The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards)

Christine de Pizan is a rare example of a literary woman from the Medieval period. She was raised in the French Court after her Italian father took a job there as an astrologer and physician. There she achieved a high level of education that wouldn’t have been possible in the male-dominated arenas of the Italian City-States. Married at fifteen to a court official and widowed from her happy marriage, she attempted to support herself and her children through her writing.

The Book of the City of Ladies addresses the slander that women are by nature full of vice and evil. Ancient and contemporary writers often accused women of being lewd and unable to control their sexual desires, as being weak and cowardly, as being unfit for government or law, as unintelligent, who brought nothing but unhappiness to their husbands, and were the cause of humanity’s downfall through Eve.

“[J]udging from the treatises of all philosophers and poets and from all the orators . . .  it seems that they all speak from one and the same mouth. They all concur in one conclusion: that the behavior of women is inclined to and full of every vice (4).”

All of this anti-female discourse found in the great works fills Christine with low self-esteem, self-hated, and loathing of her own sex.

“I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have deigned to make such an abominable work which, from what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice. . . . I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were monstrosities in nature (5).”

Christine is confronted by the female allegorical figures Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Like much medieval allegorical work, Christine is influenced by Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy in which Lady Philosophy arrives to comfort Boethius at the dawn of his execution and correct his mistaken views about divine justice. Like Lady Philosophy, Reason, Rectitude, and Justice have come to comfort Christine in her distress, challenge the lies of these male writers, and help her build a City of Ladies for future generations whose walls will defend the virtue of women.

“What more do you want me to tell you, my dear daughter? It seems to me that I have brought sufficient proof of my intention, which was to show you, through reasoning and example, that God has never held, nor now holds, the feminine sex—nor that of men—in reproach (97).”

Reason points out that those who blame Eve for humanity’s Fall ignore the more important contribution of the Virgin Mary who provided humanity’s salvation. Reason acknowledges that there may be some merit in attacking “lewd” women, but writers that do so often go beyond these reasonable boundaries and assume all women are dissolute. Reason tells Christine that these male writers attack women due to their own vices, jealousy, and enjoyment of slander.

In response to the claim that women should have no place in law, government, or dispensing justice, Reason offers many examples of women leaders who were known for their just rule such as Nicaula the Empress of Ethiopia and Fredegund the Queen of France. To counter the point that women are physically weaker, cowardly, and have less strength, Reason notes how nature often makes up for defects in one area by giving an advantage in another. Aristotle was misshapen physically, but had a first-rate mind. Alexander the Great was ugly and sickly, but his courageous heart and virtuous qualities made him a first-rate warrior and leader. Likewise, some strong men, far from being virtuous, have committed such heinous acts during war that they’ve damned their souls and would’ve been better off being born with weak feminine bodies. Reason goes on to list the many women who have demonstrated courage and strength in history. She mentions Semiramis of Nineveh who conquered Babylon, Assyria, Ethiopia, and India. Another exemplar is Queen Thamiramis of the Amazons who defeated the Persian King Cyrus, and then chopped off his head, and threw it into a bucket of blood as ridicule for his never-ending bloodlust. While the Amazon warriors Menalippe and Hippolyta unhorsed Hercules and Theseus in battle, and Penthesilea the Amazon took on whole armies of Greeks to avenge Hector’s death. She could only be stopped when Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son, ambushed her with all his forces.

Reason next addresses whether women can be as clever and intelligent as men. The perception that women know less than men arises from lack of equal access to education and that women spend their days running a household rather than participating in a variety of human activities that would require of them and provide them with a broader education. Examples of educated women include Conficia who went to school with her brother and became a famous poet mentioned by both Saint Gregory and Boccaccio. While Proba mastered all seven liberal arts and knew all of Virgil’s works by heart. The Greek Sappho who also gets a mention was not only well-educated, but a celebrated poet. Reason elaborates on this claim further by pointing out that many women have invented new fields and technology. Nicostrata also called Carmentis was the first to institute laws in the Italian lands that would later become Rome. Minerva invented techniques for making armor. Indeed, she was so wise and so skilled that according to Reason the pagans mistook her for a goddess. Ceres invented the science of agriculture and farming, while Isis invented the art of gardening and planting.  The last part of Reason’s discussion involves prudence or the discipline to complete what needs to be done. Here Reason buttresses her argument by offering a gloss on the biblical proverbs. Some of her prudent women include Gaia Cirilla, Queen Dido, Opis, and Lavinia who marries Aeneas in the Aeneid.

 

Next it is Rectitude’s turn who calls out the foolishness of parents that desire sons over daughters. She argues that sons are more likely to resent their parent’s poverty or desire their parent’s death if their parents happen to be rich in order to inherit property quicker, while daughters tend to be more loyal. Rectitude then gives example of daughters loyal to parents through tough times. Next, Rectitude challenges the stereotype that marriage is filled with unhappiness for men because of controlling, disloyal wives. Indeed, often the opposite is true.

