|Women Poets of the Renaissance
Marie de France, c. 1175 – 1190, Poet
Marie, born in France, was one of the troubadours and trouvères brought to the English court of Henry II by Eleanor of Aquitaine, his wife. She was well-known in her own time, second in popularity to Chrétien de Troyes. While her own background is uncertain, she clearly was competent in English, Latin and French. She composed a religious didactic treatise called Espurgatoire Saint Patriz, but was known for her fables and poems of chivalry, called lais [songs], which she says were taken from material which she says she heard sung by minstrels in Breton.
The lais of Marie are dedicated to Henry II and begin with an interesting Prologue in which she informs us of her purpose in writing.
Whoever has received knowledge and eloquence in speech from God should not be silent or secretive but demonstrate it willingly.
When a great good is widely heard of, then, and only then, does it bloom, and when that good is praised by many, it has spread its blossoms.
The custom among the ancients -- as Priscian testifies -- was to speak quite obscurely in the books they wrote, so that those who were to come after and study them might gloss the letter and supply its significance from their own wisdom.
Philosophers knew this, they understood among themselves that the more time they spent, the more subtle their minds would become and the better they would know how to keep themselves from whatever was to be avoided.
He who would guard himself from vice should study and understand and begin a weighty work by which he might keep vice at a distance, and free himself from great sorrow.
The language and subject matter of the lais are that of the court and it most likely that Marie herself came from an aristocratic background. The following quotation from the lais called “Lanval” will serve to illustrate the style.
In that same year, it seems to me,
after the feast of St. John,
about thirty knights
were amusing themselves
in an orchard beneath the tower
where the queen was staying.
Gawain was with them
and his cousin, the handsome Yvain;
Gawain, the noble, the brave,
who was so loved by all, said:
“By God, my lords, we wronged
our companion Lanval,
who is so generous and courtly,
and whose father is a rich king,
when we didn’t bring him with us.”
They immediately turned back,
went to his lodging
and prevailed on Lanval to come along with them.
At a sculpted window
the queen was looking out;
she had three ladies with her.
She saw the king’s retinue,
recognized Lanval and looked at him.
Then she told one of her ladies
to send for her maidens,
the loveliest and the most refined;
together they went to amuse themselves
in the orchard where the others were.
She brought thirty or more with her;
they descended the steps.
The knights came to meet them,
because they were delighted to see them.
The knights took them by the hand;
their conversation was in no way vulgar.
Lanval went off to one side,
far from the others; he was impatient
to hold his love,
to kiss and embrace and touch her;
he thought little of others’ joys
if he could not have his pleasure.
When the queen saw him alone,
she went straight to the knight.
She sat beside him and spoke,
revealing her whole heart:
“Lanval, I have shown you much honor,
I have cherished you, and loved you.
You may have all my love;
just tell me your desire.
I promise you my affection.
You should be very happy with me.”
“My lady,” he said, “let me be!
I have no desire to love you.
I’ve served the king a long time;
I don’t want to betray my faith to him.
Never, for you or for your love,
will I do anything to harm my lord.”
Marie also left a volume of fables intended for moral edification. No fable, she says, “is so light-hearted that there is not some wisdom to be gained from the apologies that follow, wherein lies all the essence of the stories.” As an example, we offer her “The Dog and the Sheep.”
Once there was a lying, deceiving dog with evil ruses who brought a lawsuit against a sheep. He brought her before the judge and sued her for a loaf of bread which he said that he had loaned her. The sheep denied everything and said that he had loaned her nothing. The judge asked the dog if he had any witnesses, and he answered that he had two of them, the hawk and the wolf. They were brought forth, and under oath they affirmed that what the dog had said was true. Do you know why each one did this? Because if the sheep lost her life, they were expecting a share. The judge then asked the sheep, whom he called before him, why she had denied something of such little value. Now she should give it back to him, before things got worse! The poor thing did not have it to give back, so she had to sell her wool. It was winter, and she died from the cold. The dog came and carried away his portion, and the hawk likewise, and then the wolf. The wolf was eager to split up the meat amongst them, for they had long been in need of food. Nothing was left of the sheep; her master lost her completely.
