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Christine de Pizan’s appropriation of the courtly tradition


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Études éditées par




Perspectives de femmes? Narrations genrées vues par-delà les époques et les frontières linguistiques. . . 1 Vera NÜNNING

Gender, authority and female experience in novels from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century: a narratological perspective 19 Carin FRANZÉN

Christine de Pizan’s appropriation of the courtly tradition . . . 43


Le double discours de la dédicace aux dames dans les recueils de nouvelles des XVe-XVIe siècles. . . 61

Henriette PARTZSCH

Manipulating genre and gender: the novella in early modern Spain 77 Isabel MORUJÃO

Présentation et représentations de la femme-auteur dans les para-textes des œuvres narratives féminines portugaises à l’âge moderne 95 Geneviève PATARD

La «défense des dames» dans les Mémoires de Madame de Murat (1668?-1716) . . . 117


Une liaison dangereuse au Siècle des Lumières: le roman épisto-laire du point de vue des études de genre. . . 131 Marianne CHARRIER-VOZEL

Du larmoyant à la comédie: à propos du roman sentimental et de la femme auteur au XVIIIe siècle . . . 149



Eighteenth-century British women writers and the Arabian Nights’

Entertainments: Transmigration of a genre, creation of new

lite-rary paths . . . 167 Valérie COSSY

Ces héroïnes qui ne lisent plus de romans: le topos de la lectrice romanesque et la légitimité de la romancière au tournant du XIXe siècle . . . 185


Une cellule à soi. Dulce dueño (1911) d’Emilia Pardo Bazán et le «lieu» de la femme auteur . . . 199


The cry of a virgin: gender and self-representation in Lady Elea-nor Davies’ prophetic texts . . . 215 Véronique CHURCH-DUPLESSIS

Entre fiction et non-fiction: le roman anthropologique pour une autre condition féminine . . . 227 Elisa MÜLLER-ADAMS

Gender and the city: urban narratives by German women travel-ling to London (19th century) . . . 245

Ursula JUNG

On the relationship between non-fiction and short stories in Emilia Pardo Bazán’s œuvre . . . 263


Le roman à l’épreuve des femmes: quelques réflexions sur la différence des sexes et la poétique du roman en Allemagne 1830-1848 . . . 285 Katja MIHURKO PONIZ

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Considerations of gender and genre: the reception of Margit Kaffka . . . 321





Linköping University

In the closing chapter of the Livre de la Cité des Dames from 1405 Christine de Pizan addresses a female public and declares that the city has been constructed for “les passees dames, comme les presentes et celles a avenir”1. As a concluding vision to her allegory it has a rather

worldly purpose warning women from engaging in the domain of pas-sionate love:

O! mes dames, fuyez, fuyez la fole amour dont ilz vous admonnestent! Fuyez la pour Dieu, fuyez, car nul bien ne vous en peut venir, ains soiés certaines que quoyque les aluchemens en soient decevables que tousjours en est la fin a voz prejudices […].2

This attitude constitutes a principle in pre and early modern discourses of love, which will reverberate until the 17th century, and not at least so in

women’s writings3. The criticism of passionate love is certainly an

impor-tant concern in Christianity, which is one of Christine’s main references, but it is also sensed in the courtly tradition. In her debate poem Le Livre

du Debat de deux amans, written five years earlier than the Cité des Dames, she lets a knight, a “courtois chevalier aimable”, articulate his

experience of love with the same words she uses in her allegory: “Quieulx que soient d’amours les commençailles / Tous jours y a piteuses deffi-nailles. / Fuyez, fuyez, jeunes gens!”4. In the poem the knight’s speech is

however scrutinized by a Lady who puts in doubt its seriousness: “Et quant a moy, tiens que ce n’est que usage / D’ainsi parler d’amours par

1 Christine de Pizan: Livre de la Cité des Dames – La Città delle Dame, ed. by Earl

Jeffrey Richards and Patrizia Caraffi, Rome: Carocci 2004, p. 496. I refer in my following quotations to this edition.

2 Id., p. 502.

3 Passionate love is still called “folle amour” in Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron

(1559), and in Mme de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves (1678) the heroine’s refutation of the lover’s invitation is the main motif.

