Christine de Pizan, Primat, and the « noble nation françoise »
1Language is a major determinant of national identity. If this continues to hold true today, it was even more apparent in the late Middle Ages, when the emergence of fledgling nation-states paralleled the development of their vernaculars. Historians never cease to point out that the medieval idea of nationhood was different from our modern notion1. Nonetheless, as I will show here, at least two French medieval writers employed the term ‘nation’ with a meaning approximating the one given by the OED : « an extensive aggregate of persons, so closely associated with each other by common descent, language, or history, as to form a distinct race or people, usually organized as a separate political state and occupying a definite territory ». In part one of this study, I will treat the use of the terms ‘nation françoise’ by Christine de Pizan and ‘nation’ and ‘France’ by Primat, the original author-compiler of the late thirteenth-century Grandes Chroniques de France2. These examples suggest two working hypotheses : first, that the concept of a ‘nation françoise’ originated at least as early as the thirteenth century, and second, that the concept is intimately related to the rise of French as a national vernacular. In part two of this study, I will develop these ideas by showing how Christine and Primat, through the advice they offered to rulers in the vernacular, were furthering the French monarchy’s attempts to legitimize its power and to extend it over a greater number of people. Along with other theorists, Christine and Primat were helping formulate the idea of the French nation.
2Before turning to my two examples, a quick glance at the history of the terms ‘nation’ and the related verb ‘naistre’ is in order. The major Old French dictionaries inform us that ‘nation’ derives from the Latin verb nasci, ‘to be born’. A survey of the entries for ‘nation’ and its cognates yields no occurrences of the coupling of the terms ‘nation’ and ‘France’. The entries, however, do make the connection between a nation and a lineage3. A ‘nation’ is a coming to birth, and as such, is what is formed from natural processes of reproduction and lineage. The use of the term in the following quotation : « en l’incarnacïon/ Que le filz Deu prist nacïon »4, posits the oft-seen medieval analogy between the nation and the body of Christ.
3Other examples feature Mary, the mother of Jesus, who preserves the memory of her son’s sacrifice for later generations. One of the earliest occurrences of the verb ‘naistre’ features a doleful Mary at the foot of the cross remembering the story of Christ’s incarnation in her human flesh : « De lez la croiz estut Marie / Elle mult bien set remembrer / De söe charn cum Deus fut nez »5. Mary’s body was the original vehicle by which the savior came into the world. After her son’s death, Mary symbolically re-members him : she ‘puts him back together’ in her memory, thus giving him new life and integrity. Mary’s act of commemoration at the foot of the cross is analogous to the memory celebrated daily in the mass6. The eucharistic service is performed in a church, which together with other architectural, visual and verbal vehicles of memorialization, constitutes a constantly evolving archive of cultural memory, which can easily serve as a basis for establishing ideas of nationhood. The most commanding symbol of the centralizing power of the French monarchy was the cathedral of Notre-Dame. Forsaking its original devotion to St. Stephen, Notre-Dame claimed the Virgin as its sole dedicatee beginning in the late tenth century7. The Virgin represented a redeemed figure of Eve, a symbolic mother capable of leading humanity to salvation through her example and guidance. Mary is associated with the ‘mother tongue’, the vernacular, the language of daily communication, as opposed to Latin, the ‘father tongue’, a language whose use was almost exclusively reserved for males educated in the schools. In late medieval France the vernacular was increasingly becoming the language of choice for delivering sermons and for writing texts, including those that we now classify as historiography8.
