The Book of the City of Ladies
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Misrepresentation vs. Truth
One of this work’s central concerns is countering the destructive and false testimony that male authors have supplied in their written works for centuries. Christine attempts to strip away the layers of distortion and misrepresentation to present an accurate portrait of the true and essential nature of women. Christine’s approach, through her line of questioning, gives voice to the various opinions and untruths men perpetuate in society, in an effort to debunk them with the Virtues’ orations and stories. Christine directly addresses the issue when Reason argues that, contrary to popular belief, man was not made in God’s image, as in an exact physical likeness. Instead, Reason contends that all people, men and women, share in this replication of God’s essential nature and that there is a spiritual likeness and similarity. This desire to penetrate the essential, internal nature of the good found in people by transcending the physical is yet another of Christine’s central themes.
Physical vs. Spiritual
Women were the subject of repression in many forms, most notably in the strict regulation of their behavior and the roles they were expected to fulfill in society. In addition, as Christine’s narrative attests, women were often turned into sexual subordinates, objectified and transformed into sources of desire that alternately tempted and pleased men. These attitudes led to the widespread acceptance of rape. In the concluding section, Part Three—after Rectitude’s discussion of the horrors of rape in Part Two, Justice cites many cases of the martyrdom of holy women. These individuals were the subject of severe physical trials as well as sexual abuse. Women were burned, tortured, and beaten, and the foolhardy men who sought to unleash their anger and hatred of these women could find no other means of harming them than through their bodies. What remained constant and allowed the martyrs to endure these severe punishments was their highly developed spiritual life and intense bond with God. This distinction crowns Christine’s arguments, in which she attests to intangible inner qualities—intelligence, generosity, virtue, constancy—that are the mark of an individual, and not the attributes, limitations, and vulnerabilities of the body.
Writing As Repossession
Critics have often viewed de Pizan as a repossessor, setting out to wrest away the tight control men had over the lives and representations of woman. In writing her book, de Pizan attempts to reclaim and restore the image of her sex, turning common misperceptions on their heads. One popular misconception was of the helplessness and dependency of women. Both before and after her life and times, men were the predominant force shaping discourse and dictating public law, social convention, and commonly held attitudes and beliefs. De Pizan’s book marks a radical departure, a lone female voice challenging this status quo. In the Virtues’ long list of stories, a new picture of women emerges. Women such as Fredegund and Ops seize and assert their power. They don’t need rescuing, and they themselves are a source of liberation, ensuring and extending freedom to those around them. By seizing the image of women and safely storing it in the City of Ladies, de Pizan attempts to right centuries of injustice and set the record straight once and for all.
The Universality of Human Experience
Christine argues that there are no special qualities reserved for one sex and absent from the other, just as no one social role or function belongs solely to the realm of men. For those male writers who would relegate women to a traditional, domestic sphere, the Virtues offer countless examples of women as warriors, brilliant military strategists who turn the tide of battle, and shrewd political leaders. Christine is not trying to elevate women at the expense of men but is gesturing instead to the equality of the sexes. She attempts to eradicate the perceived differences between men and women to highlight the virtues all paragons of conduct share and to present a universal portrait of human experience.
In The Book of the City of Ladies, allegory functions on two primary levels. First, three of the primary characters are allegorical figures who represent abstract notions or imaginative concepts—in this case, Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. They assume the form of noblewomen but are also the embodiment of the qualities from which they take their names. Christine needs to tap into these three qualities if she is to build a powerful and convincing argument. This argument itself becomes another mode of allegory. Christine is not physically laboring to build an actual, tangible city. Instead, she is using the trowel of her pen and the mortar of her ink to symbolically construct this all-female community. The bricks with which she raises the city’s walls are the various and accumulating stories the Virtues offer as evidence of the constancy and purity of the female nature. The city’s building blocks are the qualities, such as goodness and righteousness, that are eternal and cannot be destroyed. In this way, the City of Ladies functions as an imaginative concept, a product of the writer’s mind. It is a “place” that serves to hold and store women’s best attributes and greatest accomplishments.
Christine adopts the form of a traditional philosophical dialogue on which to determine and arrive at the truth. She functions as the student, and the three Virtues are her teachers, using discourse and debate to lead her on the path to insight. In this way, the work functions as a cross-examination in which Christine poses tough questions to the figures of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Christine serves as devil’s advocate, giving voice to the attitudes and accusations of the opposition, men who hold misogynistic views of women. By using a question-and-answer format, Christine is able to slowly and methodically construct her argument. The solidity of her logic is akin to the sturdy and stable city she has at the end of the book.
Narration and the art of storytelling are central to The Book of the City of Ladies, which is essentially a collection of parables from which Christine draws various conclusions about the nature of women. The work can be viewed as many stories contained within the larger unifying tale of the city’s construction. The three Virtues take on the qualities of a writer by presenting the various plotlines of the women whose lives are related. They become stand-ins for Christine, who loses her “authority,” or authorial voice, when she is plagued with doubts about the nature of women. Just as Christine is assigned the task of restoring the reputation of women, the three Virtues, in turn, work to infuse Christine’s vision, and, by extension, her writing, with the power and insight that such a mouthpiece on behalf of women would require.
Justice’s Vessel of Gold
The container of gold was given to Justice from God. It represents the eternal reward and salvation that await the faithful. It also stands for a justice that is higher and superior to the justice of man practiced and measured out on Earth. From this vessel, Justice gives out each person’s “rightful portion,” the payment received as a reflection of how morally and forthrightly an individual lived his or her life. It is inscribed with the fleur-de-lis, or lily, which signifies the Trinity. In this way, the three Virtues appearing to Christine are symbolically linked to the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost that constitute the cornerstone of Christian faith.
Encrusted with jewels, Reason’s mirror is a source of wisdom, clarity, and, above all, self-knowledge. Reason brings the mirror to Christine to give her the direction and certainty she needs to pursue the truth about the virtues of women. The Virtues stress to Christine that she must do a good job of constructing the city and that the task must be performed flawlessly. The mirror aids this pursuit in unveiling to Christine the essence and inherent qualities of the subjects she will be tackling in her text.
Rectitude carries her “shining ruler” in her right hand, and this ruler carries several meanings. In order to build the City of Ladies, Christine must measure her words carefully and proportion them to the task at hand. The ruler is offered to her as she constructs the facades of the palaces, houses, and public buildings and lays out the city’s squares and streets. Rectitude wields her ruler as a staff of judgment. It separates right from wrong and indicates the dividing line between good and evil. The ruler is a guide that, when heeded, indicates the proper path or decision. Rectitude also declares that it is a rod of peace that supports the just and punishes the unjust.
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