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19.10.04 Tarnowski, Approaches to Teaching the Works of Christine de Pizan

19.10.04 Tarnowski, Approaches to Teaching the Works of Christine de Pizan

This volume, like others in the MLA's Approaches to Teaching World Literature series, is divided into two parts preceded by a preface by the editor which emphasizes Christine's role as the first professional woman author in France as well as her in-depth involvement in the production of her books. The first part, "Materials," offers the traditional comprehensive list of the author's works as well as all editions and translations, but Tarnowski's "Instructor's Library" is particularly detailed and usefully organized into the following sections: Basics; Reference; Biography and History; Women, Widows, Mothers; Feminism and Christine; Responses to Christine: Collected Works; Poetry, Art, Politics, Theory; A Contemporary of Note: Jean Gerson. This first part ends with Mark Aussem's brief essay, "Aids to Teaching Christine de Pizan Online," which he culls from the most useful sites on Christine's autobiography and manuscripts, fifteenth-century Paris, and Old French from among the 350,000 results one gets when performing a Google search on Christine. The second part, "Approaches," includes twenty-one different articles and is also thematically subdivided: Gender and Self-Representations: Cultural Contexts; Christine across the Disciplines; Classroom Contexts. Each essay in and of itself is interesting, but some will prove much more valuable than others to the instructor looking to incorporate Christine into his or her course. Beyond the pedagogically-focused articles of the final section, for example, Holderness recommends specific passages for use in the classroom, Semple details pre-reading activities and their goals, and Dudash provides appendices with format of the explication de texte and describes the organization of the class around a single ballade.

The editor opens the second section with an overview of the volume and a brief introduction to Christine herself. This second preface of sorts suggests that Christine appeals to students because of both her detailed biography and the diverse yet cohesive nature of her oeuvre which allows instructors to "draw an individual as portrait of a young widow who turned to writing to earn a living, producing first court poetry, then narratives of fantastic discovery, then works of political science, then works of consolation and prayer" (29). The eight essays which follow center around the idea of Christine's self-representation. In "Christine and her Audience," Deborah McGrady responds to students' awe at Christine's brazen criticisms of the actions of her contemporaries by describing the medieval culture of patronage and presenting Christine as a shrewd business woman who "cultivated a diverse audience and actively oversaw the expansion of her fame" (46) by currying favor from multiple individuals, making savvy use of the humility topos. Julia Simms Holderness echoes McGrady's thoughts on Christine's' savvy self-promotion and conscious self-creation as a female author, but her article, "Christine's Consoling Memory," focuses on the confessional nature of Christine's pre-City of Ladies writings in which, "by grafting an Augustinian style personal narrative onto Boethius's abstract philosophical dialogue, she highlights memories role in the process of consolation" (61).

Like Holderness, Daisy Delogu speaks of Christine's privileging of personal experience but her "Christine's Kingly Ideal: Le livre des fais et bonnes meurs du sage roy Charles V" emphasizes that such firsthand knowledge, combined with favorable parallels the author draws between herself and Charles V, serve to bolster Christine's authority. Delogu also advocates the use of the lesser-taught Fais et bonnes moeurs in the classroom, claiming that it "constitutes an excellent point of entry into the study of Christine's works, for it deals with issues and themes raised by her other texts, including her self-representation and claims to literary authority, her didacticism, and her use of compilation as a compositional technique" (92). David F. Hult's "France's First Literary Quarrel: Le Débat sur Le Roman de la Rose" continues the focus on Christine's self-representation, claiming that her active involvement in theQuerelle too often leads modern readers to stress her feminism "at the expense of her moral and religious stances" (86) and noting that her self-deprecation (a stark contrast to above-mentioned comparisons to the sovereign) is a rhetorical strategy which "mask[s] the many agendas she was balancing at her work and life" (88).

"On Hands: Visual Narrative in Christine de Pizan's Manuscripts" provides a concrete illustration of Tarnowski's claim in the preface that "the classroom is an excellent forum for tracing [Christine's] development over time as a producer of books" (viii). In this essay, Marie Gibbons Landor certainly addresses the question of the ways in which Christine chooses to represent herself (as author, scholar, student, and narrator), but she primarily argues that Christine's self-proclaimed involvement in her manuscripts affords students the opportunity "to examine the interplay between text and image [which] will sharpen their appreciation of both formats and afford them additional critical tools" (69).

