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Essays in Medieval Studies 20 (2003) 47-55

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Compilation, Commentary, and Conversation in Christine de Pizan

Julia Simms Holderness
Michigan State University

As Alastair Minnis has shown, medieval compilation sometimes had the force of an authorial text. 1 This article will contend that compilation may also be read as a form of commentary. Writers such as Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) reveled in creating dialogues of the sort that could exist only in Dante's Limbo, with each great author commenting on and balancing the next. 2

In her eulogistic biography of Charles V, Christine compared the compiler's task to the embroiderer's: he or she created new meaning by cleverly weaving together disparate threads. I propose to unravel one of Christine's knottier passages, the opening of Part One of the Advision Cristine (1405). 3 An astonishing tangle of texts by Dante, Boethius, Alan of Lille, and Christine herself, the passage deheroicizes human life, but at the same time invests it with the possibility for seeking and finding knowledge.

The passage is at once comical and grotesque: "in the middle of the journey of her life," a fictionalized Christine falls asleep and with her mind's eye sees Dame Nature and Chaos, a melancholy automaton. Nature feeds her hungrily plaintive charge a steady diet of human souls, which she cooks like waffles (moulding them into bodies) inside his gigantic mouth. Once the people have been fully formed, Chaos swallows them, and they slide down his digestive tract, which Christine describes as the whole world, filled with mountains, valleys, and forests. Only the people's souls pass through the anus, to which Christine refers in a humorous euphemism as "the aperture below." Eventually, she realizes that Chaos has swallowed her up too, and she finds herself inside his great belly. A lifetime, she states pessimistically, would not suffice to explore it.

Christine's imagery is in keeping with that of Dante's Inferno, whose incipit she recalls in her opening lines. She revels in mixed metaphors, all of them low—cooking, digestion, defecation. And yet, just as Dante balances the Inferno's lows [End Page 47] with the Paradiso's heights, so Christine counters the comical awkwardness of her vision of Nature and Chaos with the solemn eloquence of her vision of Dame Theology at the end of the Advision. Chaos once gobbled up human souls, but now Christine drinks in Theology's teachings, which include all the liberal arts. Her initial curiosity has been transformed into serious study. Like Dante, she is enlightened; like Boethius, she is consoled. Finally, she has transcended Nature, in the manner of Alan of Lille's "new man." 4 In a final epiphany, she realizes the interconnectedness of human knowledge.

The importance of commentary is built into the Advision from its outset. The work, which is divided into three parts, opens with a set of glosses by the author on her own text. Christine declares that the most beautiful poetry (by which she seems to mean "art", since her own work is written in prose) is subject to multiple interpretations, and she explains that her glosses are not meant to be exhaustive. In fact, she glosses only Part One of this tripartite work. This omission seems deliberate: Christine is inviting her readers to read for themselves, to apply the interpretive techniques learned from the initial glosses to the rest of the work, and even to the first part. This is what I shall attempt to do here. As the title suggests, this is Christine's vision, a dream of conversations with three powerful ladies: Libera (an allegory of France), Opinion, and Philosophy (who is revealed to be Theology, at the work's end). Interpreting all three conversations lies beyond the scope of this article, but I do hope to show how the work's opening may help us to understand its conclusion.

The initial glosses propose at least three tracks for allegorical interpretation: global, individual, and national. As Christine Reno has noted, the allegories often overlap; the first two, in particular, are usually...