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Founding “Fathers” of International Law: Recognizing Christine de Pizan

Published on January 15, 2019        Author: 
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Editor’s Note:  This post was first published by the author in French in the Galerie des internationalistes francophones (Gallery of French-Speaking Internationalists) on the website of the French Society for International Law (SFDI).  We are particularly grateful that Professor Latty’s translated version will reach the EJIL:Talk! readership around the world.

At the start of 2019 and the year long campaign designed around International Women’s Day on 8 March 2019, it may be particularly apt for the readers of EJIL: Talk! to consider Christine de Pizan (around 1365 – around 1430), a medieval woman of letters, as one of the founders of international law – even if somewhat surprising for several reasons.  One is the anachronism attached to this qualification, the invention of the word “international” attributed to Bentham in 1780 being much later than Pizan’s passage on earth. At that time, only a few States, in the contemporary sense of the term, had taken shape, while the idea of a legal system organizing their relations was still in limbo. Moreover, Pizan is not a woman of law but an intellectual “all-rounder”. Above all, she has been completely ignored by internationalist scholars – with the notable exception of the Belgian Ernest Nys who devoted several studies to her work, or rare authors such as Anzilotti who mentioned her contribution in his Corso di diritto internazionale (vol. I, transl. G. Gidel, Sirey, 1929). She has since disappeared again from the teachings of the most highly qualified publicists, whereas since the end of the 20thcentury, the rediscovery of her work has been the subject of extensive study in other fields of human and social sciences.

(Photo source here.)

However, her Livre des faits d’armes et de chevalerie (The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry) is one of the first known texts on the law of war. This is why a legal historian specializing in the status of women once presented Pizan not without emphasis as the “mother of international law” (M. T. Guerra Medici, « The Mother of International Law: Christine de Pisan », Parliaments, Estates and Representation, vol. 19, 1999, n° 1,pp. 15-22), thus supplanting a Grotius whose paternity was already highly doubtful (Ch. Leben, « Grotius : père du droit international », in Dictionnaire des idées reçues en droit international, Paris, Pedone, 2017, pp. 279-285). In any case, in the pantheon of the founding “fathers” of international law, haunted by men, Pizan should occupy a special place: she is not only the first woman to have written about “international” law; she is one of its very first known authors, even before Vitoria, Gentili or Suarez.

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