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Professor links Middle Ages to ‘transnational feminism’

Medieval culture played a significant role in transnational feminism thanks to a group of women writers, a University professor said during a lecture Nov. 6.

Marilynn Desmond, professor of English and comparative literature, was the guest speaker at the Harpur College Dean’s Distinguished Lecture in Casadesus Recital Hall.

“To see the possibilities that a transnationalist imagination might map for the time and space of gender, we need only read the texts authored by medieval women who had no way to think in terms of nation,” Desmond said.

Desmond’s examples of women writers from the age included Heloise, a 12th century nun whose love letters to Abelard displayed her skillful use of Latin; Marie de France, a poet and contemporary of Heloise; and Margery Kempe, who dictated her autobiography in English.

But Desmond focused primarily on Christine de Pizan, who lived in Paris in the late 14th and early 15th centuries and produced more than 20 texts in different genres over four decades.

De Pizan was born in Venice, but moved to Paris at age 5 when her father was recruited to become court astrologer for the king of France. This helped to form the basis for her transcultural affiliations.

“In autobiographical remarks scattered throughout her works, she always refers to herself as a woman from Italy and never claims an identity as a French subject,” Desmond said.

De Pizan was married at 15 and saw her husband and father die a decade later, leaving her without male relatives and royal patrons.

“For medieval women, no matter how elite, their identity and social privilege were dependent on the rank and status of male relatives,” Desmond said. “Christine took a unique path: She decided to remain a widow and turned to the composition of poetry as a vehicle for articulating her grief and supporting herself and her family through royal and aristocratic patronage.”

By 1400, de Pizan’s poems had given way to politically charged texts that used trans-historic settings to offer political advice. For example, she would invoke the Roman Empire for its ability to offer world peace or describe visits to Constantinople, Cairo and Syria.

“Christine’s status as a widow, through which she acquired the strength of a man, equipped her for what she considered the monumental task of historical writing,” Desmond said. … “Through learning and study, she is able to overcome the customary limitations of gender and authorship.”

De Pizan’s final work, a 1429 poem about Joan of Arc, compared the celebrated military leader to Biblical heroines and suggested “that Joan embodies in the present all of the possible affiliations promised by the narratives of the past.”

It was another example of a medieval woman negotiating languages and traditions to place her work in a transcultural space.

“We can rhetorically state that these women have no country, not only because they lived before the emergence of the nation-state, but because they had to seek the broadest possible affiliations in order to compensate for the cultural restrictions they experienced,” Desmond said. “They had to think big in order to think at all.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08