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6— Christine's Way: The Querelle du Roman de la rose and the Ethics of a Political Response
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Christine's Way:
The Querelle du Roman de la rose and the Ethics of a Political Response

Your stylus is dipped in corrosive sublimate,
How can you scratch out
Indelible ink of the palimpsest
Of past misadventure?
H.D., The Walls Do Not Fall

Of all those who take on the problem of defamation in late-medieval literature, it is the poet and professional writer Christine de Pizan who disputes it most vigorously. In her allegorical poem the Epistre au dieu d'amours (Letter to the God of Love ), Christine lodges her first complaint of defamation against women:

Pour ce conclus en diffinicion
Que des mauvais soit fait punicion
Qui les blasment, diffament et accusent
Et qui de faulz desloiaulz semblans usent
Pour decepvoir elles.[1]
(lines 775–79)

For this reason I conclude with the definition that the wrongdoers be punished, those who blame, accuse, and defame women and those who employ false and treacherous appearances in order to deceive them.

In Cupid's Court of Love, she charges both courtly and clerical writers with speaking and writing injuriously about women in general. Unlike Jean LeFèvre, she exploits a particularly prestigious literary medium to launch her critique. By resorting to allegory, she implicates the very tradition of writing she aims to dispute.

As if a poetic charge of defamation does not register sufficiently, Christine turns it into a polemical one. Her accusation against defamatory literary language is the fuse that ignites one of France's first major literary controversies, known as the Querelle du Roman de la rose .[2] This turn toward polemics is critical, for it transforms a verbal action into an event.[3] It


arraigns Jean de Meun's Rose before the general public, requiring its response in turn. Polemically, Christine's accusation of defamation creates a happening that her Parisian milieu is pressed to acknowledge.[4] It calls upon the representative powers in early-fifteenth-century Paris: royal administrators and lawyers, city officials, and the Queen Regent, Isabeau of Bavaria. Christine's initiation of the Querelle mobilizes the entire community, with the result that her words raise a spectacular public challenge.

Such a move signals another stage in the medieval dispute with magisterial representations of women. It constitutes an especially vociferous case that surpasses the standard clerical disputatio . While Christine's polemic shares a disputational form with many of the works we have been examining, it ups the ante by targeting an even wider public. It breaks the academic stronghold of many disputations and situates its challenge in the midst of the city. It involves the usual clerical community, in this instance a circle of humanists prominent in Parisian intellectual life at the beginning of the fifteenth century. But it also summons the citizenry. The force of a querelle (quarrel) engages everybody.[5] In this respect, Christine's polemic critiques the masterly textual tradition in the very social space it claims to monopolize. Indeed, it occupies that space.

In this polemical context we can begin to gauge Christine's particular charge of defamation: Jean de Meun's Rose as a "public defamer" (diffameur publique; Hicks, 22). Such an accusation may first call up the image of a person ranting and raving on the street corner. It conjures up a disturbing scene, but hardly one involving a public offense. In a late-medieval setting, however, the problem of defamation was placed necessarily in the public domain. If any invective was to work, it had to register out in the open, before the people in their implicit role as witnesses. Insofar as an individual or group reputation (fama ) rides on the words of others—on public opinion—it could be damaged in this context alone. Created publicly, it can be devalued only in choro publico . This circle of public adulation and damnation was all the more vicious where women's reputations were concerned.[6] As the index of family and societal honor over and above their own personal honor they were peculiarly susceptible to attack. In Claude Gauvard's suggestive phrase, in medieval and early-modern society, a woman's name was condemned to be defamed.[7]

Yet Christihe's charge does more than clarify the setting of defamation. It also identifies a celebrated literary work as defamatory of the public. That is, it finds the depiction of women in Jean de Meun's Rose to be injurious to the community as a whole. While this charge represents an individual grievance, something that Christine's first-person address makes clear, at the same time it speaks for women as a constituent element of the public. It represents the class of women as part of the community. It


thereby enlarges the frame of reference for the dispute over masterly writing about women. It brings into view its destructive social impact. The defamation of women becomes a matter of civic concern because it jeopardizes the very languages that help to define a particular community.

Christine's charge of the Rose as a public defamer capitalizes on a Roman model for regulating language on behalf of the people (comme anciennement les Rommains triumphans; Hicks, 21). This model appraises defamatory language as a potential threat to the commonweal. As it was outlined to medieval audiences by Augustine, the Roman model interprets the individual speech act or text functionally: it ties the speech act to the welfare of the community.[8] In fact, so tightly are they bound together that the defamer is seen as one whose transgressive language assaults the integrity of the group. Slandering any single member violates the polis. Consequently, there is enormous pressure to isolate the defamer and stigmatize him publicly. In the extreme, this leads even to exile, as Ovid's well-known case underscores.[9] Against the menace of public defamation, then, the forces of government and its laws are marshaled. This means criminalizing the defamer. In the terms of Cicero, the Roman authority hovering over the Querelle :[10]

[I]n his hanc quoque sanciendam putaverunt, si quis occentavisset sive carmen condidisset, quod infamiam faceret flagitiumve alteri, praeclare; iudiciis enim magistratuum, disceptationibus legitimis propositam vitam, non poetarum ingeniis, habere debemus nec probrum audire nisi ea lege, ut respondere liceat et iudicio defendere.
(De re publica , IV, x, 12)[11]

Though they provided the death penalty for only a few crimes, [our Twelve Tables] did provide it for any person who sang or composed a song which contained a slander or insult to anyone else. This was an excellent rule; for our mode of life ought to be liable to judgment by the magistrates and the courts of law, but not by clever poets; nor ought we to be subject to disgrace unless we have an opportunity to answer and defend ourselves in a court of law.

The crime of defamation is inflected poetically. Implicit here is the rivalry between the poetic and the legal—the right to "figure" freely and the duty to do so in keeping with the polis. This is a fundamental opposition to which I shall return. For now, suffice it to remark the irony of the Roman model for the Querelle de la Rose . Christine holds both the role of the defamer and the one stigmatizing the defamer. Let us not forget that for the Parisian humanist intelligentsia, her polemical maneuvering would confirm the time-honored stereotype of woman as defamer. At the same time, by issuing the charge Christine aligns herself with the civic and legal


authorities. The lawbreaker breaks into the law. The putative defamer becomes the judge, and this reversal sends her to the very center of the polis.

