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The Book of the City of Ladies | Study Guide

Christine de Pizan

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The Book of the City of Ladies | Main Ideas


Gender and Education

It is somewhat surprising to learn that the topic of education for both boys and girls was even a question in de Pizan's time and culture of the Middle Ages to early Renaissance, given that different things were expected of boys than of girls. However, as a woman whose father saw to it that she got as good an education as possible, de Pizan was in a privileged position to examine the notion that while boys, who are expected to grow up and work in the public sector, would need an education to prepare them to do well, girls need only be taught household management and domestic skills, such as cooking and sewing. However, the issue of education is one de Pizan takes one step further in the discussion between Lady Reason and Christine in Part 1, Section 27 to point out that "male peasants ... are so backward that they seem no better than beasts" because of their lack of education. So it stands to reason that some children (both girls and boys) are possessed of "fine minds" rather more than others. The many examples Lady Reason gives of women who have made good use of an education support the idea that gender does not dictate a capacity to learn.

In Part 2, Section 7, the upbringing of children is discussed in terms of the trouble they bring their parents; but despite the care and expense of educating boys, education has no bearing on whether or not the boys will disgrace their parents any more than the lack of education means girls won't "be led astray by the wrong sort of people." Lady Rectitude states that more important is the good example set for them by their mothers. Later in Part 2, Section 35, Christine again takes up the topic of education with Lady Rectitude, and this time the point is made that a good education does not necessarily ensure that the child (boy or girl) will be moral: "However, it's just that it's not true to say that women will be corrupted by knowing what's right and proper."

Pagans and Christians

De Pizan follows the well-established convention of citing both classical pagan and Christian sources in The Book of the City of Ladies. She does so in part as a means of using the same sources of information as the misogynistic critics of women do, so she can point out how these writers selectively misinterpret, misrepresent, or entirely omit information that does not support their pre-established assumptions about women. The citation of pre-Christian classical authors carries with it the weight of historical grounding, which is why the construction of the city calls for first digging a trench and building the wall with stories about such heroines as the Amazons at the battle of Troy (Part 1) and ends with the finishing touches graced by the stories of Christian martyrs (Part 3). The past is, then, the basis of support for the present and the future very much as the Old Testament lays the groundwork for the coming and ministry of Christ.

Proof by Example

The city of virtuous and noble ladies Christine builds with the help of Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice is laid out, stone by stone, on many different kinds of examples of women whose stories prove their fidelity to husbands (such as Griselda in Part 2, Sections 11, 50, 51), their ability to defend and protect their people (Esther in Part 2, Section 32), bring to their people new knowledge (Minerva in Part 1, Sections 4, 34, 38) or preserve their honor at the point of death (Saint Irene in Part 3, Section 14). Conversely, the examples of unfaithful husbands such as the legendary Greek hero Jason (Part 2, Sections 24 and 56) or men of incredible cruelty such as the Roman Emperor Nero (Part 2, Sections 48-9) offset those who are examples of great virtue, such as Christine's husband. The point is to prove that vice or virtue is not the sole preserve of one gender over the other, but resident in both. Lady Rectitude summarizes the response to misogynists in her listing of "wicked kings ... faithless emperors, the heretical popes ... consumed with greed ... men would do better to hold their tongues. Women should praise the Lord and be thankful that He placed their precious souls in female vessels."
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