Tuesday 22 January 2013

Medieval Middle Class Women go to College: Three 15th Century Illustrations from Christine de Pizan's The Treasure of the City of Ladies

        Christine de Pizan (1364 - c. 1430) wrote The Treasure of the City of Ladies (also known as The Book of the Three Virtue, and A Medieval Woman’s Mirror of Honor) in 1405 to offer practical counsel to women of every class in medieval society.  Of particular interest to scholars and students today is the attention she pays to middle and lower class women in The Treasure.  Hers is not the first such book to advise women on their proper behavior and duties.  Manuals written by men to mold their wives and daughters were numerous in Europe from the time of ancient Rome through the Middle Ages, including works by such well known individuals as Tertullian in the second century, St. Jerome in the fourth and Louis IX himself, both saint and king, to his daughter Isabelle in the thirteenth.[i] While Christine's curriculum in The Treasure of the City of Ladies  does not endorse Cicero and the classics, it does recommend the study of finance, military defense, and estate management along with fewer than the usual religious admonitions.[ii]  As companion texts, The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies (1404-5),  first celebrate the history of women and then guide them with practical advice on how to live.  This two-pronged approach creates an advocacy for women’s education not seen in the western world prior to Christine’s utopist and practical vision. Charity Cannon Willard concurs: "No such comprehensive description of women in these sections of society had been attempted previously."[iii]   Also noteworthy, many of the surviving manuscripts of The Treasure of the City of Ladies have some connection with Margaret of Burgundy and her sisters, all of whom made powerful marriages, disseminating The Treasure throughout Europe.[iv]  The significance of women book owners on the cross-fertilization of artistic styles cannot be overemphasized.  Noblewomen often moved as young girls to distant lands to become familiar with the court and culture of their future husbands. They sometimes traveled with an entourage of guardians, fine goods, and dowry books inherited from their mothers.[v]
Figure 1
     The Boston Treasure miniature is the earliest known illustration of Christine's vision of a “College of Ladies” (PL MS fr. Med. 101, f. 3, 1405-10, Boston Public Library) (Fig. 1). The single miniature for the Boston Treasure contains two separate scenes, and was painted under Christine's supervision by The City of Ladies Master circa 1410.[vi]  Perhaps Christine had her text illustrated with only a single miniature in order to underscore the egalitarian scope of her college.  Dress and demeanor are crucial to understanding the visual mode of discourse during this period, as they act as metaphors of emblematic significance with regard to social status.  Additionally, an analysis of composition provides a key to understanding the degree of adherence to Christine's vision of education for all women. 
          The activity of the Prologue is the subject seen at the left of the Boston Treasure. Christine reclines on a bed trying to rest after finishing The City of Ladies. The impatient Virtues crowd by her bedside—one pulls Christine from her bed, enjoining her to get to work before she falls prey to laziness.  In the Prologue Christine writes that she wanted only to rest for a while, as she felt exhausted after writing The City of Ladies. [vii]  The Virtues have no intention of allowing her to rest, as all three say to her in unison, “have you already put away the tool of your intelligence and consigned it to silence?”[viii]  Christine, easily identified by her uniform of blue and white, rests on a canopied bed.  The Virtue awakening Christine gives her such a mighty tug that she pulls her into an upright position, commanding:
            Take your pen and write. Blessed will they be who live in our city to swell the numbers of citizens of virtue.  May all the feminine college and their devout community be  apprised of the sermons and lessons of wisdom. First of all to the queens, princesses and great ladies, and then on down the social scale we will chant our doctrine to other ladies and maidens and all classes of women so the syllabus of our school may be valuable to all. Amen.[ix]
The right side of the Boston Treasure miniature portrays all of the women addressed in the text. The middle class women are seated on a bench in the foreground, with their backs to the viewer.  Three of these women wear hoods with long liripipe tails hanging down their backs.  These hoods indicate their lower status - one never sees an aristocratic pictured in such a hood!  There are several women on the bench with white horned headdresses identical to the one our author wears, spelling out their slightly higher status as servants of the court, or members of the affluent middle class. 
Figure 2
     L.M.J. Delaissé believes that the artist of the Brussels Treasure (Brussels, BR 9551-2, f. 66, 1420-30. Royal Library of Albert 1st) is from the workshop of Guillbert de Metz, a Burgundian painter working in Flanders circa 1430 during the reign of Philip the Good (Fig. 2).[x]  This artist expanded the Boston Treasure prototype miniature (Fig. 1) from one to three in order to illustrate more fully the students addressed in each of the text’s three parts.  The feathery brushstrokes used to delineate the figures in each miniature also demonstrate a more elegant aesthetic at play.  This artist  makes a variety of changes from the prototype image by the City of Ladies Master (Fig. 1).  First, the format is changed from a single miniature to three miniatures with four scenes.  The artist invents an entirely new look for the Virtues, who are now slender-posed figures with long, blond hair surrounding their oval heads, always tipped in one direction or the other.  