By this fable, I want to illustrate something that is proven by the many men who frequently have trumped-up lawsuits brought against the poor. They bring out false witnesses and pay them with the goods of the poor, and they don’t care what becomes of the wretched fellow, provided that each one gets his share of the goods.
Birgitta of Sweden, 1302 – 1373
Birgitta was one of a number of late medieval women whose lives were shaped by ‘visions.’ Her first vision, of Christ crucified, occurred at age 10, but her most influential one came after the death of her husband when she says Christ instructed her that, “a humble widow is more agreeable to me than a proud virgin.” This she understood to be an invitation to become an active public figure, at a time when it was believed that religious women had to be, of necessity, virgins.
She was born to a Swedish aristocratic family, married a nobleman at age 14 and subsequently had 8 children. In 1335 she was invited to join the household of the young bride of King Magnus, but soon resigned when she found it be be a position of little significance. After the death of her husband in 1344, Birgitta began serious religious study under the prior of a nearby Cistercian abbey and began to devote herself to a life of prayer and contemplation.
Soon she began having renewed visions, which became the basis of an influential book, Revelations. This book offered frank, even unwelcome, advice to European leaders, including the pope. For example, she advised Pope Clement VI, who was living in Avignon and had no particular desire to return to Rome to govern, that she had a vision in which Christ commanded him to return, threatening him with punishment for lack of obedience. She gained many English fans when she suggested that the King of England was closer to the French throne than Philip VI and that the latter should make Edward III his successor.
Birgitta traveled to Rome in 1349 and lived there until her death in 1373. Her continued call for the Avignon popes to return to Rome was considered controversial and helped delay her canonization. The French church leader and University of Paris official, Jean Gerson, in particular, was opposed to her canonization, suggesting that the teaching of a woman must be more carefully examined than that of a man.
Her eventual canonization in 1391 was a source of great pride for Sweden and translations of her book were circulated long after her death.
Christine de Pizan, 1363 – 1431, Poet
Christine de Pizan was perhaps the most prolific writer of the 15th century. Reared as the daughter of Charles V’s Italian physician, from the age of 5 Christine lived in the Louvre and enjoyed an education as good as that available to that of any aristocrat in Paris. Her world changed forever when her father’s patron, the king, died in 1380 and especially when Christine’s own husband was killed by the plague in 1389. She would mourn her husband for the rest of her life and never remarry. She expressed her state of mind at this time in a little ballad.
Alone am I in the world, and alone would I remain,
Alone has my dear love left me.
Alone am I, a poor lone woman, without companion or master,
Alone am I, stricken with sorrow and anguish of mind,
Alone am I, and ill at ease,
Alone am I, more lonely than one who has lost her way,
Alone have I been left without friends.
The death of her husband left her at age 25 with 3 children, and 3 other relatives, to support. She turned to writing and became the first woman in Western European history to support herself by this profession. Her first ballads appear in 1393, after the death of her husband, and her first major work, Epistre au dieu d’amours appeared in 1399.
The breadth of her works is quite extraordinary and includes love poems, allegorical works, didactic treatises (such as one on the training of a prince, L’Epître d’Othéa à Hector), a long moral poem (Le Chemin de Long Estude), a work on political economy (Le Livre de Police), the translation of a Latin military treatise into French and a contemporary work on military law. Her biography of Charles V, Livre des faits et bons meurs, is one of the most important early works of its kind. She evidently had access to Charles V’s extensive library for this purpose and her book provides an important glimpse into the life of French royalty.
She is especially important as an early champion of the rightful place of women in society, arguments which she made in The City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies. This last work, sometimes known as Book of the Three Virtues, is dedicated to Margaret of Burgundy, and therefore most of the book centers on the proper conduct of great ladies. Here she portrays an ideal queen as having the virtues of prudence, compassion and wise counsel, but must also know the law of arms and how to stock and guard a castle.
Further chapters provide rules of conduct for women at all levels of society. Regarding the lady in charge of a country estate, for example, Pizan pictures a woman informed on all legal rights of the property, knowledgeable of crops and marketing and with a careful eye on finances. She must not be too proud to get on her knees and work in the mud and must not be caught sneaking in a nap.
