Christine de Pizan and ‘la Querelle de la Rose’ (14th December 2016)

christine-de-pizan-bl-harley-ms-4431-f-100r
Christine de Pizan, The Book of the Queen, London, British Library MS Harley 4431, f. 100r

Next meeting: 14th December 2016/ Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

Christine de Pizan (c. 1364-1430?), poet and biographer of King Charles V, was the first professional female author of France. Widowed before the age of 25, responsible for several dependants, far from her native Venice, and beset by multiple lawsuits, she appears to have made a living through book production and the copying of manuscripts before beginning to write her own poetry. Her Epistre au dieu d’Amours (Letter of the God of Love), written in 1399, is a defence of women which criticises amongst other texts the influential thirteenth-century allegorical dream vision, Le Roman de la Rose, in which the Lover pursues and finally achieves his object of desire, the Rose. In the Epistre she mocks the ingenuity the Roman presents as necessary to win the Rose, arguing that the difficulty involved in seduction disproves the antifeminist case against women:

And Jean de Meun’s The Romance of the Rose,

Oh what a long affair! How difficult!

The erudition clear and murky both

That he put there, with those great escapades!

So many efforts made and ruses found

To trick a virgin — that, and nothing more!

And that’s the aim of it, through fraud and schemes!

A great assault for such a feeble place?

(Christine de Pizan, Epistre au dieu d’Amours, trans. by Thelma S. Fenster, ll. 389-97)

The Querelle de la Rose, or Debate of the Rose, began during the early years of the fifteenth century and was seemingly initiated in person rather than sparked by the Epistre. Although the debate encompasses other texts, such as a sermon and treatise against Le Roman de la Rose by Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris, at its core are the epistles exchanged between Christine de Pizan and the three royal secretaries, Jean de Montreuil and Gontier and Pierre Col. Christine attacked Jean de Meun’s portion of the Roman for its antifeminism and what she understood to be its encouragement of immorality. More pertinently, she challenged the educated male admirers of the text. Thelma S. Fenster and Mary Carpenter Erler write that Christine’s intervention was perceived as an intrusion into a scholarly, masculine world:

Christine’s rebuke of Meun stirred their proprietary feelings, along with some irritation at her woman’s audacity. She was a feminine interloper in an exclusively masculine discourse, one that flourished between the secretaries and the authors they admired, on the one hand, and among the members of their own group, on the other. The literary practice they represented had never hesitated to write about women, though it rarely did so with the expectation that women themselves might be its respondents. Now the Epistre and the Dit would invite their public, one that Christine well knew included other women, to scrutinize the Roman, and to do so in a critical way.

(Fenster and Erler, Poems of Cupid, God of Love, p. 5)

The Readings:

‘The Debate Epistles’, from Christine McWebb (ed.), Debating the Roman de la rose: a critical anthology (New York: Routledge, 2007)
Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, The Romance of the Rose, trans. by Charles Dahlberg, 3rd edn. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995)
Christine de Pizan, Epistre au dieu d’Amours, trans. by Thelma S. Fenster, in Poems of Cupid, God of Love, ed. by Thelma S. Fenster and Mary Carpenter Erler (Leiden: Brill, 1990), pp. 34-89

A brief timeline of the debate:

1399:  Christine writes the letter to Cupid or Epistre au dieu d’Amours. The poem draws attention to the antifeminism of Jean de Meun’s continuation of Le Roman de la Rose, exposing to ridicule its illogical and inconsistent portrayal of women.

June/July 1401: Christine attacks Jean de Montreuil’s commentary on Jean de Meun’s continuation [epistle 4]. Montreuil’s commentary on Le Roman de la Rose has not survived.

September 1401: Gontier Col, secretary to the king, writes to Christine, requesting that she send him a copy of her letter to Jean de Montreuil [epistle 3].

September 1401: Christine responds with the requested letter [epistle 2 sets out her account; epistle 4 is the document requested].

