THE CHARMING bright miniature on the dust jacket shows a young woman in the graceful costume of the Middle Ages; with arms crossed she stands thoughtfully in a narrow painted chamber as two small dogs frisk beside her. Surprisingly, this is an actual portrait of Christine de Pizan, an early 15th-century writer and "France's first woman of letters." There are a number of miniatures of her extant, and some adorn this excellent biography. Such pictures once embellished Christine's own books; she is immediately recognizable since she is usually shown in two poses uncharacteristic of medieval women: seated at her desk or else on her knees offering her latest bound manuscript to a patron duke or prince.

Without pictures or dates ne would still have some notion of Christine's epoch on learning that her father, Tommaso da Pizzano, had left his native Bologna to become the French king's private physician -- and his court astrologer. Although Europe during the "calamitous" 14th century was devastated by the Hundred Years War and the Black Death, and demoralized by the papal schism and the corruption of courtly love, Charles V, "the Wise," managed to make the French court a temporary small camelot of peace and learning. His library was magnificent, and it seems that the astrologer's daughter had access to it through a family friendshp with the royal librarian. This unique resource, her passion for reading, and her father's indulgence (despite a mother who thought she should learn to spin) made Christine an accomplished autodidact, a medieval bluestocking, and ultimately one of few really learned women of her time.

The family fortunes declined with the king's death in 1380, but were redeemed by Christine's marriage, at age 15, that same year to Etienne de Castel, a royal secretary with a fine future. The marriage was happy but brief. By 1390 her husband and father dead, Christine was a presumably defenseless widow with three small children to support. Determined not to remarry, she fought bravely and alone through the law courts to preserve her small inheritance, and then struggled to augment it by her own efforts. The tender lyrics she had composed for solace soon brought her patrons; her letters rich in classical allusion won her a reputation as a learned lady, an intriguing novelty -- except to those male scholars who found the very idea grotesque. Her renown at home and abroad made it possible to establish her son Jean in the household of the Earl of Salisbury, her daughter in a fashionable convent at Poissy, and herself as the proteg,ee of Philip the Bold, the powerful Duke of Burgundy who commissioned her to write the biography of his brother Charles the Wise. For other dukes and princes she later wrote tomes on education, on state policy and on military affairs; like many books of that time, these were largely syntheses of Latin and Italian humanist texts, supplemented with her own experience in the French court and distinguished by her humane common sense.

CHARITY CANNON WILLARD, who began almost 50 years ago to study Christine de Pizan, is surely the best qualified among American scholars to record her life, that is, as much as can be ascertained from the historical context, contemporary records, and above all from her own writings. All Christine's books were highly regarded in England and Italy as well as in France, and remained in print through the next century. Willard discusses each in great detail (one does regret that the poetry excerpts are not given in French as well since they lose much of their flavor in modern English rhyme). For today's reader -- and very likely for Christine herself -- the most interesting, and the most original, were her epistles and books in defence of women, at a time when their prestige was at its lowest ebb. Her first advoacy was against 13th- century Jean de Meun's misogynist verses appended to the earlier courtly love poem The Romance of the Rose. Scholars and churchmen lined up for and against Christine but most soon lost interest in the issue. Not Christine, who eventually had many last words in her winsome Book of the City of Ladies; although this is the work for which she is most famous, just two years ago it was translated into English for the first time since 1521!

Chaucer, a generation earlier in England and apparently unknown to Christine, told in his Canterbury Tales how the lusty Wife of Bath was so enraged by her fifth husband's gloating readings from his "book of wicked wives" that she tore out three pages and smacked him right into the the open hearth. In the Book of the City of Ladies the gentler Christine, "one day sitting alone in my study surrounded by books," is so distressed by similar clerkly libels that she begins to weep. Three ladies suddenly appear, Dame Reason, Dame Rectitude and Dame Justice, who console her by narrating many stories largely derived from Ovid, Dante and Boccaccio. All offer evidence (sometimes dubious but never dull) of brave, intelligent and virtuous women, whether mythic, Biblical, or historic: e.g. Ceres and Sappho, Zenobia and Esther, St. Catherine and Queen Blanche. Instructed by her allegorical tutors, Christine constructs a "feminist utopia" of the spirit to be ruled over by the Virgin Mary and open to all good women of fable, fiction or fact.

But her own nation was fast becoming a dystopia. Charles VI was intermittently mad; his German queen (about whom Christine tended to keep a tactful silence) was, in Barbara Tuchman's words, shallow, heartless, sensuous and frivolous as well as flagrantly adulterous. The greedy dukes were at each other's throats. Two years after the appearance of the Book of the City of Ladies in 1405, the Burgundian John the Fearless murdered his rival, Louis of Orleans; civil war ensued, followed by the crushing French defeat at Agincourt in 1415 -- and more civil war.

After her son died, Christine took refuge in the convent at Poissy. Her last written words might well have been her daring, and despairing, "Lamentation on the Troubles of France." Mercifully she lived just long enough to see her besieged country and her maligned sex (both of which she had counseled and defended all her life in her writing) exalted by the miracle of the Maid of Orleans. She broke 11 years of public silence with her "Ditie de Jehanne d'Arc." It is wonderfully right and fitting that this, her last work, was the first poetic tribute to Joan, and the only one composed during the life of the future saint.