attention than Christine’s book.

[2] Johan Airas (João Airas de Santiago) 7, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “My boyfriend can’t have any favors {O meu amigo non pod’ aver ben}” (V 600), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs.

[3] Christine de Pizan, More Ballades {Autres Balades} 26, Middle French text from Roy (1886-96), vol. 1, p. 237, English translation from Willard (1993) p. 51.

[4] Johan Airas (João Airas de Santiago) 10, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “My boyfriend got angry with me {O meu amigo, que xi m’ assanhou}” (B 1014, V 604), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs.

Within its immense store of wisdom, medieval Latin poetry counseled against enduring anger between lovers:

May thus your anger, you who love, be rare and brief.
Frequent anger is madness, and long-lasting anger a crime.
Through such is dissolved harmony of behavior that joins minds
and grace that binds life-companions with a double cord.

{ Ira igitur tua, quisquis amas, sit rara brevisque:
Ira frequens furor est et diuturna scelus;
Solvitur hac animos socians concordia morum
Et duplici sodos grada fune ligans. }

“To one who each day reproaches and each day implores {Cuidam cotidie obiurganti, cotidie supplicanti},” vv. 17-20 (of 20), Latin text from Dronke (1965) vol. 2, p. 448, English translation (modified) from id. p. 449. This poem survives in Roma, Vatican MS Reg. lat. 585, folio 4v (written in the twelfth century) and Escorial, MS. O. III. 2, folio 98r-v (written in the fourteenth century).

[5] Johan Vaasquiz de Talaveira (João Vasques de Talaveira) 8, song about a beloved man {cantiga de amigo}, “I’m going to give you very good advice {Quero vos ora mui ben conselhar}” (B 795, V 379), Galician-Portuguese text (editorial marks eliminated) from Cohen (2003), English translation (modified slightly) from Cohen (2010). Here’s this song at Universo Cantigas and at Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs.

[6] In 1379 at age fifteen, Christine de Pizan married Etienne du Castel. He was nine years older than she. As a university-educated man with connections to the royal court, he had good material prospects. Christine’s father proposed the marriage. Under medieval marital law, freely given consent of both women and man was necessary for the couple to marry. Christine readily consented to marry Etienne. In 1380, Etienne was appointed a notary and a royal secretary. For biographical information about Christine and Etienne, see Christine’s The Vision of Christine {L’Avision de Christine}, translated in Willard (1993) pp. 8-10, and Willard’s biographical summary, id. pp. x-xi.

[7] Christine de Pizan, The Hundred Ballades {Les Cent Balades}, Ballade 11, vv. 1-21, Middle French text from Roy (1886-96) vol. 1, p. 12, English translation (modified slightly) from Kline (2020). The subsequent quote above is similarly from vv. 22-5 (of 25).

[images] (1) The lover presents his complaint to his lady at the start of Christine de Pizan’s Another Complaint of a Loving Man {Une Autre Complainte Amoureuse}. Excerpt from folio 56v of the Book of the Queen, London, British Library, Harley MS 4431. This lavish manuscript of Christine de Pizan’s works was created from 1410 to 1414. Christian presented it Isabel (Isabeau) of Bavaria, Queen Consort of Charles VI of France. (2) VocaMe performing Christine de Pizan’s ballade “Alone am I and alone I want to be {Seulete suy et seulete vueil estre}” from their 2015 album, Christine De Pizan – Chansons et Ballades. Via YouTube. Here’s a recording of French actress Renée Faure reading this poem.

References:

Cerquiglini-Toulet, Jacqueline, ed. 1982. Christine de Pisan. Cent Ballades d’Amant et de Dame. Paris: Union Générale d’Éditions.

Cohen, Rip. 2003. 500 Cantigas d’Amigo. Porto: Campo das Letras.

Cohen, Rip. 2010. The Cantigas d’Amigo: An English Translation. Online. Quotes are based on the 2016 edition.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Vol. 1Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kline, A. S., trans. 2020. Christine de Pisan. The Hundred Ballads (Les Cent Ballades). Poetry in Translation. Online.

Pious, Samantha Spotswood Weil. 2018. The Cent Ballades D’amant Et De Dame Of Christine De Pizan: A Critical Introduction And Literary Translation. Ph.D. Thesis. Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations. 2768.

Roy, Maurice, ed. 1886-96. Œuvres poétiques de Christine de Pisan. Paris: Firmin Didot pour la Société des anciens textes français. Vol. 1. Vol. 2. Vol. 3.

Tarnowski, Andrea, ed. 2018. Approaches to Teaching the Works of Christine de Pizan. New York, NY: The Modern Language Association of America. Part 1.

Wilhelm, James J., ed. 1990. Lyrics of the Middle Ages: An Anthology. New York: Garland Publishing.

Willard, Charity Cannon, ed. 1993. The Writings of Christine de Pizan. New York: Persea Books.

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