The Book of the City of Ladies | Study Guide

Christine de Pizan

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The Book of the City of Ladies | Part 1, Sections 1–11 | Summary

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The Book of the City of Ladies is divided into three parts, each of which has from 19 to 69 short numbered sections. Sections have been combined in this study guide for the purpose of summary and analysis.

Each part in The Book of the City of Ladies is introduced by a brief overview of the concepts within. Part 1 focuses on the narrator, Christine, being guided by Lady Reason to create a city of virtuous ladies and lay the foundation and walls for the city. The foundation and walls represent notable women from ancient times and mythology. In Part 2 Christine is guided by Lady Rectitude to build the houses, mansions, and palaces in the city, which represent discussing notable women, for their virtue, constancy, and moral fortitude. Part 3 concludes with Lady Justice guiding Christine in finishing the "high towers" in the city. High towers represent the most virtuous women of all time.

Summary

In this section grouping, the premise of the book is introduced and the task set before the author is outlined to her. The format of question and answer is the basis for the construction of the city, and Christine accepts the project as one ordained by God. Christine has been reading in her study all day in serious pursuit of knowledge. Having become weary of this effort by evening, she decides to pick up "something amusing and easy to read from the works of the poets." She chooses a book by Matheolus, which she has heard is "written in praise of women." But before she can get very far into the book, her mother calls her away to supper. Upon taking it up the next day, Christine is appalled by its offensive and derogatory language. She puts it aside as "of no use whatsoever to anyone who wished ... to improve their moral standards." Discouraged, Christine falls into a kind of waking trance, in which she is visited by three ladies "crowned and of majestic appearance." Each lady introduces herself as a kind of virtue sent by God to guide Christine in the building of a walled city for the residence of all honorable women attacked by false slander.

Lady Reason holds up her mirror and says that it will be her task to help Christine lay the foundation (Part 1). Next, Lady Rectitude raises her yardstick, saying she will guide Christine in erecting the buildings and finding the worthy ladies to live in them (Part 2). Last is Lady Justice, who holds a golden cup to "share out to each person exactly what he or she deserves." The finishing touches on the highest palaces of the city and the enthronement of the Virgin Mary as queen of the city is to be accomplished with her help (Part 3). Christine accepts this task, saying to them, "Behold your handmaiden, ready to do your bidding."

Christine begins by digging over the ground as lined by Lady Reason and asks why it is that some men despise women, whereupon Lady Reason answers that some of them deny their own lewdness by putting it off on the women: "You shouldn't need any other evidence than that of your own body to realize ... a complete fabrication stuffed with lies." Further questions Christine puts to Lady Reason are about complaints that women are "like a rose which is lovely to look at but hides its sharp thorns underneath." Lady Reason corrects this idea taken out of context by stating that the thorns are just what a virtuous woman needs to "make her reserved, cautious and prudent in order to protect herself." The question is put as to why women do not serve in courts of law, and Lady Reason responds that "God created man and woman to serve Him in different ways" such that it is more in man's nature to enforce law. While Christine and Lady Reason work together, Christine asks Lady Reason about what she has read asserting the inherent (physical, mental, and moral) inferiority of women to men, to which Lady Reason replies, "Let us throw out all these horrible, ugly, misshapen stones from your work as they have no place in your beautiful city."

Analysis

The character of Christine is de Pizan herself, evidently at that stage in her life when she has been a widow for some time and has supported her household to the point where she has some leisure to continue her studies. This state of affairs is suggested by Christine as her mother, who has evidently taken over the wifely chores of preparing meals, has called her away to supper. Later in The Book of the City of Ladies Lady Rectitude reminds Christine that she has written poetry in memory of her virtuous husband, and that he supported her writing.

The book Christine has picked up for some "light reading" is Matheolus's Lamentations (as it was titled in its French translation by the 14th-century author Jean Le Fèvre, who also penned his own defense of women), which at the time of de Pizan's life was still very popular among the literate population of the French court. By classifying the book as "light" and also suggesting she had heard that it "praises women," de Pizan takes a sharp jab at the author who, having written it in Latin, takes himself and his tirade against women with the greatest of serious intent while she herself opens the book free of any preconceived notions of its tone or contents. The reader of de Pizan's time would have been well aware that Matheolus's writing is the complete opposite of any praise for the female sex.

The work, written in Latin (1290–91), is a vitriolic attack on the institution of marriage "in which the author vilifies women for making men's lives a misery." Matheolus (aka Mathieu of Boulogne) evidently had good reason to rail against marriage. Although married only once to a widow, his marriage was classified as "bigamous" because Mathieu was a church cleric, and therefore subject to the rules of celibacy. The injunction against him ruined his career, and Mathieu spent a good deal of time and money in a failed attempt to get a dispensation from the Pope to keep his benefice after marriage.

An English translation of Lamentations includes titles such as "The Free-wheeling Widow" and "Monstrous Woman." Matheolus concludes his rant under a section titled "Termination of the Female Sex," in which he pleads with God to put Adam's rib (from which the first biblical woman Eve was created) back in place so that "woman will be no more. Thus, she will not be saved or resurrected." Since de Pizan also read Boccaccio's works and mentions some of the characters in his Decameron, she likely took note of the character of the Wife of Bath, who also objected to Matheolus's views.

There are several devices by which de Pizan immediately establishes divine authority in The Book of the City of Ladies. The reiteration of the number 3 is a deliberate reference to the Trinity emphasized by the church and worked into the architecture of cathedrals. De Pizan's book is divided into three main sections, or tasks of building the city, each one supervised by a God-sent quality personified as a "majestic" lady. The device of presenting qualities as feminine is long-standing, dating from classical Greek philosophers, who listed the primary virtues as prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. This was carried over into early Christian philosophy by the Roman Christian philosopher Boethius (c. 470/5–524) who, in his landmark work The Consolation of Philosophy (c. 524), laments his degraded state and is given consolation in the personages of Ladies Philosophy and Fortune, who appear and speak to him in a dream vision.

Biblical references play out in every part of The Book of the City of Ladies, not only in the examples of Christian women of virtue but also in parallels in the dialogue. One of the first of these references occurs in the words with which Christine accepts her mission. She validates the divine authority of her task with her acceptance and by using the same words the Virgin Mary said upon having been told she would be the mother of Christ (Luke 1:38).
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