The History Behind the Stories and the Characters
Christine de Pizan (c. 1364–c. 1430), the noted author and defender of women, was born in Italy but raised at the court in Paris where her father, Thomas de Pizan, was astrologer and surgeon to the French kings Charles V and his son Charles VI. In 1380, she married Étienne de Castel, a royal secretary, and had three children before tragedy struck and her husband died.
The novels are set in the years shortly after her husband's death, a difficult time in Christine's life, when she suddenly found herself with three small children, her mother, and a niece to support. Historians have speculated that because she had been taught to read and write by her father, she was able to earn money in those early years of her career by working as a scribe. Later, she made her living as a writer—an extraordinary feat for a medieval woman—with books praising, defending, and advising women; a biography of King Charles V; a treatise on the art of warfare; and many allegorical poems, verse romances, and ballades. Throughout her career she stood up for women and in so doing was not afraid to antagonize some of the most prominent men of her day.
The plots of the novels are fictitious, but the settings are authentic, and many of the events and situations are based on historical fact: for example, the grisly charivari, known as the Bal des Ardents, where four masqueraders burned to death; Charles VI's terrifying attacks of madness; the existence of a book of sorcery that people believed would cure the king; the atmosphere of fear and superstition that pervaded Paris during the reign of this unfortunate ruler; the cruel conditions in the infamous Châtelet prison; the public executions in medieval Paris. Even the decision of the king's lion keeper to hire a woman as his assistant is true to life: records show that there was indeed at one time a lady lion keeper at the royal residence in Paris.
Many of the other characters in the books are based on actual historical personages. In the first book, In the Presence of Evil, they are as follows:
Francesca: Christine's mother. We know from her writings that Christine had a contentious relationship with her mother, who objected to education for women and told her daughter that she should attend to her cooking and sewing. History has not recorded the mother's name, so I have given her one.
Marie: Christine's daughter. Marie later became a nun at the Dominican priory of Poissy, and in one of her poems Christine describes a journey she took to visit her there.
Jean: Christine's older son. When he was a teenager, he went to England as a companion for the Earl of Salisbury's son. Later, he became a royal secretary like his father.
Thomas: Christine's younger son. His name is not recorded, so I have called him Thomas. He seems to have died in childhood, but not until sometime later than my story.
Lisabetta: Christine's niece. We know that Christine had the daughter of one of her brothers living with her; I have named her Lisabetta.
Charles VI (1368–1422): King of France from 1380 until his death, known as Charles the Well-Beloved or Charles the Mad. Charles's first attack of madness occurred in the summer of 1392, when he lost his reason and killed some of his own knights. Periods of madness alternated with intervals of sanity throughout the rest of his life, and as the years progressed, his "absences," as his contemporaries referred to his episodes of unreason, increased in frequency and intensity.
Isabeau: Isabeau of Bavaria (1370–1435): Wife of Charles VI, Queen of France. Isabeau has for centuries been reviled as an immoral woman—greedy, debauched, and pathologically self-indulgent—but recent scholarship has proven this characterization to be inaccurate. I have tried to show that she was a more sympathetic figure than history has led us to believe.
Ludwig: Ludwig of Bavaria (c. 1368–1447): Isabeau's brother. He came to France to be with his sister, insinuated himself into the French court, and was given large sums of money by the king and queen.
Louis, Duke of Orléans (1372–1407): Brother of King Charles VI. Louis is one of the most fascinating characters in French history, a charismatic man who was said to consort with sorcerers, and who was at the same time excessively pious. He was reputed to be the lover of Queen Isabeau, but this is questionable. He was assassinated in 1407 on the order of his cousin, John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy.
Catherine de Fastavarin (d. 1400 or 1401): Queen Isabeau's favorite lady-in-waiting. A childhood friend of Isabeau's in Bavaria, she accompanied her to France. She married three times, and it was at the ball celebrating her third wedding that the tragic charivari took place.
The Duchess of Orléans: Blanche of France (1328–1393): Charles VI's great aunt by marriage. This imposing personage was the authority on rules of conduct and morals at the French court.
