Shakespeare is often noted for the witty and insightful dialogue of his luminous women. Desiderius Erasmus not so much. But fifty years before Shakespeare was born, Erasmus was writing clever little plays in Latin, called colloquies, to be performed by schoolboys like Shakespeare to de Pizan1practice Latin conversation; and those playlets were full of whip-smart women sparring with their rather dull male counterparts. There’s Maria, who trades witty barbs with her suitor, Pamphilus, in Proci et puellae (lover and lass), a colloquy that sounds a whole lot like Beatrice and Benedict, Rosalyn and Orlando, Tatania and Oberon, or Viola and Orsino. There’s Xanthippe, the shrew in Uxor (marriage) who must absolutely have been the inspiration for Kate. There’s Lucretia in Adolescentis et scorti (the teenager and the whore) from whom Falstaff gets some of his best lines. There’s the sassy, ugly cook, Margaret, in Convivium poeticum (the poetic feast), who mouths off at all her pretentious poetical guests when they question her choice of lettuce in their salad and predates any one of a number of Shakespeare’s opinionated servants, female and male. There’s the brilliantly educated Magdalia in Abbatis et eruditae (the abbot and the learned woman), modeled on Sir Thomas More’s daughter Meg, who can’t keep from laughing at her foil, an ignorant and venal abbot. Finally there is Fabulla, in Puerpera (the new mother) who argues the artist Eutrapelus to the wall when he infers that she is lucky to have a baby son rather than a daughter. He finally says of her, “I see that you are bent on single combat. For that reason, I think I’d better yield for the present … for where wars are fought with words, not even seven men are a match for one woman.” It’s a quote I’ve thought of often several times watching the recent democratic candidates in their debates!
I love Erasmus’ appreciation and admiration for the wit and wisdom of women, partly because I’m sure he was not alone, but also because I don’t know much about the history of medieval and early Renaissance feminism. Erasmus and Shakespeare surely were not the only ones who celebrated smart women, but there are not many representative models of such women in the available literature of the time. My sister-in-law turned me on to Christine de Pizan, who, one hundred years before Erasmus, earned her living as a poet, biographer of a king, and writer of The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies.
De Pizan was widowed with three children to raise at the age of twenty-five, and although she had friends at court, she had no income of her own. She did not wish to remarry or become a nun, so she turned to writing. At first she wrote rather conventional love poetry, which apparently sold well enough to keep her out of poverty. Then she was commissioned by the Duke of Burgundy to write the biography of his deceased brother, King Charles V. As she became more sure of her strengths as a writer, she celebrated creative and innovative women by writing the two books shown here. Both of these books and their illustrations give us a glimpse of the vibrant intellectual contributions of women to the culture and climate of the time.
She also wrote political theory from a feminist perspective. As Charles VI’s, oldest son came of age she wrote works to his mother, Queen Isabeau, that promoted wise and effective government. In The Book of the Body Politic, dedicated to the dauphin, she analyzed and described the customs and governments of societies of the time.
She lived to record some extraordinary history. Late in her life she published the poem, The Tale of Joan of Arc, after the French victory over the English at Orleans. Published just a few days after the coronation of Charles VII, she expressed renewed optimism for her adopted country. She cast Joan of Arc as the fulfilment of prophecies and a symbol for a bright future. Sadly, she died only months before that symbol was tried by an English court and burned at the stake.