Seminar Five

Patronage and the Vernacular Intellectual: Marie de France and Christine de Pizan

We continue with the theme of patronage but now look at it with the woman writer in mind. Since men received formal educations which led to positions in church or monastery, as well as at royal and ducal courts, they had little need to support themselves through their writing. This was not true for women, who educated themselves as best they could. Marie de France (fl. 1160-80?), who appears to have come from France to live at the French-speaking English court, wrote for the king in Anglo-Norman; best known today for her Lais, she also translated a collection of fables and a narrative poem entitled the Purgatory of Saint Patrick. Christine de Pizan, often referred to as “France’s first professional woman of letters,” supported herself and her family by writing for the Dukes of Orleans and Burgundy, as well as for King Charles VI and most notably for the queen, Isabel. She left an extremely diversified body of writing in poetry and prose, from lyric poems to treatises on war and government; she wrote in the French of occupied Paris, and perhaps for obvious reasons, despised the English. The examples of the two women, one writing at the English court in the 12th century, the other linked to the French court in the early 14th c, may also be allowed to represent a small part of the history of relations between the insular and continental cultures.

The success of both women is allied with a royal desire to create identity. Marie’s writing would have enhanced an English court known for its patronage of literature and the arts. Her short tales of love and her (apparently) even more popular fables would have lent luster and renown to the court. Christine too emerged at a moment when a king was in the process of creating a new political climate, one that depended heavily on promoting all things French; with his massive translation program, through which learned men were commissioned to render the “classics” (Aristotle, the Bible, much else) into French, King Charles V (1364-80) overtly made the vernacular, generally associated with women (cf. Dante), into a “muscle” language of the state; until Petrarchan Latinizing tastes finally swept over the French intelligentsia in the late 14th c., Charles, along with his hugely clever advisor, Nicolas Oresme, had succeeded in laying the ground for French to eclipse Latin (and for the French state to eclipse the Latin church).


  1. Marie de France, Prologue to the Lais (distributed in Fr and Eng)
  2. Marie de France, Prologue to the Fables; fables of your choice; Spiegel
  3. Marie de France, Prologue to the Purgatory of Saint Patrick (distr. Fr and Eng)
  4. Christine de Pizan, Prologue to The City of Ladies (distr Fr and Eng)
  5. Christine de Pizan, Prologues to the Epistre Othea (distr in Fr and Middle Eng trans.)


  1. Summit, Jennifer. “Women and Authorship.” In Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, eds. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2003), pp. 172-83.
  2. Krueger, Roberta. “Marie de France.” In Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, eds. Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2003), pp. 91-108.
  3. Fenster, Thelma. “’Perdre son latin’: Christine de Pizan and Vernacular Humanism.” inCategories of Difference, pp. 91-107. (res.)


Brown-Grant, Rosalind. Chap. on the Epistre Othéa, in Christine de Pizan and the Moral Defence of Women: Reading beyond Gender (Cambridge UP, 1999), pp. 56-88.