The Book of the City of Ladies | Study Guide

Christine de Pizan

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The Book of the City of Ladies | Part 2, Sections 13–29 | Summary

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Summary

In this section grouping, Lady Rectitude offers Christine numerous examples of noble women who were loyal to their husbands, assisting and benefitting them with good advice and preserving their reputations against slander. Lady Rectitude guides Christine through a discussion of the state of marriage, which some male critics such as Theophrastus recommend against because of wives' "shrewish, vengeful nagging." Lady Rectitude points out that these statements are made entirely by men who, eager to point out the faults of wives, rarely (if ever) balance their criticisms with accounts of "so many wives who lead a wretched existence bound in marriage to a brutish husband who makes them suffer greater penance than if they were enslaved by Saracens." By the same coin, Christine and Lady Rectitude agree there are also many marriages in which "both spouses ... are sensible, kind and gentle."

Lady Rectitude brings forward several examples of noble wives who served (sometimes incognito) alongside their husbands and sacrificed their lives for them. Christine brings up critics' claims that women who marry older men despise their husbands, but Lady Rectitude relates several instances of young Greek and Roman women who married older husbands and steadfastly stayed by their side. Other wives followed their husbands into exile, such as Queen Hypsicratea, who disguised herself as a man the better to serve his every need even though all his men abandoned him. To honor her, Lady Rectitude brings her as the first to inhabit the newly constructed city. The lady Tertia Aemilia was devoted to her husband even though he was old and protected him against the scandal of having taken her handmaiden for a mistress. The charge that women are unable to keep a secret or give good advice to their husbands is vigorously challenged with the stories of wives who preserved their husband's honor against slander, or whose advice their husbands ignored, resulting in disaster.

Analysis

The discussion Christine has with Lady Rectitude builds "stone by stone" the progress of a woman's life from childhood to adulthood, and it is in this group of sections that the institution of marriage, which was so vehemently attacked by Matheolus (mentioned in Part 1) is countered with an abundance of supportive examples. Lady Rectitude reminds Christine that although there are many wives who treat their husbands badly, "It is the husband who is the master of the wife, not the other way around," and so therefore by the "straight edge" of rectitude in logic, the bad behavior of a wife is at least in part the fault of the husband.

Theophrastus was a Greek philosopher who became the head of the Lyceum Academy of Athens. His words here are derived from an attempt to characterize people according to their moral types, originally intended to provide a basis for "ethical and rhetorical purposes." Lady Rectitude skillfully moves these moral and ethical designations away from whether or not a person is a man or a woman in order to direct Christine's thinking to focus on the virtue or its lack as the responsibility of each individual regardless of gender. In other words, men do not have the corner on moral strength, and women are not all immoral, on the basis of many examples. The citizens of the City of Ladies are living proof to future generations that not all of what such critics as Theophrastus say about women is true. These criticisms are only partially true of some women and partially true of some men as well.

Lady Rectitude additionally reminds Christine of the many examples of husbands who mistreat and abuse their wives of whom Christine has personal knowledge, a situation in marriages on which the critics of women are selectively silent. Lady Rectitude brings up the point that Christine herself had a good marriage because both she and her husband contributed to its blessings. In other words, the vices and virtues that play out in marriage are amply active in both partners—not just the wife. The subsequent examples of women who saved their husbands add support to the abundant evidence that many women sacrifice themselves for the sake of their husbands.

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