Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies: The West’s 1st Feminist Text?

The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan is an allegorical dream vision written in French vernacular prose – as well as being the West’s first feminist text.

Dec 10, 2023By Catherine Dent, MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature
pizan book city of ladies feminist

 

When Christine de Pizan completed The Book of the City of Ladies in 1405, it was just her second long work of prose – and it would go on to be her defining work. Having initiated what is known as the “Querelle du Roman de la Rose” after objecting to Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s misogynistic depiction of women in the wildly popular Roman de la Rose, The Book of the City of Ladies constituted Pizan’s formal literary riposte. Here, she conjures up an allegorical city of famous women (which, in turn, is also the book itself), which she in turn marshals in furtherance of her argument that women have played a vital – if all too frequently underappreciated – role in society throughout history and continue to do so. Here, we will take a closer look at Pizan’s seminal work to uncover why it is considered the founding text of western feminism.

 

Who Was Christine de Pizan?

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Detail of Christine de Pizan presenting her bound manuscript to the Queen of France, from The Queen’s Manuscript, c. 1410–1414, f. 3r (Harley MS 4431), via the British Library

 

Christine de Pizan was a court writer who took up the profession following the deaths of her husband and father to support her mother, her children, and herself. Though born in the Republic of Venice, her father had been appointed the King of France’s royal astrologer when she was a small child, so the family moved to Paris in 1368.

 

Now ensconced in the royal court, she was fervently patriotic throughout her life and frequently wrote in support of the French royalty. She also married Etienne du Castel, who worked as a notary and royal secretary within the court, in 1379.

 

Following the death of her father in 1388 and then of her husband during an outbreak of the plague one year later, however, it fell to Christine de Pizan to support her three children as well as her own mother. She did this by becoming a court writer, penning love ballads perennially popular with the wealthy courtiers and winning their patronage.

 

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These patrons commissioned her to write for them, and in 1410 she was paid the handsome sum of 200 livres by the royal treasury to publish Livre des fais d’armes et de chevalerie, a manual on chivalry, in which she argued (among other things) that the right to wage war belonged solely to sovereign monarchs.

 

However, it is largely for her poem Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc (The Tale of Joan of Arc) and her allegorical prose dream vision Le Livre de la cité des dames (The Book of the City of Ladies) that she is remembered today.

 

The Book of the City of Ladies

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Illumination in which Christine de Pizan meets the Three Virtues and begins constructing the City of Ladies, from The Queen’s Manuscript, c. 1410–1414, f. 290r (Harley MS 4431), via the British Library

 

The Book of the City of Ladies is divided into three parts. At the beginning of part one, Pizan reads the Lamentations of Matheolus, a thirteenth-century French cleric and poet, in which he reviles women, claiming that they ruin men’s lives. Matheolus’ misogynistic views sadden Pizan and leave her feeling ashamed of and disgusted by her own sex. In her despair, however, the three Virtues appear before her in female form in order to instruct Pizan to build a city of ladies.

 

She is assisted in this task by Lady Reason, who helps her to construct the city’s external walls. In laying the foundations on which the city is to be built, Lady Reason explains why women have been slandered by men and encourages her to exercise her own reason when reading male writers’ unfavorable opinions of them. Drawing on a range of exemplary women from the Amazons to Mary Magdalene, Lady Reason shows Pizan – and, by extension, the reader – that women are neither hopelessly inept nor inherently wicked. Instead, she encourages her to appreciate the formative roles women have taken on in various societies throughout history.

 

In the second part of The Book of the City of Ladies, Pizan and Lady Rectitude begin work on erecting the houses and buildings within the city’s walls to be populated by women of great renown. While doing so, Lady Rectitude tells Pizan stories of women across cultures and mythologies renowned for their devotion (be that to God, their families, or their communities), chastity, bravery, and, in some cases, the gift of prophecy. Among the women listed in the work’s second part are the Virgin Mary, Judith, Ruth, Esther, Penelope, Cassandra, and Marie de Berry, a contemporary French noblewoman to whom Pizan dedicated some of her works.

 

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The Assumption of the Virgin by Studio of Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1625, via National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

 

In order to address Pizan’s lingering misgivings over Matheolus’ claims that women make men miserable through marriage, Lady Rectitude offers Pizan examples of women who are admirable wives, such as Lucretia and Griselda, remaining loving and faithful to their husbands throughout adversity. Rather than dwelling on instances where women’s husbands behave appallingly (it is noteworthy that Arachne is mentioned in the first part of The Book of the City of Ladies and the tests to which Griselda is subjected by her husband hint at his capacity for cruelty), of those women who do not act in obedience to their husbands Lady Rectitude claims that they are unnatural women. At the end of part two, Pizan addresses the women and exhorts them to pray for her as she continues to build the city – now with the help of Lady Justice.

 

In the third and final installment of the book, Lady Justice and Pizan add the final touches to the city and summon a queen to rule it (Pizan was a fervent supporter of the French royal family and of monarchy more generally as a system of government). The women listed in this section are saints, martyrs, and women of faith, including the Virgin Mary (who is nominated to be the Queen of the City of Ladies), Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Saint Margaret of Antioch, and women who served the Apostles. When the city is complete, Pizan again addresses the women of the City of Ladies, calling on them to defend their city (and the reputation of womankind) and to abide by their queen, the Virgin Mary.

 

Pizan’s Influences & Her Lasting Legacy

christine de pizan manuscript
Detail depicting Christine de Pizan writing in her study, from The Queen’s Manuscript, c. 1410–1414, f. 4r (Harley MS 4431), via the British Library

 

Two writers who clearly motivated Pizan to write The Book of the City of Ladies are Matheolus and Jean de Meun. In The Book of the City of Ladies, Pizan offers a counterargument to their (and other male writers’) depictions of women as alternately incompetent, immoral, and impractical. In constructing her City of Ladies, their work must (quite literally) be cleared away before she can lay her own foundations.

 

The Book of the City of Ladies also betrays the influence of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris (On Famous Women), which Pizan most probably read in the French translation, Des Cleres et Nobles Femmes. Boccaccio’s text is a compilation of biographies of women from history and mythology. Pizan may also have drawn inspiration from Boccaccio’s Decameron in writing the latter parts of her allegorical defense of women.

 

For the most part, Pizan draws on Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris for the first and second parts of The Book of the City of Ladies. As the third part focuses on women of faith within a Christian framework, however, Pizan turned instead to Jean de Vignay’s Miroir historical (1333), a French translation of the historical entries in Speculum Maius, an important medieval encyclopedia written by Vincent of Beauvais.

 

Though inspired by or responding to various works by men, Christine de Pizan created something entirely her own in writing The Book of the City of Ladies. As she was driven to write her allegorical dream vision by male writers’ misogyny, Pizan’s aim is to argue the case for women’s contribution to society. That society, of course, was still a patriarchal one, so some of the virtues Pizan emphasizes (such as wifely devotion) are decidedly traditionalist. Nonetheless, The Book of the City of Ladies remains an impassioned vindication of women and a foundational feminist text.

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By Catherine DentMA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English LiteratureCatherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.