September 1401: Gontier Col responds, insisting that Christine retract her views [epistle 5].

September 1401: Christine responds, restating her position that Le Roman de la Rose is an immoral text which endangers its readers [epistle 6].

October 1401: Christine writes to Pierre Col, brother of Gontier and Canon of Paris and Tournai [epistle 7].

February 1402: Christine sends the collected correspondence to Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France, asking for the Queen’s approval and support for her efforts to defend women from clerical antifeminism [epistle 1].

Further epistles were exchanged after Christine sought the Queen’s support. Several of these can be found in McWebb’s anthology.


Topics for discussion:

  • The (dis)continuities between the two excerpts from Le Roman de la Rose. The first passage, describing the beginning of the dream and Amant’s first sighting of the Rose, was written by Guillaume de Lorris; the second, the ‘plucking’ of the Rose, is taken from Jean de Meun’s continuation, composed nearly half a century later.
  • The balance between condemning a text’s presentation of women and condemning its moral status. To what extent does Christine’s argument veer towards promoting censorship of texts on the basis of immorality? How is her audience reflected in the tone and detail of her letters?
  • Humour in the Epistre au dieu d’Amours
  • Authority
  • Modes of argument
  • Modes of address between the correspondents
le-roman-de-la-rose-bnf-francais-1576-f-109r
The Lover plucks the Rose, Le Roman de la Rose, 14th century, BnF, fr. 1576, f. 109r

 Further reading (French):

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The Letters of Abelard and Heloise

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise recount the love affair between a philosopher and his pupil. Abelard, a prominent theologian, philosopher, and logician, was hired by the canon Fulbert to teach his niece, Heloise. Abelard and Heloise fell in love and had sexual relations with each other until they were discovered by Fulbert. The two lovers were separated, but continued to meet in secret until Heloise became pregnant.

After Heloise gave birth to a son, Astrolabe, Abelard suggested that he and Heloise should be married in secret in order to appease Fulbert. Abelard and Heloise could not be married publicly as Abelard’s reputation in the Church would be severely damaged. Heloise originally objected to the marriage, but the couple were eventually wedded in secret. Later, Fulbert publicly disclosed the marriage, although Abelard and Heloise denied it.

For her own safety, and to escape public scandal, Abelard sent Heloise, disguised as a nun, to the convent of Argenteuil where she had been brought up. Meanwhile, Fulbert and his friends punished Abelard by castrating him. To escape his shame, Abelard entered the Abbey of St Denis. Shortly afterwards, Heloise finally took the veil and became a prioress until the convent was taken over by the Abbey. Abelard arranged for Heloise and the nuns to enter the Order of the Paraclete, where Heloise became abbess to a new community of nuns.

The letters that we are reading are the ‘Personal Letters’ that were exchanged between Abelard and Heloise, and they reflect on the nature of their past relationship and their current life in the Church. The other letters exchanged between the two contain information about Abelard’s life and his misfortunes (letter 1, Historia calamitatum), and Abelard’s advice to Heloise on how to direct religious communities of women (letters 6 to 8, the ‘Letters of Direction’).

Questions for discussion

  1. What is the nature of the letter form as a means of private exchange? How do Abelard and Heloise greet each other?
  2. How are biblical stories and quotations used throughout the letters?
  3. What is the relationship between marriage and public shame? What do you make of Heloise’s repudiation of marriage? How would you characterise the relationship between Abelard and Heloise?
  4. How are female piety and private devotion represented in Abelard’s letters? Are they represented differently in Heloise’s letters?
  5. How does the goddess Fortune function in Heloise’s lament?
  6. What is the relationship between punishment, repentance, and salvation? How are these related to crime, intention, and guilt?
  7. What do you make of Abelard’s final rejection of the love affair and his appeal for absolution?
  8. Some scholars believe the letters were written by a single author (probably Heloise): can you find any similarities or differences between the letters of Heloise and Abelard?