Sunday, April 1, 2012

"Now it is time for their just cause to be taken from Pharoah's hands, . . ."


. . . and for this reason, we three ladies whom you see here, moved by pity, have come to you to announce a particular edifice built like a city wall, strongly constructed and well founded, which has been predestined and established by our aid and counsel for you to build, where no one will reside except all ladies of fame and women worthy of praise, for the walls of the city will be closed to those women who lack virtue." (10-11)

Christine de Pizan (1363-c. 1430) was Venetian-born French author and scholar. Following the death of her husband in 1390 she turned to writing to support herself and her three children, possibly making her Europe's first professional female writer. While best known for her poetry, Christine also composed intellectual treatises and enjoyed royal patronage in both France and England. She was also famous for openly attacking the misogyny of her day, especially as it appeared in the works of male authors, leading many in recent years to proclaim her the first feminist in Western history. Christine often sought out female collaborators for her works, including a manuscript illuminator known only as Anastasia.

Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies) was written in 1405 in vernacular French with Latin syntax and conventions. It grew out of Christine's ongoing response to Jean de Meun's The Romance of the Rose, which depicted woman as little more than lustful seducers. Still, as Christine notes at the start of her work, The Romance of the Rose was but one example of the continued vilification of women in the practically all-male Western canon. Women - according to innumerable philosophers, poets, theologians, scholars, and so forth - are relentless gossips, childish, vain, greedy, capricious, disloyal, and licentious predators. Unlike the male reader, Christine does not have the luxury of being able to select a book for light entertainment and expect not to be hurt and attacked. The Book of the City of Ladies is precipitated by just such an event: a book by one Mathéolus that she happened to pick up only to be confronted by all manner of slander against women. Christine internalizes his message and feels ashamed of herself for being of such a degraded sex.

As with Dante (c. 1265-1321), Christine is a character in her own work and initially introduced as having strayed from the true path into darkness and confusion. If it were not so that women are such contemptible creatures, she argues to herself, then so many esteemed men would not have made such pronouncements against them. Her Virgil-like figures who arrive to guide her in her hour of need are three heavenly beings called Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice who suddenly materialize in her study.
"Dear daughter, do not be afraid, for have come not to harm or trouble you but to console you, for we have taken pity on your distress, and we have come to bring you out of your ignorance which so blinds your own intellect that you shun what you know for a certainty and believe what you do not know or see or recognize except by virtue of many strange opinions. You resemble the fool in the prank who was dressed in women's clothes while he slept; because those who were making fun of him repeatedly told him he was a woman, he believed their false testimony more readily than the certainty of his own identity. Fair daughter, have you lost all sense?" (6)
They propose the construction of an indestructible City of Ladies, stronger and more glorious than any city that has come before it, and shelter to the legions of great women who have lived throughout Christian and Classical history. For medieval thinkers like Christine and Dante, the city was the epitome of civilized life. The city of Dis in the Dante's Fifth Circle of Hell is the aberration of something noble, particularly in the context of St. Augustine's writings on the City of Man vs. the City of God. The former is merely the temporal, imperfect representation on earth of the heavenly order, governed by laws and dependent on the goodwill of its citizens toward one another. Christine's conception of a City of Ladies is akin to the City of God in this respect, a subtle emphasis on the divine qualities of the female sex contrary to what is often said of them in Western literature and society.


The Book of the City of Ladies is an example of medieval allegorical writing, usually manifested as a dialogue between the author and imaginary characters who represent virtues or other abstract notions. The construction of the City of Ladies in this way serves as the framing device for a long stream of supporting evidence to counter the claims of misogynist men. The bulk of Christine's work is a series of anecdotes recited by the three Ladies which compose the metaphorical walls and building blocks of her eternal city. Thus, the allegorical city is the means to return voice to the voiceless and preserve for posterity the achievements of extraordinary women.* In medieval Christian tradition, the Word, or logos, is associated with light and order, and the path out of the dark wood of error and irrationality. In fact, etymology of our word "fame" comes from the Greek/Latin words meaning "to speak." Despite the strongly Christian foundation of her work, Christine presents Christian and pagan women in equal light, thereby emphasizing female goodness as innate and universal. Many of her heroines are derived from Classical mythology, which she incorporates into the Christian worldview just as Dante did in The Divine Comedy. Goddesses such as Minerva are portrayed as real human women of such greatness that they were deified by pre-Christian peoples.