Gilles Malet (d. 1411): The king's librarian. He had been the librarian at King Charles V's great library at the Louvre, and he continued in this capacity under Charles VI. He helped Christine find work as a scribe.
Michel: Michel Pintoin (c. 1350–c. 1421): Known as the Monk of St. Denis, he chronicled the life of King Charles VI.
In the second book, In the Shadow of the Enemy, we meet these historical personages:
Martin du Bois: The name is fictitious, but the person behind it is real. Around the year 1393, an elderly citizen of Paris married a girl of fifteen, and to help her in her new role as housewife, he wrote for her a book of moral and practical advice. The original manuscript of this anonymous treatise is lost, but it has come down to us in three manuscript copies. In 1928, Eileen Power translated it into English and published it in slightly abbreviated form as The Goodman of Paris: A Treatise on Moral and Domestic Economy by a Citizen of Paris. In 1991 I retranslated what I considered the most interesting portions of the book and published them as A Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the Fourteenth Century. The author of this treatise never tells us who he was, but because he was something of a name dropper, he alludes to many of his acquaintances. One of the people he mentions several times is the Duke of Berry, and so in In the Shadow of the Enemy Martin du Bois tells Christine that he once worked as a secretary for this powerful duke.
Klara: The young bride of author of the housekeeping manual. The author gives only a few hints about her: she was fifteen, an orphan from another part of the country, and well-educated, for she could read. She could write, too, as we know from his instructions on what she should include in her letters to him when he is away from home. But the author doesn't tell us her name. I have called her Klara.
Agnes the Beguine: A housekeeper employed by the author of the housekeeping manual. This woman, who acted as a sort of governess and companion for the young wife, was a member of a lay sisterhood whose members devoted themselves to Christian ideals but were not cloistered. The beguines often worked outside their communities, sometimes as domestics. Many of them were employed in the silk industry.
Jean de Nantouillet: One of the king's friends who took part in the Bal des Ardents. Like five of his companions, Jean went up in flames, but he saved himself by jumping into a large vat of water.
Huguet de Guisay: The instigator of the fateful Bal des Ardents and one of the men who burned to death. He spent three days in great agony before he died, and because he was known to be very cruel, many people felt that he got what he deserved.
Yvain de Foix (1357–1393): The bastard son of Gaston III, Count of Foix, who was also known as Gaston Phoebus.
The Viscount of Castelbon: Gaston Phoebus wanted to leave his estates to Yvain de Foix, but because Yvain was a bastard, everything went to Gaston's first cousin once removed, Mathieu of Foix-Castelbon, the Viscount of Castelbon.
Haincelin Coq: One of King Charles VI's fools. He must have been a lively fellow; the account books for the king's household record that in one year alone he needed forty-seven new pairs of shoes.
Guillaume the Fool: Guillaume Fouel, one of Queen Isabeau's fools. Even more energetic than Haincelin Coq, he wore out one hundred and three pairs of boots and shoes in just six months.
Jeannine the Fool: Another of Queen Isabeau's fools.
Jacquiette: Jeannine the fool's mother.
Gracieuse Allegre: Queen Isabeau's minstrel.
Alips: Queen Isabeau's dwarf.
Collette: Queen Isabeau had an anonymous mute girl in her entourage. I call her Collette.
The little Saracen Girl: Called la petite Sarrazine in Queen's Isabeau's accounts, she was the queen's goddaughter. She was baptized and lived with the nuns at the abbey of Haute-Bruyère.
Catherine de Villiers: A lady-in-waiting. She was in charge of Isabeau's library and also bought gloves and pins for her.
Jeanne de la Tour: One of the queen's oldest ladies-in-waiting. She was in charge of Isabeau's jewels.
Madame de Malicorne: A lady-in-waiting. She was responsible for the care of the queen's children. One of Isabeau's favorites, she received many costly presents.
Marguerite de Germonville: Another of Isabeau's ladies-in-waiting.
Eustache Deschamps (c. 1340–1404): An influential poet who held a number of official posts at the courts of Charles V and Charles VI. He was in close contact with all the important people of his day, and he often ridiculed them with political satire that gained him enemies at the court. His treatise on writing poetry, L'Art de Dictier, seems to have been a factor in Christine de Pizan's decision to begin writing poetry. She called Deschamps her friend and master, and he in turn wrote a long poem praising her work.