4 Altmann, Barbara K. (ed.): The Love Debate Poems of Christine de Pizan, Florida:



rigolage”, and she sustains her view referring to the critical assessment of courtly love in “le Rommant de la Rose”, the authoritative text on the topic during the later Middle Ages5. It is well known that Christine refutes

the misogynistic aspects of this work, but here she makes a strategic use of its criticism of “amours fines”, which in Jean de Meun’s understanding is equivalent with passionate love6. Considering that fin’amor, as courtly

love was called in Occitan by the troubadours in the 12th century, more

justly could be understood as the opposite to passionate love, which is obvious in the first part of the text where Guillaume de Lorris resumes its rules, and that de Meun actually promotes sexual consummation at the end of his part, the Lady’s words in the love debate poem seem to be a gene-ralized argument against passionate love from a woman’s point of view. Simply put, because of men’s falseness, “les losangeurs decevables”7 as

Christine puts it in the Cité des Dames, women risk to lose their idealized position, “voz honneurs et la beauté de vostre loz”8, if they acquiesce to

passion. Barbara Altmann summarizes the meaning of the Lady’s inter-vention in the love debate poem as follows: “The crucial distinction, then, is between real life and a parlor game”9.

However, this distinction is not so easy to draw, especially when we are obliged to resort to medieval discourses of love, or we consider the possibility that these discourses has an effect on real life. As Slavoj Zizek suggests referring to the idealization of the Lady in courtly love, the “very semblance of man serving his Lady provides women with the fantasy-substance of their identity whose effects are real”10. To be sure,

this “semblance” also hides the other side of idealization, which is debasement, and women are subjected to both configurations in medieval society. The division of love and its object is in fact fundamental in the courtly as well as in the Christian tradition where Eve stands for man’s

5 Le roman de la rose was written in two parts, the first by Guillaume de Lorris around

1236, the second by Jean de Meun 1270-1280. The misogynistic aspect of the second part of the book gave rise to an epistolary debate between Christine and defenders of de Meun, who criticizes courtliness and promotes a more materialistic view on love, which I will come back to. See Strubel, Armand (ed.): Le roman de la rose, Paris: Le livre de Poche 1992.

6 Strubel: Le roman de la rose, p. 273.

7 Christine: Livre de la Cité des Dames, p. 498-502. 8 Id., p. 502.


Altmann: Introduction, in: id.: The Love Debate Poems of Christine de Pizan, p. 31.

10 Zizek, Slavoj: The Metastases of Enjoyment. Six Essays on Woman and Causality,


CHRISTINE DE PIZAN’S APPROPRIATION OF THE COURTLY TRADITION 45 perdition and Mary bears the promise of his salvation11. Howard Bloch

even claims, in his study on medieval misogyny, that courtliness is “yet another ruse of sexual usurpation thoroughly analogous to that developed in the early centuries of our era by the fathers of the church”12. When the

object of desire changes into a subject in female writers’ texts one can note that the configuration of divided love is maintained (because it is hegemonic), but used in a different manner, which I would like to under-stand in the perspective Foucault makes possible when he defines his-torical events in terms of a “reversal of a relationship of forces, the usurpation of power, the appropriation of a vocabulary turned against those who had once used it”13. In Christine’s writing, which undoubtedly

can be considered a historical event, we find an appropriation of the dominant discourse of love in the later Middle Ages, which is neither a passive reception nor a refutation. As has been noted many times, an innovative reworking of established models, and especially that of the courtly tradition characterize her technique. According to Altman she did both “engage and dismiss the topic of courtly love”14. Christine’s

rewrit-ing of the courtly tradition has been thoroughly assessed in relation to her lyric love poetry15. Her so-called erudite work has often been seen as

a “terrain for the investigation of premodern feminism” to use Altman’s 11 Sigmund Freud notes that the division of love in the two directions of idealization

and debasement, often referred to as “heavenly” and “earthly” love, is an “extremely common characteristic of the love of civilized men”. He suggests that it is due to a psychic incapacity in men to unite sensual passion with psychical valuation of the object. Consid-ering the extent of this division in cultural history this “incapacity” also seems imposed by discourse. Freud, Sigmund: On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love, in: Strachey, James (ed.): Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works

of Sigmund Freud, London: Hogarth 1957, vol. 11, p. 179-190.

12 Bloch, Howard: Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love,

Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1991, p. 196.

13 Foucault, Michel: Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, in: Language, Countermemory,

Practice. Selected essays and interviews, trans. by Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon,

New York: Cornell University Press 1977, p. 154.

