Some critics consider Christine de Pizan, born in around 1364, to be France’s, if not the world’s, first professional female author. In addition, her classic work, The Book of the City of Ladies, is commonly held to be the first feminist text written by a Western woman. In it, she directly confronts the sexism and misogyny that characterized and plagued not only the literature of her day, fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Europe, but representations of women reaching back into antiquity.
Her intention was to defend unwarranted attacks on the characters of women and to provide examples of the unquestionable virtue of her sex. Though this seems like a lofty and daunting goal, it is grounded in a specific response to contemporary events surrounding her life as a writer in France. The Book of the City of Ladies, as a philosophical treatise, can be seen as directly answering the writer Jean de Meun, who between 1269 and 1278 wrote a more than 17,000-line continuation of Guillaume de Lorris’s epic poem The Romance of the Rose, initially completed in the 1230s. The Romance of the Rose is an allegorical dream poem and treatise on courtly love, and it was one of the best-selling publications in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century France. While de Lorris’s section, the shorter of the two, is more of a traditional allegorical romance in its lyrical tale of the Dreamer, de Meun’s sizeable addition has a more satirical bent, focusing on social practice and the folly of women. De Pizan was familiar with the work, and in her The Tale of the Rose (1402) and Letters on the Debate of the Romance of the Rose (1403), she attacked de Meun’s writing for its immoral, often vicious portrayals of women. She endured criticism for being too pointedly on the defensive.
De Pizan’s writings from the early fifteenth century and her growing resistance to the irresponsible portrayal of women led directly to the composition of The Book of the City of Ladies, in which she casts herself as one of the main characters. Mirroring the author’s passionate response to de Meun’s misogyny, in the opening sections of the work, Christine the character’s ire is again raised by a book by Mathéolus, most likely his Lamentations, as translated by Jean le Fèvre. The book, while professing to address the subject of respecting women, devolved instead into yet another attack on females and the vice that universally grips their lives. Christine takes up her pen to “unearth” the truth and lay the foundation for an accurate and morally responsible portrayal of women. Along the way, she cites and addresses certain points raised in the Italian writer Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris (On Famous Women), the first book in Western literature to talk about virtuous women. But where Boccaccio also falls into the trap of maligning women, Christine sets out to correct the gaps and lapses in his thinking and his portrayals. Using the figures of three allegorical women—Reason, Rectitude, and Justice—she seeks to construct the titular City of Ladies, a symbolic repository of all that is good and noble in women and a place of refuge that can stand in its irrefutable truth as an impregnable defense against future attacks by sharp-tongued and sexist male writers.
Christine’s city offers a gallery of compelling models of womanhood. The permanent residents of the City of Ladies are united and strong. Scholars, inventors, artists, prophets, saints, warriors, pious wives, and dutiful daughters all take their place in the well-proportioned and carefully designed auspices of her city. In sampling from history, mythology, literature, and the Bible, Christine offers her own full, complete, and universal portrait of womanhood. Using approaches later championed by religion and the developing sciences, she slowly and methodically builds her case, gathering and collecting data and empirical observations as a means of arriving at the truth that supports her conclusions. In doing so, Christine repossesses and saves the reputation and good nature of women, acknowledging the moral strength and essential contributions of women, without which Western society, life, and culture would not be possible.
Her unique work offers a window into the world of medieval women and the way in which they were perceived and treated by the society of the time. It also introduces the prevailing notions about womanhood and the debates that often raged in the world of men intent on protecting their positions as the unquestioned rulers of their social and political realms. By using examples of virtue and citing achievements from the past, Christine adopts a three-pronged focus—targeting the intellectual, the spiritual, and the physical—to show that women are no more fallible or praiseworthy than the greatest or worst of men.