Christine de Pizan travels to the heavens

Christine de Pizan (1364 – c. 1430) was a famous poet and author. Born in Venice, she moved to Paris in 1368 when her father was appointed court physician and royal astrologer to Charles V of France. In 1379, at the age of 15, she married Etienne du Castel, a notary and royal secretary. The couple had three children. Christine’s husband died of the plague in 1389, leaving her with three small children. To support her family, Christine took up writing. Her most famous work is The Book of the City of Ladies, a spirited defense of the intellectual, moral and spiritual worth of women against the misogynistic attacks of writers like Jean de Meun, whose popular Romance of the Rose depicted women as wicked seductresses. Christine also wrote a poem titled The Path of Long Study, in which she describes a mystical dream journey into the heavens.

Christine de Pizan’s long allegorical poem The Path of Long Study begins, much like Boethius’ Consolation with the narrator in despair and railing against “perverse Fortune.” While Boethius’ mental anguish was caused by accusations of treason and impending execution, Christine’s is caused by the death of her husband. She describes herself as “like a recluse: sad, gloomy, alone and weary.” Although she is not in prison like Boethius she “willingly choose[s] solitude, for I must hide my mourning from other people; I grieve alone.” On October 5, 1402, she shuts herself in her study to distract herself with books. She finds some relief from “the grief and pain that so weighed on” her in reading Boethius’ Consolation.

My earlier melancholy was thus somewhat relieved, and I appreciated that book more and understood it better than I ever had before. For although I had read it previously, I had never seen so well how to draw consolation from it: there is a good side to the suffering that teaches us something.

“Feeling somewhat cheered up,” Christine lies down to try to sleep and instead falls into a “deep meditation” in which she contemplates all the sorrows of the world and the ubiquity of war and violence. When she finally falls asleep, she has a “strong vision” in which a “lady of great stature” appears before her, just as Philosophy appeared to Boethius in his hour of despair. The lady is Almethea, and she is one of the Cumaean Sibyls, ten women of the ancient world who prophecied the coming of Christ. As Philosophy guides Boethius to greater wisdom, so Almethea offers to lead Christine “into another, more perfect, world where you can much better learn than in this one the things that are truly important, agreeable and profitable.” While Philosophy taught Boethius through syllogisms and logic, Almethea takes Christine on a journey around the world. In both cases, the path to wisdom leads up into the heavens. The Sibyl and Christine climb to the top of a mountain. At the Sibyl’s command, a long ladder drops down in front of them, and they climb the ladder into the heavens.

Christine de Pizan, Collected works (‘The Book of the Queen’). British Library Harley MS 4431, fol 188r.

When they arrive, Christine is dazzled by the beauty of the celestial realm and filled with desire to see and understand the structure of the heavenly realm. “I was so desirous to know, to understand, and to perceive all the aspects of this heaven, “ she writes, “that I would have liked, if it were possible, for all my bodily parts to be transformed into eyes, in order better to observe.” Christine observes the stars and planets and their motions, but does not learn solely through observation. Rather, Almethea

showed me everything, explaining the names and the powers of each planet, trying hard to instruct me concerning the movements of the wandering and the positions of the fixed stars. She thus told me of their properties, the effects they produce, their oppositions, their powers, their influences, and their varied groupings. She explained to me the nature of each planet, and the movements and eclipses of the sun and the moon, and how the sun ascends across the celestial orbits and travels annually through the twelve signs of the zodiac, and across the sky every night, without ever stopping.

The splendor of the heavens, their intricate patterns, and their harmonious order, move Christine to praise “the Creator who had made them of such perfect beauty.”

Christine de Pizan, Collected works (‘The Book of the Queen’). British Library Harley MS 4431, fol 189v.

Christine’s appreciation of the architecture of the heavens, and the Divine Architect who created them, is not purely intellectual. The experience Christine describes is a religious rapture, not how one would imagine a scientific lesson. As soon as she ascends from the earthly realm into the celestial all her worries and cares disappear. She is “enchanted” by the heavens, “lost in the contemplation of this beautiful and noble artifact.” She is transfixed by the “by the melodies created by the celestial movements, “a sweet sound, calm, measured and perfect, so that it constitutes the sovereign music that contains all perfect chords.” In a short essay entitled “To the Planetarium,” Walter Benjamin described the premodern experience of the cosmos as an “ecstatic trance,” and this perfectly captures Christine’s narrative of her sojourn in the heavens. She loses all sense of time. Only when the Sibyl tells her it is time to leave and descend back to earth does she come out of her reverie. 

It is quite easy for modern readers, including many historians of astronomy, to focus on what Christine and Boethius “know” about the structure of the heavens: the cosmos is geocentric, there are twelve constellations in the zodiac and seven planets circling the earth. These and other details were widely accepted facts in the Middle Ages. Christine’s descriptions of the cosmos are terse, and generally in accord with other contemporary accounts. But we miss something crucial if we focus on the content of her astronomical knowledge rather than how it made her feel. It is a mistake to dismiss her expressions of joy, gratitude and wonder as pious cliches, even though she was far from the only writer to claim that contemplation of the heavens led to deeper understanding of the Creator. The rapture, the enchantment, the mystical union with the divine, the “ecstatic trance” were integral to premodern astronomy.

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