The remaining essays in the second part seem less clearly tied to its title which bears repeating due to its fragmented nature: "Gender and Self-Representations: Cultural Contexts." Self-Representation is no longer the focus, and although Jeff Rider's essay certainly addresses the idea of gender, it cannot be said that the others highlight culture per se. Rider's essay, "Becoming a man: Christine de Pizan, 1390 to 1400," probes Christine's famous statement that her husband's death forced her to "become a man," concluding that the author's self-proclaimed transformation was a result of her having undertaken a substantial education and ultimately deciding to pen literature more serious than poetry. Editor Tarnowski here adds an essay of her own, "Ethical architecture in the Cité des Dames," in which she emphasizes the importance of thinker-builder Christine's focus on virtue's resilience over time and on Justice as first among equals. Like Delogu and Landor, Tarnowski first and foremost highlights the pedagogical value of the approach in question, explaining that, "the reason for suggesting that the architectural metaphor be explored and its ethical component highlighted is that this way leads from one end of the text to the other and beyond; it keeps the stories channeled to a purpose and privileges the worth of that purpose" (108). Finally, Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski's "Visions of history in the works of Christine de Pizan" describes Christine both as a poète engagée and as the first female historian, explaining that the author's "emotional investment in her adoptive country frequently led Christine to interweave her own story with ancient and contemporary French history, a technique that represents a thoroughly original approach to writing history" (50).

As the title of the next subsection, "Christine across the Disciplines," suggests, the essays gathered in the section make a strong case for Christine's viability beyond the French literature classroom. Two essays focus on aspects of Christine's oeuvre often ignored by critics. Cary J. Nederman's "Governing the Body Politic: Christine's Political Advice" describes Christine as the most prolific yet most overlooked author of specula (princely mirror or advice books) in medieval Europe (119) and describes her as a social justice warrior. Her specula, in fact, "may be read as offering comprehensive social criticism, in response to her recognition that conventional mirrors overlooked the needs and interests of a large portion of the populace, among them women, citydwellers, and the poor" (121). And in "Christine de Pizan's Ballades: Lyrical Text and Its Musical Context," Patricia E. Black examines the increasing distance between music and poetry during the fifteenth century and declares that the way Christine "subverts the poetic tradition she received in her creation of truly lyric work in the sense of Deschamps deserves more recognition" (129).

The remaining four essays in the section on interdisciplinarity provide various contexts in which to better understand Christine's work. Two focus on Christine's literary heritage. "Christine de Pizan's Lyric Poetry and the Question of Intertextuality" addresses the difficulty of teaching an author who is at once unique and highly conventional. Citing an "imperative of filiation," Barbara K. Altmann examines key examples of intertextuality in Christine's work which serve to reinforce her literary authority. Like Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Susan J. Dudash's essay, "Explicating Christine's Poetics: Pallas Athena and the Apple of Discord," speaks of engaged literature, but she encourages close comparative readings and explications de texte to reveal Christine's authorial mission and lifelong preoccupations. Semple and Wrisley provide instead various cultural contexts crucial to understanding Christine's texts (which makes this reader wonder why they weren't included in the first section). Benjamin M. Semple makes the case that "students can easily read [a City of Ladies] as if a contemporary woman had written it, without fully appreciating the medieval intellectual, moral, and artistic context from which it sprang" (109) and describes the ways in which he introduces Christine's moral universe and idea of virtue to today's students. David Joseph Wrisley discusses the digital mapping of place-names mentioned in Christine's writings in "The Literary Geographies of Christine de Pizan." Wrisley contends that the maps' presences and absences generate questions which will lead to a better understanding of Christine's work. Furthermore, the analysis of visual data "inspires students to engage critically with significant cultural texts using innovative forms of technology" (162) and thus provides them with transferable skills.

