Why Christine de Pizan, writing in bed?
by Bastienne Klein
The symbol, wrote French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, gives rise to thought. So I am starting out this blog, writing to relay the thoughts for using this image of a medieval woman writer Christine de Pizan, as a symbol for my academic mentoring concern.
The roots of the 21st Century universities are deeply pointed down in medieval grounding. This institution was literally, built of men. They staffed it, built it, taught and attended it. It didn’t offer an array of extra mural activity: the students attending, were its societies. Their small halls were certainly not the organised educational institutions we are a part of today. Despite these differences, it is recognised that the first medieval universities of Paris and Bologna are the direct descendants of the European and American ivy league’s hallowed halls.
What does this have to do with a woman writing in bed, on an inconceivably un-inked white counterpane?
Well, Christine de Pizan was born in Venice, in 1363, one hundred and sixty three years after the University of Paris received its first royal charter – in 1200. She was the daughter of a physician and court astrologer, who at the time of her birth, accepted an appointment to the court of Charles the V of France. She spent her childhood and much of her adult life in Paris. She died circa 1490 at the age of 65/66 years. During her lifetime, at least four more universities began in what we now call France. Despite her abilities, she would not have been allowed to attend what would become, the Sorbonne.
At 15 years, she married Etienne du Castel, a royal secretary at Court. Twelve years later, in 1390, she was widowed, struggling with law suits in attempting to collect income from her spouse’s estate. She was singly left to support her mother, a niece and her own two children. She started writing for profit. Came 1393, she was penning love ballads, which caught the attention of the French Court. By 1412, she had completed about three hundred ballads, and also shorter poetry. Over her thirty year writing career, she completed forty one pieces of serious writing, including many rhetorical books. This output earned her the title of Europe’s first professional woman writer. She is often pictured teaching, particularly, lecturing men (please see the services page of my website for this image).
In 1401/2 in Paris, a university town where men argued, wrote and taught, she involved herself in a literary quarrel, concerning the denigration of women. This dispute was levelled at Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose (written in the 13th century). She defended an argument against his claim that noble women at court were common seductresses. Her discourse elevated her status to that of intellectual. In some circles she is considered the prototype for the modern feminist.
It’s her writing in bed image that hooks me the most. Making academic arguments is lonely work. It is most poignant to see her on one side of the bed; her husband is dead. That empty space is also the reason she’s pressed the fine down cushion with the coarse red lining, behind her head: it’s going to be a long night, sitting up to write for her family’s survival.
If your fire has died down, after the day’s activity, bed could be the warmest place to write in. She seems calm, focused on the text she has started. Her inkpot is at the ready, with its organised pen holder, attached. A pen must have been a precious object to lose! Has she maybe closed her eyes to reflect on something she wants to say next? Or is she just hoping that she will be able to stay in bed and not have to get up for the family’s needs? Or has she simply dozed off? Of course, this is all personal speculation. I have no idea what the image really represents within its original context.
What the image means for my work is that ultimately, the goal of academic mentoring is to facilitate a student working on their own, to write confident academic arguments.
I have read other academics and writers who say that their best writing happened when they were warm on cold night, had a warm fire going, or were alone in their own space and had their books about them. It’s often at night. My own best moments of writing academically, were in bed. As a teenager, my mother would find me in bed with papers and pens and books, and fuss about getting a cushion behind my head, so that I would not get cold.
As my academic support work takes place at and is for classes and students at universities and colleges, I find the image inspiring. To write academically, is often to be an outsider to a mainstream societal way of thinking. Through touting the image of Christine de Pizan as symbol for my work, I am hoping that my academic mentoring work laces together to assist that medieval desire in all academics to teach, learn and write academic argument, whether inside or outside the university institution.
Information for this blog was taken from Wikipedia.com, and from The rise of Universities by C H Haskins, 1923, pages 37 – 78, Henry Holt & Company.