The Book of the City of the Ladies

The daybreak of feminism

(Versión en Español aquí)


Christine de Pizan was studying at home, like many other nights, when she ran into Matheolus’s Lamentations. At first, she was completely sure that all the misogynistic statements of the book were nothing but nonsense, but then, she remembered some other great writers and philosophers who said the same things. Hence, she wondered whether she was wrong in her perception of women, being herself one of them. This thought made her fall in despair. At that point, the Three Virtues (Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude and Lady Justice) appeared to Christine to help her see that she was not the wrong one and build a city. One where any woman in the same situation of Christine could go and seek for refuge. This way, a long conversation between the Three Virtues and Christine started, where they refuted and explained all the male chauvinist ideas of that time.

Introduction to the book and influences

Firstly, I ought to mention that this book was written between the end of the year 1404 and the beginning of 1405. Even though it is more than five hundred years old, some of the topics treated are still ongoing and the perspective with which they are treated is very progressive, even for today’s society. Nevertheless, we cannot forget when the book was written, as some other ideas could look old-fashioned to us, but they were a complete breakthrough at the time.

The title of the book (in French just The City of Ladies) is a clear reference to the book The City of God, written by Saint Augustine. Even the concept of Christine´s work is clearly influenced by Saint Augustine’s, where he makes a defence of the Christianity by confronting a Christian city against a pagan one, and uses this to explain theological ideas. Christine also receives a strong influence from the exempla, books that started to become popular a couple of centuries before with the aim of lecture the reader in matters of faith. We see that the Book of the City of the Ladies drinks from centuries of theological thought to refute the sexist ideas spread mainly by the Church. As a matter of fact, Christine uses one of the major theological authorities, one of the four Doctors of the Church, to precisely dismantle the reasoning of bishops and priests, and even those of the same Doctor. It is simply brilliant.

The first thing that caught my attention when I started the book was the fact that almost all women that appear there were personalities of Ancient History , Christian or pagan. I was expecting for a collection of women contemporary to Christine, I was hoping to discover a lot of unknown women of the Renaissance. There is indeed a moment when Christine explicitly says that not only foreigners are to enter the city, and she mentions some contemporary women that she considers equal to the other she has mentioned before. This, however, is not a big part of the book. Why, if there were contemporary women who could serve as an example to refute these sexist ideas, does Christine refer to women so distant in time? Even though at first this was shocking, I can now understand that the impact of the book would have been smaller had Christine not used these figures.

First of all, being able to show this degree of knowledge of history, Greek and Roman mythology, biblical stories and the like gives Christine authority. She is not a woman saying that her neighbours are good people, she is a scholar giving us hundreds of examples that show how the established ideas are a nonsense.

Besides, bishops and theologist often used mythological or biblical examples to build sexist arguments, like Judith´s story or the myth of the Gorgon which we will discuss later. It makes sense to use the same source as the people she wants to refute. Same as she did with the simile with Saint Augustine’s book, Christine is showing her ability to pick up the weapons used against women and use them in their favour.

We also have to take into account that she wrote the book in the Renaissance, when Roman culture and mythology were in the spotlight. Also, the value of these figures was unquestionable, so she could avoid any kind of clash of interests with the examples she is making to refute an idea. In addition, she is showing that women have been subdued to the same pressure since the beginning of time, and it is not related with their attitude or their religion.

Finally, Christine is also able to turn over some myths which were used to support the idea that women were evil. She reinterprets them to also show that a misogynistic interpretation is not the only way to see the world. Christine’s value as a historian by interpreting, analysing and reinterpreting myths and stories is incalculable. Besides, she is able to use all of it to defend her ideas, creating a book that after more than five hundred years is still on point.

Some of the themes treated

Due to the huge number of subjects treated in the book, I am not going to go in-depth in all of them. I will focus only in those I find more interesting. Nevertheless, I shall also mention some other themes treated, just to let us have an idea of what we will find in the book.

The book is divided into three parts, the three conversations with Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude and Lady Justice. Reason personified as a woman is an initial allegory to break down the idea that women were purely emotional beings and that they were unable to think logically, unable to use reason. It already shows us that Lady Reason will be in the charge of building the foundation of the City, i.e. she will be in the charge of breaking the main ideas society has about women. In this conversation, Lady Reason and Christine speak about why men want to slander the group of women. They mention some books which were specifically written to speak about how mean women are or even about the bad functioning of women’s bodies. Lady Reason points out that the fact that men did not allow women to read these books is an argument per se about how unconvincing these statements are, as any person who reads these books and knows a little bit about women would realise about the absurdity of what’s written.

Also, in this first part, Christine puts in the centre of stage the abilities that women are supposed not to have, such as intelligence, braveness, strength, leadership, creativity, … She fills the book with women who have every single one of these skills. Here again, I was surprised that most of the examples of good rulers are from Middle East or Merovingian Frank queens. It may have something to do with the fact that preislamic civilizations were matriarchies. Merovingian Frank society, on the other hand, was not a matriarchy, but their legislative body was not very developed, so the power of personal influence was sometimes higher than the power of a title. That left some accessible power for those women intelligent and ambitious enough who also had the luck of being born in a wealthy family; we can see examples of this in the figure of the «Queen Mother», a very respected figure who, in times of uncertainty or when there were weak kings, had complete power.

I think one of the arguments with Lady Reason is a good example of the mood of the book: Christine asks Lady Reason if there is some sense in the saying “women are only good for talking, crying and knitting.” Against all odds, the answer of Lady Reason is that the saying is completely true. Nevertheless, she also explains why those are not characteristics to be ashamed of, but on the contrary skills to be proud of. Lady Reason shows several examples (all of them biblical) where a woman got the favor of Jesuschrist over any man because of her tears or her talk (such as the Samaritan woman, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany…). In this way, Christine chooses to praise female characteristics instead of rejecting them.

