Giulia Calvi has just finished her final year at King’s with a degree in Philosophy, and she is currently studying for her Master’s in Curating the Art Museum at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is passionate about history, art, queerness and queer representation in pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, war and family narratives, genealogy and anything else human.
[Featured Image: A medieval illumination illustrating Christine de Pisan in her scriptoria. Source.]
Looking At Misogynist Literary Tropes in Fiction with Christine de Pizan
When people try to tell me that feminism is a 21st century issue -and that things like mansplaining or gaslighting are things we came up with to justify our own inadequacies – my brain immediately goes to Christine de Pizan and the debate over the Romance of the Rose.
The Romance of the Rose is a XIII century allegorical poem in vernacular French and written, as you might imagine, by two men: Guillaume de Lorris and (mainly) Jean de Meun. However, the debate over the Romance of the Rose didn’t flare up until the dawn of the XV century among a circle of Parisian intellectuals, and it represents the first case of literal controversy concerning vernacular literature that we know of. And yes – you guessed it. The first ever case of literal controversy is a feminist case. Here’s why.
The Romance of the Rose was admired in France as an erudite production that encompassed a variety of themes, from advice on the art of love, to reflections upon ethics, morality and the natural world. Although primarily belonging to the genre of courtly love, it largely references pre-existing literary material and makes great use of allegories and literary devices. When Christine de Pizan – a young woman who frequented the French court – first started the polemic around the Romance of the Rose, she did so as an advocate of the honour and virtue of women. She argued that the romance, by engaging with misogynistic literary traditions and tropes, was shameful and contributed to the bad reputation of women as a group.
In L’Epistre au Dieu d’Amours, written in 1399, Christine attacks the overall tendency of men to think badly of women and their nature – alongside denouncing the praise of the Romance of the Rose – and proceeds to ask what the use of such work is, directly challenging its role in society:
‘Still I say that a man who says defamatory, offensive, or disgraceful things about women in an effort to scold them (be it one woman, or two, or categorically) is acting contrary to nature. Instead, if someone knows an evil woman, let him watch out for her, without defaming one-third or one-fourth of them, or reprimanding all of them without exception and besmirching their female behaviour.’[i]
Christine de Pizan, L’Epistre au Dieu d’Amours
In defence of Jean de Meun, because God forbid that a woman could be entitled to her own opinion, no less than three men dedicated themselves to answer Christine’s attack: Jean de Montreuil and Pierre and Gontier Col. However, instead of answering Christine de Pizan’s attack on the points she raised, they proceeded to discredit her objections by depicting her as a femme passionée, essentially questioning Christine’s motivations and fair judgement by accusing her of being excessively emotional, feeding on the stereotype of women being driven by emotions and hysteria rather than reason – sound familiar yet?
‘Words that burst out too quickly and thoughtlessly from a woman’s mouth words that condemn a man of such high intelligence and passionate learning who has laboured so hard and deliberated deeply on the noble books of the Rose.’[ii]
By bringing honour and reputation to the plate – and by framing Christine’s argument as an ad hominem attack – Jean de Meun’s defendants were effectively making Christine’s intellectual charges an assault to ‘the symbolic property of honour.’[iii]
Now, Christine not only immediately dismissed the attack based on her ‘excessive emotional state’ by saying that her motivation had nothing to do with being a woman – rather, she merely intended to advocate for truth and fairness – but she also stated that she was better qualified than others in dealing with these issues precisely because she was a woman.
‘But insofar as I am in fact a woman, I am better suited to attest to these matters than he who, not having had this experience, speaks instead through conjecture and in a haphazard manner.’
The most relevant objection against Christine de Pizan is that she is ‘too superficial’ in judging the Romance of the Rose, perhaps because of a lack of understanding of literature. Jean the Montreuil and the Cols conducted a line of defence that had little to do with the examples of misogynistic literature found in the poem, but rather they concerned themselves with the literary and aesthetic value of the Rose. Their defence is based on the argument that anything is permitted when art is the matter at hand, and that every attack against it will consequently want to diminish its aesthetic qualities.