The townswomen she divides into three categories: wives of wealthy merchants or of court officials living in Paris, wives of craftsmen and tradesmen and the lower servants and chambermaids. The wife of the merchant should love and take care of her husband, even if mistreated, so that the husband will leave her everything when he dies. She must know how everything in the household is done, so she can teach the servants, and maintain an attractive and peaceful home so her husband will always be happy to return home. She must go only to early mass, say her prayers, waste nothing which could be given to the poor, be on good terms with the neighbors and not talk too much. The children must be well-taught, unspoiled and not too noisy, and their nurses must keep them clean and well-behaved.
The wife of the tradesman should encourage her husband to begin work early in the morning and should learn the details of the trade so she can supervise the workers when her husband is away or not paying attention. She must see that her husband does not get involved in imprudent loans, must encourage him to live soberly and make him so comfortable at home that he will not run off to taverns -- as this represents a “superfluous and outrageous expense.” She must see that the children go to school and learn a trade so they can earn a living. She should not run around town, gossip or go on unnecessary pilgrimages.
Pizan describes the life of the chambermaid as being very difficult. She must get up very early and go to bed very late, eat only when everyone else is finished and will probably not even have enough time to go to church. She is expected to be hard-working and honest, not taking a percentage when she goes shopping or sneaking in a bath when she goes to the river to do the washing.
The prostitute was looked upon by Pizan with considerable sympathy. No such woman was so abominable that she could not be converted, and there is no greater charity than to rescue a sinner. She recommended that the penitent prostitute should put aside her fancy clothes and live simply in a small room on a good street.
The book also examines rules of conduct for women in all ages of life, including widowhood. Here, no doubt due to her own experience, she warns that the woman must be involved and knowledgeable in safeguarding the family goods and observes that not all wives were trusted by their husbands with such knowledge.
Another book dealing on the life of women is her Le livre du dit de Poissy, a description of a Dominican priory at Poissy, where her 19 year-old daughter was living as a nun. She describes this priory, which seems to have been designed for high-born women, in 1400 as being one of simple elegance in its building and lawns. The prioress she found careful, valiant, and awe-inspiringly gracious, who entertained her in a special dining hall where the nuns served the guests food and wine in gold and silver vessels. Guests were not allowed to eat in the refectory with the nuns, but were allowed to see their dormitory, with its beds of rope springs and hard mattresses. She rejoiced in this rare meeting with her daughter and wept when it was time to leave.
Pizan was not radical in her views of women. She accepted the medieval view that woman was naturally subject to man, as we can see in a comment she made on her view of the education of women.
This woman in love with scholarship intends, to be sure, that woman should acquire learning; but it must be for the purpose of developing her intelligence, of raising her heart to higher things, not of widening her field of ambitions, dethroning man and reigning in his stead.
She praised the Virgin Mary as the highest ideal for women and argued that chastity is important in order to protect one’s reputation. These traditional views notwithstanding, she also argued for the valuable role women could play in society and called for the respect they deserved.
She was not always popular with the men of her age, due to their attitude of general denigration of women. It is shocking to find this attitude still prevalent in 20th century France, in Histoire de littérature Française, published in 1912, in which the author, G. Lanson, describes her as,
The first of that unbearable line of women authors to whom no work on any subject is an effort and who, during the whole life that God lends them have to bustle about multiplying the proofs of their indefatigable facility, only equal to their universal mediocrity.
Nevertheless her reputation was wide spread, as one can see in the fact that Henry IV attempted to entice her to his court in London.
It is evident that she remained vividly interested in current affairs even late in her life. In 1410 she wrote a Lamentation on the evils of civil war and in 1412 the Livre de la Paix, a denunciation of a brief experiment with communist government in Paris. Her final work, Dittié de Jeanne d’Arc, written in retirement in a nunnery, was inspired by Joan of Arc’s victory over the English at Orléans in 1429. We can see her pride when she cries, “Oh! what honor to our sex!,” and observes that the young woman, “had done something which 5,000 men could not have done.”
