Christine de Pizan’s Remedy for Madness

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While listening to a Harry Potter weekend on the Family channel, I was glancing through Katie Robison’s Chaucer Review article “Thou wolt make…thyn hed to ake”: A Post-Chaucerian Treatment for Madness in Christine de Pizan’s Chemin de long estude.” Tied up in teaching and working on articles of my own, etc., I have neglected my blog for a month, but how could I resist commenting on a fifteenth century remedy for depression, migraines, and madness. What first attracted my attention was that Chaucer Review published this fine article. Founded and run by followers of D. W. Robertson, that journal, at least in the 1980s when I was publishing in that field, had a reputation for only accepting articles that followed Robertson’s credo that everyone in the Middle Ages thought the same. In contrast, Katie Robison is arguing for Christine de Pizan’s originality.

At any rate, Christine de Pizan is an interesting figure. Her father was a king’s Physician/Alchemist/Astrologer. At 15, Christine married a clerk working for the royal govenment, but when he died 10 years later, the misogynistic courts were apparently reluctant to let her inherit his estate, so she, her children, and a few other relatives were left without income. For the next 30 years, she supported them all by writing prolifically at a time when it was almost impossible for anyone to be a professional author. Furthermore, her writings risked championing such unpopular stances as defense of women. By modern standards, that defense sounds rather compromising; by 15th century ones, she was a firebrand.

Robison’s focus, though, was the long “melancholy”  Christine underwent when she found herself without husband or money. Christine even mentions the sleeplessness and other physical symptoms now associated with depression. Following the beliefs of the time, she blamed the melancholy on her studies. What she does next, however, was original. Medical “wisdom” of the time would have said that women were unsuited for scholarship, so her madness would have been considered the inevitable result of her entering a man’s profession. That was not her conclusion. Toward a cure, she just changed what she was reading. In her best known work “The City of Women,” she relieves depression with lyric poetry. This puts her among the many who found poetry to be such (e.g., John Stuart Mill).

In “The Road of Long Study,” though, she provides more detail about another bout. She first read that pillar of medieval theology, Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy.” It gave her a nightmare, but at least that was an improvement on her depression-related sleeplessness. In the nightmare, the Sibyl came to suggest that Christine cure her melancholy: by extending reading and writing more. Although Robison notes that some ancient and other late-medieval authors also sought isopathic cures, healing by undergoing more of its cause was no more common then than now. Indeed, the process sounds very New Age: illness as a process leading to resolution and development if not stopped prematurely. As a therapeutic use of the unconscious, Christine’s dream-vision cure resembles shamanism, psychotherapy, and J. K. Rowling’s writing her way out of her depression.

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