Friday, June 15, 2012

The Book of The City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan

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 Ladies as 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 Ladies that 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.


Violet said...

Metafiction in the mid-fourteenth century! At uni we were taught that it's a postmodern phenomenon. Ha!

She was pretty brave to write such stuff in those days. I think people had to be pretty careful what they wrote or risk getting burnt at the stake or something equally dastardly.

I'm a bad feminist in that I'm not really interested in reading about how things were with regards to women's oppression ages ago; I'm focused on women's oppression now. But yeah, feminism as we know it didn't just spring up out of nowhere. Sappho was a feminist in 630ish BCE, so I'd say the ideas have probably been around as long as women have been dealing with men. :)

Brian Joseph said...

One thing that I really did not touch upon in depth was that Christine related much of her ideology to Christianity. A lot of the book emphasizes the sacrifice and suffering of female Christian martyrs. There is also much weight given to the Virgin Mary and how God picked a women for such an important role. She really spends a lot of time praising God here. I suppose this insulated her in some ways from charges of heresy.

I have not yet read Sappho. It is amazing how so many of these people had ideas that we think of as being modern

Caroline said...

I have always been tempted to read this. I like a lot of the aspects you mention. I would also be interested in the more religious aspects. What she writes about the Virgin Mary.
I think it took a great mind to see through so much injustice around her, despite the fact that hardly anyone else did.
Thanks for the nudge to read it.

Brian Joseph said...

This book is very much written in the Christian mindset. At one point in the narrative the Virgin Mary actually addresses Christine and the other ladies. Christine uses her as an irrefutable example of virtue in women.

Amy said...

Thanks for linking to the Feminist Classics blog! Loved reading your thoughts on the book. Really was so revolutionary for the time I would agree, hard to imagine any or at least not many authors being so against stereotyping and everything else too.

Brian Joseph said...

According to Wikipedia the term "Stereotype" was not even used in it modern context until 1850!

PS - You are reading some really interesting books over at Feminists Classics. Glad that I found it.

Jean said...

Thanks for saying hi at the Feminist Classics blog! I loved this book and was so glad to be able to read it. I love how Christine takes all the traditional criticisms of women spouted by churchmen and shows them to be unchristian...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jean - You are so right. She really turns the table on those who claim that women are sinful and wicked. She piles on story after story of pious women. It is interesting how she launches "counteroffensive" to show that the critics of women are actually the sinners.

Maria Behar said...

I had really meant to comment on this wonderful post the other day, but just didn't have the time. I didn't forget it though -- it stuck in my mind, because I did get to read the first three paragraphs, and thoroughly enjoyed them! Now I'm back, have read the entire post, and am ready to comment.

Thanks to you, I've now heard of this truly astounding book, with its amazingly modern-sounding thoughts and insights! So I really appreciate that!

This woman was indeed very brave to set out her thoughts in such a public manner! Her prose is succinct and to the point, her astute, psychologically-grounded views are profound, even more so for having been written so many centuries ago!

In short, I am indebted to you for presenting this awesome book, which I will now do my very best to acquire and read!!

Also thanks to you, I've become re-acquainted with the Feminist Classics blog, which I should make a point of visiting regularly.

Thanks again for such an illuminating, excellent post!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for your kind words Maria.

I hope that you too are impressed with Christine's work as I was. It seems that when reading commentary by others they emphasize that Christine's brand of Feminism was early, rudimentary and undeveloped and therefore this books is mostly just an intellectual curiosity. As I posted I thought that there was a lot more to the story.

I ask myself, am I seeing things that are not there? I do not think so. Every three months or so I Facilitate a Corporate Diversity Class . We explore topics such as stereotyping and mental grouping of people. I am amazed how some of the concepts that are discussed in this class were also covered by Christine!

I would love to hear your impressions after you have read this book.

Maria Behar said...

I've already added this book, as well as another one by Christine, titled "The Treasure of the City of Ladies", to my Goodreads TBR shelves. They're both now on my Amazon wish list, too. I'll try to get the first one as soon as I can.

Also, I've just published a post on Christine, in which I thank you, as well as link back to your own post. I really appreciate having the opportunity to become acquainted with this writer!! Thanks again!!

I published my post today, Sunday, 7/1/12. I won't post the link, so as to thwart those pesky spam bots!!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the link Maria! I am so very interested in hearing what everyone has to say about Christine's work.