These three angelic-looking Virtues are still identical to one another in physiognomy, just as Christine states in the text.   In all three miniatures, the Virtues appear to the left of their pupils and stand in a meadow.  They also hold no attributes, yet each have slightly different hand gestures.  This miniature for the Brussels Treasure addresses the education of middle class and merchant women (Fig. 2).  The scenes is set entirely in a garden-like field.  This time all the students stand outside together in one space under the open sky.  Seven women are pictured; the three Virtues, dressed in pallid gowns and four animated and well-dressed students from the lesser nobility or bourgeoisie.  The students to the right huddle together in obvious discussion, harkening back to many of the miniatures accompanying The City of Ladies.  The formality of the previous two classrooms (not pictured here) is relaxed in this composition.  All of the students wear simple, plain colored though well-cut gowns, yet the elaborate crimped and layered veils of some convey the wealth such fashion requires.  At least two, on the right, wear liripipped hoods associated with the lower middle class. All are now seen from the front, in contrast to the Boston Treasure miniature from 20 years before, and all  turn and pose decoratively in accordance with this artists charming style.[xi] Clothing distinctions between the lesser nobility and the powerful members of the merchant class are the hardest to identify and regulate through sumptuary laws. These students in the third miniature of the Brussels Treasure represent the class to which Christine herself belonged as the wife of a clerk at court. The Virtues in the third miniature appear less severe in their lectures, for it is this section that addresses women from the lower ranks of society, from merchants’ wives to the chambermaids, although the artist only depicts wealthy bourgeois ladies in this miniature.  The artist has not pictured the laborers and serving women Christine also addresses in Part Three of the text.  The Virtues appear more at ease before their lower class students.  Two hold their hands together gently before them; only the first, on the left, extends her hand out in a gesture indicating declamation. As tempting as it might be to look for a wealthy middle class patron for this manuscript due to the prestige given to our bourgeois students in this miniature, its provenance is well known.  This sumptuous manuscript was owned by the de Croy family and later became the property of two famous women and book collectors, Margaret of Austria and later Margaret of Hungary, noblewomen of the highest rank.[xii]
Figure 3
      The final miniature of the four created for the Beinecke Treasure, circa 1475, located in the Beinecke Library at Yale University (MS 427, f. 72),  presents another variation of the visual models discussed so far (Fig. 3).[xiii]  This deluxe Treasure has wide borders reminiscent of those found in the Hours of Margaret of Burgundy.  It may be a manuscript long presumed lost, belonging at one time to an admirer of Christine's works, Anne of France (1461-1522).[xiv] Anne of France, inspired by Christine, wrote a book entitled Anne de France’s Teachings to her Daughter, and she was a well-known advocate for women’s education among the nobility.[xv] The high quality of the Yale manuscript resulted in many speculative attributions concerning its provenance until John Plummer's definitive attribution of the miniatures to the Master of the Amiens 200.[xvi] 
          The further away from the original source, the author herself, the less compulsion the artist has to follow the dictates of a deceased authority, preferring to update the text with miniatures expressing the tastes of the day. So luxury fabrics and fine, fashionable clothing abound in the miniatures of the Beinecke Treasure, for pleasing the patrons was more important to the artist’s livelihood than obeying the sanctions of the author who, however revered, was no longer alive to halt the process.  Christine's arguments against extravagance in dress in the Treasure are based on financial concerns rather than the sin of vanity.  Considering that during the fifteenth century fine Italian textiles cost as much as a jeweled necklace, her warnings appear quite practical.  Following Christine's admonitions, the women in the final miniature of the Beinecke Treasure are conservatively dressed.  There are no brocades or ermine or sable, and the furs, restricted by sumptuary laws to the nobility, are evident.  Only the tight-fitting green dress of the young girl with the dog and the woman behind her betray current fashion.  Several women wear looser robes and flat topped hoods suggesting the garb of nuns or more likely regional tastes. Like all the other miniatures of The Treasure, the artist does not represent the laborers and serving women Christine specifically includes in the final section of the text.  The addition of two children and a dog in this miniature constitute a delightful touch. The toddler, most likely a girl given the nature of the text (boys and girls dressed similarly until about age six), wears a blue robe and seems more captivated by the dog rather than the lecture.  Christine advises working women to
            ...have their children instructed and taught first at school by educated people so that they may know God...it is a   great sin of mothers and fathers, who ought to be the cause of the virtue and  good behavior of their children, but they are sometimes the reason (because of  bringing them up to be  finicky and indulging them to much) for their wickedness and  ruin.[xvii] 
The Master of the Amiens 200 provides us with delightful, genre-like scenes of Christine’s utopist educational vision delineated so thoroughly in The Treasure of the City of Ladies—providing school rooms for every woman in society from pompous princesses to toddlers distracted by puppies.  Christine would be delighted.[xviii]

