This beautifully decorated manuscript, known as ‘The Book of the Queen’, contains the work of one of the most compelling figures in late-medieval European literature, Christine de Pizan (c. 1364–c. 1430).
Who was Christine de Pizan?
Christine was the first female writer to earn a living from her work. She was born in Venice in around 1364 and moved to France as a child after her father got a job as the physician and royal astrologer to the king of France, Charles V. At the age of 15 she married Etienne de Castel. They were married for ten years and had three children together before Etienne died in an epidemic while on a royal mission with King Charles VI of France. At the age of 25, Christine was left with three young children to support. It was then that she turned to writing. Over the next 30 years, she became a prolific writer, producing 41 works in Middle French.
The City of Ladies
One of the texts in this manuscript is The Book of the City of Ladies (Le Livre de la Cité des dames). Christine was disheartened by what she saw as the misogyny of much court literature, especially the famous French dream vision The Romance of the Rose. She decided to write a work which would treat women in a more positive light. In The City of Ladies, Christine imagines falling asleep and being visited by three personified virtues – Reason, Rectitude and Justice – who arrive and tell her that she has been chosen by God to set the record straight about women. They direct her to build a metaphorical city which will house a group of worthy heroines and protect women against attack.
Aside from this, the manuscript also contains several other texts, including the The Epistle of Othea (L'Épître Othéa).
A book for a Queen
This manuscript was made in c. 1410–14 for the French queen, Isabeau of Bavaria (1371–1435) – on f. 3r (digitised image 2), Christine is shown presenting her work to Isabeau. The manuscript was probably given to the queen as a new year’s gift in 1414, and it appears to have been made under Christine's direction. The manuscript gives us a precious connection to Christine because not only does it contain an image of her, alone in her study, pondering the ill-treatment of women in literature (f. 4r – digitised image 3), but also because the manuscript may contain some of Christine’s own handwriting. It is also beautifully decorated and illustrated with many images, including one you can see here (f. 103v – digitised image 7), showing Penthesilea, the queen of the legendary Amazons riding through the forest to aid the Trojan army.
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.
- Article by:
- Mary Wellesley
- Gender and sexuality
Drawing on examples from Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich and Christine de Pizan, Mary Wellesley considers the experiences of women as writers and producers of texts in the medieval period, and reflects on the survival of their works.
- Article by:
- Mary Wellesley
- Myths, monsters and the imagination, Faith and religion, Form and genre
Used by diverse writers throughout the Middle Ages, the dream vision as a form was as popular in the late medieval period as the novel is today. From courtly comedy to social critique, via feminist polemic, Mary Wellesley explores some of the most captivating works of the medieval period.