Heavenly Advice: Christine de Pizan’s Othéa and Mythology as Morality 

Do not resemble Jason.” – Othéa to Hector (Allegory 54), giving out the single best piece of advice in the entire epistle

[Louis of Orléans meeting Christine de Pisan]

We have discussed how the ancients often had an adversarial relationship to their own cosmogony, especially when it came to the truthfulness or utility of mythological stories that painted the gods in a detrimental light. The older approach of cultures like the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, that the gods operated on a plain of their own morality and it wasn’t for humans to question why they did what they did, was unsatisfying to later Greek and Roman intellectuals. As we saw, Plato was skeptical of the ability of myth to shape human behavior, what modern scholars call functionalism, that is, that telling a lurid, possibly made-up story about heroes (and sometimes, the gods) suffering from the fruits of their bad behavior will serve as a deterrent to regular folks. You might agree that ancient mythology and its descendant genres like gothic horror and superhero comics feed our worst imaginative impulses, but as it turns out, functionalism may be the only reason you, a person living in a non-Greek/non-Latin-speaking country in the 21st century, knows who anyone from Hera to Hector is. So let’s examine that.

Sidestepping my bottomless treasury of memes about the loss of the Library of Alexandria, physical destruction isn’t the only threat to ancient literature. Like the Rosetta Stone proved, simply losing the ability to comprehend a language shuts away its books from future readers; there’s a lot we still don’t understand about Egyptian as a language because it was lost to us for so long. The West never completely lost touch with ancient Greek or Latin in the same way, but we came very close during the medieval period when knowledge of those languages dwindled to a handful of ecclesiastical scholars in Europe. Now, a continuous population of Greek speakers insulated Greek literature to a certain extent, but modern Greek, like modern English or most contemporary languages, is significantly different from its ancient counterpart, and native speakers won’t always preserve literature if that literature isn’t a priority to the living speakers. There is certainly a timeline where we know of the Trojan War in an iteration of its oral history in Greece, but don’t necessarily possess any written version of it, and as a result, it doesn’t have the broader European cultural impact.

[Okay, just one…]

This touches on another threat to ancient literature—someone has to expend the effort to see that the story/book is kicked further down the timeline. I just saw a tweet lamenting the loss of a Greek text that we know of called something to the effect of “On Spiteful Animals,” but we have no extent manuscript of. Or, using an example that we’ve talked about before, the only parts of Juba II of Mauretania’s extensive and well-thought-of corpus is quotations in other sources. If a text is to survive both the ravages of time and the death of its culture and language, as any Latin literature we have has, someone has to care enough to see that it does. If you’re of European descent, most of your modern access to ancient Greek and Latin literature is thanks to Middle Eastern scholars across a wide swath of academic disciplines and European priests who either translated from the original or from the Arabic or Persian of the former. What I’m saying is that the only reason you can read the Ars Amatoria, or any of Ovid’s nonsense, is because a few monks had more of a sense of humor about his poems than Octavius did.

[You think that’s crazy, puella? Some of those guys had to like Catullus and Martial enough to keep them , too…] 

But how did those adventurous monks manage that in a religious climate that was hellbent (heh) on maintaining the supremacy of Christianity and stamping out paganism—something the Church was still doing in Europe practically on the cusp of the Renaissance? In part they succeeded because some of the content in question wouldn’t have been as shocking to them as it is to us—a medieval audience’s tolerance for sexual violence or even scatological humor in these stories would have been closer to its original ancient audiences’ than ours. But in spite of this, when confronted by more conservative content objections, preservers of ancient literature could fall back on a sort of proto-functionalism—that these stories were intended as morality tales designed to point people toward more virtuous conduct. Monks would create glossed collections of works like the Metamorphoses, which would present Ovid’s myths alongside commentary that would explain what lesson the reader was supposed to have gotten out of the verse. One example of this is a gloss entitled Le Ovide moralisé (The Moralized Ovid—yeah, yeah, I know…), written by a Franciscan monk sometime between 1316-1328, which synthesized parts of the Metamorphoses and the Heroides. This was acceptable in part because the Church had been doing this with some of the gnarlier biblical stories for years, justifying violent or sexual content as being didactic in nature. The same allegorical arguments that saved the truly beautiful but graphically sexual Song of Songs from being tossed into the Apocrypha could be used to save Ovid and the whole host of sexy Roman and Greek poets.