Such a rhetorical move brings home the fact that there is nothing natural about the categories "defamer" and "judge" and the social boundaries that distinguish them. Nor are the linguistic norms that mark off defamation from socially acceptable language absolute. Protocols specific to a social milieu designate certain locutions as slanderous, and such protocols are themselves subject to change. Christine's initiation of the Querelle involves a role reversal that sets just such a change into motion. By assuming the stance of judge before the public, she places her critique at the center of the public sphere. From this position, Christine can question the logic that continues to identify her rhetorically as a defamer. More importantly, she challenges the way that defamation has been conceptualized in relation to women: how it is that such defamation appears, for the most part, perfectly licit. This is something that LeFèvre's writing could not accomplish, since as a quintessential insider's work it was always already aligned with the law.

But what sort of public territory does Christine intend to take over? Given the reactions of her interlocutors, Christine appears, at first sight, to enter into the realm of humanist debate. An entry into this public realm is labeled straightaway a form of trespass. One disputant, Gontier Col, attacks her charge of defamation for its "outrageous presumptuousness" (presumpcion oultrageuse; Hicks, 100).[12] Another, Jean de Montreuil, associates Christine with a proverbial range of outcasts—heretics and Jews newly banished from Paris.[13] Both attacks suggest a deep insecurity. Col and Montreuil speak from a threatened, even precarious position. And the fact that all of Christine's interlocutors interpret her critique of Maistre Jean de Meun's writing as a transgression from without suggests just how defensive they are about their own clerico-humanist domain—what Grover Furr has called "the group-exclusive" preserve of humanism.[14] Their dealings with Christine make no allowances for her entry into that public sphere. Far from it: Montreuil's description of the weapons of speech, writing, and physical force marks the Querelle as a serious battle over that sphere (Hicks, 30).

To encroach upon the territory of humanist intellectuals, however, involves breaking into an even more prestigious and extensive public space. Christine aspires to nothing less than the res publica —the space of the commonwealth:

Et comme anciennement les Rommains triumphans n'atribuassent louenge aucune ne honneur a chose quelconques se elle n'estoit a l'util-


ité de la chose publique, regardons a leur exemplaire se nous pourons couronner cestuy rommant.
(Hicks, 21)

And as in ancient times when the triumphant Romans would not accord praise or the slightest honor to anything if it were not to the utility of the commonwealth [la chose publique ], let us look to their example to see whether we can crown this romance.

By establishing what are Ciceronian coordinates for the civic domain, she situates the problem of defamation toward women at its very center. Correspondingly, she becomes the chief guardian of that domain. She assumes the persona of a Roman censor . From the outset of the Querelle , this implicit configuration invests her with the role of evaluating utility, bestowing honor, praise, and blame. That is, she is empowered with the censorious functions of the adjudicator of public welfare.[15] As this Roman model was understood in the fifteenth century, the censor stood for the common good.[16] He surveyed the citizenry's language and behavior that might jeopardize the social equilibrium. In this sense the censor figure exemplifies public authority—the power acting on behalf of the people.[17] In this sense too, we can qualify Christine's position in the Querelle . Having traversed the greatest possible rhetorical distance from no-man's-land to the center point of public authority, her persona pronounces the charge of defamation against women censoriously. While Christine's charge does not involve the specific terms of censure, it carries that weight. And as we have seen, it registers strategically as well as rhetorically. Christine's pronouncement operates within the Parisian commonwealth; it realizes the Roman rhetorical figure. Her entrance into a humanists' disputation thus opens up the civic space and invests her with the task of adjudicating the public issue of defaming women.

The notion of public, civic space, in the Querelle de la Rose —"la chose publique"—directs our attention once again toward the effects of texts defamatory to women. It resembles the Bestiaire Response 's effort to dispute a category of masterly writing on behalf of all women. It builds on the Leesce 's conflicted attempt to conceptualize the injurious character of so many clerical figures of women. This it did in the peculiarly charged social environment of late-medieval Paris, where disputes were the rule, not the exception.[18] As a result, Christine's polemic asks us to examine how defamatory writing affects not only the individual parties represented but the social group of which they were a part.

Following Christine's lead, I shall pursue this question pragmatically. My analysis will thus concentrate less on Christine's polemical reading of


the Rose than on the bearing it has on the public. Within the commonwealth, how are representations of women identified as injurious and how then are they judged? This way of proceeding may seem to take us on a detour, beyond the Querelle to another of Christine's allegories, the Chemin de long estude (The Way of Lengthy Study ). But by taking this route, we will be better able to discern the implications of Christine's dispute with the conventions of masterly writing about women.

From Insult to Injury

We can begin with no more telling instance of Christine's pragmatics than her objection to Reason's naming of genitalia in the Rose . This argument has been understood habitually as one of nominalism versus empiricism.[19] Gontier Col and Jean de Montreuil are seen to defend the use of any name, no matter what its significance. Christine, by contrast, is seen to be concerned (and shocked) by the sexual significance. Consequently, Christine appears to occupy the moral high ground while the humanists aim for a more sophisticated level where names are unencumbered by morality and signification is a purely linguistic affair. With such a view, it is hardly surprising that the humanists emerge as the discerning critics and Christine as the easily offended prude.

Yet if we pay close attention to the way Christine formulates the issue of naming genitalia, her position looks anything but empiricist. For her, a name must be gauged according to its function in social intercourse. Anything named—la chose nommée —is inextricably bound up in the commonwealth—la chose publique . Moving away from a purely formalist problem of signification, Christine is concerned with the way significance is determined socially. What a name is taken to signify is a matter of social consensus. In attending to the circumstances of names such as vis (dick) or couilles (balls), Christine is interested in their conventional social efficacy. She focuses on their effects in the body politic:

Et que honte doye estre deboutee en parlant en publique des choses dont nature mesmes se hontoye, je dis que, sauve la reverence de l'autteur et la vostre, grant tort commectéz contre la noble vertu de honte, qui de sa nature reffraint les goliardises et deshonnestetés en dis et fais; et que ce soit grant vice et hors ordre de pollicie honneste et de bonnes meurs appert en mains lieux de l'Escripture saincte.
(Hicks, 14)

And whether shame/modesty should be insulted in speaking publicly of things about which even nature itself is ashamed, let me say that except for your reverence, and the author's you commit a great wrong


against the noble virtue of shame/modesty, which naturally restrains dishonesty and bad behavior in word and deed, and the fact that it is a serious vice beyond the order of honest government and good behavior is made apparent in several places of Holy Scripture.