14 Altman: Introduction, p. 5.

15 See Willard, Charity Cannon: Christine de Pizan’s Cent Ballades d’Amant et de

Dame: Criticism of Courtly love, in: Burgess, Glyn S. (ed.): Court and Poet. Selected Proceedings of the Third Congress of the International Courtly Literature Society,

Liver-pool: Francis Cairns 1981, p. 357-364; Smith, Sidney E.: The Opposing Voice: Christine

de Pisan’s Criticism of Courtly Love, Stanford: Stanford University Press 1990. Jeffrey

Richards refers to the Cité des Dames in his article “Poems of Water without Salt and Ballades without Feeling, or Reintroducing History into Text: Prose and Verse in the Works of Christine de Pizan”, in: Richards, Earl Jeffrey (ed.): Christine de Pizan and

Medieval French Lyric, Gainesville: University Press of Florida 1998, p. 206-229. His

assessment of Christine’s criticism of courtly love seems however primarily to take into consideration her references to courtliness as lyrical composition, and formal aesthetics.



words again16. It is however difficult to draw a sharp line between

Christine’s different kinds of works, considering that the didactic, moral concern is a general feature in her writing. In the following I wish more precisely to assess the strategies Christine develops to gender the division in the two directions of idealization and debasement of love and its object, the woman, by some examples taken from the Cité des Dames.


To speak allegorically means to speak otherwise, to say other things, than what is meant. This definition of the concept of allegory is taken in a literal sense in the strategies Christine is using when she criticizes the misogyny of her time. Her writing exemplifies the subversive potentiality of the allegorical genre during a historical period – the later Middle Ages – when freedom of expression was rather restricted, and especially so for a woman writer. In fact, Christine is the first professional woman writer in France, and her case is unique in many aspects. Originally from Italy she came to France as a child when her father, Tommaso da Pizzano, was offered a position as astrologer at the court of Charles V around 1360. She began her own writing after her husband’s death, becoming respon-sible for the support of her children and her mother. According to her own words in the allegory Le livre de l’advision Cristine, written some months after the Cité des Dames, she started to write her first poems “regrettant mon ami mort et le bon temps passé”17. The economical urge

was probably an equally strong motivation. In any case Christine began her professional career as a courtly poet, but she soon turned towards prose and allegorical writing with a more obvious political dimension18.

Even though Christine never questions the hierarchal ground of medieval society as such her assessment of the misogyny of this order is of a new and radical kind19.

16 Altman: Introduction, p. 4.

17 Christine de Pizan: Le livre de l’advision Cristine, ed. by Christine Reno and

Liliane Dulac, Paris: Honoré Champion 2001, p. 107.

18 Willard derives this shift to Christine’s participation in the debate over Jean de

Meun’s part in Le roman de la rose, in: Willard, Charity Cannon: Christine de Pizan. Her

Life and Works, New York: Persea Books 1984, p. 73. See also Altmann: Introduction,

p. 4.

19 See among others, Richards, Jeffrey: Christine, Courtly Diction, and Italian

Human-ism, in: id. et al. (ed.): Reinterpreting Christine de Pizan, London: The University of Georgia Press 1992, p. 263-264.


CHRISTINE DE PIZAN’S APPROPRIATION OF THE COURTLY TRADITION 47 Christine is conscious of the force of literary figuration20. In the Cité

des Dames she counteracts the negative aspects of misogyny by

produc-ing a subject position for women within a male dominatproduc-ing discourse that she appropriates for her own purposes, and I wish to focus on how she both uses and dismantles its divided figure of love and women. Let us start from the beginning with Christine’s direct confrontation with debasement.

In the opening scene of the allegory the narrator sits in her study cab-inet and decides to lay aside the scientific books she is reading and divert her self with some poetry. She finds a book by Matheolus said to talk “a la reverence des femmes”21. Reading it she discovers however a

paradig-matic example of misogyny revealing to her that none of the other books she was studying previously contradicts its defamatory language. And she begins to wonder

[…] qu’elle peut ester la cause ne dont ce peut venir tant de divers hommes, clercs et autres, ont esté et sont si enclins a dire de bouche et en leurs traictiez et escrips tant de deableries et de vituperes de femmes et de leurs condicions, et non mie seulement un ou ·ij·, ne cestui Matheolus, qui entre les livres n’a aucune reputacion et qui traicte en maniere de trufferie, mais generaument auques en tous traic-tiez, philosophes, poetes, tous orateurs desquielx les noms dire seroit longue chose, semble que tous parlent par une mesme bouche et tous accordent une semblable conclusion, determinant les meurs femenins enclins et plains de tous les vices.22

This opening scene in Christine’s allegory illustrates the female subject’s meeting with the objectification of her identity – the misogynistic repre-sentations of women in medieval canon – that will be refuted by the construction of a city of Ladies. Following the genre convention she passes through the topic of the dream, which she significantly changes into a state of “letargie”23 caused by the reading. In fact, the image she

depicts of her distress prefigures the famous engraving by Albrecht Dürer some hundred years later: “En celle dolente pensee ainsi que je estoie,

20 It has been claimed that Christine’s case in the debate over Le roman de la rose

“was based largely on the belief that the author was consciously seeking to produce a book that would corrupt its readers”. Brown-Grant, Rosalind: Christine de Pizan and Medieval Literary Theory, in: Hicks, Eric (ed.): Au champ des escriptures. IIIe Colloque

interna-tional sur Christine de Pizan, Paris: Honoré Champion 2002, p. 587-588. See also

Wil-lard: Christine de Pizan, p. 81.


