- Susan Bell’s Christine De Pizan
I first encountered Susan Bell’s work in a seminar on medieval women I took in 1983, as a senior at Wellesley College. Her article on Christine de Pizan had been out for several years and her path-breaking study of medieval women book owners was just off the presses—so fresh and new that the professor brought it to class like a recently rediscovered relic that deserved a certain degree of veneration.1 The Italian professor who taught this wonderful class, the Italian literary scholar Rachel Jacoff, has been a visiting professor a number of times at Stanford University; so, in some fundamental way, I feel that this experience (many years ago) and the community I joined (in 1996) have always been connected. This seminar overflowed with exciting discoveries, giving undergraduates access to the most recent scholarship on medieval women and a nascent corpus of writings in translation that allowed us to begin to study them in their own words.
Every week brought interesting visitors from greater Boston into this seminar, where they talked about their exciting new research and shared their knowledge of these texts. At that point, I was not yet decided on what I would do after college and contemplated a range of possibilities, academic or otherwise. But I knew that I was truly privileged to listen to a multidisciplinary conversation among some very interesting medievalists about how a nascent field was beginning to take shape. We poured over all the equally new and fascinating work on pious and saintly women pioneered by the historian Caroline Walker Bynum, who already seemed to inspire a number of former students and colleagues, some of whom were my mentors, to do more with the embodied practices of female spirituality. I reveled in Catherine of Siena’s invisible stigmata and Margery Kempe’s strong-willed demands of her husband to share her religious vocation. We followed the courtly women etched finely by Chrétien de Troyes and the bawdy Wife of Bath writ larger than life by Chaucer—and so many other things that I have surely forgotten after more than thirty years.
What I most recall, quite vividly, because she spoke with a voice that seemed to bridge all those centuries between the late medieval and modern worlds (the fifteenth and the twentieth centuries), was Susan Bell’s discussion of Christine de Pizan (ca.1364–1430). Let me invoke the first line of her 1976 article, where she wrote, “The works of Christine de Pizan are filled with her love of learning and the satisfaction she experienced during her journeys into the world of knowledge.”2 These are words to remember, inspiring Susan’s readers to want to hear more. [End Page 214]
That same fall, another professor, the historian of architecture Alice Friedman, who knew of my interests pulled a brand-new book off the shelf—Earl Jeffrey Richards’s 1982 translation of The Book of the City of Ladies—and told me with great excitement that this was a “must read.” She was absolutely right. I found it breathtaking, a kind of women’s college in a medieval castle that firmly shut the doors on Thomas More’s Utopia and rewrote every nuance of the narrative about the women Giovanni Boccaccio’s Concerning Famous Women made famous. I connected this book to my encounter with Bell’s articles, which I was reading in the other class. Rachel Jacoff made it clear—even to novice undergraduates who knew nothing about how research unfolds—that this was truly pioneering work. I believed her then and I still believe her now, which is why it is such a great pleasure, indeed an honor, to be asked to say a few words about Susan Bell’s impact on her field.
Fast forward to a later point in life, a number of years after I earned my PhD. You can imagine my surprise at discovering that the author of the marvelous studies I read as an undergraduate was at Stanford University at the (then named) Institute for Research on Women and Gender (nowadays known as the Clayman Institute for Gender Research), and that...