4Christine de Pizan uses the term ‘nation françoise’ in just such a text, her vernacular prose biography of Charles V of 1404, Les Fais et bonnes meurs du sage roi Charles V (The Deeds and Good Conduct of the Wise King Charles V, hereafter Charles V )9. Her biography is a mirror for princes that proposes Charles V, deceased for twenty four years when she composed it, as a model designed to guide the monarchy through the troubled reign of his son and heir Charles VI. Christine prefaces her remarks containing the term the ‘French nation’ by saying she is supporting the noble lineage of the kings of France. Invoking memory of the Romans who « se translaterent en la terre de Gaule, que ilz appellerent France », Christine places herself and her country at a crucial point in the moving spiral of generations :
Ainsi fu le commencement de celle noble nacion françoise couronnée d’ancienne noblece, laquelle [Dieux mercis !], d’oir en hoir, est continuée, maulgré les flocs de la descordable Fortune, jusques cy en amendent en bien. (Charles V 1.5, my emphasis)
5Referring to the kingdom of France as the noble nacion françoise, Christine expresses her faith in its glorious destiny despite the contrary movements of malevolent Fortune. Her usage touches upon several characteristics of a nation included in the OED definition. In claiming that the kings of France were descendents of the Romans, Christine evokes the criterion of common descent. History, too, is at stake here, for she is writing the history of the nascent nation-state. Christine in fact documents the transformation of the kingdom of France into a larger and more cohesive entity held together by common beliefs, a centralizing monarchy operating out of the île de la cité, and a common language. But not only does she record the history of France, Christine helps shape that history, and the nation itself in the process, as had Primat, who made the epic serve monarchical ends in Les Grandes Chroniques de France.
6Christine’s terminology echoes Primat’s usage of the term ‘nation’ in these vernacular prose chronicles in which medieval French royal ideology received perhaps its most explicit statement10. Louis IX, canonized as St. Louis in 1297 just twenty years after his death, commissioned the original project from the monk Primat, who in 1274 presented the first copy to Louis’s son and heir, Philip III the Bold. The monks of the royal abbey of Saint-Denis continued to compile and preserve these chronicles through the late fourteenth century11. Surviving in approximately 130 manuscripts, the Grandes Chroniques in its final form describes a chain of royal lives from the fall of Troy to the reign of Charles VI in the 1380s. The figures of Clovis (the first Christian king) Charlemagne (appropriated as a Gallic rather than as a Teutonic king), St. Louis (an officially canonized king), and Charles V (the prototype of the wise Christian king) receive special treatment. The Grandes Chroniques flourished under Charles V (who ruled from 1364-1380), who incorporated the history of his own Valois dynasty, the new branch of the Capetians, into the official history of the monarchy, and that during a period when the English crown was challenging the legitimacy of the French rulers. This rival claim to the French throne, which the English began to press seriously from 1337, was a major cause of the Hundred Years’ War.
7Textual echoes strongly suggest that Christine derived her concept of the ‘noble nacion françoise’ from Primat’s prologue to the Grandes Chroniques, one of her major sources for Charles V and her Advision Cristine12. However, Christine goes beyond imitating details to setting herself up as virtual continuator of the Grandes Chroniques. Christine makes her first wholesale recasting of Dionysian (from Saint-Denis) ideology in her biography of Charles V. In undertaking the commission at the request of Charles’s brother, Philip II the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, Christine places herself in a line of monarchical ideologues stretching back to St. Louis. She composes the biography at the request of Philip the Bold, just as Primat had written for Louis’s son, an earlier Philip the Bold. And again like Primat, in Charles V Christine traces the line of descent of the French kings from the Trojans to Pharamond, the first crowned king of France. In his prologue to the Grandes Chroniques, Primat applies the term ‘nacion/nation’ four times to a noble place he calls ‘France’.13 The passage in Charles V closely recalls the meaning and tenor of Primat’s prologue. Christine echoes Primat’s statement that the destiny of France was guaranteed because of the moral superiority it exhibited by its consistent defense of ‘Sainte Eglise’. The concept of the French nation made an early appearance in the Grandes Chroniques, to be taken up by Christine in the early fifteenth century in Charles V with a fervor equal to Primat’s.
8The idea of ‘nation’ expressed by Primat and Christine is coterminous to the conception of the national vernacular. France’s destiny to become the leader of Christendom is contained in the history of its language. Following in the wake of Louis IX, Charles V, as we will see in detail below, constructed a version of the monarchy by means of the vernacular, a language understood by all. Power and language are intimately related in the history of a country. The French Middle Ages saw the progressive dominance of francien over other dialects because it was spoken in Île-de-France, the center of royal power. The ‘royal vernacular’14 was at once the creation and tool of a monarchy that was carving out its legitimacy in an era marked by the squabbles of rival princes and the encroachments of outside powers, notably England, with its claims to the French throne. It was only in Christine’s early fifteenth century that the French language attained a fairly stable koinè – an image and, in light of subsequent developments, a promise of the desired stability of the kingdom.
