Knowing how busy the Airport Post Office can be, despite their friendly and efficient postal workers, last week I took my 1895 reprint of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable with me since it’s a reliable source for small doses of lively intellectual diversion. In it I encountered a most remarkable woman from long ago: Cotytto, “the Thracian goddess of immodesty.”
Godchecker.com went a bit further, noting that Cotytto was also known as Cotys, whom they described as the “Thracian goddess of Blatant Debauchery and Nocturnal Sport.” A more sedate source, the “Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology,” said she “was celebrated on hills in riotous proceedings. In later times her worship was introduced at Athens and Corinth, and was connected, like that of Dionysius, with licentious frivolity.”
Another remarkable woman whom I encountered in print recently was Judith Love Cohen, a real-live woman of our time. She was “a NASA engineer who helped create the abort-guidance system that rescued the Apollo 13 astronauts,” according to Snopes.com, that trustworthy separator of facts from popular fiction. Cohen was so incredibly dedicated to the project that, in the last stages of her pregnancy in 1969, she “went to work on the day she was in labor. She took a printout of a problem she was working on to the hospital. She called her boss and said she’d finished the problem and gave birth to Jack Black,” the actor. Besides engineering, Cohen’s other great passion was dance, and at 19 she was a dancer in the Corps de Ballet of the New York Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company, but she always considered her Apollo 13 work her greatest accomplishment.
I met another remarkable woman while perusing the online offerings of the British Library, which I’ve visited (and wrangled insider tours from my British librarian colleagues). According to the library’s website, bl.uk, “ ‘The Book of the Queen’ is one of the most treasured manuscripts held by the British Library. This beautifully illuminated collection of works by Christine de Pizan was made for Isabeau of Bavaria (b. 1371, d. 1435), queen consort of Charles VI of France. It is believed that Christine herself supervised the assembly of the book and may have even been involved in copying passages of text … Christine de Pizan is widely regarded as one of Europe’s earliest female professional authors and is certainly one of the most prolific.
“Born in Venice in 1365, she moved to Paris as a young child when her father was appointed the royal astrologer and alchemist to King Charles V of France. Christine took advantage of the intellectual atmosphere of the court, making use of the royal library to teach herself languages, history, and literature. Her writing career began at the age of 24, after her husband, a royal secretary, died suddenly, and she was faced with the necessity of providing for herself and her small children. She soon attracted the patronage of a number of nobles at court and produced dozens of major works over the next three decades, along with hundreds of ballads and poems.”
Christine married her dad’s successor as Charles V’s royal astrologer, but, when her husband died of the plague, she was left penniless, thanks to the conniving of court officials. However, by a combination of self-educating herself in a good library, her excellent connections at the French court, and the necessity for supporting her three children and her mother, Christine became the world’s first professional woman of letters.
“The Book of the Queen” was a special one-off edition that compiled a bunch of Christine de Pizan’s earlier books into a single edition that was gorgeously illustrated, including a miniature of Christine writing in her study in a rich blue gown and her little white dog at her feet. Another shows her presenting the book to Queen Isabeau as her attendants, all sporting huge hairdos resembling big, fat horns, as their white dogs look on.
This brings up another remarkable aspect about Christine; she actively sought out women collaborators, including an illustrator known today only as “Anastasia,” who “flourished” around 1400 in Paris, but “Nothing is known about her except for the praise heaped upon her by the medieval writer Christine de Pisan in her work … Pisan describes her as the finest illuminator in her field.”.
Christine wrote, “I know a woman today, named Anastasia, who is so learned and skilled in painting manuscript borders and miniature backgrounds that one cannot find an artisan in all the city of Paris – where the best in the world are found – who can surpass her. … People cannot stop talking about her. And I know this from experience.” Much of her writing experience dealt with a genre known as “Mirrors for Princes,” which the Britannica describes as “genre of advice literature that outlines basic principles of conduct for rulers and of the structure and purpose of secular power, often in relation either to a transcendental source of power or to abstract legal norms … It flourished in western Europe beginning in the early Middle Ages as well as in the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world.”
Two other remarkable women visit my mother every month. Mom’s in hospice care, and her lot is considerably brightened when the public library’s two-women bookmobile staff bring her books (including large print), audio books and music, and DVDs as part of the library’s Homebound Program. They even offer assistance in downloading electronic books, magazines, movies and music from our library’s outstanding online collection. And they do this while always brimming with friendly, upbeat compassion. My mom’s a devoted bibliophile and those bookmobile ladies bring the library to her bedside.
As E.B. White, the author of “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little,” and “The Trumpet of the Swan” noted, “A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort … Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people — people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.”