Speaking the words for genitalia is not shameful. Rather, what is shameful is the fact that their articulation in this particular society can realize a symbolic form of violence against women. More often than not, these words signify damagingly for them. Furthermore, this pattern of signification is linked to irresponsible and harmful behavior, "goliardises et deshonnestetés." Unleashing such language publicly can act as a trigger mechanism for abusive conduct. The use of such words in what are habitual, sexualized slurs about women can often culminate in physical aggression. Under these circumstances, female shame is less symptomatic of excessive modesty than it is of the anxiety about verbal violence—about defamation—and its carnal counterpart. Aristotle's Ethics , translated by one of Christine's favorite authorities, the philosopher/translator Nicole Oresme, defines shame in just these terms. Oresme's version reads: "Fear of infamy; that is to say, fear to suffer confusion, dishonor, blame" (Vercunde est paour de ingloriacion; c'est a dire, paour de avoir confusion, deshonneur ou vitupere).[20] That women blush while reading the Rose indicates that they recognize the defamatory way the words of sex can signify for them in courtly society (Hicks, 20). It is a measure of this language's potentially harmful consequences.[21] Such consequences are borne by individual and group alike. In Christine's view, a determining link exists between the injury defamation inflicts on a woman and on her community—the "ordre de pollicie" as a whole.

This issue of social ramifications is pivotal to her conception of defamation. Insofar as defamatory language is part of a social code governing the public place, she insists on analyzing it in relation to that place. Consider the following cameo scene from the Mutacion de Fortune , another allegory Christine was composing at the time of the Querelle :

Sont ilz courtois ou gent honnie
Ceulx, qui tant dient villenie
A femme, comme pourroit dire
Le plus ort villain de l'Empire?...
Tesmoing d'un, que je ne cognoiz,
Mais il bati, n'a pas .III. mois,
Une femme, dessus le pont
De Paris, dont il meprist moult;
Et si est homme de renom,
Ce dist on, je ne sçay son nom.


La son saoul la bati d'un aulne,
Devant chacun, et de la paume,
Pour ce que elle ne vouloit,
Pour lui, faire ce qu'il ne loit
Faire a quelconques preude femme,
Et si n'a renom de diffame.
(lines 5353–56, 5359–70)[22]

Are those who speak maliciously of women courtly or despicable people, as they might say, the most ignoble villain in the Empire? . . . I attest to one whom I do not know, but on top of the bridge in Paris, he beat a woman, not three months ago, and in so doing acted wrongly. And he is a man of a certain reputation, as they say, though I do not know his name. There he beat her to his satisfaction with a stick before everyone, and with his bare palm, because she did not want to do for him what is not fitting for any upstanding woman to do, and he still has no reputation for defamation.

The connection here between slander and violence toward a woman is immediate and direct. So too is the involvement of "everyone" in the city. The scene is set up in such a manner that every citizen, including Christine, the eyewitness, is implicated. But how are they complicitous? Because they observe firsthand the passage from defamation to brutal abuse? Christine's analysis foregrounds the public arbitration of reputation and thereby accentuates the public's unavoidable involvement in its effects. Here is a reputable man who is seen to turn his verbal abuse into blows and a woman who in the attempt to avoid defamation is assaulted. To the degree that the public maintains the man's good name, they are his accomplices. And to the degree that they tolerate his defamation or do not perceive it as such, they are responsible for his conduct. The defamer/ assaulter is not the only guilty party. Once set in the public theater, the infractions of defamation become the commonwealth's affair.

That is why one principal criterion in Christine's dispute with the Rose is utility. How does a work contribute to the common good? Or, as Christine puts it early on in the Querelle : "To what advantage or profit is it to the listeners?" (et a quel utilité ne a quoy prouffite aux oyans; Hicks, 15). This notion of utility can provide an antidote to defamation of women. Pragmatically it is its very opposite: useful speech or writing works to the public's benefit. Christine's critique of the Rose as a "useless" text pushes this opposition further. Not only does the Rose accomplish nothing, a work that does no work, but as a form of idleness (oisiveté ) it fosters destructive action.[23] In this sense, the ultimate danger of a useless text lies in the way it can wreak havoc in the very public it is meant to serve.


Because the Querelle works polemically, Christine's principle of utility is never taken up. It is matched instead by a competing one: the autonomy of poetic form. As many critics have noted, this principle is introduced into the debate by way of the new humanist theories of poetry circulating in fifteenth-century Paris:[24]

Aussi en ce pas la y faingny poetiquemant, et aux poetes et paintres a tousjours esté licence pareille de tout faindre, comme dit Orace.
(Hicks, 93)

At this point he also feigns poetically; and to poets and painters there has always been such a license to feign everything, as Horace says.

Aussy veult monstrer Meung qu'il estoit naturel et crestien en parlant de Nature, et sy estoit poete, come j'ay dit, par quoy li laissoit de tout parler par ficcion.
(Hicks, 98)

Meun also wishes to show that it is natural and Christian to talk about Nature, and in this manner he was a poet, as I have said, by which he was permitted to talk about everything through fiction.

Pierre Col advances an early-modern "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction." At its center lies the notion of licence : an unconditional liberty to speak. Whether coded in figurative or fictional terms, it constitutes an utter freedom: the poet says anything and everything (tout faindre, tout parler). Yet by its own definition, this freedom is double-edged. It legislates its own law. It is, etymologically speaking, licit. Conversely, it breaks with the established public law. Poetic license also goes beyond the bounds, and borders on excess. It is licentious, prone to disregard the accepted rules. Included, then, within this single pivotal locution are the warring aspects of lawfulness and lawlessness, judicious and dangerous freedom. Paradoxically, the very articulation of absolute poetic freedom contains within it the signs of its own danger. It carries with it the potential for violence. As we have already discovered in the Ciceronian configuration, this is the paradox that sets the irrepressible poetic at loggerheads with the public law. There is a perennial tension between the unfettered poetic word and its injurious potential. In the case of the Rose , this tension is directed for the most part against women. Licentious poetria , inflected as a feminine form, threatens being visited upon them.