Although the litany of anecdotes eventually grows monotonous it is interesting to note the values dissonance between Christine's medieval proto-feminism and the secular feminism of modern times. In response to charges of women's capriciousness we are given tales of wives whose husbands put them through all sorts of horrible trials to test their faithfulness. We have one woman, for example, who allowed her husband to kill both their children (they were actually hidden away at their aunt's estate) and then cast her aside and force her attend his wedding to his new bride (who was actually their daughter - he was about to end the charade). That she did not flee him or retaliate in any way and continued to treat him with kindness and respect is supposed to demonstrate the qualities of a dutiful and persevering wife. Many of the anecdotes concern women who endure Christ-like suffering, often at the hands of men, and are praised for their lack of any backbone whatsoever. Their role models are the female martyrs of the early Church who joyfully submitted to gruesome tortures and whose stories form the climax of Christine's book as the City's chosen residents. (This also further links the City of Ladies to the heavenly City of God.) We do hear a great deal about female warriors and leaders but those who acted independently of male relatives - most notably the Amazons - were the pagans of yore.

On the other hand, we do hear of female intellectuals whose cerebral feats more than match those of their male counterparts, which really slaps down any insult to women's intelligence. The affirmation of women as thinkers and scholars was doubtlessly of great importance to Christine, whose livelihood depended on her legitimacy as a writer. Regardless of how they are meant to relate to men socially, Christine is firm in her convictions that women possess equal capacity when given the proper education and opportunities. Her own career is proof.

As an early work of female scholarship, The Book of the City of Ladies probably has more historical value than usefulness in attacking misogyny in the twenty-first century. As demonstrated above, much of Christine promotes as the paragons of virtuous womanhood contradicts the principles valued by feminism today: assertiveness, self-reliance, nonconformity, and the willingness to fight rather than submit to injustice. Given the cultural context in which Christine was writing, however, the suffering women can perhaps be viewed ironically, as the true face of women subordinated by a patriarchal order intent on maligning them, and whose deliverance is only possible through chance or God's will. In short, the book is a cultural artifact. It is nevertheless significant as a woman's literary achievement in a time when female education was neglected and few women could even read. Its sequel, The Treasure of the City of Ladies, came out shortly afterwards to showcase the impact of women's speech and actions in their everyday lives, particularly in the promotion of peace.

The first English translation of The Book of the City of Ladies was published in 1521 by Brian Anslay as Boke of the Cyte of Ladyes. It was largely neglected over the next 450 years until Earl Jeffrey Richards released his modern English translation in 1982.

* From the Marina Warner's foreword to the 1982 edition by Persea Books.




A Year of Feminist Classics is a project started by Amy, Ana, Emily Jane and Iris, four book bloggers who share an interest in the feminist movement and its history. The project will work a little like an informal reading group: for all of 2012, we will each month read what we consider to be a central feminist text, with one of us being in charge of the discussion. . . What we hope to achieve is to gain a better historical understanding of the struggle for gender equality, as well as a better awareness of how the issues discussed in these now classic texts are still relevant in our times. We welcome all voices and perspectives, and we would love it if you joined in and added your own.

3 comments:

Amy said...

Loved reading your fantastic review of the work. One of my thoughts reading it was how terribly I would have fared in her time period. Being a dutiful wife or woman did not at all sound fun, from the examples she gave!

Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary on this work!

By coincidence I am in the process of reading this work at the moment. Though early in the book I have been pleasantly surprised by several aspects of Christine’s Di Pizans’s thinking. While some of her views on Feminism may be outdated I am struck by other modern ideas that she presents. One example is her admonition to read a book based on ones own interpretation and not necessarily the authors.

I will be sure to visit the Feminist Classics blog when I have completed this.

Parrish Lantern said...

Just here to wish you the best for this season & the coming year.

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