[A medieval Ovid manuscript from 1480 depicting the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe]

Allegory in literature wouldn’t ever entirely die in European literature, but it would experience a little-R renaissance in mid-13th century with Guillaume de Lorris’ (with later additions by Jean de Meun) Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose), a long-form allegorical French poem steeped in the chivalric court tradition of the period and the first medieval bestseller. The titular rose is a beautiful lady courted by the protagonist, who must overcome many allegorical obstacles to his suit to obtain his rose. To a modern reader (or at least this modern reader), Le Roman de la Rose is very tame content-wise, not even as explicit as the Song of Songs, but it was controversial from the beginning. Many Church officials saw it in the same way some Romans viewed the Ars Amatoria, as little more than an adultery how-to guide; perhaps because like Ovid’s work, Rose was a secular work and therefore harder to control (many leading ecclesiastical scholars recommended age barriers to even priests reading the Song of Songs because younger people might get the wrong idea about it…). But not everyone’s objections to Rose were the same. Churchmen might take exception with the poem’s seeming encouragement to sin, but there was at least one person who took exception to the poet’s misogynistic attitude toward women as lascivious and fickle. And that person was one of medieval Europe’s truly remarkable women: the Italian-born author and poet Christine de Pizan.

[Christine being dragged from her rest by the Three Virtues to defend them with her writing.]

Christine de Pizan (1364 – c.1430) was born in the Republic of Venice, but spent most of her life in France. Her father, Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano (usually Anglicized as Thomas de Pizan), a renowned astronomer and physician, was appointed as court astrologer to Charles V of France when Christine was about four years old and as a result, Christine grew up in the world of the French court’s royal bureaucracy. At the age of fifteen, she married Etienne du Castel, a secretary to the king, and for the first decade of Christine’s adulthood, she appears to have led a typical life for a woman of her social class. But in 1389, Etienne, like many people in the 14th century, died of the plague, leaving twenty-five-year-old Christine a widow with two young children to support. Additionally, Thomas de Pizan had died the previous year, making her the only support for her mother and a niece living in her household. Women of Christine’s lower gentry-bourgeois status really only had two viable options upon the death of a husband: either quickly remarry, or enter a religious order. The age of both her children and her elderly mother made the latter basically a non-starter, but Christine also decided against remarriage and instead decided she would make the money her family needed herself. And she did this by becoming a writer and calligrapher of her own illuminated manuscripts.

[Christine teaching. The chair she’s sitting in usually denotes its occupant is a medieval university professor, used here to illustrate Christine’s knowledge.]

We don’t know many specifics about Christine’s early education, but it appears she must have been close to her father, because her ability to even attempt to earn her way by her pen in a world where most women were illiterate demonstrates that she had far more education than was usual. Her writing would reveal a breadth of knowledge spanning the classical and ecclesiastical literature of the day, as well as facility with subjects dear to her father’s heart like astrology and alchemy. Some of this she speaks of teaching herself ad hoc once she found herself destitute, but her erudition suggests that she had access to an impressive library, which must have been at least in part her father’s. Using his and her late husband’s court contacts, Christine was able to cultivate powerful patrons from France’s ruling elite, including Charles VI’s queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, and the king’s younger brother, Louis, the duke of Orléans.

[Christine assisting the three queens of the City of Ladies (Reason, Rectitude, and Justice) build the city walls]

Now, some of you have already met Charles VI on this blog, but for those of you who skipped that one, Charles spent a large portion of his reign incapacitated by severe mental illness. This left Isabeau and Louis, along with Charles’ brother, Philippe, duke of Burgundy, and at least five other lords of the realm as the king’s regents at various points during Charles’ forty-plus years on the throne. Many of the regents were Christine’s patrons during her writing career, with her most famous work, Le Livre de la cité des dames (The Book of the City of Ladies), being written for Philippe of Burgundy’s granddaughter as an extended rebuttal to Le Roman de la Rose. In City of Ladies, Christine drew on her extensive knowledge of history and mythology to populate an allegorical city with famous women who were wise and virtuous, to rebuff Rose’s depiction of all women as treacherous. But by the time City of Ladies was written in 1405, Christine had already had some experience mining Greek and Roman mythology as a source for medieval morality. So, after this very long introduction, I want highlight one of Christine’s earlier, lesser-known works, L’Épistre de Othéa a Hector (Othéa’s Letter to Hector), where she learned how to do this.