The Duke of Berry: Jean, Duke of Berry (1340–1416), one of King Charles VI's uncles. After Charles went mad, he and his brother Philip, Duke of Burgundy, took control of the government. Jean, however, was less interested in power than in building castles and acquiring fine books, jewels, and other precious objects.
The Duchess of Berry: Jeanne of Boulogne (1378–c. 1424), the second wife of Jean, Duke of Berry, whom she married when she was only twelve. She was raised at the court of Gaston Phoebus and therefore would have been close to the count's bastard son, Yvain de Foix.
The Duke of Burgundy: Philip the Bold (1342–1404), one of King Charles VI's uncles. He and his brother, Jean, Duke of Berry, took control of the French government after their nephew went mad, but it was Philip who exercised the most power.
The Duchess of Burgundy: Marguerite III, Countess of Flanders (1350-1405): the daughter of Louis of Mâle, Count of Flanders, and the wife of Philip the Bold. When her father died, she inherited his possessions in the Low Countries, giving her husband control of both Burgundy and Flanders.
Duke Jean of Burgundy: John the Fearless (1371–1419): the son of Philip the Bold and Marguerite of Flanders.
Valentina Visconti (1371–1408): the Duchess of Orléans, wife of Louis of Orléans, the younger brother of Charles VI. Her father was Gian Galeazzo Visconti, lord of Milan and after 1395 the first duke of Milan.
These historical personages appear in the third book, In the Company of Fools:
Blondel, Coquinet, Giliot, and Hanotin: Louis of Orléans had a number of fools. The names of these four are given in contemporaneous documents relating to the duke's household.
Colart de Laon: This painter's name is found in records of payments he received from Louis of Orléans for various projects, one of which was the decoration of the carriage that is described in the novel. It had always been assumed that none of Colart's panel paintings had survived, but that changed recently when a painting of The Agony in the Garden in the Prado Museum in Madrid that had always been thought to be by an anonymous artist was subjected to X-ray analysis. Part of the painting had been obscured by a thick layer of brown paint, and under the paint were two figures, Saint Agnes and a kneeling nobleman in a sumptuous pink robe with long, flowing sleeves decorated with nettle leaves. Saint Agnes was a patron saint of Louis of Orléans's father, Charles V, and of Louis's wife, Valentina Visconti. The nettle leaf was one of Louis's favourite emblems. Scholars, therefore, realized that the figure was Louis of Orléans himself, and they have attributed the painting to Colart de Laon since it is known that he worked for the duke.
Pierre de Craon: One of history's great villains, Pierre was a knight of noble birth who was guilty of many crimes and got away with all of them. In 1379 he committed murder but was pardoned by King Charles V. In 1382, he went to Italy with the Duke of Anjou on a campaign to claim the Kingdom of Naples. When the duke ran out of money, he sent Pierre to Milan to borrow some from Gian Galeazzo, the Lord of Milan. Pierre got the money, but instead of giving it to the duke, he kept it for himself and spent it lavishly on gambling and debauchery. He was never punished. In 1392 he tried to kill Olivier de Clisson, King Charles VI's constable. It was on the campaign to Brittany to find Pierre and punish him that the king had his first fit of madness. Pierre was banished from France for the attempted murder, but was allowed to return for six months in 1396, with the proviso that he not come within two leagues of the king. He stayed at the abbey of Saint-Denis where, four and a half months later, the king pardoned him.
Mariette d'Enghien: The mistress of Louis of Orléans. Pierre de Craon told Louis's wife, Valentina, about her husband's affair with Mariette, and when Louis reported to the king that Pierre had betrayed his secret, Charles had Pierre sent away from the court. Pierre thought that the king's constable, Olivier de Clisson, was the one responsible for his dismissal, and he tried to kill him, which led to the aborted expedition to Brittany on which Charles VI had his first attack of madness.
Mariette d'Enghien and Louis of Orléans had a son, Jean, Count of Dunois, known as the Bastard of Orléans, who aided Joan of Arc at the siege of Orléans in 1429.
