Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1074

Christine de Pizan is known as the first professional woman writer in France. She was Italian by birth, but her family moved to Paris when her father became court astrologer to King Charles V. Christine married a French notary, Estienne de Castel. His premature death left her a widow at...

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Christine de Pizan is known as the first professional woman writer in France. She was Italian by birth, but her family moved to Paris when her father became court astrologer to King Charles V. Christine married a French notary, Estienne de Castel. His premature death left her a widow at the age of twenty-five, with responsibility for raising three children and caring for her mother.

Over her mother’s objections, Christine’s father encouraged her literary education, and she began to write to support herself. Initially, she composed verses that were popular with the French nobility. By dedicating her works to prominent individuals, Christine was able to acquire patrons in a male-dominated literary world.

Around 1400, after Christine developed a secure reputation, she expanded the range of topics about which she wrote. She began to pursue the problem of misogyny, addressing her defense of women in a number of literary arenas. Between 1401 and 1403, she participated in an epistolary debate on the Roman de la rose, a famous French literary work of the thirteenth century. She objected to its vulgar language and explicit misogyny. In the two allegorical prose works The Book of the City of Ladies and its sequel, The Book of Three Virtues (also known as the Treasury of the City of the Ladies), she attempted to correct the misogynistic views about women found in many works of literature by male authors.

The compositional structure of The Book of the City of Ladies is based on the allegory of building a city in which worthy women are to reside. The construction of the city is an image for Christine’s writing about women. Her task is guided by the three female allegorical personifications of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, who command her to “take the trowel of your pen” and “mix the mortar in your ink bottle” to build the City of Ladies.

The Book of the City of Ladies is divided into three sections or books. The first sets up the frame for the allegory by situating Christine in her study reading a misogynistic book. Her allegorical guides appear to her as she contemplates the implications of the depiction of women by male authors. With the aid of the personification of Reason, Christine narrates the lives of women who made positive contributions in various ways and thus lays both the allegorical foundation of the city and the literal foundation of her literary work.

In the second book, Rectitude becomes Christine’s guide. The image of city building is continued as the city walls are finished, edifices are built, and the city is populated. Justice guides Christine’s work in the third book, where the high towers are completed and inhabited by the Virgin Mary, the queen of the city, and by a host of female saints.

This framework provides a narrative scaffolding for a series of biographical sketches of women drawn from antiquity and from French history up to the time when Christine was writing, just after 1400. Christine arranges the lives of these women by topics introduced as queries to the allegorical guides. As Christine asks about subjects such as women’s strength, their contributions to the sciences, and their faithfulness in marriage, Reason, Rectitude, and Justice illustrate women’s conduct with examples drawn from particular women’s lives. In effect, The Book of the City of Ladies is a collective biography of famous women united within the allegorical convention of building a city.

Christine drew on many sources to create The Book of the City of Ladies. The idea of an allegorical vision was used in such medieval literary works as Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae(c. 523; The Consolation of Philosophy; late ninth century), in which Lady Philosophy, who is similar to Reason, is his guide; Dante’s La divina commedia(c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802); and Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung’s Le Roman de la rose (thirteenth century; The Romance of the Rose, 1900) that Christine criticizes. The tripartite structure was also used frequently in medieval literature, for example in The Divine Comedy, which Christine acknowledges as one of her models. The image of a city was developed in one of the most influential works of early medieval theology, St. Augustine’s De civitate Dei(412-427; The City of God, 1610).

The biographies of women for the most part come from stories that were retold many times from antiquity through the Middle Ages. Christine especially drew on the fourteenth century author Giovanni Boccaccio, who had written a collective Concerning Famous Women (c. 1361-1375). The saints’ lives came from compendia such as Vincent of Beauvais’ thirteenth century French encyclopedic history, Speculum historiale. This reliance on sources should not obscure the originality of Christine’s composition. From a twenty-first century perspective, what seems like borrowing or compiling from other sources, drawing on traditional sources, was precisely what medieval writers were expected to do. It was not a question of inventing original material but rather of demonstrating what they could do with preexistent material.

Christine reworks her sources to emphasize women’s positive qualities and contributions. As she recounts incidents in the lives of women, she recasts the narratives derived from Boccaccio, Ovid, and others. In her description of Queen Semiramis of Assyria, for example, she focuses on the queen’s strength in military campaigns and governing her territories, while downplaying an incident of incest with her son. Christine’s topical rearrangement of her material enables her to address such universal issues of concern as rape.

Feminist readings of The Book of the City of Ladies have criticized Christine for her conservative stance on the French political situation in the early fifteenth century, her acceptance of the social hierarchy, and her emphasis on female submissiveness to husbands. These criticisms fail to account for the historical context in which Christine wrote. Because her ability to support herself depended on patronage from the nobility, her criticism of the political and social order of her times had to be muted and contained within the prevalent code of conduct.

One of the few female voices in the Middle Ages to be expressed directly through writing, Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies is an important literary achievement. Through the well-sustained allegorical structure and the subtle reworking of sources, Christine created a literary work that stands on its own merits and redresses the misogynistic imbalance created by the preponderance of male authors in the Middle Ages.

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