Marilynn Desmond, Binghamton University – Christine de Pizan on Gender and Warfare in the Middle Ages

Writers who lived through war can help bring different perspectives to these conflicts.

Marilynn Desmond, distinguished research professor at Binghamton University, details one such writer.

Marilynn Desmond holds a doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of California at Berkeley. She has published extensively on the reception of Classical texts in medieval vernacular literatures, especially French and English.

Christine de Pizan on Gender and Warfare in the Middle Ages

Six hundred years ago, the French and English kings were engaged in the conflict known as the Hundred Years’ War–which actually lasted more than a hundred years, from 1337-1453.  In addition to the war between the two kingdoms, a civil war erupted early in the 1400’s between two branches of the French royal family which brought violence to the streets of Paris. Christine de Pizan, a prolific French writer, lived and wrote under the shadow of these conflicts.    

While much of Christine’s early work engaged with the status and roles of women, in the first decade of the fifteenth-century, she began to write about the nature of warfare and diplomacy. Her first major work in this vein, Feats of arms and chivalry, examines the strategies—and ethics–of warfare, especially the “just war.” The Book of Peace followed, a guide to diplomacy in wartime. When the English victory at Agincourt in 1415 brought devastating losses to the French, she wrote a public letter of consolation to the women who had been made widows in this battle. Christine eventually withdrew to the safety of an Abbey outside of Paris, where word reached her in 1430 that Joan of Arc had lifted the English siege of Orleans, and her final poem, written just before her death, praises the extraordinary feats of the woman warrior, Joan of Arc.

As the earliest texts in European literature to address the gendered nature of warfare and diplomacy, Christine’s books seem uncannily modern. Unlike the heroic and chivalric deeds of knights in arms and damsels in distress—the stereotypes we associate with medieval literature—these texts on warfare repeatedly remind us of the importance of diplomacy, as well as the human costs of warfare—not only for those who fight, but also for the female non-combatant.


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