Book Reviews, Love, Sociocultural Phenomena

Christine de Pizan (1364 – c.1430), The Book of the City of Ladies, Paris, 1405

«In short, you women of all ranks, whether of noble, bourgeois, or lower birth, be ever vigilant and on your guard against the enemies of your honor and integrity! My ladies, see how men accuse you from all sides of so many vices. Make liars of all of them by proving your virtuousness. Beware of deceitful flatterers who try to steal your highest good, which is your honor and your immaculate reputation. Oh, my ladies, flee, flee from the foolish love they urge on you! For no good can come to you from it. Rather, rest assured that however deceptive their seductive lures, their end is always to your detriment.»[1] (Christine de Pizan, cited from the concluding paragraphs of The Book of the City of Ladies; Earl Jeffrey Richards, translator, New York: Persea Books, 1928)

The bud of women’s lib

Christine de Pizan’s pamphlet, published as a manuscript in Paris in 1405, was a cleverly orchestrated, highly sophisticated, and widely visible statement against the predominantly misogynistic narratives about women of the time. In it, she discusses the position of women and the more than unsatisfactory gender order in the society of her time. Drafted as a lively interchange with three virtues in as many sections, the author analyzes and debunks alleged female vices and weaknesses. Using «male» virtues as the benchmark, she insightfully and skillfully points out exemplary women in history, to go on and show how they have surpassed and transcended men. The result is an enjoyable compendium of all great women the world had so far seen at the time. Christine de Pizan’s work ultimately launched the «Querelle des Femmes», the centuries-long struggle for women’s equal rights.  

Can God be fallible?

«So I began to examine my character and conduct as a natural woman and, similarly, I considered other women whose company I frequently kept, women of diverse social backgrounds, who had graciously revealed to me their most private and intimate thoughts. … I nevertheless argued vehemently against women, because it was completely unthinkable to me that so many eminent men—such solemn scholars with such deep and great understanding, so clear-sighted in all things—could have spoken falsely about women on so many occasions…. And I finally decided that God had formed a vile creature when He made woman. As I was thinking this, a great unhappiness and sadness welled up in my heart, for I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were a monstrous error in nature. And in my sorrow I spoke these words: Oh God, how can this be? For unless I stray from my faith, I must never doubt that Your infinite wisdom and most perfect goodness ever created anything which was not good. It is unthinkable that you should have failed in the case of women, of all things!›» This is the author’s explanation for the motivation behind her work, which was published prior to the invention of printing and therefore written by her personally as an autograph. 

Christine de Pizan was born in Venice in 1364 as a daughter to Tommaso da Pizzano. Her family moved to Paris when she was an infant; her father was appointed astrologer and personal physician to King Charles V of France. She enjoyed an excellent education in Latin, literature, and mathematics. She wrote many works, both in prose and verse, mostly of a political, reformist, and educational nature, including a hymn-like poem to Joan of Arc composed shortly before her death. As was customary at the time, writers obtained sponsors for their works. Christine submitted this book to the wife of King Charles VI of France, Isabeau de Bavière.

Building the city of women

The Book of the City of Ladies was «rediscovered» only some 50 years ago, when its significance for our times was recognized. Of course, there were no «feminist» templates at the time, so the author made use of the conventions of her time and the material available to her. She referred to Boccaccio and his literary collection On Famous Women, for example, and she took inspiration from Petrarch and the church father Augustine for the depiction of herself as an early humanist scholar in the studiolo.  

The book is divided into three sections, which symbolize the city of women being built. The three construction phases of this moral fortress where peace and unity reign are each accompanied by an allegorical female figure—Reason, Rectitude, Justice—who dispute with the author about the supposed weaknesses and vices of women. The Three Virtues thoroughly and triumphantly disrupt all male arguments. Literally all female figures known at the time are used as positive role models: Warriors, scholars, inventors, poets, prophets, the Virgin Mary including any biblical protagonists, saints, martyrs, ancient goddesses, and generally virtuous female figures from antiquity to the present. Christine de Pizan thus creates an archive of all important women, mythological and real, and highlights their significance for human and cultural history.

Together we stand strong

It is with feigned naiveté that Christine asks the Three Virtues about such issues as women’s lack of chastity, their access to education, the accusation that women invite rape, female fickleness and inconstancy, and women’s infidelity in love. She finally asks Lady Rectitude, why none of all of these outstanding women has ever contradicted the books and the men who have spread slander about women. Lady Rectitude replies that it is because women, isolated as they are, have occupied their minds in various specialized works but have never joined to devote themselves to this matter together. Women themselves have never written a book to contradict the slander until now. To which Christine replies: «My lady, you have spoken quite well, but I am certain that many complaints will arise among the slanderers and detractors against this present work.»

[1] Keep in mind that any extramarital or premarital love affair at Christine de Pizan’s time inevitably had fatal consequences for women.

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