The Book of the City of Ladies

by Christine de Pizan
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 824

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. Foremost among these is the education of women. Lady Reason states unequivocally that “if it were customary to send daughters to school like sons, and if they were then taught the natural sciences, they would learn as thoroughly and understand the subtleties of all the arts and sciences as well as sons.” In portraying illustrious women, Christine is careful to specify those women who have “learnedness in letters.” To the capacity for learning Christine adds every woman’s “natural sense” or “prudence,” that is, her common sense and cleverness that enable her to outwit men. For Christine, this gift is used to good ends, as demonstrated by Ops, the queen of Crete, who used her wits to save her sons, and the Lombard women, who foiled their would-be rapists by putting putrid chicken meat on their own breasts.

Another predominant motif is the necessity for women to keep their behavior above reproach. Caveats are issued throughout the work warning women against extramarital or premarital sexual intercourse, which Christine calls “foolish love.” Even though some of her exemplary tales concern adulterers and fornicators, Christine is careful to caution her readers and to point out the tragic outcome of this comportment. She clearly believes that women engaging in such conduct have been beguiled by deceptive men who, “just as one lays traps for wild animals,” have forced them to act contrary to their basically chaste natures.

Although the author’s tone is serious and her sentence structure often long and convoluted, there is a lightness of style that pervades the work as a result of her attention to interesting details. When speaking of Drypetina, the daughter of Mithridates, Christine mentions the fact that she had an extra row of teeth and then comments, “what a monstrosity!” Many of these aside remarks concern word origins. She explains that the word “Amazons” means “breastless ones,” for these warriors cut off their left breasts in order to facilitate the use of their shields. One learns that Queen Artemisia built a spectacular monument to her deceased husband, Mausolus—thus the genesis of the term “mausoleum.” Christine enjoys puns and clever phrases, such as her comment on the Lombard women, with the malodorous meat on their breasts: “But this stink made them quite fragrant indeed!”

Throughout the work, Christine demonstrates the broad scope of her erudition. Her literary references include classical Greek and Roman writers, such as Aristotle and Cicero; great vernacular works of Old French literature, such as the Tristan legend and Le Roman de la rose (The Romance of the Rose); other venerable European writers of the medieval period, such as Dante and Petrarch; and the Bible. She even recommends manuscripts to readers who may wish to know more on a particular subject and frequently documents her sources within the text. As the future author of a manual of instruction for knights, Christine evidences her knowledge of the tactics of war and rivals the great chansons de gestes in her vivid and bloody battle descriptions.

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