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  • Christine de Pizan and the Categories of Difference
  • Julia Simms Holderness (bio)
Marilynn Desmond, ed., Christine de Pizan and the Categories of Difference. Medieval Cultures, vol. 14. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1998. xix, 287 pages. ISBN 0-8166-3080-1 (hardcover). ISBN 0-08166-3081-X (paperback).

One of the pronounced advantages of Christine de Pizan and the Categories of Difference lies in each of its chapters’ depth. Although each contribution was originally presented at a conference entitled “Christine de Pizan: Texts/ Intertexts/Contexts” (Binghampton University, October 1995), most have been reworked and developed beyond the scope of a typical conference paper. One especially appreciates the sense of a real conversation among the contributors who frequently build on each other’s arguments. This collection, edited by Marilynn Desmond, offers a solid overview of current trends in American Christine studies.

The volume is apparently designed to reflect the thematic progression of the Avision Christine (each of the three parts is prefaced by a quotation from the corresponding part of the Avision). Part I addresses Christine’s relation to the “real world,” and more specifically, her role as a teacher within this world. Charity Cannon Willard and Diane Wolfthal portray a confident Christine, dispensing knowledge to her courtly patrons. The two discussions bring forth a new and rather bloodthirsty image of Christine as a military advisor (Willard) and as a counselor of violent retribution by raped women (Wolfthal). Willard’s statement, “that Christine was less impressed by the military capabilities of [contemporary knights] than by their qualities as gentlemen” (4) is provocative. If such was the case (and it seems possible, given Christine’s equation of “the good knight” with “the good Christian” in the Epistre Othea), then we must ask why she devoted such enthusiastic energy to teaching people how to be soldiers.

In the same section, Roberta Krueger and Mary Ann C. Case problematize Christine’s role as a teacher. Both discuss Christine’s apparent concern about people’s ability to learn, and in particular, to learn from her. For Krueger, the problem lay in Christine’s gender—would anyone ever take her words seriously? She supports her argument with several telling examples of the difficulties posed by Christine’s gender to her instruction of others, and even to her self-formation. (Here, Krueger seems to refer to both the historical [End Page 874] and the fictional Christines.) We may pause to question Krueger’s heroization of Christine and those who study her. Krueger describes Christine’s recuperation of a “gallery of neglected founding mothers, unheeded wives, marginalized female prophets or scholars, rejected governess, and saintly martyrs” (36) as part of a “heroic feminist rhetoric” (30). Later, she qualifies Raymond Thomassy’s 1838 study of Christine’s political thought as “early [and] rather heroic” (38, n. 5). What might this imply for those who study Christine today?

For Case, Christine’s problem lay in the source of her knowledge—mundane experience, instead of privileged books. Case evokes the puzzling tension between Christine’s valorization of instructive experience and her warnings about its potential to confuse. Although a thorough reading of this ambiguity lies beyond the scope of Case’s article, it definitely merits further study.

Part II (linked to the Avision’s encounter with Dame Opinion) takes up the question of the limits and possibilities of human understanding. Thelma Fenster, Benjamin M. Semple, and Mary Weitzel Gibbons show how Christine extends the realm of human understanding, especially that of women. Semple and Monica H. Green also point to Christine’s boundaries—the domains which she thinks it safest not to explore. Fenster and Semple amply demonstrate the ways that Christine privileged the intellectual efforts of what the latter terms “the nonspecialist” or “the simple person.” Fenster argues that Christine’s sometimes ornate French prose reflects this writer’s effort to ennoble the mother tongue, to match the subtlety of Latin expression in the language of the people. Although she does not say so in as many words, Fenster’s argument leads to the novel portrait of Christine de Pizan as a precursor of Joachim du Bellay with his Deffense et illustration de la langue fran...

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