9The medieval term for the process of vernacularization was translation. Extending far beyond the modern sense of finding word-for-word equivalencies in one language for texts written, or works spoken, in a different language, translation was understood in the Middle Ages as a thorough adaptation, a wholesale rewriting of texts endowed with authority. Medieval translation implied a worldview. Uniting our modern categories of politics, religion, and ethics, the medieval meanings of translation circumscribed a conceptual and ideological grid for viewing existence and human actions. It found expression in the translatio studii et imperii, the displacement of political power and culture from one country to another. The notion had ethical underpinnings, since loss of favored country status was seen to come about as punishment for sin. The idea had its source in biblical authority, among others in Ecclesiastes 4, 7, which states that kingdoms lose their right to rule because of misuse of their power15. In Christine’s time, translation was an ethical practice based upon the adaptation of Scriptural models for use in secular society16.
10Charles V was a dominant player in the evolution of the translatio. Rita Copeland’s groundbreaking look at the role of translation in the emergence of vernacular literary culture in the Middle Ages shows how during his reign « the emergent power of the French language as a medium of translatio studii » authorized itself « through a material identification with royal power »17. In her biography, Christine describes the King’s motivation for beginning his program of translation ; she identifies his model for these translations, vernacular translations of the Bible ; she indicates three ways that a translation can be made (as text ; as text plus gloss ; as « allegorized » text). She then follows this with a list of ten of the roughly thirty texts that Charles had adapted into the vernacular18. St. Augustine’s De civitate Dei (shortened title : Civitas) heads the list, its title rendered in the French of its translation by Raoul de Presles. Charles’s wish was to have vernacular translations made of Latin works he deemed essential to the proper functioning of the monarchy. His recourse to the vernacular was a strategy calculated to unify the kingdom using a language understandable by all. Following the example of his ancestor Louis IX, as Christine points out in her biography, Charles V was the shaper of a movement to transform the idea of a kingdom into that of a ‘nation’, an entity that is united by its common language19. Charles V’s translation program, as Christine describes it, authorizes Christian political theorists to apply St. Augustine’s system of reading Sacred Scripture and Roman history to St. Augustine’s works themselves. Just as had earlier theorists, Christine tailored St. Augustine’s synthesis of Roman and sacred history to serve the goals of the early fifteenth-century French monarchy.
11Christine continues the process of translating St. Augustine’s Civitas into French begun by Raoul de Presles. Theoreticians of the monarchy like Charles V and Raoul looked to the Civitas for basic ideas about the establishment of a Christian polis. St. Augustine’s City of God lends itself to multiple interpretations, which fall into two main categories : it represents a perfect state, the heavenly city, which is achievable in the afterlife, and an ideal earthly state, one that can be attained in this life if human beings become virtuous by following Christ and his teachings. Calling St. Louis the king of the ‘miroirs des princes’, Jacques le Goff explains how Civitas 5, 24, a chapter on the virtues of the Christian emperors, served as the first Christian example of the popular medieval genre20. Raoul’s aim in undertaking the translation of the Civitas at the request of Charles V was to reinforce Charles’ commitment to establishing an ideal Christian polis in the here-and-now. In the prologue to his translation, a commanding statement of royal ideology, Raoul connects the Civitas with Charles V and his lineage, which he touts as the legitimate Christian heirs of the Roman emperors. Since Charles V is a staunch defender of the Church, like his predecessors Charlemagne and Clovis, he deserves the title of most Christian of princes21. Raoul claims that Charles V followed the example of « St. Charles » (Charlemagne, whom Charles celebrated as a saint) who, of his many books, preferred St. Augustine’s Civitas. In claiming that Charles V requested that he, Raoul, undertake a French translation of the Civitas because it had been Charlemagne’s favorite work, Raoul connects the treatise to Charles’s desire to strengthen the legitimacy of his Valois dynasty by stressing its closeness to the Capetian line.