By espousing the principle of poetry's licentious license, Col invests Jean de Meun's Rose with an omnipotence as form. As a consequence, the question of utility is never addressed. In our terms, this means that a poetic form whose omnipotence is expressed through the feminine is kept


strictly divorced from its pragmatic results. However strongly humanist understandings of poetry are based on its social value, Col and Montreuil do not entertain this aspect of humanist doctrine in the Querelle . Their interest lies in vindicating the formal autonomy of the Rose without acknowledging its defining feminine figure and without regard to its effect on its female audiences.

This formalist position is corroborated by a belief in the sacredness of the poetic text: "The gravities of mysteries and the mysteries of gravities" (misteriorum pondera ponderumque misteria; Hicks, 28). As Pierre-Yves Badel has pointed out, Montreuil's phrase conjures up the "holy of holies" of the biblical text, a writing so magnificent that only the elect can fathom its meaning (419). Through such an analogy between romance fiction and the Bible, the poetic is subsumed into the hieratic. Its mysterious character distinguishes it from all other verbal types, rendering it sublime. This sublimation of form is further borne out by the theorem regarding speech par personnages . According to this theorem, the words of Jean de Meun's allegorical characters are the touchstone of poetic license. And their total impunity is applicable to other cases:

"Se ung se nomme adversaires du roy de France (ce dit dame Eloquance), et soubz ce non il li fait guerre . . . se en la persone d'ung Sarrazin . . . ung home seine erreurs en la foy, en sera il excusé" Et d'autres pareilles, qui tant soit pou ne sont a propos. Je li demande: pour tant, se Salluste recite la conjuracion de Catiline encontre la chose publique de Romme, en est il pour ce coulpable? pour tant, se Aristote recite les oppinions des anciens philozophes contenans erreurs en philozophie, est il semeur d'erreurs en icelle?
(Hicks, 101–2)

"If someone names himself an enemy of the king of France (so says Lady Eloquence), and under this name he wages war against him . . . if in the persona of a Sarrasin, a man sows errors in the faith, will he be excused for it?" And other similar cases that are not really relevant. I ask her: nevertheless, if Sallust recites Catiline's conspiracy against the commonwealth of Rome, is he himself guilty? Further, if Aristotle recites the opinions of the ancient philosophers containing philosophical errors, is he thereby propagating errors in this ?

Col extends full liberties to any figurative formulation, even in political and philosophical discourse. He argues for the philosopher's right to enunciate errors. Exploiting de Meun's term reciter —the very one used in the Rose to rebuff the complaint of misogynistic defamation—Col champions the autonomy of any speech act enunciated hypothetically or through an


assumed persona. And he does so, tongue in cheek, by means of the projected speech of such a persona, Lady Eloquence. As long as the speech act occurs under these conditions, anything goes—including the dreaded word of sedition. We have here the most radical elaboration of a notion of speech that tolerates no limitation. And this is most clearly evidenced in the political arena, where curses and verbal plots against the commonwealth abound. The statesman reserves the right to entertain or repeat injurious statements by virtue of his protected speech. By introducing such an example, Col takes up Christihe's concern with the public domain only to deride it—or, one might say, to dismiss it knowingly. By focusing on the nature and the exercise of such a privileged and autonomous speech, Col disregards the question of utility. His commentary deflects the question of a text's pragmatic relation to the body politic—a question that certainly plays a central role in the humanist enterprise. Consequently, he blocks the charge of defamation of women before it can ever take hold. If injurious language is sanctioned absolutely by a principle of verbal autonomy even when it is entertained against the polis, then the idea of defaming women has no bearing. This is for two reasons. Not only does defamation per se make no sense under such conditions, but the specific case of defamation against women is inconceivable. When the criterion of utility does not pertain, even the simplest understanding of verbal injury cannot take shape.

We come here to the core of the Querelle : the confrontation of set positions that pits the humanists' sacrosanct poetic form against Christine's notion of a socially profitable language. The only possible change is one of rhetorical degree. Over the course of the Querelle , a language of absolutist power develops: orthodoxy versus apostasy, legitimacy versus criminality. Such oppositions conjure up scenes of interrogation and punishment in the public square, even of exile and book burning. As Christine invokes this language, she takes it to the extremes of heresy and treason:

Mais je te demende se quant yceulx ou autres, ou la sainte Escripture recite telz choses, se il y a devant ou aprés personnages ou aultre propos qui conforte et afferme par molles parolles et attrayans que l'en trahisse ou que l'en soit herite, et ainssy des autres maulx: tu sces bien que nennil.
(Hicks, 133–34)

But I ask you whether when these or others, or the holy Scripture recite such things either before or after characters or other speeches, that


through soft and attractive words encourage and spur people to treason, heresy, or other evils ? You know very well that it is not the case.

Naming the Rose a heretical and treasonous text escalates the problem of verbal injury to the greatest possible degree. It turns the injury into a civic threat. Theologically and politically, it codes defamation as the gravest crime.

That Christine resorts to this language has a decided iconoclastic punch to it. We must remember that her persona begins as the classic defamer—the deviant whose reversed charge of defamation propels her toward a central seat of power. Speaking in this absolutist idiom is for her, then, a subversive act. It represents her ultimate challenge, her final effort to bring the textual problem of defaming women into view. At the same time, it points to her success in appropriating the public arena. Her claim to expel Jean de Meun's Rose from the city demonstrates her skill at making a text injurious to women publicly accountable.

However troubling Christine's absolutist language may appear to readers today, it provides the best measure of her own disputational project. Like the Bestiaire respondent before her, she is working to make the general principle of injurious language relevant and applicable to the canonical representation of women. Their common aim is to make public the relation between verbal figuration and domination. Yet Christine goes further. By situating this relation in the space of the commonwealth, her response to defamatory masterly writing pioneers the grounds of the social responsibility of that writing. In a fashion virtually unprecedented in European vernacular culture, it explores the idea that an authoritative poetic discourse can be rendered answerable to its publics; specifically, that the authoritative discourse on women can be taken to task. Critical attention long has been riveted on the Querelle as either an expression of medieval culture's characteristic misogyny or an emancipatory credo for poetry. What has gone largely unremarked is the confrontation between the humanistic notion of a "supreme fiction" and Christine's Roman notion of its public accountability. It is the representation of women that brings this confrontation to a climactic point. A textual model of pure form clashes with one of social pragmatics. This clash has had enormous cultural ramifications. Over the centuries following the Querelle , the debate over the responsibility of the poetic text to its community is rehearsed again and again.[25] The balance is continually renegotiated, sometimes in favor of the public, sometimes in favor of poetry. But in one of its earliest vernacular formulations, this debate hinges on the defamatory representation of women as it is disputed by a woman.


