Medieval book by a writer dubbed the first feminist lands at U of T

The university acquired Christine de Pizan's 1470 manuscript The Book Of Peace from the collection of the late Pierre Bergé


A female advisor to kings on military strategy, a believer in the prospect of peace, even at the height of a brutal civil war, a fighter for women’s rights, including her own, and someone who wrote about all of that – for a fee. That doesn’t sound possible in the Middle Ages.

But Christine de Pizan did all of that, and in the process became one of the most important literary figures in history. During the reign of French King Charles VI, she was at the centre of important debates about female social roles – her treatises on the subject were always highly anticipated. But she wrote about political and military conflict as well.

Now the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library has acquired a manuscript, dated from 1470, of one of her most influential works, The Book Of Peace. In it, she argues that a truly just ruler will do what he can to resolve conflict.

“She’s writing highly politically charged works on the role of women but also political works, like this one,” says the Fisher Library’s medieval manuscript and book librarian Timothy Perry, pointing to the gorgeous 80-page bound volume.

“She discusses battle strategies and tactics, so not only is she a prominent woman writing in a time very few were, but she’s taking on topics that people thought of as masculine – war and strategy and tactics. She’s not wielding political power, but she is influential.”

A medieval manuscript may appear to be of interest to a narrow audience, but don’t be fooled. There’s been a resurgence of interest in de Pizan as a character contemporary feminists can relate to.

She wrote forcefully about women’s power and male dominance – toward the beginning of her Book Of The City Of Ladies, she laments the soul-crushing experience of having to read misogynist texts. But her personal story has powerful resonances, too.

The daughter of the king’s astrologist and physician, she had privilege for sure. And, according to Perry, her father was unusual in that he promoted her education, something a man with sons would rarely do.

But when de Pizan’s husband died young, she lost all financial means and could recover very little from her husband’s estate. Being a woman made her even more vulnerable. She needed brains and resourcefulness to figure out a way to support her family, and eventually was able to find patrons so she could generate earnings.

And so de Pizan is considered the first-ever professional woman of letters. There were a few other female medieval writers before her – most notably the 10th-century German dramatist and poet Hrotsvitha – but they were nuns financially sustained by their orders. No wonder de Pizan was one of Simone de Beauvoir’s personal heroes and that Judy Chicago created a plate in her honour for her famous Dinner Party exhibition.

Tim Perry University of Toronto

Samuel Engelking

Librarian Tim Perry says researchers from a variety of fields are interested in the de Pizan’s manuscript.

But Perry’s not sure we can call her a feminist in the context of her time since the word didn’t exist yet.

“She’s definitely a feminist in terms of scholarship – definitely an inspiration – but there have been debates as to what she should be called within her own context. Was she a feminist? Was she a proto feminist? Is the whole term too anachronistic to apply or was she something else? She’s such a striking figure, how do you even label her?”

Himself passionate and hugely knowledgeable about rare books – he waxes eloquent on parchment, how it’s made and why that matters – Perry stresses that scholars with varying academic focuses have reason to give The Book Of Peace their attention.

“One of the great things about an item like this is that there are so many different ways to approach it. If you’re studying French, then you’d be interested in the text. We have a course on book culture so students would be interested in the physical item, the book-making,” he explains. “For art historians, there’s the miniature at the front of the manuscript. And then there’s women and gender studies – de Pizan is obviously an important figure in women’s scholarship.”

In fact, researchers have already begun visiting the book and scholars from outside U of T are expressing deep interest.

“Research is an important part of how it can be used, beginning with people studying Middle French in the department of medieval studies. U of T professor Suzanne Akbari, for example, is writing a book on Chaucer and de Pizan.”

Prominent medievalist Dorothea Kullmann’s French literature class is coming for a workshop to look at the text and its illuminations and to study its provenance. In the undergraduate program in medieval studies at St. Michael’s College, the text is a gold mine for those focusing on women in the middle ages. And Adam Cohen, professor in art history, is offering a class over the summer on manuscript illustration. This Book Of Peace manuscript – one of three in existence – begins with a superb image.

The book itself is spectacular to look at, written in medieval French by hand and exquisitely bound in Brussels. There’s an indicator up front that it comes from the collection of the late Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent’s partner, from whose estate the seller acquired it.

There’s a monogram of Louis XVIII on the spine, though he never owned it. Each chapter begins with an elaborately designed initial, and the illustration at the front, in which De Pizan presents the book to the king’s eldest son, Louis de Guyenne, is a thing of beauty.

See for yourself when the book goes on display to the public some time in 2020.

@susangcole

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