Aubert de Canny: The husband of Mariette d'Enghien. When Louis of Orléans was murdered in 1407, everyone assumed that it must have been Aubert, out to get revenge because of Louis's affair with his wife. This was not the case, however. Aubert was innocent, and there is no record of his ever seeking retribution.
Doctor Harsigny: Guillaume de Harsigny, one of the most distinguished doctors in 14th century France, was called in after Charles VI's first attack of madness. Under his care the king seemed to recover his sanity. But Harsigny was 92, and he soon returned to Laon, where he died in 1393. The king never did recover, in spite of the many doctors who attended him. Harsigny's tomb effigy is well known because it is one of the first transi tombs, cadaver monuments that show the body, naked and emaciated, in an advance state of decomposition.
Most of the characters in Murder in the Cloister, the fourth book in the series, are fictitious, but the priory where the events take place and the imposing prioress of this royal establishment, Marie of Bourbon, were real.
The Royal Priory of St. Louis at Poissy: This richly endowed Dominican priory, which was destroyed during the French Revolution, was founded in 1304 by King Philip the Fair, who honored his grandfather, Louis IX, by placing it on the spot where the recently sainted Louis was reputed to have been born. It comprised a huge complex of buildings that housed more than one hundred nuns, a multitude of people who worked for them, and the friars who ministered to their spiritual needs. It also included a church that rivaled in size and style the magnificent Gothic cathedrals of the day.
Christine's visit to Poissy in the novel is fiction, but she did actually go there in 1400 to visit her daughter, who was a novice at the priory. She described what she saw in a long poem, Le Livre du Dit de Poissy, that gives us a good idea of the size and splendor of the place. The poem also provides glimpses into the lives of the nuns, most of whom came from noble families and who enjoyed a certain amount of opulence—in the prioress's residence Christine was served a meal on gold and silver dishes—but who also slept on hard mattresses and were beaten if they lingered too long in bed when it was time to rise for prayers.
Following its dissolution by the Revolutionary authorities in 1792, all the nuns fled, and the abandoned buildings were taken over by looters who stole the precious objects in the treasury and broke the statues and tombs. In 1802 the town of Poissy decided to demolish the priory completely. All that remains today are the entrance portal with its two imposing towers and a few vestiges of its arches, vaults, and enclosing wall. Fortunately, a detailed elevation made around 1700 and an 1787 plan on which all the key parts of the establishment are identified have come down to us. There are also eighteenth-century drawings of the statues of Louis IX's children that Juliana points out to Christine in the novel.
The mission of the Poissy nuns was to offer prayers and chant, day and night, for the royal family and for all of France. To fulfill this duty, they required a great many liturgical manuscripts such as the richly illustrated antiphonary whose desecration so shocks Christine in chapter twenty-nine of the novel. After the dissolution of the priory, these manuscripts were looted and dispersed. Today many of them can be found in libraries, museums, and private collections throughout the world.
In the novel, Sister Adelie claims she can hear a heart beating under the nuns' choir. This was the heart of King Philip the Fair who, before he died in 1314, directed that his heart be buried in a specially designed vault at the priory. Throughout the Middle Ages, everyone at the priory knew the heart was there, but no one knew exactly where. In the novel, the prioress tells Christine that it was supposed to be in a pewter urn enveloped in a cloth with golden fleurs-de-lis on a red background. When the urn was discovered during restorations in the nuns' choir in the 1687, it was exactly as she had described it.
Marie of Bourbon (1347–1401): The sister-in-law of King Charles V, Marie of Bourbon was prioress of Poissy from 1380 until her death. Known for her piety and good works, she astonished those who knew her by delivering bread to lepers with her own hands. There is a contemporaneous statue of her in the Louvre.
Princess Marie (1393–1439): Marie of Valois was the daughter of King Charles VI and his wife, Isabeau of Bavaria. In 1397 her parents gave her to the priory at Poissy in the hopes that in exchange for dedicating their child to the service of God, God would cure Charles of his madness. They did not get their wish. In 1405 the king tried to persuade Marie to leave the priory and marry one of her cousins. She defiantly refused saying she had been given to the priory and there she would stay. She took her vows in 1408 and remained at the priory for the rest of her life.