The Book of the City of Ladies (1405) was Christine de Pizan's response to Jean de Meun’s The Romance of the Rose. Christine combats Meun’s misogynist beliefs by creating an allegorical city of ladies. She defends women by collecting a wide array of famous females throughout history. These women are “housed” in the City of Ladies, which is actually Christine’s book. As Christine builds her city, she uses each famous woman as a building block for not only the walls and houses of the city, but also as building blocks for her defense of female rights. Each woman added to the city adds to Christine’s argument towards women as active participants in society. She also advocates for male and female equality within the realms of education and vice.
Christine’s main source for information was Giovanni Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris (On Famous Women). His text was a biographical treatise on ancient famous women. Christine also cited from Boccaccio’s Decameron in the latter stages of The City of Ladies. The tales of Ghismonda and Lisabetta, for example, are quoted as coming from Boccaccio’s Decameron. Christine may have read Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris in the French version Des Cleres et Nobles Femmes. Boccaccio’s influence can be seen in Christine’s stance on female education. In the tale of Rhea Ilia, Boccaccio advocates for young women’s right to choose a secular or religious life. He states that it is harmful to place young girls into convents while they are “ignorant, or young, or under coercion.” Boccaccio states that girls should be “well brought up from childhood in the parental home, taught honesty and praiseworthy behavior, and then, when they are grown and with their entire mind know what of their own free will” choose the life of monasticism. Boccaccio believes that young girls need to be taught about life and virtues before they are consecrated to God. While he does not say women should have a formal education, he is still advocating for women to have a say in their lives and the right to be well informed about their possible futures.
Boccaccio’s belief in educating young girls about secular and religious life could have acted as a stepping stone for Christine’s belief in female education. Even if this was not the case, Boccaccio’s influence on Christine was strong. If he had not been influential, it is unlikely she would have quoted Boccaccio or positively used his sources.
The Book of the City of Ladies is an allegorical society in which the word "lady" is defined as a woman of noble spirit, instead of noble birth. The book, and therefore the city, contains women of past eras, ranging from pagans to saints. The book includes discussion between Pizan and the three female Virtues which are sent to aid Christine build the city. These Virtues – Reason, Rectitude, and Justice – help Christine build the foundations and houses of the city, as well as pick the women who will reside in the city of ladies. Each woman chosen by the Virtues to live in the city acts as a positive example for other women to follow. These women are also examples of the positive influences women have had on society.
Lady Reason is a virtue developed by Christine for the purpose of her book. Reason is the first virtue to help Christine build the city. Reason aids Christine in laying the foundations for her city and answers Christine’s questions about why men slander women. As she helps Christine understand male slander, she also helps Christine to prepare the ground on which the city will be build. She tells Christine to “take the spade of [her] intelligence and dig deep to make a trench all around [the city] … [and Reason will] help to carry away the hods of earth on [her] shoulders.” These “hods of earth” are the past beliefs Christine has held about male slanderers. Christine, in the beginning of the text, believed that women must truly be bad because she “could scarcely find a moral work by any author which didn’t devote some chapter or paragraph to attacking the female sex. [Therefore she] had to accept [these authors] unfavourable opinion[s] of women since it was unlikely that so many learned men, who seemed to be endowed with such great intelligence and insight into all things, could possibly have lied on so many different occasions.” Christine is not using reason to discover the merits of women. She believes all that she reads instead of putting her mind to listing all the great deeds women have accomplished. To aid Christine see reason, Lady Reason comes and teaches Christine. She helps Christine dispel her own self-consciousness and the negative thoughts of past writers. By creating Lady Reason, Christine not only teaches her own allegorical self, but also the readers. She gives not only herself reason, but also gives readers, and women, reason to believe that women are not bad creatures and have a significant place within society.
Lady Rectitude and Lady Justice also help Christine to create her allegorical city. Lady Rectitude helps Christine build the buildings, which symbolize the virtues. Justice aids Christine in populating the city and finding a queen to rule the City of Ladies. Pizan asks the virtues if women should be taught as men are and why men think women should not be educated. Other questions that are explored are: the criminality of rape, the natural affinity in women to learn, and their talent for government.
Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate and Kevin Brownlee. The Selected Writings of Christine De Pizan: New Translations, Criticism. New York, Norton Critical Editions, 1997.
Boccaccio, Giovanni. De mulieribus claris. English & Latin. Famous women. Ed. by Virginia Brown. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Brabant, Margaret. Politics, gender, and genre: the political thought of Christine de Pizan. Boulder: Westview Press, 1992.
Gaunt, Simon. Gender and genre in medieval French literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Miller, Paul Allen, Platter, Charles, and Gold, Barbara K. Sex and gender in medieval and Renaissance texts: the Latin tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.
Pizan, Christine. A Medieval woman’s mirror of honor: the treasury of the city of ladies. Trans. by Charity Cannon Willard, ed. by Madeleine Pelner Cosman. Tenafly: Bard Hall Press, 1989.
Quilligan, Maureen. The allegory of female authority: Christine de Pizan's Cité des dames. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.
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