History Check 3: Christine de Pizan

Convent of Poissy, July 1429

https://i1.wp.com/www.biography.com/.image/ar_1:1%2Cc_fill%2Ccs_srgb%2Cg_face%2Cq_auto:good%2Cw_300/MTE5NTU2MzE2MTg0MDg2MDI3/christine-de-pisan-9247589-1-402.jpg?resize=200%2C200&ssl=1    A grey-haired woman in the simple garb of a nun sits at a writing table in a plain cell, quill in hand. On the page are the final lines of an epic, unusual not only for its author, but for its hero, who is not only a woman, but still alive. Christine de Pizan smiles. The verses are the culmination of a literary career spent very much in the arena defending and demonstrating the intellectual capabilities of women. It is also the culmination of a life lived in the very center of a tempestuous time. In fact her very presence here in the convent is testimony to that, for she is only here, having fled Paris ahead of the invading English armies. As her mind goes to the senselessness of the seemingly endless war, her quill follows these thoughts:

I pray to God that He will put it in your hearts to act this way,
so the cruel tempest of these wars will be obliterated,
and that you can spend your lives in peace, under your supreme ruler,
and that you may never offend him, and that he may be a good lord to you. Amen.

She pauses, considering.. It is a good ending. But this may well be her literary last word. And she cannot let that pass without stepping once more into the thick of the debate that has so long occupied her career.

This poem was finished by Christine in the above-mentioned year 1429,
on the day that ends July.
But I understand that some people will not be satisfied with its contents,
for if one’s head is lowered and one’s eyes are heavy one cannot look at the light.

Christine sets down the pen, and turns to the beautifully illustrated title page, smiling as she reads. The Tale of Jeanne d’Arc

Christine in History

“Well-behaved women…”

American history Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has famously said that “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” This indictment of history’s all-too-frequent blindness to women is sadly true. And in many ways Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) is a perfect demonstration of this truth. On the one hand, she was a woman who understood what medieval society expected of her and successfully navigated those waters, and in so doing may be called ‘well-behaved’ – especially in comparison to her contemporary Jeanne. On the other, she used her ability to navigate the complex social strata of her world to free herself to pursue an intellectual and literary career in a world that expected women to remain silent.

Christine left behind no fewer than eighteen surviving works. This is a remarkable survival rate for the works of any author before the invention of the printing press made copying easy. As remarkable is her own survival. She moved to Paris from Italy at the age of four. During her lifetime, France was invaded by England three times, fell into civil war, and was ravaged by the Black Death, which killed Christine’s father and her husband, leaving her to care for her three children.

It was this need to provide for herself and her family that drove Christine onto the historical record. Her father had been Court Astrologer to the King of France and her husband a royal secretary. Christine’s first foray onto the historical record is by way of a lawsuit, through which she secured pay owed her husband. Her success in this endeavour is testament to the outstanding education she had received, secured by her father and to which she had taken with gusto in a time when the prevailing belief was that too much education would corrupt a woman’s virtue.

Her literary career began shortly thereafter. Christine began with love ballads, a crowded genre in France during the heyday of Courtly Love. But the quality of her works drew the attention of patrons within the royal family, ensuring that Christine’s work garnered her not only praise, but income. So far as we know, she was the first woman to make a career out of writing. This patronage also gave Christine the security from which to criticize other writers of her day, especially in their portrayal of women – generally as either helpless damsels or treacherous seducers.

Her most famous work on this topic was titled The Book of the City of Ladies. In it, Christine depicts herself as outraged upon reading the way women are treated in the works of the day, and then finds herself visited by Lady Reason, who directs Christine to catalogue the great deeds of women throughout history. Importantly, Chrstine presents education as the common thread in her tapestry, arguing that there is no sense in preventing the education of women. Quite pointedly saying, “It is not all men… who agree with the view that it is a bad idea to educate women. However, it’s true that those who are not very clever come out with this opinion because they don’t want women to know more than they do….”

Christine followed this controversial argument with the Treasure of the City of Ladies – not simply an argument for women’s education, but a manual for all education – and dedicated it to Princess Margaret of France.

