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23.01.06 Kennedy (ed./trans.), Christine de Pizan, Book of the Body Politic

23.01.06 Kennedy (ed./trans.), Christine de Pizan, Book of the Body Politic

Angus J. Kennedy for many years has laboured indefatigably in the vineyard of Christine de Pizan research, and this translated edition of her 1404-1407 Livre du corps de policie / Book of the Body Politic--written to educate the Dauphin, Louis de Guyenne, son of Charles VI, then still a child, in Good Government--is timely and important. Kennedy notes that Christine is creatively derivative, drawing on Valerius Maximus, Facta et dicta memorabilia (27-31), translated and glossed from Latin into French by Simon de Hesdin and Nicolas de Gonesse, 1375-1401, a book they presented to Jean, Duc de Berry, which she in turn edits and re-arranges for greater clarity, basing her treatise on John of Salisbury’s concept of the Body Politic--the Prince as head, the nobles and knights as hands and arms, the scholars, merchants, craftspeople and agricultural workers as stomach, feet and legs—and dividing these three groups into her three books. She, as it were, both medievalizes and classicizes her France of the Hundred Years War, the Great Schism, her king’s intermittent madness, advising her realm and its Prince as if she were its Sybil. She would follow this text with the later Book of Peace, 1412-1413, also written to the teenage Dauphin.

Her first book of the three, on the Prince as head of state, argues for the need for integrity, working for the common good of the whole, listening to counsel, taxing only for defence and not overburdening the poor with these so as not to cause revolts. It seeks to educate her dissolute patron--who would die at eighteen in the midst of civil strife--in statecraft for the good of the realm. She openly says at the beginning that she seeks to turn vice into virtue. She is writing in a most classical vein a “Mirror for Princes,” while camouflaging her own brilliance in a humility topos. ((he had had the run of the King’s Library in Paris as a little Italian immigrant child; now widowed, she supports her family as a professional writer and publisher.) This book begins with an excellent account of how to educate a prince, reminding one of Montaigne’s discussion of his education by his father’s household, and also modelled on the education of Alexander by Aristotle. Christine advocates the Spartan and aristocratic mode of separating the child from its attachment to womenfolk, having him learn from men martial arts, a practice she herself carried out with her own orphaned son, sending him to be page to England’s Earl of Salisbury. At the same time she advocates that the prince learn compassion for the weak and vulnerable in poverty, and to eschew riches and fame. She observes the injustice of taxing the poor rather than the rich, and that the laws likewise punish the poor out of all proportion to those with power, just as a spider’s web captures in its clutches smaller insects, not large ones (96).

The second book is on nobles and knights. Written in the context of civil strife, it emphasizes loyalty, obedience, honor, and merit. It opens, as did the first, with discussing the education of noble children separated from womenfolk. As in the first book it proceeds to exemplify its arguments with tales, of classic figures anachronistically garbed in complete medieval armour on horseback rather than fighting almost naked and on foot in the Roman and Greek manner of the source text. This book ends with discussing ruses one can use in warfare.

The final book is on the Third Estate and its dovetailing with the other two. It sees, in France, the need for obedience to the hereditary king, including the payment of taxes. In its discussion of the various groups, it classicizes clergy as philosophers who eschew worldly fame and wealth. Concerning merchants Christine argues for integrity, their trading as essential but not for exorbitant profit. They should counsel against rebellions and invest a tenth of their earnings in charitable works such as hospitals for the poor. She emphasizes the importance of the craftspeople and agricultural laborers whose work supports the whole body politic. Though she does not cite Plato’s Myth of the Metals--that the Spartan king is gold, the nobles, silver, the helot slaves, iron--this is her premise, though larded with Christian and “chivalric” compassion for the poor and vulnerable. She ends the work with the typical female modesty topos, much like that Julian of Norwich also wrote, and requests that we pray a Pater noster for her soul.

Angus Kennedy prefaces the book with a lengthy fifty-three-page Introduction, including the text’s afterlife, especially in England. He gives his translation copious footnotes and presents a concordance to the Hesdin and Gonesse materials, an analytic bibliography, and an index of the proper names used in the text at the book’s ending. The manuscripts, including Chantilly, Musée Condé 294, likely her autograph written to the boy Dauphin, are not illuminated apart from the Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenale 2681, which shows her writing the text, and is reproduced on this edition’s cover. Had she had this work illuminated in the manner of the gorgeous Queen’s Manuscript, British Library, Harley 4431, would the boy Dauphin have paid more heed to its text? While one could have wished for Christine to be compared with other writers on these topics, for instance, Hildegard von Bingen, Liber Divinorum Operum, and Birgitta of Sweden, Revelationes, of her own gender, and Brunetto Latino, Il Tesoro, Dante Alighieri, La Commedia, Niccolò Machiavelli, Il Principe, and François Fenelon, Télemaque, of the other, this work is welcomed.