When Christine identifies the negative social power of the Rose, and its vicious modes of defamation of women, they answer by shifting the discussion to the matter of honour and reputation of Jean de Meun as a poet, which Christine never meant to challenge in the first place. It was almost as if they hadn’t actually been listening to her claim, instead immediately assuming that she was wrong and not erudite enough because of her status as a woman – this is starting to hit a bit too close to home, isn’t it? It seems that rather than confronting her on the same grounds, the shift in their argument is an intentional category mistake.
What Christine is trying to do is pointing out a certain feature of the Rose that is actively and purposefully hurtful: rather than challenging the aesthetic value of the work, she emphasises how the Romance of the Rose is a defamatory work that can, in fact, be harmful, and that Jean de Meun’s stereotypical writing of women targets the entirety of the group and diminishes women’s reputation. All in all, the fame of the Rose has been in determining the way women are perceived socially. Fictional works can and do harm, and tend to impart a concrete impact.
‘If only he would have blamed the nasty women and advised us to avoid them; that would be good teaching, and appropriate. But no! He has to accuse all of them, every single one, without exception.’[iv]
As Helen Solterer argues, this idea is reinforced by the use of the allegory: by creating exemplary figures of women, the result is the defamation of the entirety of the fair sex. “Representing women as a group, the Rose can also harm them collectively.”[v]
It is true that defining when a work such as the Romance of the Rose is objectionable because of its content is not such an easy task. After all, it is not the case that every time we encounter a negative character, we question the entirety of the novel or the author’s intentions. However, the peculiarity of Jean de Meun’s work is that it targets all women as a group, and even if we cannot say for certain that he shared the same conceptions contained in his work, he did not give us a single reason to believe the contrary: all women are wicked and have some kind of negative feature in the Rose, and they are used as negative characters throughout the poem. There is no redemption, they are not a plot device used to reach a further development in the story that will allow for growth and change, as it often happens in fictional works: on the contrary they are solely and essentially negative.
The problem with the Rose is not that some women cover the role of antagonists in the story, but that all of them are. Whether Jean de Meun had misogynistic beliefs is beside the point: his work acts as a reinforcement of a misogynistic and stereotypical literary tradition that defames and harms women in a way that is all but fictional, and by including certain misogynistic tropes in the Romance of the Rose he deliberately reinforced a model that posited women as recipients of hate and villainy for centuries. Whether he actually shared these views does not change the fact that his work contributed to the diffusion of a very specific way of thinking about women.
The debate over the Romance of the Rose moved way beyond its aesthetic merits, and questioned the role of women in society as a direct consequence of the reinforcement of literary tropes in fiction. “Denouncing the verbal injury of women committed by the Rose means representing them as part of the public, and militating for their right to say so publicly.”[vi]
The idea that work of art cannot be questioned socially, politically or ethically in virtue of its status and its aesthetic qualities is incredibly dangerous. And it is the kind of objection that I believe to be beside the point of this particular quarrel: appreciating a work of art for its aesthetic qualities does not prevent us from debating over the legitimacy of its content or the message it wants to express.
There are countless examples of morally questionable artworks that still hang on the walls of our museums: it suffices to think of Paul Gauguin’s countless paintings of young Tahitian girls which not only favour sexual exploitation of minors, but that explicitly laid sexual and racial fantasies from a Western perspective onto canvas. And yet, we do not stop valuing Gauguin’s capabilities as an artist. Rather, by discussing the social and moral implications of his paintings, we encourage a discussion on legitimacy and artistry, and on how we ought to approach art that is morally contentious.
Works of fiction can and do have a political responsibility, and the idea that literary license can somehow excuse fictional works from any critical discussion over their content is extremely dangerous. Christine de Pizan, as an intellectual and even more so as a woman, knew so. Women all over the world know so. It is important that we reclaim our own space in fiction, and that we always make our voice heard when it matters, no matter how many times they tell us we are too emotional to do so.
[i] De Pizan, Christine, ‘L’Epistre au Dieu d’Amours’ in: C. Cannon Willard, The Writings of Christine de Pizan (New York: 1994)
[ii] Solterer, Helen, ‘Fiction versus Defamation: The Quarrel over The Romance of The Rose’ in: The Medieval History Journal, vol. 2, issue 1, Dec. 1999, p. 111 -141
[iv] Christine de Pizan in Solterer 1999