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22.08.02 Fenster/Reno, Christine de Pizan: The God of Love’s Letter and The Tale of the Rose

22.08.02 Fenster/Reno, Christine de Pizan: The God of Love’s Letter and The Tale of the Rose

When two of the top scholars of Christine de Pizan join forces for a new edition and translation of Christine’s texts, the result is bound to be a high-quality and valuable contribution to the field. This work by Thelma S. Fenster and Christine Reno does indeed live up to that expectation.

The pairing of The God of Love’s Letter (L’Epistre au dieu d’Amours), written in 1399, and The Tale of the Rose (Le Dit de la Rose) from 1402, is a powerful one. Both texts connect thematically with the debate on the Romance of the Rose, an epistolary exchange spanning much of 1401-1402, through which Christine demonstrated key aspects of her pro-women stance and proved herself an able participant in the male-dominated and misogyny-laden intellectual milieu of her time. This pairing is also compelling in that the poems represent the two principal fronts from which Christine would wage her ongoing defense of women--the God of Love’s Letter points to Christine’s appropriation of learned discourse for her own agenda, while the Tale of the Rose is situated within the courtly chivalric ideology so prevalent in Christine’s age. Together, the two poems “take their place as [Christine’s] first public challenge to misogynous discourse and to the slighting behavior men could practice toward women” (3).

Also included in this volume is an English rendition of Jean Gerson’s “A Poem of Man and Woman” translated from Latin by Thomas O’Donnell. This poem, composed by Christine’s main ally in the Rose debate, serves as a “clear outline of fifteenth-century belief about the relationship between man and woman” (171). Gerson may have been sympathetic to Christine’s stance, but what shines through the poem is the dominant masculine perspective that shaped the literary tradition that Christine was confronting.

Fenster and Reno’s choice of base manuscripts is central to the significance of this volume and is an outgrowth of the progress made in Christine studies since the poems were first published by Maurice Roy in 1891. Roy based his editions on what he believed to be the earliest versions of the poems, that is to say Paris, BnF, fr. 835 for the Epistre au dieu d’Amours and Paris, BnF, fr. 604 for the Dit de la Rose. In the ensuing years, scholars such as James Laidlaw, Christine Reno, Gilbert Ouy, and others made great strides in the study of Christine’s manuscripts and illuminated her role in their production. The discoveries, including a new relative chronology associated with the manuscripts of Christine’s works, gave rise to updated editions of the poems, along with their first translations into English, by Thelma Fenster and Mary Carpenter Ehrler in 1990. Fenster and Ehrler based their editions on what at that point were deemed the most suitable manuscripts for each poem: the Queen’s manuscript (London, BL, Harley MS 4431) for the Epistre au dieu d’Amours and Chantilly, Bibliothèque du Château, 492 for the Dit de la Rose.

New critical avenues have continued to flourish since that book was published, leading Fenster and Reno to now revisit the two poems once again. This time, Fenster and Reno focus on four manuscripts, all supervised by Christine herself, that contain one or both of the poems. The four manuscripts are collections of Christine’s works, with the God of Love’s Letter included in all four and the Tale of the Rose in two. By selecting the earliest of them, Chantilly, Bibliothèque du Château, 492 as their base manuscript for both poems, and including variants and rejected readings from the other three manuscripts, the presentation by Fenster and Reno is genetic, affording readers an opportunity to observe Christine’s revisions to the texts over time. (It is worth noting that although the same base manuscript was used, the English translation of the Tale of the Rose has been updated from the 1990 translation as well.) Fenster and Reno further highlight the “presence” of Christine in the four manuscripts by also including the variants of the Epistre au dieu d’Amours from an anthology compiled later (London, Westminster Abbey, MS 21)--the significant variations between that version and those created under Christine’s watch are telling. Ultimately, all of this adds up to a fresh approach to these poems which can also inform our reading of Christine more generally.

The introduction contextualizes Christine’s poems in the scholarly, cultural, and ideological frameworks against which they are to be read. Fenster and Reno begin with a concise orientation to the Romance of the Rose, the famous thirteenth-century text behind the debate that put Christine on the map among the literati of her time, and explain how both the God of Love’s Letter and the Tale of the Rose “push back” against the earlier text and its author, Jean de Meun. The commentary on the Romance of the Rose is followed by a discussion of Christine’s understanding and reappropriation of principles set out by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas revolving around the “nature of women,” and key vocabulary that Christine relies on to link her own words with the tradition she seeks to correct. Fenster and Reno balance the “clerkly” with the “courtly” by then situating the Tale of the Rose within the late-medieval trend of chivalric orders, societies established by men ostensibly to honor women.

The introduction also presents the manuscripts treated in the edition, including detailed descriptions and useful bibliographies for each, as well as a section on Christine’s versification.

The facing-page translations of the poems come next. The God of Love’s Letter is a response to women’s laments that men, even noble men, dishonor them through words and behavior. Women complain to the God of Love about the male-authored writings that make them out to be treacherous, lascivious, and untrustworthy. Calling out Ovid and Jean de Meun in particular, and citing female figures from classical literature as counterexamples, the God of Love details the ways in which misogynous texts misrepresent women. He notes that women do not engage in some of the most evil acts (“kill or wound or mutilate people” [89, v. 643]), and reminds the reader that since women’s influence is much more limited than that of men, even their shortcomings are of relatively little consequence. He declares that this decree in the defense of women was made on May 1, 1399, with the endorsement of countless gods and goddesses supporting the position.

Next comes the Tale of the Rose. Complementing the learned leanings of the God of Love’s Letter, the Tale of the Rose emphasizes its courtly chivalric concerns from the very opening lines, addressing “all the courteous princes/and chivalrous nobles” (127, vv. 1-2) and “all renowned ladies/and beloved demoiselles” (127, vv. 9-10). The narrator, ostensibly Christine, describes a dinner held at the home of the Duke of Orléans in January 1402, a month before the writing of the poem, at which Lady Loyalty, sent by the God of Love, magically descends. Lady Loyalty relays the news, in the form of ballades, of the establishment of the Order of the Rose, and soon takes her leave. The narrator then goes to sleep, only to have the goddess appear to her and convey dismay at the base behavior demonstrated by slanderers and gossips, especially those who defame women. The goddess fulfills the mission the God of Love has assigned to her--appointing the narrator to recruit “lady deputies who have the power,/should they accept it,/to bestow the delightful Order/of the pleasing Rose” on men worthy of the distinction (151, vv. 507-510). Upon the goddess’s departure, the narrator finds a letter at the head of her bed, beautifully decorated, articulating the parameters of the Order of the Rose, a society in honor of women that is also run by women, in a feminized recasting of the typical construct. The narrator affirms that she has composed her poem as a record of this event, and signs off with a play on words establishing Christine as the author of the poem.

With scholars of the caliber of Fenster and Reno behind them, it almost goes without saying that editions in the original Middle French are thoughtful and clear, and the translations are accurate and engaging. Each poem is followed by rejected readings from the base manuscript and variants from the others, as well as notes that shed additional light on the poems. The volume is rounded out by a bibliography pertaining to the translated poems and to Christine’s corpus and cultural/literary context more generally.

This book is a very welcome addition to the scholarship on Christine. In her foreword to this volume, Jocelyn Wogan-Browne remarks that, “As presented and elucidated here, these texts have obvious importance both in themselves and in creating a new account of Christine’s canon and its development” (xiv) and that “the present volume is both the outcome of and a contribution to new ways of seeing Christine de Pizan” (xiv). It is strongly recommended to students and specialists alike, and to anyone interested in the ongoing and ever-evolving discourse on gender that remains critically relevant in our times.