Monday, November 14, 2011

A couple of loose thoughts

The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan has been living in my purse for the last week or two as my go-to public transit read. It would make me feel very brainy reading medieval poetry on the bus except that my inspiration was the incomparable "Take Back Halloween" website. Thus I was first drawn to this book by its author's awesome horned headdress.

There are extant portraits of Christine, why didn't they use one for the cover?

I never had much interest in "medieval stuff" as a kid, and the medieval history class I took in college didn't have much impact on me at the time. In the last couple of years though I've had the opportunity to admire some really lovely medieval artwork in London, and the period has begun to grow on me. Now that essay we had to write in college about whether or not "the Renaissance" is a useful historical (as opposed to art historical) period seems much more compelling to me.

Anyway, I haven't gotten terribly far into the collection but it's already clear that Christine was a pretty nifty lady. I'm especially charmed by her work The Letter from Othea. Basically she wrote a mock-antique text along with two commentaries: one literary/historical, and the other moral/theological. Commentaries like these were common literary forms of the period, but here all three pieces were written by Christine. What a fascinating project!

I'm also intrigued by the way she explains ancient Greek deities. Like so:

And because the ancients had the custom of adoring everything that seemed blessed beyond the common level of things, they called several wise women who existed in their time goddesses.
Or here:
Minerva was a very wise lady... and because this lady possessed such great wisdom, people called her a goddess.
Now, if you're a medieval writing about the ancient gods, "by God's grace illuminated by the true faith" as Christine puts it, you can treat them as entirely imaginary literary figures, as real spiritual entities of some kind, or you can pull this little historicizing move apparently. I have no idea whether this insistence on the historical existence of "goddesses" is unique at all, but I do think it's pretty interesting. Maybe that's what's so great about medieval art and literature: even when you know that the stereotypes are wrong, it's still really delightful when you get to see what's actually there.

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