Pizan: Livre de la Cité des Dames, p. 40.

22 Id., p. 42. 23 Id., p. 44.



la teste baissee comme personne honteuse, les yeulx plains de larmes, tenant ma mains soubz ma joe accoudee sus le pommel de ma chayere […]”24. At this moment of distress the allegory begins by the sudden

entrance of three crowned Ladies, Raison, Droiture, and Justice, who wake Christine up from her passive state, giving her the mission to construct a city of Ladies, where “les dames et toutes vaillans femmes puissant dorenavant avoir aucun retrait et closture de defence contre tant de divers assaillans”25. This mission is also formulated, by the voice of

Raison, as a reading instruction, i.e. a specific allegorical strategy:

Et des poetes dont tu parles, ne scez tu pas bien que ilz ont parlé en plusieurs choses en maniere de fable et se veulent aucunefois entendre au contraire de ce que leurs diz demonstrent? Et les peut on prendre par une figure de grammaire qui se nomme antifrasis qui s’entent, si comme tu scez, si comme on diroit tel est mauvais, c’est a dire que il est bon, aussi a l’opposite.26

This advice is a clear invitation not only to use the allegorical mode of speaking otherwise, but also to appropriate the medieval literary tradition against those who used it to defame women, or as Joël Blanchard puts it, “Christine plays the game with perfect bad faith because the authors who speak against women are at the same time the very ones who will inspire her”27. This rhetorical technique is innovative and astonishing in that

Christine without hesitation assumes the authoritative right to critique and retell cultural tradition. By this revision she also creates a place where female experience can be rearticulated and represented on other conditions than those prescribed by men. The effort this costs her can however also be felt at the beginning of the book.

Christine’s self-presentation in the opening scene is one of ambiguity. She depicts herself as a learned woman but at the same time she feels despair because her knowledge comes from books where women are 24 Id., p. 46. The motif of the cheek in the hand signifying sorrow and pain is of course

more ancient than Dürer’s engraving, and Christine demonstrates here, as elsewhere, her acquaintance with cultural tradition. Richards: Christine, Courtly Diction, and Italian

Humanism, p. 260, thinks that this scene “seems modelled directly on the opening of

Petrarch’s Secretum”, and that “the psychological situation of both autobiographical pro-tagonists is remarkably similar; both are in a state of spiritual despair”. The cause of their spiritual crisis are however rather opposite. Petrarch suffers from self-provoked “sins”, such as his love for Laura, and his literary ambition, Christine from misogynistic projec-tions.

25 Christine: Livre de la Cité des Dames, p. 54. 26 Id., p. 48 [original emphasis].

27 Blanchard, Joël: Compilation and Legitimation, in: Richards et al.: Reinterpreting


CHRISTINE DE PIZAN’S APPROPRIATION OF THE COURTLY TRADITION 49 presented as the incarnation of “tous les vices”. For a moment Christine doubts that she knows better than the books she is reading, and believes that their authors tell the truth. This doubt is nevertheless also the driving force of her writing. She must only find what she lost in reading, namely her judgement. Hence, Raison asks Christine where her good judgement has gone: “Comment, belle fille, qu’est ton sens devenu?”28. By this

initial scene Christine points to the negative effects of literary configura-tion representing her narrator’s power to think and judge (her “sens”) as blocked by misogynistic projections, but she also shows that it can be liberated by an opposing reading (“antifrasis”) leading to the construc-tion of, as Michèle le Dœuff puts it, “un imaginaire, la cité peuplée de femmes respectables qui sont autant d’appuis psychologiques pour toutes, une poétique qui est en même temps une éthique et un monde de résistance”29. The awakening is the beginning of the allegorical setting

where men’s representations of women will be turned against them. A fundamental issue in Christine’s dispute with the dominant repre-sentations of women in medieval canon, in particular in the Roman de la