 -Laura Rinaldi Dufresne 

[i] For a longer list see Diane Bornstein, The Lady in the Tower, Medieval Courtesy Literature for Women (Hamden Connecticut:  Archon Books, 1983), 134.
[ii] Christine de Pizan,  The Treasure of the City of Ladies.  Translated by Sarah Lawson.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1985.  76-77. 
[iii] Charity Cannon Willard, "A Fifteenth-Century View of Women's Role in Medieval Society:  Christine de Pizan's Livre des Trois Vertus" in The Role of Women in the Middle Ages, edited by R.T. Morewedge (Albany:  State University of New York, 1975), 100.
[iv] See Edith Yenal, Christine de Pisan:  A Bibliography (London:  Scarecrow, 1982), 43-44, 46-47.
[v] Susan Groag Bell, "Medieval Women Book Owners:  Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture," Signs 7 (1982): 763-764.            
[vi]The City and The Treasure, as well as other manuscripts by Christine are painted by one of her favorite artists named The City of Ladies Master by Millard Meiss, "The Exhibition of French Manuscripts of the XIII-XVI Centuries at the Bibliothéque National," Art Bulletin XXXVIII (1956): 153.
[vii]The Treasure, 31. 
[viii] Ibid. 31.
[ix] Ibid., 36
[x]Brussels BR 9551-2. Charles de Croy’s signature is on folio 104v & family arms on folios 2, 46 and 66.  L.M.J. Delaisse, La Siecle d’or de la miniature Flamande: Le Mecenat de Philip le Bon (Bruxelles: 1959), 35-36.
[xi] The headdress is not only a valuable dating tool, but it is the best indicator of class distinction.  The crimpled veils are the same as those worn by the bride in Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding of 1430. Gowns fashionable in Paris in 1410 are seen in The Netherlands and Flanders in 1430 accompanied by regional headgear, Margaret Scott, Medieval Dress and Fashion.  London:  British Library, 2007,  125-26. 
[xii]  (M. Debae, xvii, & 56.) Margaret of Austria acquired the de Croy library in 1511.  (Delaissé, "Le Siècle d'or … Flamande,  35-36, no. 27.)
[xiii] Yale University, Beinecke Library, MS 427, fols. 16, 49v, 72. c. 1460.  This codex may be one presumed lost, once in the Bourbon Library and owned by Anne of France (1462-1522).  The Yale University Library Gazette, 54, no. 4 (1978): 244.
[xiv] The Beinecke Treasure was virtually unknown until its appearance at a sale in Paris in 1968. The Yale University Library Gazette, 52, no. 4 (1978): 244. 
[xv] Susan Groag Bell, The Lost Tapestries of The City of Ladies: Christine de Pizan's Renaissance Legacy. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2004, 75.
[xvi] The Treasure, 244.
[xvii] Ibid., 168.
[xviii] For more on this topic see The Fifteenth-Century Illustrations of Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies, Laura Rinaldi Dufresne, Edwin Mellen Press 2012.


1. The Three Virtues Return to Christine; The College of Ladies The Boston Treasure of the City of Ladies, Boston, PL MS fr. Med. 101, f. 3, 1405-10, The City of Ladies Master.  Permission of the Boston Public Library.

2. The College of Ladies; The Three Virtues Lecture Bourgeois  Women;  The Brussels Treasure of the City of Ladies, Brussels, BR 9551-2, f. 66, 1420-30.  Permission of the Royal Library of Albert 1st, Brussels

3. The College of Ladies, Lecturing Bourgeois and Common Women; The Beinecke Treasure of the City of Ladies, Yale Univ., Beinecke Library, MS 427, f. 72, 1475. Permission of the Beinecke Library.

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