The last subsection of the second part, "Classroom Contexts," underscores the pedagogical value of Christine's oeuvre. The first two essays are particularly compelling in their narrative description of the preparation and execution of the material and the students' subsequent reactions. "Christine and the Canon: Great Books and Worthy Women" discusses teaching the book in a three-semester humanities course organized chronologically. Ellen M. Thorington presents Abelard and Heloise, Marie de France, and Chaucer as complementary authors whose works will help reveal Christine as moralist and exemplar, but underscores that Christine's works can be read in a far broader context as well. For "it would undervalue Christine's writings to see them as speaking only to women's issues. Christine's points on perspective, on moral duty, and on what it means to be virtuous and wise conjure themes expressed by authors from Aristotle, whose arguments Christine invokes, to Nafisi" (170). "Reading The Treasure of the City of Ladies with Women's Studies Students" describes replacing a course twice organized around the theme of agency and voice in the lives of five extraordinary women with one centered on two primary matrices of female power--religion and the court. Karen Robertson and Christine Reno claim that this third iteration of the course is their favorite to date, and walk the reader through their lesson plans for the three days dedicated to Christine in their team-taught course on medieval and Renaissance women. Although surprised by Christine's version of feminism, students gradually understood that her text "tacitly points to the injustice of the patriarchal systems in which women are forced to live and thus lays the foundation required for any subsequent challenge to those systems" ( 177).

Theresa Coletti and A.E.B. Coldiron both discuss the teaching of Christine in English. Coletti's "Teaching Christine de Pizan in a Department of English" makes the surprising announcement that "textual appropriation and production in fact make Christine the best known woman writer of late medieval early tudor England" (180) and discusses the challenges of teaching a French writer in the English language and in the English literary context. Coletti further describes an innovative final project which turns the teaching over to the students by asking them to for creative group presentations on main themes in Christine's works. A.E.B. Coldiron's "Teaching the Early Modern English Translations of Christine de Pizan" evokes the transnational turn in the humanities and Christine's success in a variety of genres to encourage instructors in multiple disciplines to make use of English translations of her work (which she explains are "necessarily an interpretation that imagines a particular audience" [190]) and to collaborate pedagogically.

In "Christine de Pizan and the Moral Education of Women: Teaching Le livre des trois vertus," Roberta L. Krueger advocates the teaching of Le livre des trois vertus which she believes to be one of Christine's most accessible for undergraduates because its allegorical framework is clear-cut and it can be understood without extensive knowledge of medieval history and society. Krueger's students find a visit to the self-help section of a modern bookstore to be illuminating, but Christine's speculum for women could also prove a fruitful complement to the princely mirror discussed by Nederman, for both are significantly more socially inclusive than traditional specula, and Le livre des trois vertus is "the only one that especially addresses all ranks of women" (199). Lori J. Walters'"Christine's Prologue: An Approach to the Queen's Manuscript" provides more detail on Christine's decisive role in the production of her own scriptorium which is alluded to in some of the other essays, especially Landor's. Christine wrote over forty texts and personally produced more than fifty of the extant manuscripts, and the so-called Queen's Manuscript is a particularly compelling example because "Christine not only wrote the manuscript's thirty texts but also oversaw the execution of its extensive iconographic cycle and acted as a scribe, textual editor, and planner of its mise-en-page" (207).

Like Delogu, Nadia Margolis also advocates teaching a less popular text, Ditié de Jehanne d'Arc, citing its historical value as the only non-anonymous French work to celebrate Joan of Arc during the heroine's lifetime (218). "The Ditié de Jehanne d'Arc and the Poet's Passion" describes the work, which can act as a sequel to both the Hours of Contemplation and ThePath of Long Study, as simultaneously political and personal. Despite its complexity and its lukewarm reception in the nineteenth century, Margolis sees endless potential for the text in the classroom: "It can be taught in courses in several disciplines: medieval history (as an eyewitness document), religion (as a visionary or prophetic literature), political science (the rise of nationalism and patriotism), rhetoric, besides the more predictable woman's literature survey, French medieval civilization courses..." (218).

From political theory to mythography, from literary reception to moral advice, Coldiron, too, lists numerous different contexts in which an instructor could introduce Christine's works (educational treatises, lyrical poetry, royal biography, military history, political theory, mythography, literary reception, periodization, canon formation, history of feminism, material textuality, genre, cross-cultural contact, 188-189). Although emphasis has historically been placed on Christine's proto-feminism (as delineated in the City of Ladies and the Quarrel of the Roman de la Rose), as Tarnowski points out in her preface, Christine "composed more than forty works in a broad range of genres: short lyric poems, allegorical tales in verse, political portraits in prose, treatises on the conduct of war and the prosecution of peace, and conduct manuals for young princes and every class of women" (viii). Indeed, this entire volume makes a very strong case for the utility of Christine beyond the French literature curriculum and will provide a useful companion to instructors in a wide variety of fields.