Julia Holderness

title.none: Desmond, ed., Chistine de Pizan (Holderness)

identifier.other: baj9928.9902.017 99.02.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Julia Holderness, Johns Hopkins University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Desmond, Marilynn, ed. Chistine de Pizan and the Categories of Difference. Medieval Cultutres, Vol 14. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998. Pp. xix, 286. $57.95 (HB) ISBN 0-816-63080-1. ISBN: $22.95 (PB) ISBN 0-816-63080-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.02.17

Desmond, Marilynn, ed. Chistine de Pizan and the Categories of Difference. Medieval Cultutres, Vol 14. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998. Pp. xix, 286. $57.95 (HB) ISBN 0-816-63080-1. ISBN: $22.95 (PB) ISBN 0-816-63080-X.

Reviewed by:

Julia Holderness
Johns Hopkins University

On e of the pronounced advantages of Christine de Pizan and the Categories of Difference lies in each of its chapters' depth. Although each contribution was originally presented at a conference entitled "Christine de Pizan: Texts/ Intertexts/ Contexts" (Binghamton University, October 1995), most have been reworked and developed beyond the scope of a typical conference paper. One especially appreciates the sense of a real conversation among the contributors who frequently build on each other's arguments. This collection, edited by Marilynn Desmond, offers a solid overview of current trends in American Christine studies.

The volume is apparently designed to reflect the thematic progression of the Avision Christine (each of the three parts is prefaced by a quotation from the corresponding part of the Avision). Part I addresses Christine's relation to the "real world", and more specifically, her role as a teacher within this world. Charity Cannon Willard and Diane Wolfthal portray a confident Christine, dispensing knowledge to her courtly patrons. The two discussions bring forth a new and rather bloodthirsty image of Christine as a military advisor (Willard) and as a counselor of violent retribution by raped women (Wolfthal). Willard's statement, "that Christine was less impressed by the military capabilities of [contemporary knights] than by their qualities as gentlemen" (p. 4) is provocative. If such was the case (and it seems possible, given Christine's equation of "the good knight" with "the good Christian" in the Epistre Othea), then we must ask why she devoted such enthusiastic energy to teaching people how to be soldiers.

In the same section, Roberta Krueger and Mary Ann C. Case problematize Christine's role as a teacher. Both discuss Christine's apparent concern about people's ability to learn, and in particular, to learn from her. For Krueger, the problem lay in Christine's gender -- would anyone ever take her words seriously? She supports her argument with several telling examples of the difficulties posed by Christine's gender to her instruction of others, and even to her self-formation. (Here, Krueger seems to refer to both the historical and the fictional Christines.) We may pause to question Krueger's heroization of Christine and those who study her. Krueger describes Christine's recuperation of a "gallery of neglected founding mothers, unheeded wives, marginalized female prophets or scholars, rejected governess, and saintly martyrs" (p. 36) as part of a "heroic feminist rhetoric" (p. 30). Later, she qualifies Raymond Thomassy's 1838 study of Christine's political thought as "early [and] rather heroic" (p. 38, n. 5). What might this imply for those who study Christine today?

For Case, Christine's problem lay in the source of her knowledge -- mundane experience, instead of privileged books. Case evokes the puzzling tension between Christine's valorization of instructive experience and her warnings about its potential to confuse. Although a thorough reading of this ambiguity lies beyond the scope of Case's article, it definitely merits further study.

Part II (linked to the Avision's encounter with Dame Opinion) takes up the question of the limits and possibilities of human understanding. Thelma Fenster, Benjamin M. Semple, and Mary Weitzel Gibbons show how Christine extends the realm of human understanding, especially that of women. Semple and Monica H. Green also point to Christine's boundaries -- the domains which she thinks it safest not to explore. Fenster and Semple amply demonstrate the ways that Christine privileged the intellectual efforts of what the latter terms "the nonspecialist" or "the simple person". Fenster argues that Christine's sometimes ornate French prose reflects this writer's effort to ennoble the mother tongue, to match the subtlety of Latin expression in the language of the people. Although she does not say so in as many words, Fenster's argument leads to the novel portrait of Christine de Pizan as a precursor of Joachim du Bellay with his Deffense et illustration de la langue francoise.

Semple portrays Christine's intellectual egalitarianism as still more radical: in Christine's universe, not only could an untutored but smart person engage in fruitful speculation, but so could a "simple person". Indeed, the humble were less likely to falter than the proud. Semple concludes that, "[d]rawing upon the ethical tradition of Christianity, [Christine] wrote against the presumptuousness of the human intellect. Her goal was to level the hierarchization of rationality by evoking a mystery before which all human reason must confess its limits," (p. 126). Semple does not consider Christine's constant protestations of modesty purely formal. His article poses a thoughtful challenge to the trend of criticism according to which Christine de Pizan deliberately constructed herself as an imposing auctor.

Green takes on a difficult question: why did Christine de Pizan omit the well-known medical author Trotula from her City of Ladies? Green's plausible response, based on a detailed study of the Trotula manuscript tradition, is that by the early fifteenth century, Trotula had become known as a revealer of women's intimate secrets. The same Christine who had so roundly criticized Jean de Meung's plain speech would not have appreciated Trotula's. For Christine, some areas are best left unexplored. We must note that Green's translations from Old French are occasionally imprecise. She renders, ". . . est grant pitie quant femme a partie a lui plaisante et on lui blasme ny oste, et especialement mary. . . . On a bien veu morir femmes pour en oster leurs parties," as ". . . it is a great pity when a woman has a mate who pleases her yet she reproaches him or fights with him, especially her husband. . . . People have seen women die for fighting with their mates," (p. 172, n. 18 -- cited from Glasgow, Ferguson 241, fol. 73r -- emphases my own). A more exact translation might read, "it is a great pity when a woman has a mate who pleases her, but people reproach her and take him away from her, especially when it is her husband. . . . People have seen women die because their mates had been taken away from them."

In Part III (linked to Christine's self-presentation in Part III of the Avision) Judith L. Kellogg, Deborah McGrady, Cynthia J. Brown, and Michel-André Bossy study Christine qua author, especially in the manuscript and early print traditions of Christine's work. Especially convincing is McGrady's argument that the deluxe manuscript Christine prepared for Isabeau de Bavière (London, British Library Harley 4431) is concrete proof of a shift in the traditional patron-client (entertainer) rapport. The dedication miniatures at the head of the individual works compiled represent many patrons besides Isabeau, but only one author, Christine.

Christine de Pizan and the Categories of Difference builds on existing Christine scholarship, especially on studies of Christine's positions on women and on authorship. More important, it points to a new direction for research, one which has so far only been explored in fine, but scattered studies -- Christine's interest in education and in the process of human cognition itself. What might Christine de Pizan have thought about people other than Christine de Pizan?