The second part of the book is the conversation with Lady Rectitude, a rhetoric figure created by Christine. In French, Christine chooses to call her Droiture and not Rectitude like in the English translation, as rectitude can be associated with religious rigidity, and she wanted to avoid that. Droit means straight, erect and so Droiture is a reference to the straight lines of the buildings that form the City, which in this analogy is a reference to the persistence and the good sense. In the conversation with Lady Rectitude, they discuss about the skills of the women who will be allowed to enter the city: filial, maternal and conjugal love, persistency, chastity and fidelity among many others. Christine also makes a statement in defence of marriage, and she tells us that she had a happy marriage full of respect, although she is aware that she was incredibly lucky for that. Again, by defencing marriage and those skills, Christine is praising characteristics associated to women. Even though she is constantly speaking about examples of women who do not conform to the stereotypes, she choses to recognise women as a collective with common qualities that are different from those of men, and she decides to make a case for these skills.

In this part, Christine also speaks about abuse and rape. When she is speaking about marriage, Christine says that there are women who have to suffer abuse from their husbands in a daily basis, and she lauds those women that continue with their role as a wife and mother in the family unity, as they are able to leave their sorrow and choose the maternal and conjugal love instead. This is obviously something crazy to say today, (please, if somebody is in this situation you have to get out of there, ask for help and leave as soon as possible*) but in 1405 it was a complete break down with all the ideas they had. Firstly, Christine is showing the reality that some women have to live in, and also, she is making the statement that, even though the situation is brutal for them, those women chose to honour the sacrament of marriage. With this, she is stressing again that women are persistent, full of maternal and conjugal love, and that they are true to their responsibilities as Christians, honouring the will of God.

The ideas Christine presents about rape could form part of a book written today. First of all, she refutes the idea that women do enjoy being raped by showing examples of women who committed suicide after being raped. The most interesting example is that of Lucrecia’s rape which led into the fall of Roman Monarchy. With this example, Christine also makes the point that clothes or attitude have nothing to do with being raped, as Tarquinius met Lucrecia when she was knitting with her slaves, wearing demure clothes and she did not even notice Tarquinius presence. This last point is also addressed to women who believe that whenever they maintain the “proper” attitude they will not suffer vexations from men.

Christine also makes the point that we should not judge a woman because she wants to feel beautiful. As an example of how appearance should not be judged she speaks about Bartholomew the Apostle. He enjoyed dressing in silk, and this fact has nothing to do with all the good acts performed by him when he was following Jesus. I think she makes an interesting point here, and it is related with nowadays society, where the title “feminist” is given or taken according to whether you decide to wear make-up or wax yourself, same as the title of “respectable women”, which is more related with the length of the skirt.

Before going to the third part, I would like to speak about the reinterpretations of biblical or mythological stories made by Christine. There are more than those I mention within the book, but I am going to focus on two of them: The story of Judith and the story of the Gorgon, both used to make the point of how evil and dangerous women are.

So, the legend of Judith tells us that, trying to stop the siege of Betulia, her home city, Judith seduced Holofernes, the leader of the enemy army. After getting him drunk, she cut his head off. It is clear how this story was used to warn men against beautiful women. Nevertheless, Christine focuses on how brave was Judith, as she risked her life by going to the enemy camp and seducing Holofernes. She also focuses on the wittiness of Judith. Besides, she stresses the fact that God was with Judith, as she succeeded with her plan, and so, she saved God´s chosen people. Then, Christine presents Judith as a hero, and not as an evil seductress. About the Gorgone, a figure that was used to warn men against women seductive weapons, Christine explains that the origin of this myth was a woman with such deep eyes that made all who look at them to stop breathing for a moment, and due to jealousy people made up the legend.

In the third part of the book, Justice shows Christine who is going to rule the city and who shall be living in the most beautiful towers: the Virgin Mary and all the (female) Saints. It is only logical that is Justice who should speak about this, as at that time justice was linked with religion. Again, Christine is sending a message to the Church: now the city is full and ruled by worshiped women.

Finally, I think is very interesting to mention that the book is full of Christine´s monologues where she demands to those ungrateful men to shut up and to stop slandering women. In these one can appreciate the weariness and the unease Christine is feeling:

[…]Let them be silent! Let them be silent from now on, those writers who malign women and who talk about them in their books and poems. Let them be silent, all their accomplices and supporters! They should lower their eyes in shame for having dare to express criticism in the face of the truth, which contradicts their words […]

It is worth saying that she always mentions priests and bishops in these parts, so we can see that in her eyes they lead the oppression against women.

To finish

To finish this entrance of the blog, I would like to leave some parts of the last chapter of the book:

Most honourable ladies, praise be to God: The construction of our city is finally at an end. All of you who love virtue, glory and a fine reputation can now be lodged in great splendour inside its walls, not just women of the past but also those of the present and the future, for this city has been founded and built to accommodate all deserving women. My dearest ladies, the human heart is naturally filled with joy when it sees that it has triumphed in a particular endeavour and has defeated its enemies. From this moment on, my ladies, you have every reason to rejoice -in a suitable devout and respectable manner- at seeing the completion of this new city. It will not only shelter you all, or rather those of you who have proved yourselves to be worthy, but will also defend and protect you against your attackers and assailants, provided you look after it well. For you can see this is made of virtuous material which shines so brightly that you can gaze at your reflections in it, especially the lofty turrets that were built in this final part of the book […]

I would like to finish the post by thanking Christine de Pizan for everything she started, even though today is still not near the end, and thanks to Victor for all our conversations that little by little are helping me to build my little city.