rose, which brings together the medieval opinions on women, regards

ethics. Although Christine is a humanist she cannot accept de Meun’s depiction of physical desire, least of all the allegorical description of the sexual act at the end of the book when the young man finally takes his rose by force, because she is concerned with the connection between (defamatory) language and its effects on the public. Christine’s objection to de Meun’s part regards precisely, as Willard puts forward, his refuta-tion of the “ideals of chivalry, courtesy, and asceticism expressed in the part of the poem written by Guillaume de Lorris”30. This has been called

a prude or moralistic position, first by de Meun’s defenders, Jean de Montreuil, Pierre and Gontier Col, but it still seems to be a problem for a modern reader taking the liberty to speak at face value31. Christine’s

critique makes however explicit the relation between literary configura-tion and power in medieval society. Hicks’s formulaconfigura-tion on this issue is instructive, “la décence demeure la clé de voûte de l’intégration sociale

28 Christine: Livre de la Cité des Dames, p. 48.

29 Le Dœuff, Michèle: Le sexe du savoir, Paris: Flammarion 2000, p. 227. 30 Willard: Christine de Pizan, p. 77.

31 See Brown-Grant: Christine de Pizan and Medieval Literary Theory, p. 583, and

Hicks, Eric: Situation du débat sur le Roman de la Rose, in: Dulac, Liliane/ Ribémont, Bernard (ed.): Une femme de Lettres au Moyen Age. Etudes autour de Christine de Pizan, Orléans: Paradigme 1995, p. 63.



des femmes”32. It has been claimed that Christine’s criticism of courtly

love above all regards the influence on the court of what could be taken as an invitation to free or extramarital love, and the moral, or political implications of such behaviour33. The consequences of sexual relations

outside marriage is in the discursive context of courtly love however not only an institutional problem. It concerns women’s subject position and it has a real impact on their social reality.

In fact, the Roman de la rose incorporates a radical change from courtly love and its idealization of the Lady to an openly misogynistic attitude towards women. This can in part be attributed to the socio-historical change from feudalism to growing bourgeoisie. It is significant that de Meun was, as Willard points out, “a member of the rising middle class”34.

On a symbolic and psychological level de Meun’s refutation of courtly ideals could also be regarded as seizure of the inaccessible Lady. His part of the text implies, to quote Julia Kristeva, “le mouvement qui le [de Meun] mène hors de l’espace amoureux courtois, dans le temps d’une aventureuse et agressive prise de l’objet. ‘Fin amor’ est morte, vive la procréation seule digne d’intérêt, et éventuellement, le plaisir qui n’en est que la ruse”35. From this perspective Christine’s position regarding the

Roman de la rose is not a simple refutation of courtly love, rather the

contrary. In the Cité des Dames she refers to the effects of its decrease during the later Middle Ages deploring the abandonment by “les nobles homes qui par ordenance de droit deffendre les deussent”36. Even though

Christine criticizes the destructive impact of passion, she uses the essential thread in courtly love, which is the idealization of the object of desire, for her own purposes37. When she, in the voice of Droiture, warns women

from getting into the domain of passionate love: “celle mer tres perilleuse

32 Hicks: Situation du débat, p. 62.

33 Willard: Christine de Pizan, p. 81; Brown-Grant: Christine de Pizan and Medieval

Literary Theory, p. 595.

34 Willard: Christine de Pizan, p. 76.

35 Kristeva, Julia: Histoire d’amour, Paris: Denoël 1983, p. 363. 36 Christine: Livre de la Cité des Dames, p. 54.


In his introduction to Christine de Pizan and Medieval French Lyric, Jeffrey Richards claims “that Christine’s poetry hardly served courtly ideals but instead called them profoundly into question, in part because Christine probably viewed courtly ideals as outmoded from a humanist perspective” (id.: Christine de Pizan and Medieval French

Lyric, Gainesville/ Florida: University Press of Florida 1998, p. 17). Considering that both

Dante and Petrarch build their idealization of love and women (i.e. Beatrice and Laura) on the courtly love code, we are dealing with a question of transmission rather than with a rupture with something “outmoded”.


CHRISTINE DE PIZAN’S APPROPRIATION OF THE COURTLY TRADITION 51 et dampnable de fole amour”38, this is hence not a simple criticism of

courtly love.

Courtly love is above all a literary and moral code, which can be used in different ways. It can be interpreted as an invitation to extramarital passion, probably as a consequence of a system of arranged marriages, but it is also a code of “raffinement psychologique”, which transforms a relation where women are inferior into a game where she is superior39. It

seems rather obvious that this kind of reversal of power relations needs a cultural context where women have other values than as wives and daughters. In this perspective the centrality of the Virgin Mary in Christine’s discourse is as important as the central place the courtly tradi-tion attributes to the Lady, “place éminente à la dignité de la femme”, to use Charles Camproux’s words40. It can indeed be argued that this high

evaluation of women in the courtly tradition is but a projection of male fantasy, or that it only serves the moral developement of man41. It is

nevertheless evident that women, as Christine when she rewrites the courtly tradition, can appropriate this value.

