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Christine de Pizan

The Book of Deed of Arms and Chivalry

Christine de Pizan was a feminist writer who moved in French noble circles in the 14th and 15th century and was also, surprisingly given the time, a military thinker. She was born in Venice and moved to France when her father became the Royal Astrologer to Charles V. She married the Royal secretary, Etienne du Castel, who died- leaving Christine with three children, an estate and no means of income. She turned to writing and used her connections at the royal court to go on to a rather prolific literary career which included writing of a military nature.

She was author of Livre de la Cité des Dames, in which she says women should be valued. In true Renaissance form, she uses women of the past to justify the ‘house’ she has built. The house being the book itself. She wrote in opposition to Jean de Muen’s 13th century poem, Roman de la Rose, in which women were portrayed as objects to be won and that women were natural seducers. She also wrote at the behest of Queen Isabella and other French ladies of the court.

Christine wrote ballads, poems, books on philosophy and she decried the intrigues of the royal court, hoping that a unified France could defeat the English during the ongoing 100 Years War. Near the end of her life she wrote about Joan of Arc.

She wrote a book in 1410 on warfare around the same time the fencing master Fiore de Liberi was completing his Flower of Battle in Italy. She was also connected to Fiore de Liberi in another way. She was familiar with, either personally knowing, or knowing quite well, Jean le Maingre, also known as Boucicaut. Boucicaut dueled Fiore’s student Galeazzo in 1395 and again in 1406 in which Galeazzo came away the victor.

Christine may have been the author of a biography about Boucicaut, but scholars debate this because of the views of chivalry in that book compared to her other works are at times contradictory. Sadly, this author cannot comment other than to say - she probably knew him well.

Her relationship to HEMA stems from her foray into the military arts. Christine read the venerable De re Militari, a book on Roman military strategy. She translated the book and added her own opinions to make it relevant to the modern day in her Le livre des fais d'armes et dechevalerie. As a woman, it may on the surface seem unlikely she would have anything to say about the art of war, and today, there are questions about how much of the book is her writing.

That said, in her introduction she says she is playing the role of Minerva, a woman, but also a Goddess of warfare. Christine had access to essentially every French notable of the early 1400s, including everyone who commanded the French army at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. She had a wealth of martial men to draw upon for her ideas and likely did so. There was no great outcry at the time of her writing- giving a sense that everyone in the martial world of France accepted her work for what it was, Christine’s take on warfare, clearly bolstered by research into the past and highly informed by the present.

Vegetius, the author of De re Militari, lamented that the Romans of his day were not as well-trained or prepared as the Romans of the past. The book was popular in Europe having been translated and commented on quite frequently. My prior article on HEMA and war covers the basics of the book. Christine’s Livre des fais d'armes et de chevalerie is not just a translation of the popular Roman text. She comments extensively on the military matters of her day. Critics today claim she used other people's ideas, but she even says as much. Christine claimed a man came to her in a dream to provide her with advice, and that she thought it not so strange given other authors did this all the time, taking from others to make something new.

She was well-aware of current day (for her) military tactics and is quite specific when it comes to how much gunpowder a castle needs, how many cannons it takes to bring a castle down, how stakes are to be planted and ditches to be dug. She compares the military practices of 15th century France to that of the ancients. She also covers the logistics and governance of an army, including what to pay a captain and when and how to dispense justice and how handle disputes with specific examples. 

In one case she asks, what should be done for a knight who has no horse and armor and agrees to help fight a sudden war, is loaned equipment, but then loses both his armor and horse at the battle? 

In another case she asks if it is acceptable to defend oneself from assault, and if struck, is it acceptable to chase down the attacker and inure them in return? 

Other questions include, what qualities make a good constable and what is treachery and what is just good generalship? Who can declare war on who? What is to be done with the elderly and peasants? Is it justifiable to take prisoner an enemy lord who is found out of his wits in a forest? Oddly enough, no. Which makes me wonder if it would be acceptable if he were in a field? Christine does not say.

Similar to Machiaveli, who would write a hundred years later, she gives both ancient and modern day examples from which to learn from.

Christine and HEMA

For direct HEMA-related specifics, she quotes De re Militari a number of times.

For the teaching of the young she notes that the Romans did not waste time with court and its vanity and lechery, but rather it trained young men in the arts of war. 

In order to instruct them better in all sorts of attacks and fights, the masters would put them in mock battles, so that they would learn the order of battle and the use of weapons through experience... Using light staves at first so they would do no harm, they would attack each other. And in order to discourage any sort of bad feeling, those who were victors would the next time be put as companions to these they had conquered. 

In war, she suggested the thrust over the cut, echoing Vegetius, 

They (the children) should learn to strike with the gladius. The Romans were the first to put this weapon to use, for they mocked those who struck with the edge of a sword, saying that one could scarcely kill that way, because of the hardness of bones breaks the force of the blow, but the gladius makes a mortal wound if it enters the head or body even as much as the span of two fingers. Also, when one fights with a sword, he uncover his left side when he raises his arms, as one who strikes with the gladius is not obliged to do.

