The Book of the City of Ladies

by Christine de Pizan
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

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.

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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 primarily from Boccaccio’s collection of tales about famous women, De mulieribus claris, and serve as the stones with which to construct the foundation and walls of the allegorical city.

In the second part, Christine begins to build the houses of her city and to populate them with women whose virtues and special powers have gained them wide recognition: prophets (Greek, Roman, and biblical), daughters who exhibited prodigious filial devotion, and wives who demonstrated extraordinary love for their husbands—even husbands much older than themselves. Narrated by Lady Rectitude, or “Right Behavior,” with interjections and questions from Christine, these examples refute the common misogynist notions that women are inconstant in love, cannot keep secrets, are incapable of giving good advice, only contribute to the ills of humankind, are naturally greedy, and want to be raped. This portion of the text closes with an invitation from Christine addressed to all women of virtue—past, present, and future—to rejoice for the establishment of their “honorable lodging.”

The third division of the allegory introduces the women who are given the residences of honor in the City of Ladies: The Virgin Mary is named queen, and her entourage is composed of Mary Magdalene, female saints and martyrs, women who witnessed the martyrdom of their children, and other saintly women. These stories are narrated by Lady Justice, who then gives the city to “all honorable ladies who love glory, virtue and praise” as a refuge and defense against their enemies. A long segment is devoted to Saint Catherine and is followed by an interruption in the allegory as the author steps out of her literary persona and addresses an intimate prayer to her patron saint. The book concludes with an admonition to all women to be all the more virtuous and humble, to be wary of deception, to be well-informed, and to flee “foolish love,” which can only cause physical and spiritual harm.

Context

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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

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*Paris

*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. Reason helps Christine with the ditches, foundations, and walls by refuting the misogynistic claims of male authors and by reporting on a long list of powerful and inventive women. Rectitude helps her lay out streets, build edifices, and populate the place by reciting a litany of worthy and virtuous women who were seers, loving and faithful wives, saviors of their nations, well educated, chaste, and who loved overmuch. Roofs of gold, as well as a queen, are provided by Lady Justice, in the forms of female saints and the Virgin Mary. Like the City of God of St. Augustine, Christine’s city is a community of virtuous people past and present, whose personal qualities segregate them from the common fold.

Amazonia

Amazonia. Vibrant empire ruled and defended by women. Located by tradition and by Christine in southwestern Russia (Scythia), Amazonia has deep roots in Western mythology. Christine uses it as a fount of powerful, exemplary women, as an example of a place ruled successfully by women, and as a fully female society like that of her own city, which surpasses it.

*Rome

*Rome. Ancient capital of the Roman Empire. True to her culture, Christine finds many of her heroines in the ancient city of Rome. Even this early in the Renaissance much was known of the valor and virtue of ancient Roman men and women, as celebrated by their historians, especially Livy. Rome’s special place in Western culture as the root of both secular and Christian empires made the stories of her chaste maidens, bold matrons, and female martyrs especially compelling.

*Troy (Ilium)

*Troy (Ilium). Ancient city celebrated by Homer and Vergil and discovered in western Turkey by Heinrich Schliemann in the late nineteenth century. Troy provides Christine with a number of heroic women, both on the battlefield (Penthesilea) and within the walls. Christine seems to compare Troy’s foundation and fate with those of her city.

*Carthage

*Carthage. Powerful ancient city-state, located on the coast of northern Africa in what is now Tunisia, and enemy of the young Roman republic. According to Christine, Carthage was founded by its female ruler, Dido. It serves as backdrop to Christine’s recounting of Queen Dido’s career.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 537

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 terms of modern psychology. The author includes a defense of Christine against present-day detractor Sheila Delany and a discussion of Le Livre des trois vertus (1406; The Book of the Three Virtues), also known as The Treasure of the City of Ladies, Christine’s sequel to The Book of the City of Ladies.

Richards, Earl Jeffrey, trans. The Book of the City of the Ladies. New York: Persea Books, 1982. A modern English translation of Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies. Contains a substantial introduction to the work and helpful notes on the text.

Richards, Earl Jeffrey, ed. Reinterpreting Christine de Pizan. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992. A collection of essays about the literary works of Christine de Pizan, several of which focus on The Book of the City of Ladies.

Willard, Charity Cannon. Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works. New York: Persea Books, 1984. An extensive biography that contains thorough summaries of her works and documents Christine’s long and ardent involvement in the Quarrel of the Rose. The chapter entitled “A Feminine Utopia” examines the contents of The Book of the City of Ladies, its sources and its relationship to the corpus of Christine’s works. Numerous manuscript illuminations are reproduced in black and white.

Willard, Charity Cannon. “The Franco-Italian Professional Writer Christine de Pizan.” In Medieval Women Writers, edited by Katharina M. Wilson. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. A concise introduction to the life and works of Christine, this essay by one of the leading authorities on Christine de Pizan contains a brief summary and evaluation of the contents of The Book of the City of Ladies, twelve pages of abstracts from the 1982 English translation by Earl Jeffrey Richards, elucidating notes, and a substantial bibliography.

Yenal, Edith. Christine de Pizan: A Bibliography. 2d ed. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1989. An extensive bibliography on Christine de Pizan. The section on The Book of the City of Ladies contains entries on primary manuscript sources as well as secondary books and articles.

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