Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Emily Dockery on The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan

The Book of the City of Ladies was written by Christine de Pizan in 1405. This 1982 translation, by Earl Jeffrey Richards (revised 1998), is the first English translation since the mid-sixteenth century and therefore returns to the public eye the revolutionary writings of Christine de Pizan. She was raised in the French court and when widowed young and left with no means of support, she turned to her education, of which she had been naturally inclined, for her support by writing. The Book of the City of Ladies is an argument in favor of the abilities of women, or rather ladies (those who earn the title not through blood, but through their own merits and virtue) and against the condemnation of women by men. She uses the rhetorical device of a conversation, held in a vision, between herself and three ladies, by whom she was appointed to help build a city for ladies. The three ladies are Reason, Rectitude and Justice. Christine de Pizan uses her own voice as one of doubt and curiosity and one of the ladies replies with evidence of the “truth” of the nature of women while refuting the position of current male thought or previous male philosophical tenants on the nature of women. For her support against female misconceptions, Christine de Pizan uses Christian and pagan women throughout history and myths. She cites such women as the Sarah, Rebecca, and Ruth but also uses examples such as the Amazons, Penelope (wife of Odysseus) and gods, Ceres, Isis, and Minerva, to illustrate her opinions on the nature and role of women.
The following commentary will focus on selected portions of the book: the introduction, Reason and her final address to all ladies; further analysis for the remaining portions will be posted shortly. This book can be considered feminist for many reasons and for the this same reason it cannot adequately be categorized in another theme; in Christine’s rhetoric for the abilities and contributions of women, she considers all aspects and spheres of women’s lives, especially those spheres which men do not consider appropriate for women to inhabit. She discusses politics and governance with the lady, Reason. And her discussions range from women’s contribution to war by Minerva to the theological premise of women’s creation. Reason, posits, “Was it vile matter? No, it was the noblest substance which had ever been created: it was from the body of man from which God made women” (24). Christine turns what could be a negative argument against her cause in her favor. While misogynists might claim women were created second after men and thus make women more under men’s subjugation, Christine realizes that men were created from matter which is an imperfect substance but Adam and Eve were in more perfect state in the Garden of Eden and Eve was created from Adam’s rib and according to Reason, thus more noble.
Christine advocates on all areas of life for women, which makes this reading feminist in nature because it is not only in contemplation of marriage or education but in all aspects of women’s lives. Even further, she believes in the capacity of improvement and achievement of all women: “whether noble, bourgeois, or lower-class—be well-informed in all things” (256), is how Christine addresses ladies in the last section of her book. Christine was a revolutionary lady of her day. More educated than most, instead of remarrying after her husband’s death, she was able to support herself through writing when that was not a popular, or rather even, established profession, and especially not one available to women. Though some of her views are not as transcendent as others, for instance her admonition that, “you ladies who are married, do not scorn being subject to your husbands, for sometimes it is not the best thing for a creature to be independent,” may seem obsequious for modern-day women, Christine must be judged in her own time against her contemporaries. Against these individuals, Christine and her advanced and revolutionary arguments in The Book of the City of Ladies, soars far above perhaps typically suppressed women’s beliefs (which can be seen in the opening as she asks God why “so many abominations abound in the female sex” (5), according to learned men?) and instead propounds women’s nobility of soul and capacity of mind.

As I have concluded in this post how this book falls under a feminist theme, my next post (after completely finishing the book) will more fully analyze the arguments and evidence  Christine utilizes.

Monday, January 6, 2014

After a long hiatus, the History 318 - European Women's History (1400 to present) - blog has been resurrected.  Watch this space for insightful commentary covering the experience of European women, and the historical debates about those experiences.