She also writes extensively about dueling in 15th century Europe. Overall, she thought dueling was a bad idea for reasons that were already gaining popularity at the time of her writing. Of the judicial duel, she believed it foolish and going against both the Church and the State. She also mentions common sense as an argument against judicial dueling because she, and others, were well aware of examples of the guilty going free and the innocent perishing. 

The judicial duel at this point was losing favor, and duels of honor were taking its place. While death might occur in a duel of honor, not always as in the case of Boucicaut, who dueled Galeazzo twice and did not die.

For Christine, there was likely no difference in her mind, though there was legally. Some duels had to end in the death of one party or another, while others were matters of honor and could be settled without either party dying. It is a distinction that separates the judicial duel and the duel of honor- but one she does not make.

While the judicial duel was no longer practiced in France, it had been in the recent past, and she cites examples of the judicial duel in France, England and claims it was still practiced in the Holy Roman Empire.

Of the Germans, she says their judicial dueling culture and rules derived from Lombard Law and she gives numerous examples of when a Trial by Combat could be asked for. Treason and breaking the peace are alongside murder, rape and adultery all of which were grounds for a duel to the death in front of a court.

Honor, she says, is more valuable than gold or silver to noble men, and so according to Lombard Law, any stain on a person's honor was also grounds for a duel. Even when judicial dueling came to an end, the duels of honor replaced it.  Men might not fight out their legal cases by the mid 1400s, but they would fight over honor.

The greatest insult was to accuse another of lying, which often arose from an accusation. If one man called another cowardly, then the other had to say such was a lie- and this was grounds for a duel. Both men had their honor at stake and although a duel of honor might not lead to death- it certainly could. When Boucicaut fought Galeazzo, the original cause was Boucicaut's doubting the valor of Italian knights. They fought, neither was greatly harmed, but Galeazzo was determined the winner by the judge overseeing the second duel.

Despite disagreeing with dueling of any sort, she does lay down rules of behavior in a duel. 

If a man's weapon breaks should he be given another? She says that in a duel it's unlikely that the combatants don't have numerous weapons, but, if a man's weapon were to be broken it depends how. If his weapon broke while defending himself, he clearly deserves another to prove his case. If the enemy took his blade and broke it- well, you likely lost.

Can a duel once started end? In the case of a judicial duel, in which death determined who was right and wrong, Christine laments that the duel should proceed to its bloody resolution. A king could call a halt to a duel and pardon a man, but this she believes is in error and does not solve the issue at hand. If the king says one is a victor because he is winning the duel, but pardons the loser, it denies the loser the chance he had at making a sudden comeback with a sword or dagger as she says has been known to happen.

What about private dueling? She is adamantly against this. Not only is treachery an issue, she believes that a duel in private is improper and that though she does not like judicial duels, they are superior in all ways to private ones. The reason why is that a formal judicial duel has to be reviewed by legal bodies and there are means of preventing them. In the case of treason, there is likely no recourse, but when two knights insult one another, Christine says it often comes from too much wine or bad information and that the accuser should be able to repent and that no ill will should arise from such. 

What about the clergy fighting? While before the 1300s it was not unusual for clergymen to don armor on the roads and even show up to battles, by the 1400s the Church's views on dueling of any sort were hardened. Christine says legal minds in France were a bit more divided. Christine believes it might be acceptable for a clergyman to wear armor, but not to carry a weapon of war and to only strike if attacked. 

Should men fight over similar coat of arms? An issue that caused trouble in the crusades and was still debated was the coat of arms. Christine felt that fighting over them and any similarities was dependent on region. If two Frenchmen claimed the same coat of arms, that was grounds for the king getting involved and simply granting the right to bear the coat of arms to the older claim. No duel was needed. If a German arrived in Paris and saw a French knight using his coat of arms, mad as he might get, she believed their regional differences made the matter meaningless and that if the French knight burned down Burgundy and pillaged the peasantry, the German wouldn't need to duel the French knight, because a good king would just hang the man outright.


Christine's work touches on many subjects, ranging from her interpretation of De re Militari, to her views on the maintaining of men in the field and the qualities of good leaders, training practices, the history of past  successful leaders and the customs of the fast fading judicial duel. Her connection to HEMA can be found mostly contextually, in that she was writing at the same time as Fiore de Liberi, and knew, likely personally, a man who had dueled one of Fiore's students. Her advice on the use of the thrust and training with practice staves correlates well with other source material in relationship to HEMA.


Did you like the article?

You can get Christine de Pizan's 

The Book of Deeds of Arms and of  Chivalry here. Translated by Summer Willard. 

If you want more about HEMA and its history, such as the duel and 

its history from the 1300s to 1700s, consider my 

Historical European Martial Arts book, now in paperback and hardback.