More than changing the courtly love code as such, Christine is using it to dismantle misogynistic representations in order to defend a subject position for women in a culture where they more or less lack this status in a social sense. Let us now look more closely to some of her strategies in doing this.


The architectural metaphor of the Cité des Dames is constructed in the form of examples of highly idealized women, most of them taken from Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris (1374). Christine nevertheless changes these examples at her own discretion presenting all women in a

38 Christine: Livre de la Cité des Dames, p. 404.

39 Spitzer, Leo: L’Amour lointain de Jaufré Rudel et le sens de la poésie des

trouba-dours, in: University of North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literature 5, 1944, p. 33.

40 Camproux, Charles: Le Joy d’Amour des Troubadours, Montpellier: Causse &

Castelnau 1965, p. 110.

41 Ferrante, Joan M.: Woman as Image in Medieval Literature from the Twelfth

Century to Dante, New York: Columbia University Press 1975, p. 35-36. See also her

article “Male Fantasy and Female Reality in Courtly Literature”, in: Women’s Studies 11, 1984, p. 67-97. Kristeva talks about the troubadours’ Lady as a “destinataire imaginaire, prétexte de l’incantation”, p. 354.



favourable manner. They constitute, as Le Dœuff points out, an imagi-nary and comforting place with the purpose to protect women from misogynistic attacks of different kinds. At the same time it is a strikingly violent place. That a war is going on is not only indicated by Christine’s use of military terms, the foundation stones of the city wall are all warrior queens, Semiramis, the Amazons, and other women, known for their capacities on the battlefield.

This insistence on female warriors seems at first contradictory consid-ering Christine’s argument against the traditional view that women are week in every sense of the term: “que femmes ont le corps foible, tendre et non puissant en fait de force, et par nature sont couardes”42, which

“par le jugement des homes appetissent moult le degré et auctorité du sexe femenin”43. In the voice of Raison she states that:

[…] Dieux (et Nature) a assez fait pour les femmes qui leur en a donné impotence, car a tout le moins sont elles par cellui agreable deffault excusees de non faire les cruaultez orribles, les murtres et les grans et griefs extorcions, lesquelles a cause de force on a fait et fait on conti-nuelment au monde.44

Christine’s critique against a world where “cruaultez orribles” are com-mitted can be seen in many of her writings, and it has often a direct reference to the wars and political crisis of France during the reign of Charles VI. Nevertheless, and as a direct refutation of the dominant view of feminine weakness it is also said that “toute force a hardiece corpo-relle” are not excluded from “sexe femenin”45. The development of the

argument against feminine weakness takes now the form of an example. She presents, as the first stone of the city, a woman of “moult grant vertu en fait de fort et vertueux courage es entreprises et excercice du fais des armes”46, namely the mythological queen Semiramis.

As Monique Niederoest points out, misogynistic violence demands another violence, which deconstructs the hegemonic view on women and offers an alternative construction of femininity. Niederoest claims that it is Christine’s “position de l’outsider”, which makes this possible47. With


Christine: Livre de la Cité des Dames, p. 102.

43 Id., p. 102. 44 Id., p. 104. 45 Id., p. 104. 46 Id., p. 106. 47

Niederoest, Monique: Violence et autorité dans la Cité des Dames, in: Hicks, Eric (ed.): Au champs des escriptures, IIIe Colloque international sur Christine de Pizan, Paris:


CHRISTINE DE PIZAN’S APPROPRIATION OF THE COURTLY TRADITION 53 Foucault it could be argued however that it is impossible to conceive subjectivity outside the interplay of discursive elements constituting the dominant discourse, i.e. that there is no possibility to stand outside power relations. What is possible is the use of strategies impeding these relations to work as a general system of domination. Christine’s defence of women could therefore be understood as a point of resistance within a dominant discourse rather than a bringing into discourse something from the outside.

The violence used against misogyny in the Cité des Dames does not only serve as a protection, or a construction of a new feminine identity. Christine reveals the mechanism of repression in the process of idealiza-tion by paying homage to what tradiidealiza-tion condemns48. In other words she

absolves the motives for the debasement of women found in authors such as Dante and Boccaccio.