12In works like Charles V and the Cité, Christine continues the efforts of the teams of monarchs and their philosopher-advisors who had preceded her. Christine, like Raoul, does not apply official ideology mechanically ; rather, these ‘translators’ both actively contribute to its formation22. Despite Raoul’s belief that Augustine was the most venerable of all the Church Fathers, he does not follow him blindly. He takes his distance from St. Augustine’s objections to the lex Voconia, a law forbidding anyone to make a female his heir (« I do not know of any law that could be said or thought to be more unjust », objects Augustine in Civitas 3, 21). Raoul establishes St. Augustine in the context of the monarchy’s late medieval championing of the Salic Law in its disputes with England23. Charles was eager to establish Charles’ connections to Charlemagne and to Clovis in order to underscore the legitimacy of his reign, which was contested by Edward III, King of England, and by the King of Navarre, Charles the Bad, his own brother-in-law24, both of whom laid claim to the French throne through the female line. Christine follows Raoul in historicizing St. Augustine and appropriating his ideas and his authority in order to shape notions of French national identity.
13In reformulating St. Augustine’s ideas for a new age, Christine lets us see that monarchical ideologues like Raoul and herself were basing their ideas of nationhood upon the Church Father’s interpretation of the Bible. Christine’s ideological thrust becomes clear when in her Cité des Dames of 1405 she refers to St. Augustine as « ce saint luminaire ou front de Ste Eglise qui toute l’esclaire et enlumine » (Cité 1, 10). In 3, 18 Christine concludes her work by citing the Old Testament quotation from which St. Augustine had drawn his title, and which he cites three times, in Civitas 2, 21, 10, 7, and 11, 1 : Gloriosa dicta sunt de te, civitas Dei ! In referring to St. Augustine in her opening and her closing statements, Christine encases her Cité within his Civitas as the logical development of the venerable Church Father’s ideas roughly a millennium after his death25.
14The quotation is not original to St. Augustine, but derives from Psalm 86 [Vulgate 87], where it points to a time immemorial when many people spoke approvingly of a City of God26. Augustine borrows the title of his work from a quotation from the Psalms because he wants to associate his treatise with the authority of Holy Scripture, which surpasses « the writings of all nations in their divine authority »(Civitas 11, 1)27. Psalm 86 expresses the idea that the righteous cities of the world have their source in Zion (Jerusalem), the city of God. Zion is a prefiguration of the ideal Christian commonwealth whose ruler is Christ (Civitas 2, 21), and of the community of saints that will exist at the end of time. The psalm, as it were, performs its truthfulness by dramatizing a scene in which the names of the inhabitants of Zion are spoken aloud before being written down. God keeps a registry of the citizens of Zion, expressed in the psalm’s recurrent refrain : homo natus est in ea. The evangelist Luke connects the idea of the nation, derived from natus, ‘to be born’, with Christ’s nativity, which took place during the time of the first census28. Christ’s nativity fulfills the prophecy expressed in Psalm 86, as does the birth of the French nation as the fulfillment of the Christianized Roman state described by Luke.
15Although the psalm’s refrain, together with the line about the City of God, are rendered in Latin in the Bible and in the Civitas, they both refer to reported speech, what people said, and thus ultimately to a common spoken language, the vernacular. St. Augustine identified the originary language that united all humanity as Hebrew (Civitas 16, 11). In Civitas 15, 19 he establishes parallels between the Jews’ transmigratio into captivity and the translatio of the Trojans, forced to migrate to Rome after the destruction of their city. Christine, undoubtedly following Primat, extended St. Augustine’s version of the translatio to contemporary France. Christine quotes St. Augustine’s quotation of Holy Scripture in order to express the hope that the nacion françoise will realize humanity’s aspirations for an ideal polis. Beginning at least as early as Primat, the French saw this ideal corporate entity as being the ‘nation’ that they were forming through their choice of the vernacular over Latin as the language most suitable for recording the history of the ‘French nation’.