Othéa was written to Louis d’Orléans as an allegorical mirror of princes poem sometime around the year 1399/1400, when a late-twenties Louis was jockeying with his other male relatives for a place in the regency of his unstable brother. A “mirror of princes” (Latin: specula principum) is a literary genre of works designed to educate rulers or the members of the nobility on royal conduct and behavior. Although the concept existed in the ancient world (Xenophon’s The Education of Cyrus, and Cicero’s de Officiis are mirrors), the term dates from the medieval period and the European Renaissance, with Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince being the example you’d most likely be familiar with. Rather than address Louis directly and risk her advice being rejected out of hand as coming from both a woman and non-royalty, Christine cleverly couches her poem to the duke as an extended mythological allegory, where Louis is the Trojan prince Hector, and Christine is Othéa, an invented goddess of prudence.

[An illustration from Othéa showing the Amazon Penthesilea (representing the Christian virtue of Charity) aiding Hector fighting the Greeks]

The choice to frame this poem in the world of the Iliad might feel random to a modern reader, but it was a deliberate choice on Christine’s part and one that would have been instantly understood by Louis. Ever since Virgil made Aeneas the father of the Romans, all the other kingdoms that rose out of the Roman Empire were always on the hunt for a famous Iliad ancestor of their own, the way older kingdoms had once tried to make all their royal lines descended from Heracles, and France was no exception. Long before French nationalists revived Vercingetorix as their cultural hero, medieval Frenchmen looked at Aeneas and said, “Well, we have a Trojan ancestor too, but instead of a dumb old cousin of the Trojan royal house, our ancestor was the son of Hector. You know, the best Trojan.” According to the 8th century Liber Historiae Francorum (The Book of the History of the Franks), France had been founded by… sigh… Francio, a heretofore unknown son of Hector, who led another band of Trojan refugees away from Anatolia across the Danube into the Rhineland and France. We might roll our eyes at this obvious non-union Mexican equivalent Aeneid, but just as Charlemagne’s descendants in the 8th century had used this story to tie themselves to the ancient Merovingian dynasty they’d supplanted, Louis’ house, the House of Valois, was trying to shore up its dynastic claims to the French throne in the face of their English cousins’ challenge to their legitimacy. Even if Charles VI had been in full control of his faculties, France was still already more than sixty years into the (116-year) Hundred Years’ War with England, so the kingdom would have been unstable even if its monarch had not been. But Charles’ illness made it so not only were the French fighting England, most of the high nobility were fighting each other, which why when he dies in 1422, it will take seven years before his son Charles VII is crowned in Reims and why it will take a peasant girl believed to be on a mission from God to get him there.

[There is a tantalizing theory that Christine might have helped Jeanne become La Pucelle, but that’s a story for another time…]

Anyway, Othéa’s letter to a pre-Iliad Hector (he’s supposed to be fifteen) is presented as one hundred short verses divided into two main sections, both of which use mythology to instruct the teenaged prince in chivalric knightly behavior. The first section has forty-four of the verses and ties mythological stories to important Church doctrines (like the seven deadly sins and the Ten Commandments), while the remaining fifty-six verses are simple moral platitudes exemplified by a corresponding myth. The connection to Christian morality and teachings from the Church’s foremost intellectuals like St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas allowed Christine to pull the same trick the Ovid-loving monks did to talk about pagan mythology without too much fear of reprisal, and also permitted her to hide behind Church authority at the same time as she was able to display her deep and frankly radical familiarity with Christian philosophical thought. Even making her textual doppelgänger the goddess of prudence and wisdom is in of itself cloaking Christian doctrine in a pagan allegory, as those two virtues were closely associated with Mary in the medieval church, where she was commonly hailed as Virgo sapientissima et prudentissima—“Most wise and prudent Virgin.” It’s not a surprise that in the depiction of Othéa in the so-called “Duke’s Manuscript” shows the goddess dressed in the traditional Marian blue and looking very much like other medieval art of Mary. Nor is it a surprise that Christine is often depicted in simpler clothes in similar colors; not because she thought she was on the same level as the Virgin, but to indicate she possessed wisdom and prudence emblematic of Mary’s.

