(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Inspired by the reading of Saint Augustine’s De civitate Dei (413-426; City of God) and the building of new city walls around Paris, Christine framed her defense of women in allegorical architecture. Although her city may be figurative, Christine made the women populating it very real. Even goddesses and mythological personages such as Ceres, Medea, and Minerva are depicted as mortal women whose great virtues and benefits to humanity earned them their titles. To lend further credence to her characters, Christine, in conversation with the narrator, often interjects brief mention of contemporary women or women of the recent past such as the wife of the military commander in chief Bertrand du Guesclin or Valentina Visconti, the wife of the duke of Orléans—real people familiar to her readers.

In the three divisions of the book one can discern three levels of defense. The physical level, in part 1, states that women can have physical and mental powers equal to those of men: Menalippe and Hippolyta unhorsed the great Greek warriors Hercules and Theseus, and Minerva invented a numerical system and mathematics, wool-carding and the art of weaving, and the first musical instruments. The moral level, in part 2, states that women have natural gifts that often enable them to predict the future (such as the biblical prophetesses of the Old and New Testaments and the sibyls) and can love both parents and spouse to a greater degree than men: A certain Roman woman breast-fed her own imprisoned mother, and Argia turned over rotting corpses on the battlefield desperately searching for the body of her slain husband, Polyneices. The spiritual level, in part 3, states that women are capable of such religious devotion that they can endure the most horrible tortures: Saint Catherine continued to sing praises to God when plunged headlong into boiling oil.

From these stories and dialogues between Christine and the three allegorical ladies emerge certain themes central to the author’s purpose....

(The entire section is 824 words.)