Christine building the City of Ladies

Far from finding herself in trouble, Christine became the tutor for the royal children, and turned her writing to political theory, seizing the opportunity to shape the next generation of French royalty.

Ultimately Christine’s time at the center of power came to an end when the English took Paris in 1420. She spent her last years penning a great epic poem celebrating the deeds of Jeanne d’Arc, using the poem as  a sort of “told you so” to the poets she had criticized throughout her life. Being in her sixties by this point, she did not mince her words:

Christine late in life

Therefore, in preference to all the brave men of times
past, this woman must wear the crown, for her deeds
show clearly enough already that God bestows more
courage upon her than upon all those men about whom
people speak. And she has not yet accomplished her
whole mission! I believe that God bestows her here
below so that peace may be brought about through her

Christine did not live to see Jeanne’s tragic end. She died in 1430 at the age of 66, content in the fact that her beloved France was regaining the momentum from the English, and that her own students would be at the center of its politics for years to come.

Christine on the Tabletop

Christine is not a conventional adventurer. She was not a great traveler, spending her entire life after the age of four in France, and mostly in the vicinity of Paris. Neither was she a warrior. But she was a world-class mind, and someone who pursued her beliefs unrelentingly. She was also clever enough to buck intellectual and social orthodoxy without ending up imprisoned or dead – no small feat in the Medieval world. However, as much as she deserves a wider reputation, she is far less obvious a choice for character inspiration than our previous subjects. This is particularly true in D&D, whose rules focus on combat more than most things. Still, I believe we can make a go of it.

Character Species

There is no special reason to make Chrstine any species over another. I would go with whatever culture in your world values courtliness and formality most. In most traditional fantasy settings, that’s going to be an elf, but it might not in yours. For my build, I’ll be following that convention and making Christine a High Elf.


There are a number of good backgrounds for Christine. Really any that deals with academics or life at court will do well. Cloistered Scholar, Courtier, Noble, and Sage all work well. I’m choosing Courtier for mine, because while Christine was influential in France, she was never a part of its official nobility. The Court Functionary feature also feels very fitting with Christine’s obvious understanding of how power in France worked in her day.


Here we come to one of the more difficult parts of the build. D&D classes generally tell us how a character is going to approach combat, so we have little guidance other than that we can rule out things like Fighter and Ranger. What we are looking for is someone who is good with people, and who uses their intelligence and cunning to their advantage, but is going to prefer to avoid direct physical confrontation.

As a poet and writer, Christine could make an excellent Bard. The College of Lore seems an obvious choice, though the new College of Eloquence could also be a good option considering Chrstine’s final days chronicling the deeds of a great hero.

A less obvious, but still plausible option would be a Mastermind Rogue. The Mastermind’s ability to fill a support role and manipulate others might seem more sinister than the real Christine, but would still be a good example of her obvious cunning.

A lavishly illustrated page from the Book of the Queen, by Christine de Pizan (or a page from her spellbook)

My choice though is Wizard. This was mostly driven by the new Unearthed Arcana option for the Wizard’s Order of Scribes. An enchanted Quill, use of a book as a spell focus, and expertise in crafting Spell Scrolls is right up the alley of an author like Christine. In building her, I’d focus my spell choices on divination spells to gain more knowledge and when in combat I’d focus her spell usage on enhancing the other party members rather than direct damaging spells. I’d want the skills of a diplomat as well as many knowledge skills as I could manage. I’d go for making Christine the ‘face’ of her adventuring party, as well as their information expert.

If desired, a multiclass into Bard would also work well, and give an expanded selection of support and inspiration options for combat situations.

We are fortunate indeed that so much of Christine’s writings have survived, and many of her works are available online. She is a voice that deserves a wider audience, and not just because of how few female voices we have from this time period. Set that aside and Christine de Pizan would still be a first rate poet, historian, and educator; sharp, witty, and incisive. And in my humble opinion she is deserving not only of a place in our memory, but in our adventuring parties.

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