The Medieval Review 12.04.13

Margolis, Nadia. An Introduction to Christine de Pizan. New Perspectives on Medieval Literature: Authors and Traditions. Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2011. Pp. xxiii, 272. $69.95. ISBN 978-0-8130-3650-2. . .

Reviewed by:

Gail Orgelfinger
University of Maryland Baltimore County

I would love to begin this review with "In the year 2012, Christine de Pizan needs no introduction," but that would not be true, and the quality of this introduction of the excellent and prolific poet and polemicist challenges us all to reconsider the scope and quality of her accomplishments. This is volume one in a series published by the University Press of Florida, edited by R. Barton Palmer and Tison Pugh: "New Perspectives on Medieval Literature: Authors and Traditions." Nadia Margolis sets a high standard for the succeeding volumes (just published are those on the Gawain poet and Arthurian narrative). Each monograph will be organized similarly to fulfill the editors' stated purpose: to provide "jargon-free" accessibility to "some of the greatest authors and most noteworthy literary traditions of the Middle Ages" so that contemporary readers, not necessarily specialists, may develop "an informed appreciation" of a "rich, varied, and stimulating literary past" (ix). By coincidence, I was teaching the "Ditié de Jeanne d'Arc" as I was reading the book, and when one of my students, new to the Middle Ages, new to Christine, asked how she could learn more, this volume was the obvious answer. An affordable paperback edition will be released in May 2012.

Helpfully, the volume includes a chronology that encompasses not only what we know about Christine's own life, but important events in her lifetime, events that are elucidated by the inclusion of a genealogy of the French royal family. Chapter 1 surveys her life and times, including an astonishingly concise but full and clear explanation of the political complexity of the era in which Christine lived. Chapters 2 and 3 analyze her extant works--over forty of them--in almost all of the major genres of the late Middle Ages, in both poetry and prose. Margolis also discusses the problem of establishing Christine's canon, noting in particular the absence of modern printed editions. In Chapter 4, Margolis unapologetically surveys and discusses Christine's major sources and influences, and reception. Chapter 5 presents a glossary of "persons, places, events, literary terms, and writings important to Christine's life and work," from Abelard to Walter of Châtillon, from allegory to virelai . Chapter 6 is classified as a Bibliographical Guide, a felicitous term for the necessarily selective view of editions, criticism, and resources.

The apparatus is more than helpful, but the core of the work is in the central chapters on Christine's canon. Chapter 1 gracefully introduces "Christine's Life and Times," emphasizing how atypical a woman she was in the late fourteenth century: very well educated, happily if too briefly married, thrown on her own devices as a widow, negotiating a "fickle milieu" (13) at the French court, yet fearless in developing a distinctive voice in different keys--variously personal, "sybilline," and polemical, yet also self-effacing as the "antygraphe," the recorder (29)--some within the same work, such as the One Hundred Ballads . She was also fearless in mastering and experimenting with the major poetic forms of the day, some of them fiendishly complex. She questioned the "entrenched misogyny" of the courtly love tradition, combating its influential promulgator Jean de Meun and revising "the morality of love, often borrowing Ovid's and Jean's own components and retooling them as weapons against those authorities" (48). Margolis deftly weaves Christine's life-long arguments for a measured and liberal approach to love throughout her discussion of the works and also, in this first chapter, shows the insights to be gained from biographical criticism appropriately deployed.

If Christine displayed her tact, learning, and "desire to educate and reform her readers' moral outlook" (69) even in her earliest works, it is apparent that as she matured and mastered her art, the seriousness with which she considered important issues of the day led her to amplify her scope. Chapter 2 examines her later "historical, political, and religious" works, many of which advocate the importance of "women's history and destiny" (69) in more profound contexts than debates about love and misogyny. Here we renew our respect for the City of Ladies , "the first known history of women by a woman" (70). If this is one of the best known of Christine's works, Margolis nevertheless both reminds us of the importance of its scope and rhetoric and explicates its perceived shortcomings for modern feminists. In Christine's day--as now--women had to live real lives; there was no utopian escape from cruel husbands and their beatings. But if many today are conversant with the City , Margolis makes a compelling argument in favor of becoming more familiar with other works dealing with the status and dilemma of women, from The Book of the Three Virtues for the Instruction of Ladies to her last work, The Song of Joan of Arc . The author also emphasizes Christine's insistence that "both genders stand to benefit from women's advancement in society" (83), as in The Epistle of Othea and Moral Teachings to Her Son . As tempting as it is to list the many achievements of Christine's most prolific period in the first decade of the fifteenth century, space precludes it here. Throughout that time, however, she produced some of her most effective didactic treatises, often focusing on the "mirror for princes" trope. And perhaps as she grew older and more disillusioned with the inability of humankind to apply its gift of reason to politics, she turned to religious works that comment on the material world. Of especial value in this section of the book is Margolis's brief discursus on "Principal Recurrent Themes," summarizing without trivializing important concerns that permeate Christine's work throughout her career.

Of necessity, perhaps, the rehearsal of "Christine's Sources and Influences" in Chapter 4 is overall more systematic than what precedes it. Yet Margolis is not interested in hunting down obscure allusions. Rather, this chapter provides an intellectual hierarchy of Christine's reading and clearly delineates the uses she made of it. Omnipresent, as noted above, was Jean de Meun. But Christine was also the "first French author ever to cite Dante" (136). Moreover, her use of her sources was rarely just derivative. As Margolis points out, "she consciously acted as an intermediary: a communicator, or translator, of different types of wisdom from privileged audiences to less privileged ones" (154). Even today, scholars from a broad spectrum of periods and specialties should find much to treasure in her works. And they should also find much to treasure in this clearly-written, clever, and always balanced treatment. Margolis wears her extensive erudition lightly, as did Christine herself.