The logic of polemics leaves the Querelle de la Rose at a standoff. There is a sense in which its polarized disputation leads nowhere. The particular argument over defamation does not evolve, nor do the positions of the disputants change significantly. Without the final determination (determinatio ) of a master figure, this querelle finds no definitive and satisfying conclusion. Christine's alchemical analogy captures this sense of stasis in the Querelle de la Rose . The huffing and puffing of alchemists that she describes accentuates the illusory production of the dispute: "And they blow hard, and for a tiny bit of sublimate or residue that seems marvelous to them" (et soufflent fort, et pour ung petit de sulimacion ou congyeil qui leur appere merveillable; Hicks, 126).[26]

At the same time, Christine's description highlights the specific limits of her position as respondent:

Ainssy est il de toy et de moy et de plusseurs: tu l'entens et le prens d'une maniere, et moy tout au rebours; tu recites, je replique. Et quant nous avons fait et fait, tout ne vault riens; car la matiere en est tres deshonneste, ainssy come aucuns arguemistes qui cuident fere de fiens or.
(Hicks, 126)

So it is with you and me and many others. You understand it [the book] and take it in one way, and I, at cross purposes. You recite, I respond. And when we have worked and worked, it all comes to naught; for the matter is very dishonest, just like alchemists who think they can make gold out of dung.

All the elements that we have linked to the dispute with masterly writing about women converge in this passage. A rebours : like the Bestiaire respondent, Christine finds that the disputational dynamic places her "at cross purposes" with her interlocutors. She too is brought to argue counterproductively. She is unable to exit from the Querelle with the clear conviction that her response to Jean de Meun's Rose has registered effectively. Why? Recitation/Response : the familiar terms of masterly debate reassert themselves. Jean de Montreuil and Gontier Col, like Jean de Meun before them, continue reciting the positions of earlier masters. Recitation permits them to deny all commitment and responsibility for what they have been saying about women. Correspondingly, Christine risks being trapped in the reiterative form of response—a type of echo chamber that may bring her argument against the prevailing masterly representation of women "to naught."


Lest this alchemical trope give the impression that Christine abandons the problem of the defamation of women, leaving it unresolved, it is important to look beyond the Querelle de la Rose . Indeed, it is worthwhile thinking through the Querelle in an entirely different way. In this respect, we can do no better than to follow the lead of Christine's authorities, Nicole Oresme and Aristotle, who state in the Ethics : "Accusations, quarrels and complaints occur only, or rather primarily, out of friendship, that is, for the sake of utility. This is a reasonable thing."[27] According to this standard, a disputation can at times prove socially useful or productive.

The key to this rethinking is to be found in the conjunction of the Querelle with the allegory Christine composed immediately thereafter. The Chemin de long estude narrates Christine's intellectual development as a journey across the earth and the heavens.[28] It culminates with her return from heaven and her mandate to instruct rulers. The last part of the Chemin reads like an exemplary portrait of the prince. In the passage from the Querelle to the Chemin we can detect the makings of Christine's most ambitious response to the defamatory character of magisterial writing about women.[29] The key is this: if a polemical mode cannot succeed in countering the public defamation of women, then she will oppose it in another mode. Put another way, if Christine's rhetorical occupation of the public sphere does not rid it of defamatory, socially destructive language, then she will forge another language to do so. The Chemin marks her first major experiment in working ethically and politically. In this turn, Christine appropriates and refashions the Boethian case.[30] But what exactly is the connection Boethius offers between the concerns of the Querelle de la Rose and the Chemin ? As she interprets his dilemma, it represents the fate of a public servant falsely slandered: "What greater evil or displeasure or what greater reason for impatience could besmirch the innocent than to hear oneself defamed without cause, as is apparent in the accounts of Boethius in his book of consolation?" (quel plus grant mal et desplaisir peust sourdre a linnocent ne plus grant cause de impacience que de soy oir diffamer sanz cause comme il appert par les rapors de boece en son livre de consolacion).[31] Like Boethius, Christine personally confronts the dangers of defamation. And like him, she reacts by addressing those dangers in a different, ethical framework. Unlike him, however, her ethical experiment in the Chemin also transforms her into a political advocate. More than a censor of the public language about women, more than its ethical defender, she becomes the author of a political discourse beneficial to all citizens.


12. Christine and the Sibyl before the five heavenly deities,
Chevalerie, Noblece, Richece, Sagece, and Raison.
Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, 836, fol. 19.
Photograph, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

Visionary Advice

How to become a credible spokesperson for a discourse that represents the entire city's interests? In order to meet this challenge, the Chemin cultivates what I shall call a prophetic mode. Such a mode is by no means


foreign to Christine's strategies in the Querelle . Her polemic is forwardlooking insofar as it works to establish a useful language about women for the future. Yet the Chemin pushes the prophetic even further. It forges a language for the polis that covers both past and future representations of the people. This all-inclusive dimension distinguishes prophetic language and gives it a predictive force.

The first agent of the Chemin 's prophetic mode is the Cumaean Sibyl—the grande dame of prophecy for medieval culture.[32] Existing solely as voice, this female figure epitomizes the elusive power of the prophet.[33] She seems to come from nowhere, and yet because she oversees all that is known and will be known, she is everywhere. Her vision spans the world. In this manner, the Sibyl represents a fitting companion guiding Christine's persona through the Chemin 's lengthy allegorical journey: across the known world, its marvelous fringes, and all the way to the heavens, where the figures of Noblece (Nobility), Richece (Wealth), Chevalerie (Chivalry), and Sagece (Wisdom) preside (Figure 12). The Sibyl's guidance is also crucial because her prophetic powers are linked expressly to governance. She stands in a long line of vatic women whose inspired words pronounce on city rule, indeed, whose words determine the fates of cities:

Et a cel homme [Aeneas]
Dis la fondacion de Romme,
Dont il meismes seroit la souche.
Ce lui prophetisay de bouche. . . .
Portay a Romme neuf volumes
De livres de lois et coustumes
Et des secrez de Romme, ou temps
Que la gouvernoit par bon sens
Tarquinius Priscus.
(lines 609–12, 621–25)

And to this man, I spoke about Rome's foundation of which he himself would be the stock. I offered him prophesies from my lips; I carried to Rome nine tomes of the laws, customs, and secrets of Rome of the time when it was governed sensibly by Tarquinius Priscus.

