Born in 1363, Christine de Pizan was a poet and writer of prose. Originally from Venice, she lived most of her life in France. She penned The Book of the City of Ladiesas a response to misogynistic attitudes expounded by writers both in her time as well as in the past. I would argue that Christine’s work is both entertaining and, for its time, contained a great many important, original and even revolutionary ideas.
The story opens with the author herself reading a book that was popular at the time and that strongly attacked both the character of women as a class of people as well as the institution of marriage. While contemplating all of the negative writing and thought directed toward the female gender throughout the ages, Christine falls into depression. She despairs at the fact that she was born a woman who she acknowledges to be a member of a class of wicked and inferior human beings.
Christine is later visited in a dream by three ladies: Reason, Rectitude and Justice. The visitors convince the author that anti - female writers are wrong and that their ideas are based upon a lack of intelligence and virtue. They set out to help Christine build an allegorical city comprised of brilliant, moral and just women. The remaining bulk of the work consists of interesting, entertaining and sometimes disturbing vignettes enunciating tales of both real and mythological women who displayed such positive traits such as courage, intelligence, wisdom, loyalty, piety honor, etc.
Rosalind Brown-Gran, who also provides an introduction and commentary, translated the version of The Book of the City of Ladiesthat I read. Brown-Gran points out that this early brand of “feminism” espoused in Christine’s book is not the modern version that twenty-first century readers are accustomed to. Certainly Christine works hard to dispel misogynistic belief systems and sets out to prove that intellectually, morally and spiritually women are equal to men. Brown-Gran argues, however, that Christine and her portraits also emphasize that the proper role for women under most circumstances is in the home and supportive of their husbands’ endeavors. Christine espouses the point of view that usually, the best role for women is that of a loyal and virtuous wife, keepers of home and caretakers of the family. In fact Christine seems to support the idea that it is even beneficial for women to stand by husbands who are abusive.
“Those wives with husbands who are wayward, sinful and cruel should do their best to tolerate them. They should try to overcome their husbands’ wickedness and lead them back to a more reasonable and respectable path, if they possibly can. Even if their husbands are so steeped in sin that all their efforts come to nothing, these women’s souls will at least have benefited greatly from having shown such patience. Moreover, everyone will praise them for it and will be on their side. “
On the other hand, many of the stories portray men acting abusively and sadistically towards women who are almost virtuous beyond belief. The last part of the work showcases the lives of saintly women ranging from the Virgin Mary to various martyrs who showed extreme piety in their service to God. Many of these stories involve scenarios where these devout women endured horrendous torture and mutilation but always remained chaste and loyal to the Christian God. To me, the multiple outrages perpetuated by men against these women described here support the suggestion that Christine is saying that in general, women are less sinful and closer to God in some ways than are men.
At one point, Rectitude even comments,
“Not to mention the fact that it isn’t women who are responsible for all the endless crimes and atrocities that are committed in the world. “
There are strong intuitions here that women, at least in general, are better people than are men after all. At the risk of sounding a little bit “reverse sexist”, in a world full of violence that has been and is still mostly perpetuated my men, Christine may have a point here.
With such a mix of ideas, I think that Christine’s views can most correctly be described as “proto – feminist”. However, there is something else going on here. I perceive more in this work. I would argue that some of Christine’s ideas were revolutionary and uncannily modern. The author expresses and perhaps generates certain philosophies that for the time were radical.
In of itself, the concept of defending women against bias, as well as championing their wisdom and virtue, could be considered radical in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Christine does not stop there however. The character Christine experiences great changes during the narrative. Exposed to unceasing misogynistic ideology, she is initially convinced of the veracity of these thought systems. As a result, she enters into a fugue of despair and self-hatred. Later, however, Christine comes to see that such a characterization of women is grossly unjust. Furthermore, the men who have perpetuated it do so because it is they who are endowed with character flaws. Such men are ignorant, insecure, petty, jealous, shortsighted, and, in some cases, obsessed with their own sinful pasts. Christine comes to realize that it is the victimizer who is at fault, not the victim.
