Excerpt 2 from Christine de Pizan [Heckel]

[From Sex, Society and Medieval Women by N. M. Heckel]


Excerpts from Christine de Pizan's
Lesser Treatise on the Romance of the Rose

To that most worthy and learned personage, master Jean Johannes, secretary to our lord the king:

Reverence, honor, and all commendation to you, lord provost of Lille, most precious lord and scholar, sage in conduct, lover of knowledge, soundly erudite, well versed in rhetoric, your humble Christine de Pizan, an unlearned woman of small understanding and penetration, with hopes that your wisdom will not despise my arguments withal but make due allowances in consideration of female weakness.

Since it has pleased you to send me freely of your wealth (for which good thanks) a short treatise set forth in fine rhetoric with persuasive argumentation, in which, as I gather, you have given your own opinions reproaching certain critics of certain passages of that compendious Romance of the Rose, vigorously defending this work and its authors, more specifically [Jean de] Meun; as I have read and considered your aforesaid prose and grasped its meaning . . . yet moved by a persuasion contrary to yours and in accordance with that renowned fine scholar to whom your aforesaid epistle is addressed, I wish to hold, proclaim, and sustain publicly that, with all due respect, you are entirely in error and without justification in giving such accomplished praise to the aforesaid work, which were better called utter frivolity than any profitable book, in my opinion. And although you strongly criticize its adversaries, saying that it is "an admirable thing to understand so fully what is held in another text," that he has "better composed and assembled through profound study and diligent application," let it not be accounted presumption on my part to dare repudiate and criticize so august and penetrating an author; consider, rather, the sound and formal judgment which leads me to oppose certain particular aspects of the work . . . I will not refrain from stating grossly and in the common vernacular the opinion that I hold, though I be incapable of explaining it in the manner of decorous speech.

But why was it said above that it "were better called utter frivolity?" Clearly it seems to me that anything lacking valid use, even if composed, constructed, and elaborated by diligent work and effort, may be called frivolous or worse than frivolous to the degree that harm can come of it. . . . I read and considered it up and down so far as my understanding would permit. True it is that since the subject matter was not to my liking in several passages, I jumped over them like a cat on hot bricks, and hence have not examined them thoroughly. Nonetheless, there lodged in my memory certain items treated therein which my judgment strongly condemned, nor can the opposing praise of others bring me to approve them. . . . it is beyond a doubt, as I see it, that his manner is completely indecent in certain passages, particularly in the case of the character he calls Reason . . .

. . . I cannot remain silent about the following, for I find it most offensive that the character of Reason, whom he himself calls the daughter of God, should put forth such a statement as I note in the aforesaid chapter, where she says by way of a proverb that "in the war of Love it is better to deceive than be deceived." And indeed I dare say that in making that statement Jean de Meun's Reason denied her Father, for the doctrine He gave was altogether different. And to say that one is better than the other would imply that both are good: which is impossible. And to consider the truth of the matter, I hold the opposite opinion, that it is better to be deceived than to deceive.

But let us go on in considering the material or manner of speech which, in the sound opinion of many people, is subject to reproach. Good Lord in Heaven! What an abomination! What indecency! He has surely set down a variety of reprehensible teachings in the Duenna's chapter! Who, in Heaven's name, could find anything therein but sophistical exhortations, rotten to the core and of the vilest repute? Oh ho! Those of you who have fine daughters and wish to instruct them in decent living, give them, then, go out and get The Romance of the Rose to learn to distinguish right from wrong -- indeed! -- rather wrong from right! For what good is it and what profit can come to listeners from hearing so much filth? As for the chapter of the Jealous Husband, in Heaven's name, what sound instruction can be retained therein? What good is it to have set down such improprieties and foul speech as are surely common in the mouths of those so unfortunate as to suffer from this disease? What good example or instruction can this serve? And as to the filth written there about women, some say to excuse him that it's only a jealous man speaking, and that it is at bottom no different from God speaking through the mouth of Jeremiah. But doubtless whatever lying overstatements he may have heaped on, they cannot, thank heavens, diminish in any way or worsen the true conduct of women.

(The Writings of Christine de Pizan, 151-154.)


Christine de Pizan. The Writings of Christine de Pizan. Sel. and ed. Charity Cannon Willard. New York: Persea Books, 1994


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