Othéa handing Hector her letter in the “Duke’s Manuscript”]
[The Virgin in Prayer, by Sassoferrato (c.1650)]
[Christine handing a poem to Isabeau of Bavaria]

As for the hundred allegories, they range from the blisteringly obvious—like using Arachne to illustrate why boasting might not be the best idea—to the more convoluted—like name dropping Ulysses (Odysseus) for the deadly sin of sloth, but actually meaning don’t be like the cyclops Polyphemus blinded by him and let your slothful behavior lead your enemies to catch you unawares. In addition to this, there interesting tidbits like how in the theological doctrine verses, there are seven verses dedicated to the known planetary universe (The sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) and the human personality traits associated with those bodies—a callback to Christine’s father’s profession as an astrologer and her familiarity with the art. Or how Othéa mentions allegorical stories from the Iliad itself, which are supposed to operate as prophecies for the young Hector (most of them warning him to not screw up like his brother Paris or beware the Ides of Achilles).

[Hector apparently forgets, but Christine is hoping Louis will do better. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t and is eventually assassinated by men working for his cousin.]

And speaking of Caesars and prophecy, the final allegory is actually a reference to the Sibyl of Cumae, of whom Christine relates a medieval Christian legend about. A last tactic to squeak pagan actors into European culture under the auspices of the Church was to make them early adopters of Christianity in some way for legitimacy. By turning Eclogue IV from a prediction that the birth of Antonia Maior will totally fix Octavius’ and Mark Antony’s relationship into a supposed prophecy about the birth of Christ, Virgil’s catalogue escaped a lot of the wiggling semantics we’ve seen trying to save Ovid. Virgil was an honorary Christian (and a warlock who could see the future!) during the Middle Ages, which, for the record, is also how Dante could justify saying that God was totally cool with his favorite pagan author showing him around the Christian afterlife.

[And judging by his expression, Virgil still won’t let them stop for ice cream on the way.]

As for the Sibyl, she too supposedly foresaw Christ’s coming and apparently told Octavius about it, which is why he never allowed himself to be worshipped as a god (in his lifetime). This is another reason why Octavius received decently positive press through much of the early modern era—accepting the sovereignty of Jesus was another thing that made him one of the “good kings,” along with the hindsight perception of the Pax Romana by people living in what was seen as the less cohesively stable medieval period. Christine also uses this allegory to make one more reminder to Louis to heed her counsel despite her status and gender: if Caesar Augustus could deign to listen to a woman, why shouldn’t Louis d’Orléans? In this way, much like the star-making public disputation she’ll write against the portrayal of women in Le Roman de la Rose, and its sequel, her celebrated City of Ladies, Christine uses Othéa to make the argument that women not only can have a place in the discourse of power, but probably should, given the state of France with just the men deciding things. To think that the anti-witchcraft medieval Church was simultaneously against fortune telling but held a belief in prophecy may seem contradictory to us, but it was similar to the Roman prohibitions against foreign astrologers versus its state connection to augury and the haruspices. The lines are about who is doing the prophesying. A prophecy about a virgin sent by God who will save France will raise Jeanne d’Arc up as surely as doubt about her will pull her back down.  And know one understood those stakes more clearly than the court astrologer’s daughter who would thread that needle for most of her life—as woman daring to advise men “from her chair,” the symbol of a university professor’s honors that she demurred in her verses but rarely passed up an opportunity to show herself seated on in her beautifully illuminated books made to be given to the powerful.

[I had nowhere else to fit this bit in thematically, but I need other people to know that Christine ends the church doctrine section of Othéa with an obtuse allegory for the tenth commandment (“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”—Exodus 20:17) about the goddess Aurora excessively mourning the death of her son Cygnus at Troy and tying that to being content with one’s lot. Aaaaaaand then she kicks off the straight allegorical advice with Pasiphaë… Pasiphaë. Who literally covets her neighbor’s ox. She says the Minotaur’s mom is there to illustrate that “just because some women are bad, men shouldn’t mistrust all women,” but Christine was waaaay too smart for that to have been an accident. Reign on, my qween. 👑]
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