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The Book of the City of Ladies

Christine de Pizan

Important Quotations Explained

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Key Facts

1. The man or the woman in whom resides greater virtue is the higher; neither the loftiness nor the lowliness of a person lies in the body according to the sex but in the perfection of conduct and virtues.

Reason speaks these words in Part One, section 9.3. They help to capture the essence of Christine’s project. While one of her intentions of writing The Book of the City of Ladies is to defend and restore the honor and reputation of women, her ultimate goal is not to assert the superiority of women but to argue for equality and the fair and equal treatment of all people, regardless of gender. Christine asserts that a person’s sex is not a fair measure of his or her character. Rather, an individual’s moral development and personal conduct are worthy of esteem. In making this statement, Reason points out the reductive thinking employed by many people of the time, who make facile distinctions and focus on the inconsequential surface qualities that define an individual’s appearance. Later in her work, Christine argues that beauty is no reflection or indicator of a woman’s inner beauty. In challenging the prevailing notions of the day, she is asking readers to look beneath the surface and to think about the world in new and more responsible ways. She is also calling people to serve as moral beacons and models of upstanding conduct.

2. [A]nd there is nothing which so instructs a reasonable creature as the exercise and experience of many different things.

This statement comes from Reason and is found in Part One, section 27.1. One of Christine’s intentions in writing her treatise is to provide a sound and defensible argument for why women should be given the same educational opportunities as men. She argues that if men feel women are intellectually and morally inferior, despite the fact that such a generalization is untrue, one possible explanation would be their lack of exposure to things beyond the domestic realm and the lack of opportunity to develop their minds and critical-thinking skills. She believes that men withhold education from women for fear it will be revealed that their intelligence rivals if not trumps men’s. Christine believes that it is every individual’s right to be exposed to as many ideas and influences as possible and that such a course strengthens and expands character, experience, and rational insight.

3. Rest assured, dear friend, chaste ladies who live honestly take absolutely no pleasure in being raped. Indeed, rape is the greatest possible sorrow for them.

This passage comes from Rectitude’s oration in Part Two, section 44.1. In her work, de Pizan attempts to tackle stereotypes concerning women and to demystify commonly held and erroneous assumptions. In de Pizan’s day, wives were viewed as property. This belief extended to a woman’s body, and many men believed they had the right to use their wives’ bodies in any way they saw fit. As in all eras, rape was a shocking and violent reality for many women, who lacked access to any system that could support rape victims or advocate on their behalf. De Pizan’s work takes a bold step in directly addressing this controversial topic. It was often assumed that sexual violence was something women just had to endure, and that men were born with aggressive, insatiable sexual appetites. Such attitudes were allowed to endure as long as men held the positions of power and silenced the voices of women. Some rapists justified their actions by avowing that women wanted to be raped, enjoyed it, or, in some way, “asked for it.” Christine was just one of many women who spoke out against the horrors of rape and identified it as a serious crime.

4. But, just as I told you before, the fool sees his neighbor’s peccadillo and fails to see his own enormous crime.

Rectitude makes this statement in Part Two, section 66.1, when she is discussing the nature of greed and whether women have more of a propensity for avarice than men. Her words take on the nature of an aphorism and resemble a Biblical phrase or the moral to an allegorical tale. They are basically a means of restating the tenet “Judge not lest ye be judged” and show the degree to which the book is intended to instruct people in proper conduct. Rectitude’s observation emphasizes the heart of the critiques Christine makes throughout her work. Women would not be so maligned, she argues, if men were not so concerned with searching for and exaggerating their flaws. If men scrutinized their own failings, they could hardly match up to the shortcomings of others. Peccadillos are minor behavioral missteps or slight social mistakes. When compared to immoral or destructive acts, their importance is negligible. In making this statement, Rectitude is pinpointing the major source of the world’s conflicts and misrepresentations. Christian teachings, and Christine’s own ethic, teach acceptance and tolerance and stress individual improvement as opposed to severe criticism or self-inflation at another’s expense.

5. Most excellent, revered, and honored princesses of France and of all lands, and all ladies and maidens, and, indeed, all women who have loved and do love and will love virtue and morality, as well as all who have died or who are now living or who are to come, rejoice and exult in our new City which, thanks to God, is already formed and almost finished and populated.

Christine speaks these words in Part Two, section 69.1. With this pronouncement, she is, in effect, declaring the City of Ladies open and ready to house and nurture the scores of women who will come to take up residence there. This statement is a conclusion to the book’s second part as well as a transition to the final sentiments contained in Part Three. Christine is welcoming the women who have been summoned through the narration and storytelling that comprise most of the work. They represent the earthly realm of women and the numerous good works and improvements women have contributed to human life. Then, in a nod to the book’s concluding section, Christine gives thanks to God, who will ordain and sanctify the city.

In her declaration, Christine establishes two important precedents that her work and the organizing principles of the City of Ladies subscribe to. First of all, although she acknowledges a hierarchy of women and women’s roles from princess to ladies to maidens, she makes it clear that all women, regardless of class or social standing, have a place in her city. By doing this, Christine is erasing one of the factors that divide and separate women, in an attempt to create greater unity and sisterhood. Second, Christine establishes a historical continuum, including women from the past and present and invoking the women of the future. In this way, Christine hopes to universalize the experiences of women and not just speak to readers of her time. She attempts to unify the past and the present in order to ensure a brighter future in which women, united and strong, openly resist the abuse and misrepresentation they have suffered.

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