This transformation of a member of an oppressed group who initially identifies with her oppressors, but is eventually liberated by the knowledge that her and other members of her group are intelligent and virtuous, seems very out of place in Christine’s time. I am certainly not qualified to say if this concept was first espoused in The Book of the City of Ladies. Of course there was plenty of precedent for the oppressed individual fighting oppressors who were clearly evil in the literature produced up to the this era. In particular, many of the narratives involving the lives of the Saints followed this pattern. But what Christine is saying here is different. Women are not demonized because of their beliefs; instead they are demonized because they are part of a group that they were born into.
Narratives that included early periods self-loathing were also not new in Christine’s time. Literature abounds with accounts where a sinner falls into despair as a result of their shortcomings but eventually reforms as God redeems the person. St. Augustine’s Confessions is a good example of this. Once again Christine presents a different story, however. Her self-hatred is based on incorrect assumptions fostered by misguided and flawed men. It was unjustified.
This could not have been common thinking for the time. This train of reasoning seems incredibly influential upon subsequent writing and theorizing about oppressed minorities and groups. In some ways it reminds me of eighteenth and nineteenth century slave narratives where the slave starts out identifying with their owner’s ideology and feels enormous self-hatred. Later, the oppressed individual experiences an awakening and comes to understand that their slavery is based upon evil and injustice. Christine’s thinking seems way ahead of her time here.
Another surprising idea that I found here is the concept that thinking of people in stereotypes is flawed.
“Some of those who criticized women did so with good intentions: they wanted to rescue men who had already fallen into the clutches of depraved and corrupt women or to prevent others from suffering the same fate, and to encourage men generally to avoid leading a lustful and sinful existence. They therefore attacked all women in order to persuade men to regard the entire sex as an abomination.”
Christine goes on to say:
“Condemning all women in order to help some misguided men get over their foolish behaviour is tantamount to denouncing fire, which is a vital and beneficial element, just because some people are burnt by it, or to cursing water just because some people are drowned in it. You could apply the same reasoning to all manner of things which can be put to either good or bad use. In none of these cases should you blame the thing in itself if foolish people use it unwisely. You yourself have made these points elsewhere in your writings. Those who subscribe to these opinions, whether in good or bad faith, have overstepped the mark in order to make their point. It’s like somebody cutting up the whole piece of cloth in order to make himself a huge coat simply because it’s not going to cost him anything and no one is going to object. It thus stops anyone else from using the material. “
I think that the above is remarkable for the period. Christine is actually identifying what today we would call stereotyping and rejects it! This line of thinking, perhaps passé to us in the twenty-first century, is something that I never realized was espoused this far back.
This further leads Christine and the reader to additional conclusions based upon evaluating and judging a person by their thinking and choices as opposed to gender.
“It is he or she who is the more virtuous who is the superior being: human superiority or inferiority is not determined by sexual difference but by the degree to which one has perfected one’s nature and morals.”
This seems to me to be another groundbreaking statement for the time. In historical and cultural analyses of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, many writers and historians, Gordon Wood comes to mind, argue that the concept of who a person is should be based upon merit and accomplishments, as opposed to circumstances and birth, has developed and blossomed in those later centuries. Of course Christine is only talking about gender here, not class, birthright or ethnicity. However, I would contend that this was an important first step. Here is Christine, championing an early form of this egalitarian ideology, four hundred years before then revolutionaries of the Enlightenment!
This work will appeal to those interested in medieval literature, feminism and its history, or the progression of human ideas and society. I am personally a little bit in awe of Christine’s innovative thinking. She was centuries ahead of her time. The Book of the City of Ladies is evidence that Christine deserves a place among humankind’s great minds.
Coincidentally while reading this work I realized that over at A Year of Feminist Classics Blog there was a group reading and discussion on this book that wrapped up a few months ago. Unfortunately I missed most of it but there was some good commentary over there.