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The City of Ladies

The City of Ladies

christine de pizan's the city of ladies

“Eve took a bite of  a piece of forbidden fruit and pretty much got blamed for everything since.”

Recently, a book I had to read as part of my Medieval module was Christine de Pizan’s ‘City of Ladies’. I had never heard of this before I read it, and I doubt many people will have as she was an Italian French late Medieval author who wrote mainly in Middle French. This book was written after she was widowed in 1390, and is a response to Jean de Meun’s Le Roman de la Rose, the second and more satirical version of the original. I’m sorry if all of this is pure jibberish to most of you. Basically, Meun adapted a book that made a rose a metaphor for love, and turned it into a satirical manuscript which used allegory to criticise women. Eve took a bite of a piece of forbidden fruit and pretty much got blamed for everything since.

After I had finished reading the section of the translated version we were assigned for the seminar, I felt fuelled with inspiration and passion for it, something I had felt for few other texts on the module. I have decided to add a ‘literature’ tab to my blog and aim to write more about books since they are such a huge part of my life. The fact was, the issue Christine was talking about is still prevalent today. Women are typecasted so often in literature, the maiden, the wife/mother, the temptress, (blamed for the fall of men) and the crone. Many books that do this to us are also written by males, the fact being that men can never appreciate what it is like to be a woman, or what goes on in our heads. When they guess, it usually seems to undermine our intelligence, strength and sensitivity. Obviously most male writers would not want to turn to a female author to pen parts about female characters, but this means that by inhabiting our voices we are misunderstood, incorrectly translated onto paper, and I have seen it happen so many times on my course throughout all periods of time. To their credit, there is no lack of men trying to tackle the mind of a female, but do many really get it?

“my feeble sense does not know the craft, or the measures, or the study, or the science, or the practice of construction.”

Pizan was one of the first courtly women to be commissioned to write poetry and prose, perhaps even the first. The tale is about ‘Christine’ (same name, yep), who reads a book by Matheolas and is shocked when she finds it full of immoral women who make their husbands lives miserable. She begins to feel ashamed to be a woman, as most books she had read portrayed women in such light.

“This thought inspired such a great sense of disgust and sadness in me that I began to despise myself and the whole of my sex as an abhorration in nature”.

As she falls asleep, surrounded by books, she is awoken by three women appearing in the room who claim they are the Three Virtues: Justice, Reason and Rectitude, who I see as the Trinity for Ladies. They tell Christine that with their help, she must build the City of Ladies. Throughout the book and building of the city, Christine asks the Virtues questions about why women are so regularly slandered in literature, to which they always have an answer and supporting evidence. Throughout the book, examples are given of women that rebel against the stereotype of these corrupt, characterless women so often found in literature. She uses her own name for the central character, and allegorical figures to hide her true feelings in order to distance herself from such revolutionary views at the time as just constructing this detailed and structured argument was wild enough.

This shows that Christine was intelligent enough to predict any potential male criticisms to her work, and provides reasonable justifications as to why they are wrong. She gives examples of women that are in the military, politics, writers, visionaries, Amazonians.

“Drive back these treacherous liars who use nothing but tricks and honeyed words to steal from you that which you should keep safe above all else: your chastity and your glorious good name”.

The whole book is a metaphor for the city, the two are interchangeable. Christine created the city using building blocks made out of celebrated and successful women. There is a spade of intelligence, a field of letters, and a focus on ‘removing the dirt’ caused by years of male writers lying about female tropes. By removing this dirt, we can start afresh level of protofeminism. Throughout, Christine makes reference to valuable items such as jewels, sceptres etc. However, she didn’t equate women with the objects which subverts La Roman de la Rose, and shows that women have value because of who and what they are, not what valuable and pretty object they are like.The idea is that books are a gateway, a path to ideas and learning. A world situated between reality and fiction.

It has its quirks, don’t get me wrong, some of her arguments and comments could be seen as undermining her whole point by retaliating and criticising men. She calls Aristotle ‘ugly’ several times, however I see this as witty as it could mean both his appearance and his opinions. She exaggerates some stories as a mature way of fighting against all the exaggerations of women that still exist in literature. We are conditioned to recognise criticisms and comments about males as abhorrent and wrong, yet the same about women are ignored, glazed over. Subtle and yet repetitive enough that we often don’t even notice them, when we should be offended. Pizan criticises men who have written degrading tales about women, so in some ways they deserve it, but hers are so straight-laced and brazen they are almost humorous, rather than criticising personal morals and characteristics of females.

Ever read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl? It takes on the perspective of a male and a female, and has won many notable prizes. I read an article supporting male playwrights such as Richard Greenberg for his portrayal of women, but suggesting that this is because he is openly gay. There is something inherent within most females that makes us able to understand men, not as well as we understand women, but apparently better than men understand us. I am yet to find a book written by a man that portrays women in an equal and accurate light. Although, this could be because I read a lot of books that were written years and years ago as part of my degree. This also does not mean that all women writers who write about women, are believable, or even good? I can’t be the only one who found Anastasia from the Fifty Shades franchise annoying and borderline unbearable.

I think that this book is potentially one of the earliest that shows women that don’t fit in the earlier mentioned categories. More women are action heroes than a lot of men perhaps care to acknowledge in literature. I have written many an essay or seminar note about women being created purely as a tool for male characters, take Guinevere in Le Morte D’Arthur. Pizan portrays ‘goddesses’ as just regular women that were seen as such because of their talents and knowledge, and courage to show this. Christine herself was lucky in that her widow status and place in court meant she had a level of freedom that many at the time could only wish for, ‘ladies’ suggests higher class women of authority who would have been the only ones with access to education at the time. Luckily for us, this has changed since then meaning that there is access to writers from all backgrounds and walks of life, not simply the educated vs the uneducated.

Pizan also shows that women can be killers and tells tales of such, therefore women and men can be both equally good and equally bad. Life isn’t like the City of Ladies, we are not all protected and honoured as we deserve – male or female. We can control our literature, one of the few things we can, so we should try and protect each other. Sure, most books have bad characters, but we need to rid our books and articles of this sense of assuming everyone of the same sex, is the same.

I’m not sure how to conclude this, as it turned out to be somewhat of an essay. My point is that, a problem that was overwhelming in the 14th century and earlier, is still relevant today. We have a tendency to underestimate those who lived before us, they weren’t as technologically or medically advanced, spoke a less established version of our language, and believed the earth was round. Yet it is books and experiences like this that prove that despite all this.. society was still very similar. Sexism and classism still exists both in literature and society, women writers are still less celebrated and less appreciated than men, and females as a gender are still underestimated simply because we have to take maternity leave, we are usually smaller, and our uterus betrays the rest of our bodies for a few days each month. The problem has become a great deal better over the centuries which gives me hope for the future, however for now it is ongoing. I hope I will find male writers who grasp the female mind so much that I forget who authored it, I hope that Pizan’s research and work was not all in vain, and I hope that its beauty is rediscovered by more of us twenty-first century dwellers. I bet this city doesn’t have a glass ceiling…

“The man or the woman in whom resides greater virtue is the higher; neither the loftiness nor the lowliness of a person lies in the body according to the sex, but in the perfection of conduct and virtues.”


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