16Christine once again cites St. Augustine on the City of God at the conclusion to her Epistre de la Prison de Vie Humaine of 1416-1418. She composed the epistle in order to console others for the death, wounding, and imprisonment of male relatives in the disastrous battle of Azincourt, in which the French lost about a third of their population in a single day. One of the people whom Christine addesses is Marie de Berry, Duchess of Bourbon, daughter of Jean de Berry, brother of Charles VI, the reigning king whose episodic bouts of madness were a major cause of France’s chaotic political state. Placing special emphasis on Marie’s lineage, Christine addresses her as « fille de filz de roy de France, mariée hautement au bel et bon Jehan, duc de Bourbon ». Even more to Christine’s point, Mary is the niece of King Charles V, Christine’s patron and an example of wise leadership that seems to be forgotten, a fact she alludes to discretely by referring to Charles V as the « pere de cestui qui a present regne ». Christine again addresses Marie directly to speak of her « excellent oncle, le sage roy Charles », who found his « seule felicité et bien » in doing good for others. Christine represents Marie as a Mater Dolorosa bathed in tears who laments the bodies of the men killed at Agincourt. By presenting herself as a humble widow and sharing in Marie’s sorrows, Christine offers herself as a mirror to Marie’s suffering, fulfilling her duty to her as humble servant of a princess of the blood, through her writing (« en faisant mon devoir, par moien d’escripture »)29. Christine personifies herself as a comforting mother and advisor to the monarchy who, thanks to her God-given verbal gifts, tries to console a royal princess and mother for her losses.
17Christine’s quotations of St. Augustine in her Epistre emphasize the importance of the vernacular in forming concepts of nationhood. She cites him by name twice in her section on the joys of paradise, a section in which she supplies a lengthy paraphrase of Civitas 20, a chapter devoted to the resurrection of the body. Through her extended gloss on this chapter, Christine affords Marie a vision in which the bodies of her dead relatives will be restored to life in all their bodily integrity at Judgment Day. Christine’s recasting of St. Augustine’s influential and well-known vision of the end of time is meant to console Marie on another level. A quotation from her Livre de Policie of 1406-140730 reveals the nature of the consolatio Christine is proposing to Charles V’s niece in the Epistre. Rather surprisingly to those of us who are accustomed to reading Augustine’s passage as dealing exclusively with the afterlife, Christine in I.2 cites Civitas 20 as the place where St. Augustine set forth his ideas on felicité vertueuse, happiness here on earth. Christine has Marie participate in her vision of France restored to its former beauty and capable of realizing its potential to be the concrete realization on earth of St. Augustine’s dream of the City of God. At the conclusion of the Epistre Christine yet again cites St. Augustine. Unlike her practice in the Cité, where she cites him in his original Latin, here she translates the foundational quotation into the royal dialect of francien : « O, com glorieuses choses sont dittes de toy, benoite cité de Dieu ».
18Such a seemingly inconsequential gesture has portentous implications. When St. Augustine links his City of God with Psalm 86, he realizes several related objectives : he connects his Civitas with scriptural authority, he indicates that scriptural authority has its basis in a speech act, and he stresses the role of church rituals in maintaining the precarious relationship between the human and divine realms. In incorporating this phrase, first in Latin and then in the vernacular, into the fabric of her texts, Christine cleverly exploits the potential of reported speech to mimic the original speech acts that formed the basis for Holy Scripture. These speech acts were re-membered each time that the psalms were recited, whether in the original Latin or in Middle French translation. The Scriptures were the ultimate repository of cultural memory for all Christians. Holy Scripture was kept alive through « liturgical memory »31, the rituals of Holy Church. As opposed to purely textual (i.e., written) transmission of the Scriptures that would reach only an educated minority who had access to books, the oral rituals of the Church disseminated God’s word to all « who had ears to hear », to paraphrase biblical commentators from St. Paul to St. Augustine. The relationship between God and human beings is maintained by the rituals of Holy Church, whose Latin wisdom, albeit the surest form of Christian knowledge, is nonetheless only a distant echo of the original Verbum through which everything was created (John 1 :1-3). Since John’s Gospel posits a speech act at the origins of all creation, the vernacular, the living language, is potentially endowed with the highest possible authority.
