The sibyl Almathea has a story every artist should read. Almathea brought King Tarquin nine books to sell, but the proud king refused to pay the price she asked for. So Almathea burned three of the books before the king, then offered the remaining six for the same price as before. The king agreed.1
Any artist who has been told their prices are too high, or any writer who has been asked to write for exposure, can relate to Almathea’s fury, if not her impressive hard-sell methods. Almathea’s confidence in the worth of her work is as delightful to read as stories of warrior women.
But her story would be impossible to do in a single panel as seen in the rest of The Book of the City of Ladies. The climax is the book-burning, which without the context of the story is hardly inspiring.
I decided to make a tiny book fully retelling Almathea’s story. I had recently made friends with book artist Mel Hewitt, who talked me through the process.
I ran into a difficulty right away: the 1982 Earl Jeffrey Richards translation of The Book of the City of Ladies I had been using was still under copyright. I looked for the original 1405 French text, Le Livre de la cité des dames, but could not find it online. I considered copying the script directly from images of the original manuscripts, but found it almost impossible to read.
Unexpectedly, I found another English translation, this one from 1521 by Brian Anslay. It was printed during the reign of Henry VIII, who at the time was married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
Somehow, The Book of the City of Ladies had made it to England. The text is late Middle English: after Chaucer, before Shakespeare. The letter “y” was an old way of writing the “th” sound, so “the” is often written “ye”, and “that” is often written “yt”. The letters “u” and “v” are used depending on their placement in a word, and the letter “s” often looks like a letter “f”.
This text would be perfect for my project: remote to the average reader and viewer, but decipherable. What’s more, it demonstrated how much time had passed since this book had last been translated.
In her foreword to the revised Richards translation, Natalie Zemon Davis describes the painstaking process of translating The Book of the City of Ladies for her classes. Now universities have “Christine studies” in their history and literature departments, focusing on this now-famous medieval feminist writer. Making each tiny pen stroke to recreate the 1521 translation, I thought of how easily Christine’s work and her city could have been lost.
When Giovanni Boccaccio describes the queen goddess Juno in Famous Women, he says that “so great is her fame that the silent teeth of time, which gnaw all things to pieces, have not yet been able to consume her.”2 May the silent teeth of time spare Christine de Pizan for a while longer.
I call my usual pieces “illuminated manuscript pages”, but really, they are made to be framed. The borders are too narrow to actually bind in a book, and of course I only paint them on one side. With a book of miniatures, I would have new concerns with my materials.
First was the grain direction of the parchment. Paper, parchment, and fabric all have a “grain line”, with the fibers running in one direction. Folding along this line is easy, but folding across it causes cracking and tearing. I use a plant-based parchment called Pergamenata that comes in packs. I gently folded each piece to double-check the direction of the grain before cutting it to size.
The book is made up of four signatures, labelled A, B, C, and D. Each signature has two pieces of parchment, folded and nested together to make a total of eight pages. Pages 1, 2, 7, and 8 would be on one piece of parchment, and pages 3, 4, 5, and 6 would be on the other. I numbered each page, A1, A2, A3, and so on, in pencil. Medieval scribes would do the same thing, but usually in pen, in areas that would be trimmed off when the book was bound.
Planning a book layout like this wasn’t intuitive. More than once I panicked, thinking I had copied text onto the wrong page. But I eventually learned to trust the system. Before this, I had found it hard to believe that a medieval scribe could hand over months of work to be chopped up and sewn by a bookbinder. My pieces were precious, and how could I trust them to someone else? Maybe that is the magic of books: by the end of my project, I had been staring at the same tiny text for weeks. I was happy to hand off my pages so they could be someone else’s project.
The parchment I use is translucent, so tracing the template drawing is usually easy. With the book, I would have to do that tracing on both sides. I bought a light box, which made the process much easier…and promptly cooked my eyeballs and gave me days of headaches.
Around the time I started the book project, I started getting headaches from working in such tiny detail. I also had a flare-up of tendonitis in my hand, again from working so small for so long. I got a prescription for reading glasses and started physical therapy, but I found myself wanting to draw less and less. Some unconscious part of my brain had connected “drawing” to “pain”.
In some ways this was a good and natural thing. A common treatment for tendonitis is giving the affected body part complete rest to allow the inflammation to go down. But of course, not drawing for weeks at a time is hard on an artist’s self-concept. Not working on art felt wrong. I was in a bizarre race with myself: would my tendons heal from not working, or would I fall into a depression from not working?
When I finally got the the right prescription, the right wrist brace, and the right treatment plan, I was out of practice. My drawings were clumsy. I was still anxious about drawing, so I worked way too fast and sloppily.
I had heard of writer’s block. Advice for getting through it varies: take a break, work on a different project, try to keep working anyway. But here was a physical block! And now the advice was all the same: respect your body. Your body has told you your limits, and now you have to work with it instead of against it.
I do eye exercises to give my near-sight vision a rest. I do hand-strengthening exercises to build up the tiny muscles in my hands. I do yoga for lower back pain when I remember to, but focus on poses that don’t put weight on my wrists. It’s a slow process, but I’m lucky to be able to build back my strength.
I’ll be posting images of the bound book soon. Take care of yourself!
1. Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards, 102.
2. Boccaccio, Famous Women, trans. Virginia Brown, 13.