Christine de Pizan (also rendered as de Pisan) was born in 1364 to a physician and councilor to the Republic of Venice, who later took up a similar post at the court of Charles V of France. Since she was his only child, he insisted that she be educated as a boy would, taking full advantage of the manuscripts and archives available at the French court. She was married at age 15 to a royal secretary, who died a decade later, leaving her with children and a mother for which to care. She became a much-acclaimed writer and poet under the patronage of various nobles. She later retired to a convent where she wrote her work The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry. It is surprising to find any work of strategy or military by a woman in any time, but it is nearly unheard of to find a woman writer of military strategy in the 14th Century when women were still largely considered property. Since the end of the fifteenth century, The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry was available primarily through Antoine Vérard’s imprint of 1488 or William Caxton’s 1489 incomplete translation, The Book of the Order of Chivalry. Vérard suggested that the work was his own translation of the Roman writer Vegetius, making no mention of Christine ‘s name.
Pizan wrote The Book of Deeds around 1410 during the Hundred Years’ War, a time of conflict between France and England, as well as among various factions for control of France itself. In most of her writings related to politics, her purpose was “to advise the French royal family against the disastrous political infighting that brought the monarchy to the brink of civil war.” (Finke p. 30) The work was written in “the plainest language possible” (Middle French) instead of Latin because she wanted to have an impact on the French military, nor just the court. As a military manual it tells us a great deal about the strategy, tactics, and technology of medieval warfare and is one of our most important sources for early gunpowder weapon technology.
The Book of Deeds also includes a fascinating discussion of just war. In the early parts of the work, Pizan clearly defines her preference for peace. She does not support war for its own sake, instead believing that war is a means to achieving peace (Forhan p. 151). Pizan prefers peace because wars are not always executed properly. Certain acts of war such as “rape, pillage and the destruction of the innocent and non-combatants” are “detestable and improper” because they are the “wrongful exercise of arms” (Forhan p. 151). Wars often hurt the common people because they are dependent on their lords. When militaries go to war, those who fight cannot be separated from civilians, so the latter suffer naturally. Just wars, therefore, should be fought in a way that will achieve peace. She is confident that peace can be obtained when “each member of society behaves for the common good” (Forhan 154).
Pizan attempts to define the just causes of war. The first is to keep law and justice. The second is for a lord to defend his land against those who would “befoul, injure and oppress the land and the people” (Forhan p. 151). The third and final reason is to reclaim land stolen unjustly and to reinstate control over those under the just jurisdiction of the original lord (Forhan p. 153). Wars with these objectives are not only justified, but they are also obligatory for rulers in order to maintain justice. Rather than allowing another ruler to take land unjustly from him, a ruler should fight against those who would take his land if they do not have a claim to it. It is the job of a ruler to ensure that his people live safely under him (Forhan p. 151). Wars fought for a just cause are merely “the proper execution of justice, to bestow right where it belongs” (Forhan p. 151).
The proper authority to wage war lies only in “sovereign princes, which is to say, emperors, kings, dukes, and other landed lords who are duly and rightfully heads of temporal jurisdictions. No baron, or any other person, may undertake war without the express permission and will of his sovereign lord” (Forhan p. 151). Pizan is quite clear about who can and cannot wage war. This directness may be related to the Hundred Years’ War, for many members of the families were trying to wage war against one another for control of France, sometimes in league with the English, and Pizan argues against the notion that they had the right to do so.
Pizan’s rules are not simply meant for one nation, but they are meant to be taken as a framework for how nations should interact justly. Warfare should not be “for the amusement or punishment of the ruling class” because a war’s “effects transcend borders and social classes” (Forhan 154). War is only evil when it is not used properly. She realizes that there are those who believe that the attempt to tame war will never work, but she nonetheless makes the case because she believes that people have the ability to act for the common good.
Finke, Laurie A. “The Politics of the Canon: Christine De Pizan and the Fifteenth-Century Chaucerians.” Exemplaria 19.1 (2007): 16-38.
Pizan, Christine. The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry. Trans. Willard and Willard. Penn State Press, 1999.
Forhan, Kate L. The Political Theory of Christine de Pizan. MPG Books Ltd, 2002.