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The Book of the City of Ladies

Christine de Pizan

Plot Overview

Context

Character List

In her study, taking a break from her work, Christine de Pizan picks up a slim volume someone has given her. Shocked by the author’s harsh and extreme portrayal of the immoral and inconstant nature of women, Christine is saddened by this state of affairs. A flash of light startles her, and three women, allegorical figures representing Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, appear to her. They tell her she is to build the City of Ladies and populate it with the noblest and most accomplished women the world has known. The city is to serve as a safeguard against the cruel accusations of men as well as a reminder of the true and laudable nature of women.

Lady Reason takes Christine to the Field of Letters, a fertile plain where the city is to be built, and encourages her to use her pen to start excavating the earth so they can lay the foundations that will support the City of Ladies. Reason narrates the lives of various women and the testament of their strength collectively helps to build the city’s firm support. Reason first tells of women who have distinguished themselves in the political and military realms, individuals who have judiciously ruled vast realms as well as defended those realms from insurgents and attacks from beyond their borders. Next, she discusses learned women, like Christine, who have developed their intellectual capacities. Collectively, these women of letters have helped shape Western history and culture. Finally, Reason relates tales that demonstrate the prudence that women possess. Having completed the foundation and the walls, Reason turns over the city’s completion to her two sisters.

Rectitude is the next to address Christine and help her, with the mortar of her words, to complete and enclose the palaces, mansions, and domiciles that will house the city’s residents. Rectitude begins by telling of ladies of vision and prophecy who, despite the fact that few heeded their predictions, accurately foresaw the shape of the future. Rectitude then focuses on the family unit, relaying tales of faithful daughters and pious wives whose dedication to and love of their relatives superseded all. Rectitude celebrates all the good and countless benefits women have brought to the world and argues that they should be given the same access to education that is extended to men. She then tackles the importance of chastity to women and the horror and repulsion of rape, which is often insidiously characterized as something that is actively sought by women or which affects them little. Men, she claims, are the fickle ones when compared to the steadfastness of most women, especially those in love. Rectitude concludes her narration with the assertion that it is integrity, honesty, and generosity that earn a woman distinction, and not her physical attractiveness. Having completed the city’s edifices and populated it with noble ladies, Rectitude turns the project over to her sister, Justice, for completion.

Justice is left with the task of putting on the city’s finishing touches. Through her tales of holy women, she completes the roofs and adds doorways and gates to the City of Ladies. Most importantly, she brings the Virgin Mary to the city to serve as its guide and queen. Justice tells of various women who have been martyred for their faith. Faced with worshiping false idols and renouncing their love of Jesus Christ, they never wavered in their love of the one god. Though their physical bodies were abused, tortured, and violated, their intangible, spiritual selves remained intact, unsullied, and as strong as ever. Most of these women would go on to be declared saints. They wished to remain virginal and pure and went to their deaths in defense of their principles. Some even witnessed the torture and deaths of their children before succumbing themselves. Justice tells of several women who lived disguised as men in monasteries so they could remain free of the undesired attentions of suitors and pursue their religious devotion unhindered.

Having completed the city, the three Virtues turn it over to Christine, who rejoices in all that they have accomplished. Christine speaks to all women and declares the City of Ladies a refuge where they can find respite and safety from the sexual aggression and cruel attacks by men. She reminds the inhabitants of this community of women to stay strong and true and to uphold the noble virtues that have made the construction of the city possible. The city serves as a testament to the power and unity of women and of their own high standards and unshakeable virtue.

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