The Book of the City of Ladies | Study Guide

Christine de Pizan

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The Book of the City of Ladies | Context


The Medieval City as an Allegory for Faith

Medieval towns and cities of Europe worked more or less independently as separate states in which the populace took responsibility for its defense, negotiations and trade with neighboring towns, self-government, and in some instances, even minting their own coins. But every town had a wall that physically and psychologically enclosed its citizens and kept out marauders (both animals and rogue criminals). With The Book of the City of Ladies, de Pizan places virtuous women, with a catalog of examples of women who have benefitted society, along with sinful ones simply because all women live behind a "wall" from which the virtuous may defend themselves. In Part 1, Section 3 Lady Reason emphasizes the significance of the task to Christine in saying, "The female sex has been left defenseless ... you are to construct a building in the shape of a walled city, sturdy and impregnable."

De Pizan modeled her Book of the City of Ladies on an established book that, next to the Bible, most influenced Christians throughout the Middle Ages: The City of God, written in Latin by Saint Augustine (also known as Saint Augustine of Hippo and Aurelius Augustinus) (354–430).

In his well-read and discussed book, The City of God, Augustine makes a concrete distinction between faith, or "the City of God," and unbelief, "the City of Man," as two enclosed communities in a conflict that began with the fall of Lucifer and his rebel angels (or the point of separation of good and evil) that will go on until the second coming of Christ, when good will be rewarded and evil punished. De Pizan makes a similar distinction among the ladies in The Book of the City of Ladies in the statement by Lady Reason: "Only ladies who are of good reputation and worthy of praise will be admitted into this city. To those lacking in virtue, its gates will remain forever closed."

Allegorical Influences

Although Italian philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 470/5–524) is not directly cited by de Pizan, he influenced the narrative devices of dream vision and the feminine personification of instructive qualities used in The Book of the City of Ladies. Widely read throughout the Middle Ages, Boethius describes the turning of the great wheel by Dame Fortune, by which men rise and fall during their lifetimes in his Consolation of Philosophy (written around 524). This vision is presented as a dream, which makes possible characters such as "Lady Philosophy" who guide Boethius in his line of thinking, very much as the three ladies Reason, Rectitude, and Justice guide Christine.

Written Languages of the Middle Ages

Although her subject in The Book of the City of Ladies is a serious discussion of Christian vice and virtue exhibited by prominent ladies of the past, it is important to keep in mind how de Pizan was read and understood by her contemporaries relative to the type of literature she wrote and its language.

De Pizan wrote exclusively in vernacular French, instead of church Latin, at a time when most accredited secular and church scholars wrote exclusively in Latin. Light "entertainment" books, such as either lyric (that is, on the topic of love) or epic (on the topic of heroic journeys or battles) poems, were sometimes written in the vernacular languages of English (such as English poet Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, written 1387–1400), Italian (Italian poet Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, written c. 1308–21), or German (Dutch writer Heinrich von Veldeke's Eneit, written c. 1174). Both use of the vernacular and enthralling poetic form made de Pizan's poetry, longer works of rebuttal to misogyny, and biographies of noble personages popular among her patrons.

Fellow Revolutionary Women Writers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Although the first woman to make her living from her writing, de Pizan was not the first to take on the issues of virtue and gender in such works as The Book of the City of Ladies. One who preceded de Pizan was the German Benedictine nun Hrosvitha (c. 935–1000). Hrosvitha (also spelled Hrosvit, Hroswitha, Hrotsvit, Hrotsvitha, Rosvita, and Roswitha) is known for her poetry, but she also wrote six plays (c. 960) that borrowed plots from Greek and Roman playwrights to frame Christian values as the responsibility of both men and women. These plays were meant more for reading than performance, to the edification of the sisters in the convent. In her play Dulcitius, the evil Sisinnius threatens to send the Christian virgin martyr Irena to a house of prostitution because she will not worship pagan idols. Undeterred in her determination to bow only to the true God, she responds, "Better by far that my body should suffer outrage than my soul ... If the soul does not consent, there is no guilt." De Pizan writes of the unwavering steadfastness of Saint Irene and her two sisters in Part 3, Section 14 and places Irene among the other virgin saints accompanying Mary to live in the highest palaces of the newly constructed city of ladies. Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice act on behalf of God, whose daughters they are, to help Christine refute false slanders so that "all worthy ladies and valiant women are protected from those who have attacked them."

Hildegard of Bingen (also known as the Sibyl of the Rhine; 1098–1179) was the abbess of two Benedictine convents and canonized in 2012. She is known primarily as a German mystic and composer of music. She wrote her prophesies (with the help of a monk-scribe) collected under the title of Scivias (1141–52). She also inspired images of her visions and wrote devotional poetry and treatises on medicine and natural history. And like de Pizan 265 years later, Bingen wrote about the struggles of virtues and vices. Her allegorical play, Order of the Virtues (late 1140s) presents personified virtues guiding the human soul. The play uses song and chant in Latin to progress the story: The Queen of all Virtues, Humility, appeals to the Soul upon first seeing her with the exclamation: "I cry to you and invoke all of the virtues." In a similar fashion, Christine is awed by the three ladies Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, telling them in Part 1, "I will obey your every command, so be it unto me according to your word."

Julian of Norwich (also Juliana; c. 1342–1416) was roughly contemporary to de Pizan. Very little is known of her life except that she was not a member of any religious order, but a mystic and solitary recluse of St. Julian's Church in Norwich. Julian's Revelations of Divine Love (c. 1373) is one surviving text in Middle English, and she is the first known woman to write in this language. Although not widely read in her lifetime, Julian expressed a personal and intimate relationship with a loving God at a time when the Church taught that a wrathful God was punishing the world with plague and wars because of humanity's sins. Her plea for the Virgin Mary to intercede with her son on behalf of humanity expresses the general elevation of the Virgin Mary as the representative of God's "feminine and motherly" love. Julian's plea to this feminine divine is echoed by Christine in The Book of the City of Ladies, Part 3, Section 1, by which the Virgin Mary is greeted with the words, "The whole of womankind now implores you to agree to live in their midst."