The Cumaean Sibyl embodies the source of law and custom, of all that is most sacred about the originary city. She is responsible for its foundation, and by inference for its ongoing development. Her example thus underscores the critical degree to which the prophetic is bound up with the city's welfare: its language is committed to its equitable rule.

That the Chemin begins with the Cumaean prophetess reveals Christihe's particular interest in the prophetic. Invoking the Sibylline ex-


ample creates an implicit comparison with Vergil's model in the Aeneid . Christine does not miss the opportunity to contrast her prophetic mode to that of Latinity's first civic poet. This is clear in the passage where the Sibyl is represented leaving Aeneas to his city-building task and turning her attention to Christine's persona:

Or me suis je manifestee
A toy que je voy apprestee
A concevoir, s'en toy ne tient
Ce que grant estude contient,
Et pour ce me suis apparue
Cy endroit.
(lines 635–40)

Thus I came to you, whom I see ready to conceive of such things; even if all that great study contains does not take in you. And for this reason I have appeared in this place.

Christine's transition from Vergil's account to her own is direct and self-legitimizing. Furthermore, given the echo with Dante's Inferno , this rite of passage signals her complementary ambition to imitate the prophetic example of Italy's first civic poet.[34] The implication is that her work (esrude ) will benefit from the examples of both masters. It will create a language befitting an equitable city—a goal that neither Vergil nor Dante finally accomplished.

Let us not forget, however, that at the outset of the Chemin Christine's persona does not recognize the Sibyl. This misapprehension is the surest indication of the distance she must travel before gaining the power of prophecy. Unable to see or speak clearly at first, she will grow in assurance through the course of the narrative (Chemin ). And the aim of this development is to combine the prophetic and the wise—the two discursive categories that prove indispensable to the city according to Christine's Greek and Roman authorities. The fact that Christine's persona mistakes the Sibyl for Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, implies that the defining traits of these two discourses are as yet missing in her. Yet it sets the standard for their coming together. Christine's misprision suggests that the vatic and the sapiential will ultimately converge to sanction her discourse.

The second agent of the Chemin 's prophetic mode is its heavenly vector. The narrative traces Christine's ascent along Dantian lines. It maps out what she calls elsewhere "la Voye de Paradis" (the route to Paradise).[35] With its intense heat and blinding light, this way points Christihe's persona unmistakably toward another realm that demands an enhanced vision:


Mais tant oz desir de savoir
Et congnoistre et appercevoir
Toutes les choses de cel estre,
Que bien voulsisse, s'il peust estre,
Que tous mes membres fussent yeux
Devenus, pour regarder mieux
Les belles choses que veoir
(lines 1805–12)

But I had such a great desire to learn, know, and perceive everything of this being that I really would have wished, if it were possible, that my entire body could become eyes so as to inspect more fully the beautiful things that I was able to see.

The fantasy of being transformed into all eyes epitomizes the limitless vision associated with Paradise. This is the same vision that sanctions prophecy and makes for omniscience. As Dante conceives of it, this heavenly vision involves the desire to pass into another dimension, indeed, to push beyond the limits of mundane representation.[36] Here is the paragon of "pure poetry" as form, what would doubtless be the fiction of mysteries and the mystery of fictions for Montreuil, Col, and their humanist brethren. In Christine's case, however, such a heavenly vision serves a more pragmatic purpose. Its power can be put to the use of the commonwealth. Once fathomed, it can be redirected toward a social end. It can be relayed through the salvific language Christine seeks to establish. So it is that her persona comes back from Paradise. This is no descent in a pejorative sense. Rather it constitutes a return and progressive reintegration of the seer and her transformed vision/language into the body politic. Whereas Dante's persona rises higher and higher to a point of no return, Christine's returns earthward with the gifts of prophecy, ever mindful of her social responsibility. The language of the Chemin remains bright with "the great festival of flashing lights"—the fluorescent trace elements of an all-seeing, allknowing perspective (Paradiso , XX, 84). But in the end, it is grounded in a worldly, specifically civic enterprise.[37]

This return is cast as a feminist move of sorts. If we recall the theories of women's origin rehearsed by many gynocentric respondents such as LeFèvre, woman alone is born in Paradise. That is, woman issues from the terrestrial paradise. In Christine's description: "Ancient, true stories from the Bible that cannot lie, tell us that woman was first formed in terrestrial paradise, not man."[38] This is the predominant landscape in the Chemin . Having achieved the summit of Paradise, Christine's persona returns to earth by way of the terrestrial paradise (lines 2055–56). In fact, it is the


setting for the Chemin 's lengthy debate over the ideal character of the prince and the citizenry. This stands to reason because in Christine's thinking the earthly paradise represents the best link between the heavens and the city. It is a perfect mediating site. As one associated with women, it provides an ideal place for her transformation into a prophetess. It stages her new political role as mediator between the heavens and the commonwealth.

This mediating character brings us to the third element of the Chemin 's prophetic mode. Astrology entails for Christine an authoritative discourse, indeed, a popular or secular prophetic form:

Astrologien est parfait,
Par science scet quanqu'on fait,
Des planetes congnoist le cours
Et des estoilles tousles tours,
Tout le compas du firmament
Et toutes scet entierement
Les choses qui sont a venir;
Comment elles doivent venir
Scet il tout par sa grant science.
Brief, en lui est, je vous fiance,
Toute philosophie entiere.
(lines 3399–3409)

The astrologer is perfect because he knows scientifically whatever happens; he knows the orbits of the planets and the cycles of the stars, he knows the compass of the firmament, as well as everything about the future; he knows through his great learning how it will all transpire; in short, I swear to you, in him is gathered all of philosophy.

