Poet for Hire: Christine de Pizan & the Economy of Writing as a Woman
. . . language may be one of the many elements that allow us to make sense of things, of ourselves.
—Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
This is a story about trading in language, a story of sale and purchase, acquisition and acquiescence. It’s a story knit of female voices, past and present, each creating (and recreating) the other in turn. It begins with words found in history, and continues in a telling that plays for keeps. This is a story earned from wanting. Translation is its purveyor; invention, its currency.
To sell in French is vendre, and the vendition of the Middle Ages was a lyrical form in dialogue, in which the first line begins with the speaker offering something for sale. The partner then improvised a versified answer, rhyming with the object sold.[i] The exchange was intended as an amusing game of clever flirtation.
Some time around 1400, an Italian-born woman living in France composed a sequence of nearly seventy venditions, titled Jeux à vendre in the still-definitive 1886 volume edited by Maurice Roy.[ii] Jeux à vendre translates as “Games for Sale,” but for Christine de Pizan, money was no game. Known as the first woman in Europe to earn a living though writing, Christine well understood the desperation of financial hardship.
The daughter of a court astrologer, Christine was of a noble class, but after the deaths of her father and husband, the 25-year-old widow undertook sole responsibility for supporting her mother and three young children.[iii] A niece was also left in her care. Christine might have married again, but she chose not to. As was the case with most unattached women of her historical time and place, Christine’s security––both financial and sexual––was precarious.
She was left with a wealth of unscrupulous creditors and no protection against reputation-blackening rumor.
The 1405 prose work, Christine’s Vision, provides a astonishingly candid first person account of Christine’s dire straits following the untimely death of her husband, who had earned a steady income as a notary for the king: “Then troubles arose from all sides, and as is the common fare of widows, lawsuits and legal disputes came to me from everywhere. . . . “[iv]
Likening herself to a “captain of a ship lost in the storm,” Christine writes of the lengths required to keep her fledgling family afloat. She writes of betrayed trust. Of the shame of being found in want. Of the humiliation of asking for help.
Christine writes with surprising modernity about the bitterness of material loss, but perhaps most surprisingly, she openly confides the high cost required of female discretion:
“Oh God, how many annoying remarks, I had to listen to; how many stupid looks, how many jokes from some fat drunkard did I suffer; and because I was afraid of putting my case at risk and was so dependent on its outcome, I hid my thoughts and turned away without answering, or else I pretended that I did not understand, and that I took it all as a light joke.”
Whatever bargain she struck with politic silence to avoid personal bankruptcy, Christine publically expresses her outrage in her Vision. She censures systemic silences that lead to gendered inequities and needless suffering. And she takes to task an entire country of “worthy and valiant men” who do nothing to intervene with unjust laws and harassment “by the powerful.” Quoting from her own early poetry, Christine summarily faults nobles, clerks, princes, knights, prelates, judges, and officials as she exercises the only recompense that can not be taken from her: her voice.
Six centuries after Christine, financial disparity remains endemic across nations. There remain deep inequities of education, of opportunity, of choice. This is true across gender, race, class, country, and language.
“Yet language is not everything. It is only a vital clue to where the self loses its boundaries.”
In her 1993 ground-breaking essay, “The Politics of Translation,” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak reworks Walter Benjamin’s 1923 terminology to propose that “The task of the feminist translator is to consider language as a clue to the workings of gendered agency.”[v]
For Spivak, this task includes facilitating a “love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying,” whereby “the translator earns permission to transgress from the trace of the other—before memory—in the closest places of the self.”
It’s not the reader who is solicited in translation then, but the text—its language and the limits of that language, which “point at the silence . . . the absolute fraying. . . .” In translating the Middle French of Christine’s venditions, these silences and frayings are where a new voice emerged. I called her Sylvie at first, but knew I hadn’t yet earned the right to name.
In the lineage of Christine, a greater investment would need to be made.
In the language of Spivak “surrender to the text” is the charge for such privilege. “If you want to make the translated text accessible,” she advises, “try doing it for the person who wrote it.”