The Book of the City of Ladies as a Critical Response

The Book of the City of Ladies, as de Pizan's most well-known work, is a direct rebuttal to other very popular works by men who utilized Christian scripture and classical pagan Greek and Roman literature in a selective manner to denigrate women as a sex. One of these was the Romance of the Rose, an allegorical poem about love begun by Guillaume de Lorris (c. 1240) and finished by Jean de Meun (c. 1275). The Rose warns young men against the wiles of the female sex, "condemning the entire female sex as unfaithful and unstable purely on the basis of a few bad [biblical and classical pagan] examples." De Pizan is going up against two perceptions of women the Middle Ages inherited from both Judeo-Christian theology, which pointed to the original fall of man as the fault of Eve, and medical opinion that women were "defective males" whose bodies and minds are given by nature to be "unstable" or easily corrupted. Over time these attitudes not only pervaded assumptions about the differences between men and women but were also embedded in the usage of language. De Pizan utilizes a logic by which a person—whether a man or a woman—is measured by the same "yardstick." She references the same classical and biblical sources as do the critics of women to bring forward many examples of virtuous women those critics selectively ignored to prove their point: "Christine interprets her stories ... exclusively for their general relevance to the human soul, irrespective of the sex of the person portrayed in them."

Conceptual Inheritance of The Book of the City of Ladies

De Pizan's works, although admired and influential to the thinking of her time, are not cited appreciably in subsequent literature. However, women continue to comment in the same vein to refute the persistent idea that women are inferior to men. Historians of feminism have brought forward many of them. Seventeenth-century poet Rachel Speght, a "young, middle-class woman" directly criticized a pamphlet by Renaissance writer and fencing master Joseph Swetnam titled The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women (1615) that was in popular circulation at the time. Speght's response was titled A Mouzell for Melastomus (1617), and while Speght may not have directly acknowledged an inspiration from anything de Pizan wrote, she refutes Swetnam and his ilk with as much spirit as Lady Reason's comment to Christine that "those men who have attacked women because of their own bodily impediments, such as impotence or a deformed limb, are all bitter and twisted in mind." Like de Pizan, Speght also wrote an autobiographical work, The Dreame, describing her "experience of learning and a female-penned argument for women's education."

British playwright Caryl Churchill's play Top Girls premiered in London 1982, and in 2002 the play was revived as "one of the finest postwar British plays." In the play, Churchill presents a ruthless career woman who seeks "having it all" and throws a dinner party for famous historical and legendary women. In this context, the play is also a kind of "dream" biographical catalog of powerful women well in keeping with the same pattern of merging fictional and historical figures into one personage that de Pizan employs in her vision. For example, the historical character of Joan of Arc has the title of "Pope" in the play, a move that merges her with the (unconfirmed historical) figure of a female pope.

The fictional folk character of Patient Griselda is another example of this kind of merging. She appears both in the play and in The Book of the City of Ladies. Patient Griselda was first altered by poet Giovanni Boccaccio into a much maligned but virtuous marchioness of Saluzzo included in The Decameron (Tenth day, tenth tale). De Pizan accepts Boccaccio's version of this character and includes her in Part 2, Sections 11, 50-1. In any case, the characters of both de Pizan's book and Churchill's play—whether fiction or historically verified—occupied very different historical times and places such that they could never have met except in dreams or visions.

American artist Judy Chicago created a large installation artwork called The Dinner Party (1979), which is her most well-known piece and a statement honoring 1,038 women of all strata, nationalities, and time periods by placing them at a table in the shape of a triangle 48 feet on each side. Each of the 39 place settings at the table honors, by name, a specific woman. The installations of the floor and banners along the walls of the room in which The Dinner Party is set also list the names of prominent women. Christine de Pizan herself occupies the 22nd place setting at this table.

Notes on Rosalind Brown-Grant's Translation of The Book of the City of Ladies

It is, as translator Rosalind Brown-Grant mentions in her "Translator's Notes," one thing to render the Middle French as de Pizan wrote it into a faithful English translation and quite another to give the modern reader some sense of how The Book of the City of Ladies was understood by de Pizan's contemporaries. In this direction, Brown-Grant restates her intent to make the work accessible to today's reader while maintaining an elegance of tone as given in her Introduction to her translation. For one thing, the French language (very much as was the case of Italian and later English) of de Pizan's time was in the early stages of being formed into a legitimate one for literature, science, and legal expressions to replace Latin. In an effort to establish French as every bit as good as Latin, writers such as de Pizan had the habit of using several similar French words combined together, so as to convey an exact meaning in Latin. Brown-Grant writes that, in order to pare down this added complexity to de Pizan's written style, "I have altered Christine's word order considerably and shortened her sentences." At the same time, Brown-Grant states that she has made an effort to also preserve de Pizan's elegant tone.

Another issue is the way in which de Pizan made a clear and distinct differentiation between the use of words that mean people of both sexes and words that mean specifically men or women. De Pizan was, as Brown-Grant points out, determined to ground her discussion of vice and virtue on the idea that responsibility for good conduct is a human one, not for either men or women alone. Brown-Grant states that she has made an effort to preserve these distinctions throughout the translation because, "In this respect, if in few others, she is ahead of her time in anticipating many of the arguments that modern feminist linguistics has raised about sexist language."

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