While Dante places Semiramis in the second circle of hell in the

Com-media, because she married her own son, she still remains an example of

virtue, “a noble dame”, in Christine’s eyes, and as a justification she is said to have been living during a time when there was “ancores point de loy escripte”, only the “loy de Nature”49.

One could interpret this highly interesting passage in the light of Lévi-Strauss’ anthropological account of the incest taboo as the founding act of civilization (the passage from nature to culture), and as a prereq-uisite for social relations, with an evident parallel in the psychoanalytic theory of the Oedipus complex, where it stands for the law that generates sexual identity and the desire for the other. If the incest taboo is the pivotal point between nature and culture it also follows, according to Lévi-Strauss, that it is based on men’s trade of women. It is the woman – the sister or the mother – which must be exchanged for social relations to work50. Gayle Rubin has, in a classical article, objected that this

con-ception does not designate a universal, timeless fact, but a description of a certain social system: “the exchange of women is a profound percep-tion of a system in which women do not have full rights to themselves”51.

48 For a detailed analysis of the didactic function of Semiramis in the Cité des Dames

compared to Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris, see Dulac, Liliane: Sémiramis ou la Veuve héroïque, in: Mélanges de philologie romane offerts à Charles Camproux, vol 1, Montpellier: C.E.O. 1978, p. 315-331.

49 Christine: Livre de la Cité des Dames, p. 108.

50 Lévi-Strauss, Claude: The Elementary Structures of Kinship, trans. by James Harle

Bell, Boston: Beacon Press 1969, p. 481.

51 Gayle, Rubin: The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ’Political Economy’ of Sex, in:



A social order can change and according to Rubin it is hence necessary to “liberate human sexual life from the archaic relationships which deform it”52. Maureen Quilligan has Rubin’s article in mind when she

argues that Christine’s use of Semiramis serves to liberate feminine desire and to create a place where no “scripted, male-authored law” limits her power. Quilligan claims that Christine’s presentation of Semir-amis not only and simply opposes a written misogynistic tradition, but more profoundly the “original oedipal anxiety” or “castration anxiety” from which she also wants to derive this tradition. To choose Semiramis, an incestuous warrior queen, as the first foundation stone of the city is, according to Quilligan, equivalent of saying “for woman, castration anx-iety simply does not apply”53.

I think that psychoanalytic theory can be revealing of Christine’s appropriation of hegemonic discourse, i.e. the divided configuration of love and its object, but I cannot see that she is exempt from castration anxiety. If one looks to Christine’s explanation of Semiramis’ behaviour, the main motive seems first of all to be power, and more precisely mater-nal power, which Quilligan also points out. It is said that Semiramis “ne voulait mie que en son empire eust autre dame couronnee que elle” and that “il lui sembloit que nul autre homme n’estoit digne de l’avoir a femme fors son propre filz”54. According to Quilligan this exclusion of

any other alliance than that of a mother’s with her son as a foundation of her edifying construction is a rhetorical strategy, which opens up a dis-cursive space for women “unimpeded by any limits”55.

However, considering that the Cité des Dames not only has an incestu-ous mother as its base but the mother of God, the Virgin Mary, as its crown, the maternal power could not be more absolute, and I think that this feminine fantasy, rather than a refutation, serves as a protection against the castration anxiety the surrounding misogynistic attitudes causes in women. This omnipotent fantasy, which protects and consti-tutes the “cité tres belle sanz pareille et de perpetuelle duree au monde”56,

also explains its violent grounding as a need to counteract the other side of idealization, which is debasement. This strategy can be made even

Press 1975, p. 177.

52 Gayle: The Traffic in Women, p. 200.

53 Quilligan, Maureen: The Allegory of Female Authority, Ithaca: Cornell University

Press 1991, p. 80-84.


Christine: Livre de la Cité des Dames, p. 108.

55 Quilligan: The Allegory of Female Authority, p. 84. 56 Christine: Livre de la Cité des Dames, p. 56.


CHRISTINE DE PIZAN’S APPROPRIATION OF THE COURTLY TRADITION 55 clearer by looking at another example of violence, namely the motif of decapitation, which recurs in various places in the Cité des Dames.

As “ensuivant pierres” which follows upon the foundation of the city Christine presents the Amazons, and she gives special attention to queen Thamaris who has Cyrus, the king of Persia, decapitated and then orders his head to be thrown into a bucket with the blood of his barons, but even inside the walls we find descriptions of this specific kind of violence. In her enumeration of noble Ladies that have done good things for human-ity Christine situates the Old Testament heroine Judith. The legend about her contribution to liberate the Jewish people from an oppressor by decapitation, could according to Freud be understood as a “symbolic substitute for castrating”, and in this case as a vengeance against deflow-ering57.