Across history, country, and language, Christine and I shared a deep desire for words we did not yet own. If we were dealing with love, access seemed a bargain.
As did Christine, I acquired all the books available in the vast library, not of a king, but of the university that funded my apprenticeship. As collateral I offered good-faith effort, resolute perseverance, and countless hours, all very un-billable. I scoured borrowed tomes of war, schism, upheaval; ran my fingers along foreign branches of royal family trees, pricked my thumb on a porcupine needle, symbol of Louis d’Orléans, murdered by order of his cousin, the John the Fearless. I pledged surrender not only to a text, but to Christine’s time, place, and culture. I undertook the long-ago language in which she wrote, so that I might gain entrance to the treasure— Spivak’s “right to become [an] intimate reader.” Only with such preparation might Christine’s pages yield to love’s fraying. Only then might the un-silenced voice reveal her true name.
Christine earned her living, finally—and the reputation by which we still know her—by setting upon an intensive course of study and producing her own manuscripts, which in the manner of medieval economy, she offered as gifts to those wealthy enough to reward her with monetary compensation. By her own reckoning, Christine “compiled fifteen major works . . . contained in seventy large-size quires” between 1399 and 1405, when she records the account in her Vision.
One of those works, The Book of the City of Ladies, remains among her most famous. In it, Christine catalogues estimable women through the ages, relaying tales of female virtue and honor “to confront head-on the tradition of literary misogyny . . . that pervaded her culture.”[vi] She revises longstanding notions of good and evil, and recasts familiar stories so that formerly discredited female subjects might receive their long-due merit. Even the steep price Eve paid for knowledge gains new value under Christine’s balance sheet: “Humankind has now become one with God which never would have happened if Eve hadn’t sinned.”[vii]
Another woman refunded the full measure of her contribution in Christine’s City of Ladies is the Cumaean sibyl, Almathea. Ovid’s version, with which Christine was familiar, reduces the sibyl to perpetual deterioration in an ampulla prison after the prophetic virgin dares spurn the advances of a god. It’s the same story I know from Charles Martin’s 2004 prize-winning translation of the Metamorphoses. Without such translations, I wouldn’t know the story at all, but Christine’s telling is the first I ever read of a prophet who burns her own books because she is not given fair payment for their worth. Such does language allow Christine to avenge those whose greed left her and her children in want.
In translating Christine’s venditions, I was greedy with want. I wanted words to yield riches, afford more than one meaning, revel in ambiguity; I wanted the agency of fluency, an abundance of language born of surrender to reading. Christine’s sibyl burns her books when a king does not pay her asking price. I almost stole a book to translate Christine’s verses—a dictionary, a very expensive one, loaned from another university’s library. The loan was up, and I still needed the book, and I thought I might say the book was lost, pay only the fine, which was less than the cost of the book, even with the breath of others marking the pages.
At first, the lie was in good faith—the book was lost; I had left it in the backseat of my car for weeks—work hours given over to paid employment, no time remaining to revel in words, an unequal transfer of resources. Then I went on a trip, emptied the car, placed the book somewhere I no longer remembered.
The book came due, and I thought to pay the fine quickly, have done with the guilt. Then, as if by a magic trick, the book appeared, a shiny penny on the sidewalk others pass, but only you see. I thought to steal it still, but knew Christine would never condone such a theft. My own university’s librarian ordered a copy for keeps. I may keep it forever. I have it still.
Christine made frequent mention of her mother in her writings, and in her Vision, this “worthy” and “dignified” woman is noted as the first Christine’s greatest treasures: “[N]ever was she overcome by any tribulations, nor did impatience ever break her courageous heart. . . . Just think what a great favor God is doing you by letting such a noble woman, so filled with virtue, live to old age in your company.” If Christine had been discontented at the start of her Vision because she could not “provide for her [mother] as is fitting,” by its conclusion, she arrives at an understanding that “this desire, when coupled with patience, is commendable for both of you [Christine and her mother].” It’s not the fulfillment of desire that holds value, Christine’s Philosophy seems to counsel, but the value we hold for those we love. Or, more precisely, for those who have earned our love through the values they uphold, no matter how poor the cards Lady Luck doles out. To desire the best for the steadfast yields its own reward.