Klara Hätzlerin, 15th Century, Poet
Klara Hätzlerin was a 15th century nun in Augsburg, Germany, who, like many nuns of this time, filled their leisure hours by copying songs and poems. Klara’s work was unusual, however, for its erotic and obscene content. Her extant manuscript, dated 1471, contains more than 200 poems on the usual Minnesinger topics: songs of love, night songs and aubades.
In one poem a mother teaches her daughter, in rather foul language, the arduous, though lucrative, art of prostitution. Another poem by Hans Rosenplüt, which she quotes, a lady makes love with her servant. When her husband returns she tells him a servant attempted to make love to her and advises him to put on her clothes and go out into the garden to chastise the scoundrel. She then sends the servant into the garden to beat the husband, telling him he only wanted to test the fidelity of his mistress. The husband gives thanks to God for so faithful a servant.
Another poem, On the Nature of the Child describes, through truth, error and fiction, the process of gestation. There are also stories of shrews and nagging women. One concludes,
Whoever has a nagging wife, shall rid himself of her as soon as possible, buy a good rope, hang her on a bough, take three big wolves and hang them beside her. Whoever saw gallows with worse skins? There the song has an end, God evil women to Hades send!
Vittoria Colonna, 1492 – 1547, Poet
Vittoria was born to a famous Italian family, her father being the grand constable Fabrizio Colonna and her mother, Anna di Montefeltro, was a daughter to Federigo, Duke of Urbino. At the age of 4, Vittoria was married to the Count d’Avalo, later the Marquis of Pescara, also age 4. As she was beautiful and bright, many additional proposals of marriage were offered her, including such notables as the Duke of Savoy and the Duke of Braganza, but she was pleased to keep the husband she had and they lived happily together.
Many of her poems praised her husband and the great writer Ariosto said that the fame her poetry gave her husband compared to the fame Achilles had acquired in Homer. She combines his praise, together with recognition that fate had denied them children, in her 22nd sonnet.
Since it is not given to me to be the mother of sons who shall inherit their father’s glory, at least may I be able, by uniting my name with his in verse, to become the mother of his great deeds and lofty fame.
Her husband exhibited great skill as a general and was in charge of the forces which captured François I of France in the battle of Pavia. This fame led to his being invited to become King of Naples, if he would renounce his allegiance to Charles V. This was almost too attractive to resist, in part, he said, because he wanted to make his wife a queen. But she answered,
I do not desire to be the wife of a king, but rather of that great captain who, by means of his valor in war and his nobility of soul in time of peace, has been able to conquer the greatest monarchs.
He was soon killed, at age 35, in a renewed Battle of Pavia.
Vittoria retired to the island of Ischia, where they had spent their honeymoon and spent 7 years writing poetry about her dead husband. As she was still young and beautiful, her family urged her to remarry and many princes offered their hand. But she said, to one and all, that her husband may be dead to others, but he was still alive for her and constantly in her thoughts.
Gradually she became drawn to religious thoughts and now her poetry reflected this new mood. She published these works in a volume called Rime spirituali.
Although she never remarried, a great man came into her life in her final years, the great artist, Michelangelo. They met when she was 50, and he 67, and a close, platonic relationship developed. She sent him nearly 150 sonnets, adding, “Our friendship is stable and our affection very sure; it is tied with a Christian knot.” When they met they must have discussed art and religion, but it was her kindness and piety which changed him and eased his native pessimism. He hoped that he would never again be the man he was before they met.
The following sonnet is one of many which Michelangelo addressed to Vittoria.
Yes! hope may with my strong desire keep pace,
And I be undeluded, unbetrayed;
For if of our affections none find grace
In sight of Heaven, then, wherefore had God made
The world which we inhabit? Better plea
Love cannot have than that in loving thee
Glory to that eternal peace is paid,
Who such divinity to thee imparts
As hallows and makes pure all gentle hearts.
His hope is treacherous only whose love dies
With beauty, which is varying every hour:
But in chaste hearts, uninfluenced by the power
Of outward change, there blooms a deathless flower,
That breathes on earth the air of Paradise.
Michelangelo was by Vittoria’s side when she died and he later reproached himself for not having kissed her face in those last moments.