Book of the City of Ladies, The

Book of the City of Ladies, The
(Le Livre de Cité des dames)
   by Christine de Pizan
   In one of her most famous treatises, The Book of the City of Ladies, the French “feminist” writer Christine de Pizan (1364–1429 or 1430) powerfully responded to the vitriolic mockery of women initiated by Jean de Montreuil, royal secretary and provost of Lille, after he had read JEAN DE MEUN’s ROMAN DE LA ROSE in 1401 and had written an enthusiastic essay defending this late-medieval encyclopedic and allegorical ROMANCE initially begun by GUILLAUME DE LORRIS. Jean was supported by the brothers Gontier and Pierre Col, who also admired Jean de Meun’s erudition. The conflict turned into a veritable querelle des femmes (quarrel about women), in which, however, Christine was not alone in her defense of women, since the influential chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, defended her position.
   After having written a number of poems and letters defending women, Christine finally composed her Book of the City of Ladies (1405), which was deeply inspired by the French translation of BOCCACCIO’s De Claribus Mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women, ca. 1375). Christine reiterates the numerous examples of virtuous and admirable ladies from the past and present, and also adds many modern personalities to support her case for women. As early as 1399, in her poem L’Epistre au dieu d’amours (Letter of the god of love), Christine had unmistakably stated that misogynous opinions about women dominated the literary world only because a vast majority of men were responsible for the production of literature. The Book of the City of Ladies, composed virtually at the end of the public quarrel, obviously appealed to a wide audience, as documented by 27 surviving full French manuscripts and fragments, as well as by a Flemish (1475) and an English translation (1521). The Book of the City of Ladies drew its fundamental imagery from St. AUGUSTINE’s CITY OF GOD and specifically attacked the highly popular, but vehemently misogynist Liber lamentationum Matheolulu (ca. 1295) by Matheolus (or Mathieu of Boulogne) and translated into French by Jeahn le Fèvre, ca. 1371–72. Christine argues that all people— both men and women—are subject to human sinfulness and can find salvation only by striving toward virtue and by fleeing the bodily prison. Employing the use of ALLEGORY, Christine utilizes a trope from the New Testament (Luke 1:38), the annunciation to the Virgin Mary, for a legitimization of her own writing,which associates her with God’s mother. Three figures, Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice, appear to the narrator and commission her to build a literary city where women can find a refuge from male persecutions, or misogyny. In highly learned dialogues, these ladies answer Christine’s questions as to why men criticize the female sex. Reason, for instance, points out that some men are “themselves steeped in sin, some because of a bodily impediment, some out of sheer envy, and some quite simply because they naturally take delight in slandering others” (Christine 1999, 18). Christine also learns that Ovid, among many others, was driven to slandering women because “he was so licentious, both in the way he carried on and in the encouragement he gave to others to do the same, he was finally sent into exile” as a castrated criminal (Christine 1999, 21). In subsequent chapters the question is raised why women have regularly and systematically been unjustly excluded from public service and official roles. Reason points out that there have always been women who acquired the highest degree of learning, and women who displayed the most advanced degree of good judgment. For each aspect of women’s ability equal to that of men we are given a number of examples, both from mythology and antiquity, demonstrating that the notion of women’s total limitation to the domestic sphere is entirely erroneous considering many ruling women both past and present. In the second book, Lady Rectitude instructs Christine how to erect the houses and buildings within the City of Ladies, and illustrates this with a long and detailed list of virtuous, honorable, and loving women, again drawing the examples from antiquity and the early Middle Ages. In the third book, Lady Justice describes what religiously inspired women inhabit the City of Ladies, beginning with the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, then turning to female martyrs such as Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret, and Saint Lucy, and to many other female saints. In her conclusion, Christine admonishes all married women to accept their status and to love their husbands, whether they are kind or cruel, good-natured or sinful. She also advises girls to be “pure and modest, timid and steadfast,” and to arm themselves “with strength and virtue against the deceitful ways of seducers” (Christine 1999, 239). Addressing widows and all other women, she urges them to guard their honor and to protect their virtues against attacks by men. This City of Ladies will be populated only by women who “pursue virtue and shun vice” (Christine 1999, 239). Far removed from modern feminist approaches, Christine idealizes the demure but steadfast lady who understands the limits of her political, economic, and hence public influence, but also knows how to defend herself against male seductions and denunciations and to stake her own sphere at home. Nevertheless, Christine insists on women’s equality with men in intellectual, artistic, and literary terms. Moreover, she claims that women in their roles as wives and royal consorts would be fully entitled to assume highly responsible political functions as rulers and judges, but also, by the same token, as heads of their families at every level of life. Christine also uncovers deep-seated patriarchal prejudice against women as heirs to a family line and exposes unjustified male objections to women’s education and leadership. The Cité des dames proves to be a masterpiece of medieval feminist writing, which successfully deconstructed most contemporary misogynist positions and became a beacon of women’s liberation.
   ■ Altmann, Barbara K., and Deborah L. McGrady. Christine de Pizan: A Casebook. New York: Routledge, 2003.
   ■ Blamires, Alcuin. The Case for Women in Medieval Culture. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
   ■ Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate, and Kevin Browlee, trans. The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan. Edited by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski.New York: Norton, 1997.
   ■ Christine de Pizan. The Book of the City of Ladies. Translated with an introduction and notes by Rosalind Brown-Grant. London: Penguin, 1999.
   ■ ———. Le livre de la cité des dames. Edited by Eric Hicks and Thérèse Moreau. Paris: Stock, 1996.
   ■ Hult, David R. “The Roman de la Rose, Christine de Pizan, and the querelle des femmes.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, edited by Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace, 184–194, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
   ■ Willard, Charity Cannon. Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works. New York: Persea Books, 1984.
   Albrecht Classen

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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