Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Christine de Pizan writes in her study, while the goddess Minerva stands outside
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    The image above depicts Christine de Pizan, a prominent author associated with the French royal court, writing in her study. Separated by a column, the goddess of wisdom and defensive war, Minerva, stands on the viewer’s right, wielding a sword and shield. The goddess faces Christine, seeming to peer into the author’s study. Meanwhile, Christine focuses intently on her work. Viewers have the sense that she is being watched over by the goddess, perhaps channeling Minerva’s power into her writing. Christine is dressed in her standard blue gown and white headdress, an outfit that appears in other author portraits. Minerva wears a blue and red dress accessorized with golden breastplates and a crown, standing on a rock with the backdrop of the forest. Both women are pale and have long, graceful necks, which were markers of beauty at the time.

    The artwork is found in a copy of Christine’s Le livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie (The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry), a treatise that was written in 1410. This particular copy was written by a man named Pey de la Fita who styled himself monsieur. The term could signal a knight or other elite social status. De la Fita completed the work in London in 1434. In the book, Christine discusses the importance of chivalry and the qualities that characterize it. The work also speaks to the importance of educating and training men before placing them on the battlefield. Christine was commissioned to write the treatise by John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy, as a military instruction guide for Louis of Guyenne, the young dauphin of France. The manuscript’s function as an instruction manual for future kings is underlined in the case of Manuscript Royal 15.E.VI, a wedding gift for Queen Margaret of Anjou, the bride of King Henry VI of England. It was made for the queen at the order of John Talbot, the first earl of Shrewsbury, a leading military figure. As fifteenth-century noblewomen often were their children’s first teachers, it is likely that Talbot constructed this anthology with the idea that Margaret would use it to teach her future son.

    As a woman in this period, Christine had to justify her undertaking such a difficult topic in her writing. Why would a woman have the authority to discuss matters as complicated as war? To justify her work, Christine calls upon the mythical figure of Minerva, who is credited with inventing the art of forging armour.
    "O Minerva! goddess of arms and of chivalry, who, by understanding beyond that of other women, did find and initiate among the other noble arts and sciences the custom of forging iron and steel armaments and harness both proper and suitable for covering and protecting men’s bodies against arrows slung in battle--helmets, shields, and protective covering having come first from you--you instituted and gave directions for drawing up a battle order, how to begin an assault and to engage in proper combat. Lady and high goddess, may it not displease you that I, a simple little woman, should undertake at the present time to speak of such an elevated office as that of arms. In the aforementioned country of Greece, you provided the usage of this office, and insofar as it may please you to be favorably disposed, and I in no way appear to be against the nation from which you came, the country beyond the Alps that is now called Apulia and Calabria in Italy, where you were born, let me say that like you I am an Italian woman."

    In this way, Christine draws subtle parallels between the goddess and herself. Both are forging armor for the men of their country, Christine with her pen and Minerva with her sword. The juxtaposition of these two characters, both beautiful and armed with their respective weapons, calls upon the viewer to find additional similarities these two strong women shared. Minerva teaches Christine about the art of war. Christine then instructs her readers, including women, who will then use the knowledge to educate their sons. Women, thus, become prominent teaching figures and experts in the arts of war, fit to educate the next generation of princes.

    Other copies of Le livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie (The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry) contain depictions of Christine and Minerva in different poses. MS 2436, produced circa 1420, portrays Christine kneeling before Minerva who sits in a high-backed chair. MS CFM 21, produced circa 1470–80, presents Christine writing on the left, while the two are together on the right, Minerva pointing to armorers in the foreground. These differing depictions hint at slightly varying relationships between Christine and Minerva. Is Christine a loyal servant of Minerva, or a co-commander of an army? In another one of Christine’s works, L'Épître d’Othéa, there is an illustration of Minerva flying in the sky, armoured and bearing gifts of shields and military equipment which she bestows upon the men below her (see in the Related Work section below) . In this illustration, Minerva's sword rests at her side and her shield is mounted on her back. She is wearing full metal armour, a detail which is emphasized through the prominent plates protecting the joints at her elbows. While the illustrations vary slightly in their depictions, in all, Minerva is represented as a powerful, military figure.

