Medieval Literature, Poetry

Christine de Pisan’s Letter of Othea to Hector

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Christine de Pisan’s Epître Othéa (Trans. The Letter of Othea to Hector) is a late 14th century allegorical reading of different Ovidian tales. A Greek goddess named Othea writes to Hector to give him advice. Hector was a great warrior in Greek mythology, but in the Epître Othéa, he represents the ideal Christian. Othea is Jesus Christ who gives Hector all of the gifts he needs for salvation. Christine not only writes Othea’s letter, she also supplies the reader with a gloss and an allegorical interpretation of the poem. The gloss is a “plain” reading of Othea’s advice. Hector is taught how to be a courtly knight. But the allegorical interpretation places the Greek and Roman myths in a Christian context. Christine uses these pagan stories to teach the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) and to warn against the seven deadly sins.

One example will suffice.

In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Pygmalion falls in love with a statue he made of a woman named Galathea. He pleads Venus to transform Galathea into a flesh-and-blood woman. After Venus grants his wish, Pygmalion marries the former statue and fathers a child with her. Christine admits in her gloss that there are many possible interpretations to this story, but she favors the one in which Pygmalion is a vain man who has forgotten his knightly duties. He has abandoned his duties for a woman who is deaf to his complaints. Christine does not think that the woman was ever a real statue, but that Galathea was like a statue because she made no demands. Pygmalion was satisfied with this statue-like woman, but a courtly lover should not forget his knightly duties. In all of the glosses, Christine interprets the men as courtly lovers and knights (like Lancelot or Tristram).

The allegorical interpretation that follows the gloss reads Pygmalion as a representation of the sin of lechery. Sexual gluttony was strongly condemned by St. Jerome. In 2 Peter, the person who dies without spots or blemishes on his soul merits heaven.

In the Middle Ages, passages from the Bible were glossed by theological experts (ie. monastics and scholastics). The glosses borrowed from the writings of the Church Fathers to explain the meaning of certain biblical passages. Allegorical interpretations tried to find the spiritual meaning underneath the “carnal” or “plain” meaning of the stories. This allegorical hermeneutic was borrowed from the Platonists and Neo-Platonists, who believed that the external image was merely a window to a greater spiritual meaning. Origen of Alexandria is said to be the Father of this approach to the Bible. Later Christian leaders adopted and modified his interpretations. My favorite allegorical commentary comes from St. Augustine of Hippo. It’s on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Enjoy! https://soundfaith.com/sermons/47795-augustine’s-commentary-on-the-good-samaritan

Christine’s poem is also interesting because she assumes that wisdom exists in the writings of the pagans. The Middle Ages is known today as an age of intolerance, and there was certainly a lot of intolerance. But until very recently, Christian intellectuals believed that pagan myth and philosophy could be valuable to Christians. Christine writes in the preface to the Epître Othée that the pagans may have lacked divine grace, but their writings contained a lot of wisdom. Without grace, however, the pagans only had a carnal view of the world. They told stories that were true, but they interpreted the truth carnally. They didn’t have the grace to interpret their myths in the context of the Christian Gospel. Medieval intellectuals often engaged positively with the writings of non-Christians.

Finally, Christine’s poem is a celebration of female wisdom. The goddess’ gifts represent the gifts of the Holy Spirit or even the Holy Spirit himself. The Epître Othée is, therefore, also a proto-feminist work addressed to Christine’s misogynistic opponents.

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