19Christine establishes herself as a ‘translator’ in the biblical sense of the word. She indicates the special pertinence the Bible had for her self-imaging when, in her Mutacion de Fortune of 1403, she plays on the notion that her name was the same as that of the most perfect man, Christ. By pointing out that her name included a feminine suffix, she additionally likens herself to Marie, Christ’s mother and the human being who most closely resembled Jesus. Christine thereby suggests analogies between her second, authorial self, the one that exists in the letters of her text, and Christ and Marie in their role as mediators of the divine Verbum. Christine places herself as a sort of living link in a chain of innumerable translators. It stretches from God who pronounced the original Verbum in Hebrew – to the many who chanted Hebrew praises of Zion – to the anonymous Hebrew author of Psalm 86 – to the translators of the Bible into Latin – to St. Augustine – to Raoul de Presles – to herself. The chain stretches beyond Christine by means of her words that inspire others to continue the transmission of this piece of wisdom that is as simple as it is profound. In playing on the Christian meanings of her name in the Mutacion, Christine implicitly legitimizes her function as vernacular spokesperson for the monarchy, the earthly representative of Christ and Marie, Church and state.
20Through her task of translating God’s will to the monarchy and to the people it governs, Christine expresses the belief that France was, is, and will continue to be, the concrete realization of the City of God, because it is a ‘nation’ united under Christianity and unified by its vernacular. A nation, so implies Psalm 86, is a memory-place. In quoting Psalm 86 in his Civitas, St. Augustine had compelled the echoes of its original wisdom to reverberate through memory chambers until the end of time. Psalm 86 expresses a piece of fundamental human wisdom concerning an ideal place known and talked about down through history, an ideal that was realized in Jerusalem at the moment of Christ’s birth, and one that the monarchy hopes will be realized again in France under its leadership. The psalm acknowledges the simple fact that a nation originates in an idea in the mind. People project the imprint of their mentally conceived typographies upon geographical landscapes, rather than the other way around. Nationhood, whether medieval or modern, has less to do with objective reality than with people’s ideas about the groups to which they belong. A nation is born in the minds and in the hearts of those who count themselves among its number. It continues to exist there as well, provided that orators and writers rescue it from disaster or oblivion by re-creating it over and again in the minds of their listeners and readers.
21The message conveyed to medieval monarchical theorists by Psalm 86, and by later glosses of it, was a forceful one. Raoul and Christine understood well that the idea of the Christian kingdom of France would survive only as long as its exegetes and advisors, people like themselves, continued to resurrect its memory during their lifetimes and long after the death of their physical selves in the manuscripts they left behind to posterity. Christine, alive in a time when the very existence of the fledgling ‘nacion françoise’ was threatened by dissolution, makes these points more clearly than had Primat, citizen of a calmer age, by repeating, on several occasions, in Latin and in French, St. Augustine’s quotation concerning the City of God. In her humble service to the monarchy, Christ’s representative on earth, Christine imitates Mary’s role by re-membering, and thus re-creating yet again, the ‘noble nacion françoise’ in her vernacular prose celebrations of its potential and predestined glory. In following the example of the virtuous Mother of Christ, one of the symbols of corporate unity favored by the monarchy (seen most obviously in its promotion of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris), Christine, in concert with earlier theorists like Primat and Raoul de Presles, does her part to help the monarchy, ‘bring to birth’ the idea of the ‘French nation’ as a kingdom unified by its use of the vernacular. By expressing her faith and trust in the noble nacion françoise, and by representing herself as its ardent verbal advocate, an emulator of Mary and avatar of the heroic female defenders of the Cité she had constructed on the foundations laid by St. Augustine’s reading of Psalm 86, Christine situates herself in a movement begun over a century earlier by Louis IX, the saintly king who had chosen the vernacular, rather than Latin, as the language best suited for expressing the nascent linguistic and cultural entity of ‘France’.
Pour citer cet article
Lori J. Walters, « Christine de Pizan, Primat, and the « noble nation françoise » », Cahiers de recherches médiévales [En ligne], 9 | 2002, mis en ligne le 05 janvier 2007, consulté le 25 avril 2017. URL : http://crm.revues.org/83 ; DOI : 10.4000/crm.83Haut de page
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