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 27–48 | Summary

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Summary

In this section grouping, Christine asks Lady Reason about women whose minds have been graced with superior knowledge, to which Lady Reason responds with numerous examples of women schooled alongside their brothers. The application of these women to enhance their education on a consistent and sustaining basis also results in benefits to their people. Having been satisfied with a plentitude of examples of women to whom both Nature and Fortune had given "extraordinary powers" with which to act upon the world stage, Christine turns to Lady Reason and asks of her, "But, if you don't mind, please tell me if ... God ever chose to honor any of them with great intelligence and knowledge." Lady Reason vigorously replies that if girls were given the same education as boys, they "would grasp and learn the difficulties of all the arts and sciences just as easily as the boys do." Christine then asks if any women have ever invented a new form of knowledge. Lady Reason is quick to provide the example of Nicostrata (also called Carmentis), who established a system of legal order and the Latin alphabet for the primitive forefathers of Rome. Other inventions by women later revered as goddesses include the arts and tools of agriculture (Ceres), the forging of steel and iron for weaponry (Minerva), and spinning and weaving (Arachne). Her accounting concludes with the observation that men display a "terrible ingratitude ... enjoying all the benefits without having any idea of where they come from or whom they should thank for them."

Christine makes the observation that knowledge is not enough, for "many people ... attaining great learning ... seem to lack judgement when it comes to their personal morals and public behavior." Lady Reason responds that this is true of both men and women, and a man who can gain a wife of virtue and good judgement "will be a husband who lacks for nothing." Lady Reason announces that the foundation and enclosure walls are complete, and turns Christine to the guidance of Lady Rectitude.

Analysis

The issue of separate educational opportunities for girls and boys was, in ancient Greece and Rome, a matter of molding populations to enhance the community by gender. Boys were trained in athletics and military skills, which were emphasized in the Greek city-state of Sparta, while in Athens boys were also expected to participate in the public political life. To this end boys learned rhetoric, philosophy, geometry, and arithmetic. Girls, on the other hand, were taught domestic skills, so that when they married, they could manage the daily households of their private homes.

This generally gendered division in education remained in place through Roman times, and even into the early 1900s, well-to-do boys were sent to public or private schools for a rigorous academic education that would prepare them for military or public service positions in the public sector. However, their sisters' educations were given over to governesses in the home. While some subjects like reading, writing, geography, and arithmetic were taught by these governesses, there was no standard of competence required of these teachers. Besides, the emphasis for the girls was on sewing, music, etiquette and poise (which generally included dancing lessons).

The information de Pizan uses to discuss the personage of Nicostrata (also known as Carmentis) is difficult to trace, but she apparently got her information from the book Concerning Famous Women (c. 1375) originally in Latin (De Claris Mulieribus) by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–75), which was likely the very first of its kind to provide a biographical catalog (a genre of writing dating from classical antiquity, but which primarily described famous men) on the subject of famous women of ancient times. In a 1600s German woodblock, Nicostrata/Carmentis is depicted as the personification of Grammar leading a child to the "tower of learning."

As is common in autobiographic catalogs, both Boccaccio and de Pizan meld mythological and human characteristics in one person as a means of making the information about them more "realistic," inspiring, and creditable to their readers. In de Pizan's case, she describes someone who could have been a "real" living woman who, because of her contributions to her society, is later revered as a goddess. So, for example, Minerva is described as a lady "not only extraordinarily intelligent but also supremely chaste, remaining a virgin all her life ... After her death, the people of Athens built a temple dedicated to her, in which they placed a statue representing wisdom and warfare in the likeness of a girl."

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