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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
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Book of the City of Ladies!