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 14–26 | Summary

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Summary

In this section grouping, Christine and Lady Reason delineate a foundation on examples of royal women who cannot be considered inferior to men because of less physical strength. Christine pursues the line of reasoning that compared to men, "women are by nature fearful creatures, having weak, frail bodies and lacking in physical strength." But Lady Reason turns this observation from a negative lack in women to one of moral and spiritual strength, for "if Nature decided not to endow women with a powerful physique, she none the less made up for it by giving them a most virtuous disposition: that of loving God and being fearful of disobeying His commandments." And with this established, Lady Reason sets the first stone in the trench, telling Christine she must now take the trowel of her pen and set to the building work.

This commences with an account of exceptional women drawn from pagan Greek and Roman antiquity (such as the Amazons) to whom Nature has given a warrior's strength. Although these women were ultimately vanquished by such legendary heroes as Hercules, Achilles, and Theseus, they nevertheless displayed extraordinary battle prowess and courage in the defense of their people. Lady Reason concludes her account of the Amazons and their role in the siege of the city of Troy by declaring, that "of all the kingdoms ... there is none that could boast such ... extraordinary deeds as this great nation could of its queens and ladies." She rounds out her litany of noble ladies of the past who, although they did not take up arms themselves, inspired their sons to do so, or who endured imprisonment with such grace and dignity that they won the hearts of their captors.

Analysis

The line of reasoning along which "the rule is proved by its exceptions" is brought forward in these sections by Lady Reason. The biographic catalog of women she commits to Christine's pen includes the legendary Amazons, who ferociously fought arm-to-arm alongside men in battle. The land of warrior women ruled by a queen was represented in ancient Greek literature as "unknown." According to epic tales of the Trojan War, Amazon troops fought on the side of the Trojans against the attack by the Greeks with admirable courage, but the end result was their defeat at the hands of the Greek hero Achilles, who killed their queen in battle. Another Greek hero, Heracles (Roman name Hercules) sets out on a quest to obtain the girdle of the queen of the Amazons as one of the "twelve labors" imposed upon him.

The Greek hero Theseus has his own encounter with the Amazons when (in the version given by de Pizan) he joins forces with Hercules to capture an Amazon princess, whom he marries. The English playwright William Shakespeare uses the nuptials of Theseus and the Amazon queen Hippolyta as the frame of his 1595–6 play, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The Amazons, according to most stories, were reputed to have been a tribe of women endowed with exceptional physical strength who were well trained in weaponry from childhood. By contrast, the masculine heroes (Hercules and Theseus) who vanquish them at arms and "in marriage" decidedly have one immortal parent. A clue to one historical basis for the tales of Amazon women may be found in an examination of the Sarmatians, who offered considerable resistance to the Roman Empire "as late as the 1st century AD." In addition to the practice of a horse sacrifice to their fire god, unmarried Sarmatian women were known to fight alongside the men. "Sarmatian female warriors may have inspired the Greek tales of Amazons." The DC comics character "Wonder Woman" is Diana, an Amazon princess in a modern-day version of the warrior-woman fantasy.

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