Christine's panegyric accentuates the important alliance between astronomy and good governance. Insofar as the astrologer comes as close as is humanly possible to possessing total knowledge—"en lui est route philosophie entiere"—he represents the ideal public counselor. Following Plato, Aristotle, and even Cicero, she places the astrologer beside the ruler. She enlists him as a public servant and makes his star-gazing civic business. It is important to remember, however, that this configuration was under attack during this period. Not only was astronomical science challenging the prophetic claims of astrology, but Christine's authority, Nicole Oresme, argued against astrology's political value.[39] The fact that Christine continues to speak astrologically in the face of such opposition reveals how personally committed she is to its prophetic language. Her father, Tommaso de Pisano, was the court astrologer for Charles V. Astrology represents a powerful


legacy for Christine, so powerful that it underwrites her advocacy of politicized astrology.[40] Christine's transformation into an ethical/political writer depends on her exploiting her astrological patrimony.

Yet is the preoccupation with this particular prophetic mode merely a family affair? We have a clue, I believe, in the term, aviser , which recurs in the latter part of the Chemin. Aviser combines the closely connected senses of seeing ahead and advising. The word reveals the critical ligature between vision and counsel, between a vatic faculty and a political role. Intervening in the debate over the ideal character of the prince, Christine's persona says:

Puis qu'il vous plaist, diray le voir
De mon avis sus l'ordenance
De la mondaine gouvernance.
(lines 3080–82)

Since it is pleasing to you, I'll tell you the truth of my view [mon avis ] on the ordinance of earthly governance.

The truth she claims is predicated on prophetic insight. No matter of opinion, it constitutes an otherworldly order of knowledge—akin to the perceptions of a Boethian "pure discerning mind." (IV, vi, 1) This turn of phrase, "diray le voir De mon avis," is worth dwelling on for a moment. Read in the context of the Chemin , it exemplifies Christine's ethicopolitical ambitions. It identifies her as the ideal civic counselor. When read in the larger context of Christine's work, it highlights a further element in her ongoing dispute with masterly writing. "Le voir de mon avis" offers the perfect corrective to the humanists' slogan in the Querelle : "tout parler par ficcion" (saying everything by fiction). As Joël Blanchard has argued convincingly, one of the most pressing challenges facing the poet in early-fifteenth-century Paris involved véridiction —the capacity to speak the truth fully.[41] As Christine takes up this challenge, she roots her "truth" in so many layers of prophetic language that it appears, at least rhetorically, incontestable. Furthermore, her avis is properly dedicated to the polis. Vision/counsel versus fiction, truth-telling versus autonomous speech: Christihe's juxtapositions reveal the impoverishment of Col's "fictive" autonomy. What is missing in Col is precisely the ethico-political dimension. Christine's avis possesses this dimension because it both serves and contributes efficaciously to the community. With its overarching perspective, it claims to represent the interests of the entire group in a truthbearing language beneficial to all. This is not to say that free speech cannot be exercised ethically. Nor is it to suggest that an ethical fiction does not exist. On the contrary: Christine's writing from this stage on is the proof


of that. Rather it is to say that where the humanists fail in vindicating "fictive" autonomy, Christine succeeds in articulating a socially responsive one. Where they fail in defending the Rose ethically, the Chemin proves exemplary.

Towards the Sapiential

With this order of "visionary advice," then, Christine's persona is ready to represent a type of civic ethics. And the emblem for this ethics, as classical thought defined it, is nothing less than sapientia or wisdom. Having authorized itself prophetically, the Chemin experiments with what I shall call sapiential writing. Inspired and learned, forward-looking and yet committed to the present, this narrative pursues a way of speaking and writing about wisdom as a necessary civic virtue. In so doing, it embodies wisdom itself. The Chemin realizes the virtue in the process of advocating it for the polis. Such a course is startling on several accounts. That a female persona practices wisdom moves beyond the passive identification of wisdom with the feminine that Minerva represents for so much of medieval clerical writing. Christine's persona disputes the exclusive claims on wisdom made by the male clergy—a claim so well-defended, according to Michèle LeDoeuff, that a woman cannot easily contest it.[42] This was particularly the case in Christine's milieu, where intellectual life was still tightly controlled by the clergy. Her sapiential writing thus raises the question of a woman humanist.[43] Furthermore, it explores the conflicted position of "wise women" in the polls. To what degree can their actions constitute a critical part of a community's deliberations? Christine seems intent on envisaging a more active role for them than her Greek and Roman models posited.[44] Indeed, her sapiential writing projects a determining ethical/political role for women. I shall return to these two startling questions again.

In the simplest terms, Christine's sapiential writing is defined by its erudition. The debate over the ideal qualities of the citizenry in the second half of the narrative marshals a remarkable array of citation and commentary, the so-called dits d'auteurs . It turns the Chemin into a model florilegium that could rival any clerical anthology of the day.[45] Here is a work that delights in the stuff of learning, amassing disparate material and displaying it in ever more inventive ways. It communicates the thrill of acquiring bookish knowledge.[46] Yet Christine's obviously pleasurable erudition is no self-engrossing affair. It develops in accordance with its social utility. In this sense, it realizes one of Aristotle's


ethical principles as the philosopher/translator Nicole Oresme renders it: "The study of all books engenders, fosters, and cultivates in the hearts of those who listen to them an affection and love for the commonwealth, which is the best quality to be found in a prince and his counselors after the love of God (L'estude de tous livres engenre et embat ou acroist es cuers de ceuls qui y entendent, affeccion et amour au bien publique, qui est la meilleur qui puisse estre en prince et en ses conseilliers aprés l'amour de Dieu; Livre de Ethiques , Prologue, 1d [Menut, 99]). For Christine, the study of all books is a measure of her ethical and political responsibilities. The process of working through such learning equips her for a civic role. In fact, it commits her to that role all the more strongly. As her writing gains intellectually, it rises to the challenge of overseeing the affairs of the polis. In this sense, her sapiential writing comprises a practice as well. It realizes the same ethical conduct that it recommends for the benefit of the prince and his people. It participates in the essential functioning of the commonwealth.

