Form and Content
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 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.
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...
(The entire section is 2,008 words.)