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 37–69 | Summary

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Summary

In this section grouping, examples of women are given who have had great difficulty preserving their virtue because they are attractive and have had to fend off the amorous advances of lewd men. Both pagan and biblical women faced with this problem are cited as exemplary in their creative solutions exposing false witness against their virtue. The charge that attractive women are not chaste is countered with numerous women in the Bible (and the pagan Greek wife Penelope, whose fidelity steadfastly endured for 10 years) who preserved their virtue against lecherous men, starting with Susanna. The issue of chastity expands into the subject of rape, and the charge that women "want to be raped" is emphatically rebutted with the example of the Roman wife Lucretia, who preferred to kill herself upon having been raped than to live in dishonor. The pressure powerful men place on women they unlawfully desire is brought forward in the case of the Roman emperor Nero, whose "lechery, cruelty and greed knew no bounds."

A long list of other women constant in virtue follows, including that of the humbly born Griselda, who married a nobleman. This husband wished to test her fidelity (and to silence his barons who grumbled about her lack of noble blood) by putting her through a series of horrible trials. As each of her children were born, her husband took them away to be killed, but she said no word against it. When Griselda refused to waver in her constancy, her husband restored to her all the children he had taken away, and her constancy despite a humble birth herself won the full support of the awed barons.

But not all such wives are rewarded for their fidelity. Lady Rectitude adds to the list of women of pagan Greece and Rome who were faithful but betrayed in love. She tells Christine the story of Medea, who risked her life to benefit and marry her husband, Jason. Jason betrays Medea by taking another wife while Medea "would have let herself be torn limb from limb rather than play such a false trick on him." At the conclusion of gathering this large company of ladies to the city, Christine invites them all to inhabit the buildings and asks them to pray for her to complete the city with the help of Lady Justice.

Analysis

The line of discussion in these sections goes well along Lady Rectitude's straight "ruler" from attacks against the chastity of women (such as the biblical story of Susanna) to rape (the Roman story of Lucretia), to the litany of the Roman emperor Nero's utterly depraved abuses of power that ruined and disgraced every woman within his reach. This line concludes with the example of the Greek princess Medea who, although well versed in practical and clairvoyant knowledge that she put to good use to help Jason (with whom she had fallen in love), was ultimately betrayed by him.

The example of Medea is given as a particularly grievous example of omission and denigration in the classical literature written by men about women of learning. While Medea is usually accounted as an evil sorceress who murdered her own children and Jason's young bride to revenge herself against her faithless husband, Lady Rectitude brings forward all the things Medea did for love of Jason as a kind of justification for her behavior. By sandwiching her story between two others in which the women were constant in love, de Pizan highlights Jason's cowardly faithlessness even though Medea was entirely faithful to him. At the end of the story, it is Medea's grief that comes forward, not the murders she committed for revenge.

The placement of the stories of Medea and Griselda is interesting in that both these ladies were "outsiders" to the people over whom their husbands ruled. Griselda was not born into the nobility, so her fidelity was under suspicion by her husband's supporting barons even if he himself had no doubts of her. Although a princess in her own right, Medea broke all ties with her family and people to stay with Jason, and followed him to his own kingdom, where she was a foreigner. As is suggested in other accounts of Medea, it is her uncanny abilities as a sorceress and her "outsider" origins that place her under suspicion such that Jason's marriage to a bride more acceptable (and politically expedient) to his supporters is not so much a whim on his part as a means to securing his rule.

The example of Susanna, which appears in the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, is a lesson in the consequences of false witness—even if those witnesses are elderly and respected men—when their lewdness is discovered and punished for the harm done to a young woman of renowned chastity. This lays the ground to highlight the chastity of the Christian martyrs listed in Part 3.

The idea that women who appear to be chaste and virtuous but really are—as an intrinsic moral weakness of the female sex—quite easy to corrupt or actually "want to be raped" is tackled with the tragedy of Lucretia. Lucretia, whose rape and consequent suicide in the shame her defilement brought upon her husband, is reputed to have precipitated the shift from a corrupt monarchy to a republic in Roman governance. Her story is the subject of a lengthy poem by William Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece (1594) and an opera by British composer Benjamin Britten, The Rape of Lucretia (1946). Although the Roman author Ovid, in his Art of Love, was being ironic in his advice "on how to catch women who, despite appearing chaste, are in fact all too willing to be caught," subsequent misogynists used his words as proof that the essential nature of the female sex is so corrupt that the only effect women can have on men is to corrupt them as well.

The depravities of the Roman emperor Nero have been a favorite target of Christian writers who do not neglect to list his persecutions of the earliest Christians. De Pizan brings forward how Nero treated his mother, aunt, and wife as a significant exhibition of his ruin of women in a continuity of his antagonism to God in killing the true Christian believers, virtuous men, and women.

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