When we approach Christine's sapiential writing as a practice, we can begin to detect the important ethico-political role it devises for women. Her portrait of the prince among his people depends in large part on their intervention. Whereas most humanist versions of this portrait do not make room for any female political activism, Christine's, by contrast, highlights it. Two examples will make the point clear. In the first, Christine details the case of a woman unjustly accused of a crime. She is condemned by a drunken monarch gone out of control. The rule of the kingdom looks in jeopardy. Yet the woman's pleas remind us that wisdom is not merely the personal trademark of the ruler, but in the best of circumstances a trait informing the entire body politic. She challenges the prince's judgment, thus appealing to another standard: "So after his drunkenness, he went to listen to her and revoked the sentence he had given that was so badly ordained" (Dont apres l'ivrece vaca A elle oir, et revoca La sentence qu'il ot donnee, Qui moult estoit mal ordenee; lines 5567–70). In Christine's example, the proverbial victim becomes a decisive agent of wise justice. The woman calls the errant prince back to good rule. By playing the role of the fully empowered citizen, she insures not only that justice is rendered her personally but also that the community's welfare is respected. Her voice is the ethical one, and it speaks responsibly for the polis as a whole.

In the second case, that female ethical voice is further strengthened. It belongs to a widow who turns to the delinquent prince seeking justice for her murdered son:

Tu es, dist elle, mon debteur.
Que te vauldra, s'autre me paie;
Tenus es de faire la paie.


Et lors l'empereur, esmeu
Des paroles, si a veu
Le cas, et du cheval descent,
Et a celle femme en present
Fist droit et satisfacion.
Dont fu grant approbacion
Qu'il estoit parfait justicier
Sanz prolongnier ne delaissier.
(lines 5790–5800)

You are, she said, my debtor. What will it be worth to you, if another pays me; you are bound to keep the bargain. Whereupon the emperor, moved by these words, and having seen the case, got down from his horse and made good on the spot with this woman, giving her satisfaction. Thus there was great approval that he was a perfect judge without hesitation or procrastination.

The woman articulates a classical definition of justice: speak the truth and pay your debts. She is the mouthpiece for an ethical principle meant to sustain the commonwealth. Furthermore, her exchange with the prince secures his reputation: were she not to require justice from him, his good name would be diminished. Through a woman's intervention, the prince's necessary fame as judge is vindicated and his judgment is perfected.

These scenes capture the essence of Christine's sapiential writing. Like the intervention of the two women, her work is to function ethically on behalf of the people, but it must do so in the face of irresponsible discourse and delinquent governance. Because the appointed representatives of justice—rulers and philosophers alike—have failed, the Chemin claims the task of pronouncing ethically. Women take over the duty of protecting the citizen's name and thereby of defending the integrity of the group. Against all philosophical precedent, it is women's work that sets the ethico/political standard. Against most literary conventions, it is a woman's writing that exemplifies it.

What is the connection between this ethical stance and Christine's writing as a whole? What bearing could her ethics possibly have on her dispute with Jean de Meun's Rose ? With these questions, my argument comes full circle. Christine's ultimate response to the Querelle de la Rose , emerges through the practice of sapiential writing in the Chemin . Such an ethical textual practice responds to the general problem of defamation. In the most efficacious way, it disputes the particular problem of defamatory masterly texts about women. If defamatory writing is defined by its injuriousness, then the sapiential is defined by its beneficence. Where the


former wreaks symbolic violence, the latter makes amends. In fact, sapiential writing seeks to counteract past symbolic violence. Because of its commitment to the polis, it rehabilitates earlier damaging writing and endeavors to reorient it ethically to the society's benefit.

These distinctions make Christine's sapiential writing her most potent reply to the defamatory Rose . But they also empower her critique of its humanist defenders. Her ethical textual practice calls into question their practice, one linked specifically in the Querelle to Dame Eloquence (Hicks, 92–112.) Although Christine can hardly challenge the eloquence of Col and Montreuil, she can point up the absence of any accompanying wisdom. Christine's own sapiential writing serves, in effect, to indict retroactively the Rose 's humanist defenders for their lack of wisdom. And this in turn impugns their dedication to the commonwealth. According to the Roman authority so beloved by the humanists and Christine herself: "But if you have eloquence without wisdom, then Cicero teaches you that such eloquence is pernicious to the state and the commonwealth."[47] Judged by this standard the humanists' contribution to the Querelle is devoid of the very quality that defines the ethico-political. Christine argues implicitly that the humanists' eloquence is pernicious or defamatory itself. Under such circumstances, her own sapiential writing in the Chemin (and thereafter) functions doubly. Its principal aim is to compensate for the verbal injury of women in a masterly text such as the Rose . But in so doing, it surpasses the humanists' discourse ethically and politically. Christine's work is distinguished by the same civic virtues they claim for their own.

This strategy did not go unnoticed. A contemporaneous pedagogical treatise composed by a noblewoman for her sons gives us a glimpse of the effects of Christine's writing:

Cristine de pisay a si bien et honnestement parle, faisant dictiers et livres a l'ensaignement de nobles femmes et aultres, que trop seroit mon esperit failly et surpris voulloir emprendre de plus en dire. Car quant j'auroie la science de Palas ou l'eloquence de Cicero, et que, par la main de Promoteus, fusse femme nouvelle, sy ne porrose je parvenir ne attaindre a sy bien dire comme elle a faict.
(Enseignemens que une dame laisse a ses filz en forme de testament , B.N. 19919, fol. 27)[48]

Christine de Pizan has spoken so well and so honestly, composing treatises and books concerning the instruction of noblewomen and others, that my spirit would surely be surprised and overwhelmed in trying to say anything more. For even when I had the learning of Minerva or the eloquence of Cicero and were I, by the hand of Prometheus, to


become a new woman, even then I could still not reach her level nor attain speaking as well as she has done.

We have here the virtues that distinguish Christine's way: Minervan wisdom and Roman eloquence define her writing as a powerful ethicopolitical medium for women and men in the community. As the very antithesis of the defamatory, it offers a socially responsible discourse. Her eloquent sapiential writing dismantles the symbolic domination of women maintained so effectively by the masterly clerical tradition. In its place, it devises a language that represents women's interests equitably. If such a language cannot change social relations between women and men, it can name them differently.[49] It can thus safeguard the welfare of all citizens, the making of "new women and men." All Christine's subsequent writing pioneers just such a socially enriching idiom, of which one sign might well be the locution—femme/fame/sapience —of defamed women made newly famous by their wisdom.


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