Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Written in 1405 by the daughter of an Italian astrologer attached to the court of France, The Book of the City of Ladies: A Fifteenth-Century Defense of Women is Christine de Pizan’s retelling of universal history from a feminist as well as a late medieval perspective. The work is an extensive, three-part prose allegory developed in accordance with established conventions of classical rhetoric—a form considered by Christine’s contemporaries to be accessible only to formally educated male writers.

The three sections of the book are clearly delineated by such phrases as “Here begins the book second part” and “Here begins the book third part.” In part 1 Christine, alone in her study and saddened by the many disparaging remarks against women that she has found in her reading, is visited by three ladies: Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Each of these allegorical figures becomes the respective narrator of a section of the book.

Reassured by Lady Reason that these negative concepts of women are in direct contradiction to the truth, Christine is charged with the task of building a fortified city for all good ladies. Using the medieval practice of offering exempla, Reason recounts stories of renowned female military leaders such as the Amazons, a community of women warriors of considerable physical strength. A second group of illustrations presents women of great mental prowess. The stories are encapsulations of narratives drawn...

(The entire section is 549 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Christine de Pizan is a seminal figure in feminist studies. Considered by many to be the earliest professional woman writer, she was also the first to write a book for women about women. In The Book of the City of Ladies, she addresses problems which are still of primary concern today: the belittlement of women, defamation of the gender, discrimination, brutality, and rape. In the arguments of Lady Reason, she seeks not only to destroy established misogynist notions but also to allow women to look into Reason’s allegorical “mirror” in order to see a true image of themselves—in every way the equal of men.

Until the recent reinterpretation of Christine’s works, The Book of the City of Ladies was considered a mere translation or, at best, a gloss of Boccaccio. Researchers now see the book as a clever reworking of Boccaccio’s own material for the purpose of invalidating the negative concept of women implicit in it, a literary technique that reappears in the seventeenth century with Blaise Pascal’s refutation of casuistry in Provinciales (1656-1657). For such critics as Earl Jeffrey Richards and Maureen Quilligan, the book indicates Christine’s involvement in the Quarrel of the Rose, a debate originating with Jean de Meun’s misogynistic remarks in his continuation of Guillaume de Lorris’ thirteenth century epic, The Romance of the Rose. Critics Eleni Stecopolous and Karl Uitti see the process as “positive mythic restoration.”

The works of Christine de Pizan are now part of the standard canon of French literature, women’s literature, and women’s studies programs. Because The Book of the City of Ladies was first published in English, her impact as a feminist has been greatest on the English-speaking world. Although there are detractors who criticize her for advising women to be humble and wives to remain subject to their husbands, her admirers continue to accrue. There is now a Christine de Pizan Society, which regularly publishes a newsletter and boasts an international membership.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Paris. France’s capital city and Christine’s home. Parisian society of her time is typically misogynist, or antifeminist at best, with its attitudes fed by religious, philosophical, and cultural arguments against the virtue and worthiness of women. Numerous examples of worthy women in Christine’s recitations derive from French history. This probably serves to support the traditio theory, whereby ancient Rome’s greatness was translated to Christian France.

Christine’s study

Christine’s study. Surrounded by books on all kinds of subjects, while “solitary and separated from the world,” the widowed Christine ponders the role of women in western intellectual and literary history. Her visitations by the allegorical ladies are not a matter of a dream, but of a conscious struggle against the social prejudices of her age, as symbolized by her own books. She is thus both isolated from the world’s opinions, yet intimately fenced in by them.

City of Ladies

City of Ladies. The “city” that Christine is to build with her pen (“mix the mortar in your ink bottle”) will be gorgeous, peerless, everlasting, ever prosperous and unconquerable. Each of Christine’s three visitors provides her with a long list of examples of worthy women with whom she is to build the city. It is to be constructed on the flat, well-watered, fertile, and fruitful Field of Letters....

(The entire section is 590 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Curnow, Maureen Cheney. “‘La Pioche d’Inquisition’: Legal-Judicial Content and Style in Christine de Pizan’s Livre de la cité des dames.” In Reinterpreting Christine de Pizan, edited by Earl Jeffrey Richards et al. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992. Curnow finds much evidence that the author’s fourteen-year involvement in legal battles exposed her to a lexicon and style of argument which served her well in The Book of the City of Ladies.

Kellogg, Judith L. “Le Livre de la cité des dames: Feminist Myth and Community.” Essays in Arts and Sciences 18 (May, 1989): 1-15. In this essay, which details Christine’s reworking of examples borrowed from Boccaccio, The Book of the City of Ladies is presented as a feminist revision of the mythographic tradition—the Christian allegorization of history and myth.

Quilligan, Maureen. The Allegory of Female Authority: Christine de Pizan’s “Cité des dames.” Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. Drawing on her extensive research in the field of medieval allegory, Quilligan goes through each part of the book offering an in-depth commentary which often suggests Christine’s purpose in choosing certain tales to include in the work, indicates sociopolitical views intimated in the text, and expresses Christine’s ideas in...

(The entire section is 537 words.)