Christine to her son

Poissy: where Pizan may have lived during her last years

I have no great fortune, my son,

To make you rich. In place of one,
here are the lessons I have learned--
the finest things I've ever earned.

Before the world has borne you far,

try to know people as they are.
Knowing that will help you take
the path that keeps you from mistake.

Pity anyone who is poor

and stands in rags outside your door.
Help them when you hear them cry!
Remember that you too will die.

Love those who have love for you,

and keep your enemy in view:
of allies none can have too many;
small enemies there are not any.

Never lose what the Good Lord gave

to this, our world, too much enslaved.
The foolish rush to end their lives;
only the steadfast soul survives.

Christine de Pizan; translation by Frank Beck

Many years ago, I was asked to find some poems in Middle French and translate them for use by American middle school students studying the Renaissance. I expected to find courtly language and an abstract piety. As I began to read this poem, I was astonished at its simplicity and emotional directness.

I discovered that Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) was Europe's first female writer to have her work widely read. It's often said that Pizan became a writer because her husband died, leaving her as the sole support for their two children, her mother and her niece. But many Renaissance women lost their partners without becoming writers.

Pisan in her study (1411-12)
Pizan was very fortunate in having a father--Tommaso di Benevenuto da Pizzano (near Bologna)--who gave her an education as good as any boy's in her day. When Christine was four, Tommaso became court astrologer to King Charles V of France, and the family moved to Paris, already a center for learning. Tommaso arranged for his daughter to study classical languages, history, literature and religion, and she did so with dedication until she was wed at the age of 15.

When her husband died 11 years later, Christine began writing ballads about lost love to ease her grief. But eventually she used her verbal skills to present a broad feminist critique of Renaissance society in works such as The Book of the City of Ladies. She argued that women should be more respected and better educated and should have a role outside the home. C.C. Willard has chronicled Pizan's life and work in her 1984 biography, published by Persea Books.

If Pisan could see the role women have in today's society, I think she would be deeply gratified at what they have achieved, but also saddened that it has taken so long.


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