Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 701
Christine de Pizan is sitting in her study reading when her mother calls her to supper. The next day, as Christine resumes reading The Lamentations of Mathéolus, which slanders women’s character, she reflects on the behavior of the female sex. While she is lost in thought, a vision of three ladies appears to her. They tell Christine that they come to correct the erroneous impressions that men created about women by helping her build a city where virtuous women will reside. They identify themselves as Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice.
Christine accepts their commission to build the City of Ladies by writing about worthy women. With Lady Reason’s guidance, she places the foundations. Christine first asks Lady Reason why male authors malign women. Reason offers several explanations and affirms that these accounts of women’s behavior are false. Christine inquires why women do not hold positions of governmental authority. Reason recounts the lives of several women who ruled after the death of their husbands, including Nicaula, empress of Ethiopia in antiquity, and French queens such as the Merovingian Fredegund and Blanche of Castile in the thirteenth century.
When Christine asks about women’s strength, Reason tells how the ancient Assyrian Queen Semiramis led armies after her husband’s death. Reason relates the feats of strength of the Amazons in ancient Greece and cites instances of other women from antiquity who acted with bravery. Lady Reason answers Christine’s queries about learned women by mentioning two Roman poets, Cornifica and Proba, and the Greek poet Sappho. Other women, such as Manto, Medea, and Circe from Greek antiquity, excelled in magical sciences. Several women from ancient times, including Nicostrata, Minerva, Ceres, and Isis, discovered arts, sciences, and technologies. Women contributed to the arts and crafts of textiles and painting. To Christine’s inquiry if women behave prudently, Lady Reason, explaining qualities of prudence based on the biblical book of Proverbs, adduces the lives of the Romans Gaia Cirilla and Lavinia, Queen Dido of Carthage, and Queen Ops of Crete.
Lady Rectitude then assumes the guidance of Christine’s work in completing the city walls and building edifices within the city. Rectitude instructs Christine on the wisdom of women by telling about the ten Sibyls and their gifts of prophecy. She cites several biblical women—among them Deborah, Elizabeth, and the Queen of Sheba—whose understanding made them prophetic. Other women, such as the Greek Cassandra and the Byzantine Antonia, had prophetic powers. When Christine asks why parents prefer sons to daughters, Lady Rectitude demonstrates that many daughters take care of their parents. The Roman virgin Claudine defended her father from attack, and another Roman woman nursed her imprisoned mother.
Rectitude announces that the buildings of the City of Ladies are complete and ready to be inhabited. In response to Christine’s inquiries about women’s role in marriage, Rectitude brings to the city Queen Hypsicratea, who shows such devotion to her husband that she accompanies him on military campaigns and into exile after his defeat. The city is filled with married women who counsel their spouses wisely and commemorate their deceased husbands. Of women who saved their people, Rectitude mentions Hebrew women such as Judith and Esther, the Sabine women of ancient Rome, and the Frankish queen Clotilda, who converted her husband Clovis to Christianity. Many women were noted for chastity, including the biblical Susanna and the Greek Penelope, wife of Ulysses. The Roman Lucretia tried to protect herself from rape. Women such as Griselda and the Roman empress Florence endured extreme hardships in remaining faithful to their husbands. Rectitude praises the virtues of French queens who are Christine’s contemporaries, among them Queen Isabella, wife of Charles VI, and the duchesses of Berry, Orléans, and Burgundy.
Lady Justice takes up the task of completing the high towers and selecting their residents. The Virgin Mary becomes the queen of the City of Ladies. Justice leads in female martyrs for the Christian faith by recounting the acts of martyrdom of more than thirty saints. Christine finally declares that the city is complete and exhorts women to follow the virtuous examples of the residents of the City of Ladies.