Early in my inquiry my own very worthy (and ever-practical) mother had asked, What did Christine do when a person who promised to pay for a manuscript didn’t? I hadn’t yet read about the sibyl’s incendiary act of rebellion, but I did learn this: Jean the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, was repeatedly late with payment, and when Christine needed to secure a placement for her son’s future, both Burgundy and his cousin, Louis of Orléans proved less than forthcoming.
In fact, both royals failed to assist Christine in the safe return of her son, Jean de Castel, from England after she entrusted him to the care of the Earl of Salisbury. The Earl lost his head in a royal coup, and when the new king, Henry IV, desired not only that Jean remain at court but entreated Christine “with generous promises” to join them, she was required to use all her bargaining savvy: “I dissembled and thanked the king, saying that I was at his command, all this in order to get my son back. . . . I went to great trouble and sent some of my books so that my son finally got leave to come and accompany me . . . a trip which I have not yet made.”[viii]
Christine never did leave the country she adopted as her own, even as its rulers abandoned her and countless others suffering from foreign invasion and civil violence. She wrote in its language and quite probably translated into it. She might not have rendered her own translations of Ovid’s tales into French, but she certainly altered the terms of the exchange.
The woman who risked all she had—and all she didn’t—so that she might collect the rightful inheritance of her voice fulfilled the contract of her own desire through steadfast patience and tremendous effort. She educated herself and then wrote write publically in a time, place, and culture where other women had not—could not. Christine could, and she did. She wrote not only for herself, but for those who might have wanted to. She wrote of virgins, wives, widows, princesses, and prostitutes. She wrote of saints and prophets.
More than that, Christine frayed the stories that had always been told, “gradated into speaking,” as Spivak might say, “of intimate matters in the language of the original,” thereby transforming the language she undertook as a young girl more profoundly than if she had translated it into her mother’s Italian. She transformed, too, the physical manifestation of that language, producing her own manuscripts and employing a female artist to illuminate them.[ix] Rather than burning her work, Christine took her “tools and hammer on the anvil . . . durable as iron . . . to forge [books that] will for all time to come keep [her] memory alive before the princes and the whole world. . . .”[x] We are still reading the gifts of that labor, those gambles in language.
In modern French, the word jeu translates as a game, or, if we are speaking of the theater, to act. It can also refer to gambling. « Cacher son jeu » is to keep one’s cards hidden or conceal one’s hand. En jeu points to what’s at stake.
For Spivak, what’s at stake in “The Politics of Translation” is not a single equivalency of meaning, but agency, “the production of identity as pluralized as a drop of water under a microscope.” My greed had not been simply a poet’s greed for words—for multiplicity—but a promissory note for the task ahead. As translators with a vested interest in restoring agency in and around language, “[w]e must attempt,” as Spivak notes, “to enter or direct . . . [the staging of the agent], as one directs a play, as an actor interprets a script. That takes a different kind of effort from taking translation to be a matter of synonym, syntax and local colour. ”
In the dictionary I almost stole, the jeu of Old French also translates as a game or sport. If you follow the game all the way through, jeu leads to jou, which arrives, finally, at je, as in the singular pronoun I. I’m for sale, whispers Christine’s title, not unlike Cole Porter’s down-on-her-luck singer, advertising her wares.
In the dictionary I almost stole, jeu is defined, expectedly, as a “love poem in dialogue form,” but jou also renders the following: yoke, bond, and join. Exactly who is doing the joining remains in play. Jousting and sex are also in the entry’s mix, as if in struggle with jest, as if to resist any notion that these verses are just a game.
