Transforming Tragedy into Triumph: Lessons from Christine di Pisan, Europe's first female professional writer
Lessons from the lives of two of history’s most interesting and underrated women, Part II: Christine di Pisan + Happy Birthday to Rumi + book giveaway!
Continuing our series on lessons from history’s most interesting and underrated women, we’ll examine what Christine di Pisan—Europe’s first female writer—can teach us about transforming tragedy into triumph
Happy Birthday to Rumi, one of Persia’s greatest poets!
A giveaway of Russ Robert’s new book, Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us
Transforming tragedy into triumph: Christine di Pisan
Earlier this month, and in our last issue of Civic Renaissance, we explored the extraordinary life of Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard is considered the patron saint of human creativity, and was a woman who led a remarkable life of artistic and intellectual achievement despite early adversity. She endured disability, epilepsy, debilitating migraines, among other obstacles—not to mention the fact that she was a woman in an era when the lives and talent of women were not valued as being of equal moral worth or as being intellectual equals to men.
September is also the birth month of Christine de Pisan, born in September 1364 in Venice, Italy; she died in 1430. She was the first professional woman writer in European history, and she is also someone we can learn from when it comes to transforming tragedy into triumph.
As with Hildegard, Christine is not a household name in history. Hers is not a name that rolls of the tongue of every school-age young girl and boy.
But she should be.
Her achievements are worth studying in their own right, but particularly noteworthy is her ability to overcome adversity, tragedy, and structural barriers and go on to considerable accomplishments. It is possible that we may learn from her example and turn our own hardship into triumphs, too.
Christine de Pisan
Christine was born in Venice, Italy, in September 1364.
Her father, Tommaso, gave her an education that would have been the envy of intellectually curious minds everywhere of that day—let alone for women! She took full advantage of the opportune for learning that she was given and made the most of it. She used the basic tools of her education in great books and ancient languages, and then took them to another level on her own throughout her life.
Her active life of the mind is an example to us of lifelong learning.
She rigorously pursued her own educational plan of reading and learning—one of which Mortimer Adler or Clifton Fadiman could only dream.
Learning was a way for life for Christine. She devoured the classics but also was much broader in her learning. She loved languages and literature, and when she stumbled across something she particularly adored, she sought out experts on the subject with whom to converse.
As we’ll learn, she took the basic foundation of learning she was given early in life and built a lucrative and intellectually and creatively fulfilling career that kept her reading, covering new intellectual territory, and making new connections.
As was customary in her day, she was married in her teens to a royal secretary named Etienne du Castel, with whom she had three children.
Had the rest of Christine’s life gone according to plan, history would never have known of her astounding original thought or intellectual curiosity.
Fortunately for us, who have the privilege of enjoying her work, it didn’t.
Triumph from tragedy
Her husband died unexpectedly from the plague, and a number of lawsuits ensnared her husband’s estate, leaving her in financially dire straits.
Yet she was undeterred; she was not someone to take life’s misfortunes lying down.
Determined to support her family and mother—her father died the same year as her husband—she chose a path that no European woman before her had dared (at least that we know of).
She resolved to become a professional writer.
She began to write love ballads commissioned by the members of the royal court in France, where she would write personalized love poetry, intended to woo the aristocrat’s beloved. She soon cultivated a community of patrons to support her work.
After establishing herself as a poet, Christine branched out into other modes of writing and contributed significantly to the prevailing intellectual debates of the day.
For example, Christine rose to prominence when she wrote a scathing critique of the negative portrayal of women in the most popular love ballad of the day, “ The Romance of the Rose,” by Jean de Meun.
“The Romance of the Rose”—a highly influential work that Geoffrey Chaucer and other, later writers would mine for inspiration—satirized love at court and portrayed women as merely lustful temptresses. It was blatantly misogynistic.
So esteemed was Christine by her fellow male-writer counterparts that she was invited to weigh in on the most important intellectual debate of her day, called the Quarelle de la Rose— and offer a response to the cynical work by de Meun.
Christine was adamant that the anti-woman rhetoric in the poem was not only wrong but also harmful to society, because of the way it promoted discord between the sexes.
She writes, “If women were so perverse, should man not command woman not to go near them at all?”
She continued her critique of how misogynistic the literature of her era was in The Book of the City of Ladies.
She sardonically claimed that she was convinced by that era’s dominant anti-woman rhetoric! She wrote, “And I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have designed to make such an abominable work, which, from what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice.”
To make her case, Christine appealed to the very religious authority that her audience so admired. Did God make a mistake in creating women? she asks. Of course not. God does not make mistakes.
It’s remarkable on so many levels that we know Christine’s story.
As noted, for much of human history, women were not afforded the same economic or educational opportunities as men to make the intellectual and creative contributions of which they were capable. Even if women did make such contributions, they were not recorded and written about within a generation; thus, some of these works were not preserved and were lost to history.
Christine endured great tragedy in her life. Had her husband not died so young, we’d probably not be discussing her today. Had she not responded to adversity in her life with grit and determination to make the most of her circumstance, we’d probably not know of her.
But she cultivated her craft with the pen, provided for her family, and advanced the conversation via robust and civil discourse about an essential topic—the fundamental worth of women.
For this, we owe her a debt of gratitude.
Happy birthday to Mevlânâ Rumi!
The great Persian mystic and poet Rumi was born 815 years ago today!
Born on September 30, 1207, the Persian creator Rumi remains among the most important poets in the Eastern tradition. Also an Islamic scholar and Sufi mystic, he was born in modern-day Afghanistan and died in modern-day Turkey.
Deeply interested in the human condition, he was zealous about uniting mind and heart in living life.
He was also remarkably prolific: in his sixty-six years of life, Rumi wrote almost sixty-six thousand verses—each of which was informed by living life well by feeling deeply.
Here’s a poem of his to enjoy as we remember this timeless and eternal creator and poet—one who continues to speak to us today.
LET’S LOVE EACH OTHER, by Rumi (translated by Haleh Liza Gafori)
Let’s love each other,
let’s cherish each other, my friend,
before we lose each other.
You’ll long for me when I’m gone.
You’ll make a truce with me.
So why put me on trial while I’m alive?
Why adore the dead but battle the living?
You’ll kiss the headstone of my grave.
Look, I’m lying here still as a corpse,
dead as a stone. Kiss my face instead!
I’m giving away a copy of my friend Russ Robert’s new book, Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us.
This important book reminds us of the need for great humility in life. In our scientific, modern society, we take great pride in our ability to quantify and qualify everything—in essence “measuring” our way to truth.
But Russ reminds us that often, the most important things in life cannot be measured, and there will remain many facets of life we won’t every truly comprehend until we encounter them for ourselves.
Russ rightfully reminds us that life—and people—aren’t problems to be solved, but a mystery to be experienced and enjoyed.
To win a copy, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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