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.


  1. I remember discussing this text in class and being amazed by the writings of Christine de Pizan and her ability to refute some of the stereotypes of her day. Though I did not read this work, I was especially interested by your mention of Eve as a more pure version of man because of her creation in the virgin Garden of Eden. While I am not sure of the doctrinal place of this observation, I appreciate her insight and rebuttal of misogynistic thinking. I am concerned however that such a statement establishes an unequal relationship between men and women. If women are deemed "more noble" due to their creation, then it might place women on a holier plane than men. Though I have met far more pious women than men in my life, it is difficult for me to concede that women are "more noble" than men based on some inherent, pre-mortal propensity for goodness. While Elder Kristofferson eloquently showed the edifying work of women in the world in his most recent conference address (after soundly reprimanding the men in last year’s Priesthood Session), The Family: A Proclamation to the World states that God created man and woman in His own image, without mention of some superior material of creation. While gender may be, “an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose,” it does not follow that one gender is “more noble” than another. God may function through patriarchal orders, but that does not give men (or women if you view such authority as part of God’s attempt to refine and perfect His sons) the right to greater righteousness based on his or her sex. As the second and third Article of Faith state, “men will be punished for their own sins and not Adam’s transgression [and] through the Atonement of Christ all mankind may be saved by obedience to laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” Gender, therefore, does not give particular advantage for salvation and any consent to the opposite opinion presents dangerous theological consequences. Thank you for your post; I enjoyed your analysis and the opportunity to contemplate Christine de Pizan’s writings

  2. I am impressed in Pizan's ability to transcend her specific period of time, and relate to women's situations before her, as well as after. An interesting take on her argument for me was her mention of religion. I think this relates specifically to her time period when religion was more prominent for scholars than perhaps today; however, I believe that a lot of our original societal notions are derived from religious beliefs, myths, and stories. For example, regardless as to whether or not one is Christian, living during Pizan's time there were clearly notions left over from biblical times that inherently dictated perceptions of both men and women as to what women's roles were to be for society. It is necessary for Pizan to reflect on the impact of Christian thought to her society, because those remnants are definitely there (as they are even today). If it weren't for certain biblical events (or at least their depictions, whether or not truly accurate), such as the story of Adam and Eve, I wonder if the anti-feminist thought would even exist at all, and if there would even be a need to resist culture and societal restrictions for women.

  3. I love both of these comments. Christine was a truly forward thinker. Religion shaped all aspects of people's lives and thoughts, it definitely needs to be taken into consideration. In response to Cory's comment, I don't think Christine was putting down men as much as trying to raise up women. Also, if you read the entire book, almost every example she gives on the side of women, is unique and "twists the facts." I say twists the facts in quotations because Christine uses myths in order to make her point so facts are nonexistent. For instance, she discusses Juno and the Romans. She claims Juno was just a very strong, amazing woman and because of her unusual abilities and success the Romans mistook her for a god. She takes a lot of myths and flips the usually anti-woman leanings on their head. So, in her interpretation of Adam and Eve, she takes what I'm sure most men used to subjugate women (using the rib issue as evidence of a woman's secondary status and grounds for a woman's obedience to a man) and changes the story. Whether she or the readers should take the story at face value is not the focus; we should instead analyze the ways in which Christine fought back against traditional arguments of her time with new and original arguments for women, whether or not her arguments are based on fallacy or false logic.