In surrendering to the text, in reading as a translator, part of the task, according to Spivak, is to uncover “a history of that refusal and resistance. . . It is therefore only appropriate that its conclusion should gesture towards the limit, risk the re-inversion of the boundary by speaking from the other, refusing silence to what is unsaid.”
In the dictionary I almost stole, jeu can also mean: to propose an alternative.
Threatened by increasing violence unchecked by rulers with a greed more corrupt than ardent, Christine fled Paris and her public writing life for monastic sanctuary, where she remained in self-exile until her death. While sequestered, Christine wrote what is believed to be the first poem to relay the triumph of Joan of Arc. With the exception of one other manuscript, no other writing from these last twelve years of Christine’s life are thought to exist.
The scholar part of my (pluralized) identity isn’t particularly interested in disproving this claim. The poet part, however, aches when she imagines a woman who paid such a steep price for her voice remaining silent the last decade of her life. And the secret agent who acts as translator for a poet who acquired a life of words when all seemed lost refuses to interpret white space as evidence of silence.
In any of these identities, I wanted language “to make sense of things,” as Spivak says, which is also to say, that in surrendering to Christine’s text, I wanted to make sense of myself and the world I share with 7.3 billion fellow humans. I’m nearing the age Christine was when she entered her long passage of silence. Fortune, fate, or maybe God, has let my mother live into old age, if not directly in my company, within a morning’s airplane ride. Six centuries after Christine’s Vision, there remain deep inequities of education, of opportunity, of choice. This is true across gender, race, class, country, and language. What’s at stake? As a global citizen, as a poet, as a mother’s daughter, it seems to me: Everything.
In The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine tells the story of a young woman named Marina. To remain with her widowed father, who has taken holy orders, Marina dresses as a male novice and assumes the name Marinus. After the father dies, Marinus lives alone in her cell, “leading such a holy existence that . . . the monks praised her piety. None of them suspected she was, in fact, a woman.”
When a local inn keeper’s daughter becomes pregnant and Marinus is accused of being the father, the devout maiden chooses to accept blame rather than prove her innocence by revealing her true identity. In this way, she restores some measure of honor to the innkeeper’s daughter, who gives birth to a son.
Banished from the monastery, Marinus undertakes the infant’s care, feeding the child beggar’s crusts. Five years pass. Still disguised as a male penitent, Marinus dies. When the monks go to wash the body, they discover, “that ‘he’ was in fact a woman, [and] are horrified to see the terrible wrong they had done to such a holy and innocent creature.”
At Marina’s burial mound, a blind man’s sight is restored. The young mother who had lied out of fear and gone out of her mind is restored to her senses. “Many other miracles occurred on this site,” writes Christine, “and still do today.”
So does surrender to Christine’s text yield the name of the one who scribes at the limits of language. I yoke myself to her, Marina. Translation as the most intimate act of reading. We enter now the fraying.
[i] The Distaff Gospels: a first modern English edition of Les évangiles des quenouilles, translated and edited by Madeleine Jeay and Kathleen Garay (Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2006), 24-25, n.3.
[ii] Christine de Pizan “Jeux à vendre,” Œuvres Poétiques de Christine de Pisan, ed. Marice Roy (Paris: Librairie de Firmin Didot et Cie, 1886), Vol.1. Available online through Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18061/18061-h/18061-h.htm
[iii] Charity Cannon Willard’s remains the definitive biography: Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works (New York: Persea, 1984).
[iv] Christine’s Vision in The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan, trans. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Kevin Brownlee (New York: Norton, 1997), 173-201.
[v] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine (New York: Routledge, 1993), 179-200. Thanks to Samantha Pious of the University of Pennsylvania for bringing my attention to Spivak’s work.
[vi] Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. Rosalind Brown-Grant (London: Penguin, 1999), xvii.
[vii] Ibid., 23.
[viii] Christine’s Vision, 195.
[ix] Christine’s illuminator, Anastasie, is identified in Nadia Margolis’ An Introduction to Christine de Pizan (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011), 74.
[x] Ibid., 193-194.