    Christine’s use of Minerva subverts the typical medieval use of mythological characters. It is not surprising that most medieval writers emphasized the power and importance of male mythological characters while reducing goddesses and female mortals to objects of sexual desire. They realigned the relationships between the sexes to reflect their contemporary experiences. To use scholar Hans Robert Jauss’s term, Christine “remythicized” female mythological characters to underline their inherent power and dignity. Christine calls upon female higher powers to support her writing in another book, Le Livre de la cité des dames (The Book of the City of Ladies). In this text, the Three Virtues, Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice, call upon Christine to defend women from the slander of male writers. She celebrates unique family structures within this text through her discussion of Amazon women who interact with men solely for procreation and raise daughters on their own. She commemorates female martyrs who disguised themselves as men to protect their families and loved ones. Christine de Pizan, through her unique portrayal of women as powerful, independent, and brave individuals, is an important figure in the prehistory of feminist thought.

  • Source: British Library
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Armor     Christine de Pizan, Poet- Faits d' Armes et de Chevalerie     Classical Influences     Minerva (Mythological Figure)     Mythology- Classical in Art     Warfare and Warriors     Women Authors in Art     Writing
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1434
  • Related Work: Full page of the miniature of Christine in her study with Minerva standing outside, British library, Harley 4605, fol. 3r.
    Prince in armor orders the arrest of a merchant, British library, Harley 4605, fol. 95.
    Detail of Christine de Pizan in her study at the beginning of the Cent balades, British Library, Harley 4431, fol. 4r. The manuscript is known as "The Book of the Queen" because it collected several of Christine de Pizan's writings for Isabeau of Bavaria, the queen of France and wife to King Charles VI.
    Minerva presents armor to her followers, Christine de Pizan, L'Épître Othéa, British Library, Harley 4431, fol. 102v.
    Minerva instructs men in making armor, Giovanni Boccaccio, Des cleres et nobles femmes, British Library, Royal 20 C V, fol. 15.
  • Current Location: London, British library, Harley MS 4605, fol. 3r
  • Original Location: London
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Paints; Gold; Red and blue inks;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 31/21/
  • Inscription: Manuscript colophon: Explicit. Digatz un pater noster et un ave maria per mosseu peyer Delafita qui a escrivt a quest present livre en lan de nostre senh'r mil.cccc.xxxiiijo Et fut feit a Londres. A xv.de may ["It ends here. Say an Our Father and a Hail Mary for Monsieur Peyer de la Fita who wrote this book in the year of our lord 1434. It was done in London on the 15th of May."]
  • Related Resources:

    Bell, Susan Groag. "Christine de Pizan in Her Study." Cahiers de recherché médiévales et Humanists, Études christiniennes, June 10, 2008. Available open access: https://journals.openedition.org/crm/pdf/3212.

    Bossy, Michel- André. "Arms and the Bride: Christine de Pizan's Military Treatise as a Wedding Gift for Margaret of Anjou." Christine de Pizan and the Categories of Difference. Edited by Marilynn R. Desmond. University of Minnesota Press, 1998. Pages 236-256.

    Chance, Jane. Medieval Mythography. Volume 3 The Emergence of Italian Humanism, 1321-1475. University Press of Florida, 2015. Pages 357-359.

    Christine de Pizan. The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry. Translated by Sumner Willard and edited by Charity Cannon Willard. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

    Fresco, Karen L. "The Manuscripts of the Livre des fais d'armes et de chevalerie." Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures 6, 1 (2017): 137-162.

    Krueger, Roberta. "Towards Feminism: Christine De Pizan, Female Advocacy, and Women’s Textual Communities in the Late Middle Ages and Beyond." The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe. Edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras. Oxford University Press, 2013. Pages 590-606.

    Parkes, M. B. Their Hands before our Eyes: A Closer Look at Scribes: The Lyell Lectures Delivered in the University of Oxford, 1999. Ashgate, 2008.