Even if Freud’s theory of castration derives from a male analyst’s theory, which does not apply to women, as Quilligan claims, and Judith stays a virgin in Christine’s narration, she puts the violent act of this female heroism in the foreground, “sanz paour prist l’espee qu’elle vid au chevet et la trait nue, puis la haulça de toute sa force et trancha a Olophernes la teste”58. If we further on take into consideration the

Christian context of Christine’s writing, and the fact that she gives vir-gins the highest status in a city crowned by the Virgin Mary, the motive of vengeance represented by Judith seems to derive from a desire very different from the discursive space described by Quilligan as “unimpeded by any limits” where feminine sexuality could be liberated. Christine’s strategy is as far as I can see a part of the hegemonic context, which it nevertheless puts into process by a reversal of power relations, and by an “appropriation of a vocabulary turned against those who had once used it”59.


On the one hand, the catalogue of women constituting the Cité des Dames are idealized incarnations of virtues, they are all said to be “dames de grant excellence”60, protected by the Virgin Mary even though they are

57 Freud, Sigmund: Contribution to the Psychology of Love: The Taboo of virginity,

in: Strachey (ed.): Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 11, p. 207.


Christine: Livre de la Cité des Dames, p. 300.

59 Foucault: Nietzsche, Genealogy, History, p. 154. 60 Christine: Livre de la Cité des Dames, p. 250.



pagan or Jewish. This feature could indeed be related to the medieval cult of Mary which, as Sarah Kay points out, is “both influencing, and influenced by, that of the courtly Lady”61. On the other hand the stories

about these honourable Ladies are also in a fundamental manner connec-ted to war and violence. Hence, Christine’s most effective argument against misogyny could be understood as an upheaval of the hegemonic division of love and its object by an opening of the idealization towards what it represses, i.e. a cultural unconscious of violent and incestuous dramas.

According to Kristeva the very possibility of idealization disappears when the representation of women is transformed from an inaccessible reference in courtly lyric to an object of knowledge and possession in allegories such as the Roman de la rose: “La courtoisie est devenue séduction et possession, et l’incantation, réalisme”62. Courtliness has

however from the beginning had its counterpart in the form of obscene ‘realistic’ poetry and satire, which Christine also points to at the begin-ning of her allegory referring to Matheolus’ book as a mockery, “qui traicte en maniere de trufferie”. Idealization always has another side, or as Howard Bloch puts it, “antifeminism and the idealization of the fem-inine are mirror images of each other”63. It is precisely this dualistic,

divided representation of love and its object, as either idealized or debased, which is turned into an ambiguous discourse in the Cité des

Dames by a demonstration of the violent founding of an idealized

femi-ninity, which is also turned against male desire and its divided discourse. It was certainly not Christine de Pizan’s purpose to de-idealize the courtly representation of woman. In her book she uses a didactic discourse presenting a virtue ethics where the object of medieval allegory is addressed and represented as a subject of high dignity. At the end of her book she writes:

Et mes tres cheres dames, chose naturelle est a cuer humain de soy esjouyr quant il se treuve avoir victoire d’aucune emprise, et que ses ennemis soient confondus. Si avez cause orendroit, mes dames, de vous esjouyr vertueusement en Dieu et bonnes meurs par ceste nou-velle Cité veoir parfaicte, qui peut estre non mie seulement le refuge

61 Kay, Sarah: Courtly Contradictions. The Emergence of the Literary Object in the

Twelfth Century, Stanford: Stanford University Press 2001, p. 180.

62 Kristeva: Histoire d’amour, p. 356. 63 Bloch: Medieval Misogyny, p. 160.



de vous toutes, c’est a entendre des vertueuses, mais aussi la deffence et garde contre voz ennemis et assaillans, se bien la gardez.64

The ethical attitudes required for living in the Cité des Dames does not challenge the medieval social order where woman’s virtue is determined by a patriarchal and feudalistic order. However, and this is my conclu-ding point, Christine’s reworking of the courtly tradition transforms the

other side of the idealization of women, i.e. debasement, into new

sym-bolic representations, which dismantles the power of misogynistic attacks: “que ses ennemis soient confondus”.

The change from melancholia into joy in the Cité des Dames bears witness of a point of resistance constituting a feminine subject position in a hegemonic discourse where women are assigned as objects for male desire and fantasy. The devices Christine is using to achieve this are perhaps adding fuel to the war of sexes, but they articulate a strategy against misogyny and its effect, melancholia, and are the real reason why the author, at the end of her book, can enjoin all women to rejoice.


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