“How many women are there actually, dear friend—and you yourself know—who because of their husbands’ harshness spend their weary lives in the bond of marriage in greater suffering than if they were slaves among the Saracens? My God! How many harsh beatings—without cause and without reason—how many injuries, how many cruelties, insults, humiliations, and outrages have so many upright women suffered, none of whom cried out for help? And consider all the women who die of hunger and grief with a home full of children, while their husbands carouse dissolutely or go on binges in every tavern all over town, and still the poor women are beaten by their husbands when they return, and that is their supper! (119).”

This denunciation against abusive husbands challenges the slander that women make men unhappy in marriage. In reality, it is men who often make women unhappy in marriage.  Still, women often remain loyal to their husbands, despite this mistreatment.

To challenge the claim that women are unfaithful, Rectitude turns to well-known mythological examples such as Dido’s loyalty to Aeneas, Medea’s loyalty to Jason, Thisbe to Pyramus, Hero to Leander, and the Griselda tale, which is such a prototypical tale of constancy in the Middle Ages, that it is retold in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s the Decameron as well. Rectitude tells of Portia who is so loyal to her husband, Brutus, that after he is defeated in battle during the Civil War that follows Julius Caesar’s assassination, she swallows burning coals to commit suicide in solidarity with her deceased spouse.  Rectitude also lists women who helped save their people from destruction or danger such as the biblical figures Mary, Judith, and Queen Esther. Rectitude shows that men are often happier or would be happier if they listened to their wives’ sound advice to keep them out of mischief. One such example is Veturia the wife of Cornelius who convinces her husband not to destroy Rome.

The final allegorical figure is Justice who comes to complete the city. The Virgin Mary is brought to reign as Queen of the City of Ladies. Justice speaks of female saints who suffer and survive many tortures at the hands of tyrannical Roman Emperors and zealous pagans. Christine saves these figures for last because they have the most unimpeachable virtue. She provides countless examples of saintly women who were chosen by God Himself to suffer in His name and convert the pagans. Any male writer who wishes to claim all women are nothing but vice and evil will struggle to rebut the many examples of female saints who represent the most virtuous of people in the Christian worldview and the exact opposite of their claims. Not only is Christine making a statement of who is most deserving to occupy the choicest places of her allegorical city, but seen in terms of a rhetorical strategy she is saving her best arguments for last.
Christine should be viewed as a proto-Feminist who focuses on women’s issues and questions the stereotypes men have of women, yet she is also a product of her times. It is inaccurate to envision her as a feminist in the modern sense fighting for complete liberation from patriarchal society or who supports free love. As Reason says earlier women who live dissolute lives should be criticized; in so far as this reflects Christine’s views, she is not someone who’s going to argue that women should be able to sleep with as many partners as they want. Her ideal women are chaste virgins who devote their lives to God, as shown by her female saints occupying the highest mansions of the City of Ladies, and those who do choose to get married she argues at various points should be subject to their husbands as St. Paul suggests. However, she does call out bad husbands explicitly and doesn’t shy away from challenging male authority when it is wrong or immoral by those same Christian standards. Her devotion to Christianity doesn’t come second to her advocating for women’s rights; the work is a synthesis of the two where the slander of men is wrong in part because women are often good Christians demonstrating virtuous behavior and productive members of society.

With her Christian beliefs in mind, Christine adopts a euhemerist model to handle her pagan mythological references. This view of mythology argues that the figures of myth are real historical figures, usually great men and women, whose actual history has become exaggerated, obscured, and transformed over time into myth. When she mentions Uranus and Vesta, they are no longer the progenitor sky and earth deities, but Uranus is reduced to “an extremely powerful man in Greece (95).” Saturn is not the King of the Titans anymore, but rather he is the King of Crete. Christine applies these assumptions with many other classical gods and goddess, claiming they were humans whose wisdom or excessive virtue led the pagans to incorrectly believe they were gods. In this vein, Rectitude talks about the ten sibyls. It was a medieval belief that one of the sibyls prophesied Jesus and spoke out against paganism. This bring us to an important point in Christine’s literary strategy. She wants to be able to use ancient sources steeped in paganism, but obviously can’t use them wholesale due to Christian social mores. So in the case of the sibyls she turns them into proto-Christians and in the case of the pagan deities she uses a euhemeristic understanding of mythology to make these exemplars more palatable to a Christian audience and reconcilable to her monotheistic beliefs.

This leaves us with the City itself, which Reason, Rectitude, and Justice help build with their arguments. The walls and structures of the city are built out of all the virtuous qualities the women of history, literature, the Bible, and mythology have shown. By erecting the city on these arguments, they are designed to protect women from future slander.

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Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod

Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya

Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya



The poet “often mentioned in the same breath as Homer” serves as our “other main representative of the early [Greek] world-view.” Not exactly the most inspiring material in the world, Hesiod presents the cosmogony of the world as genealogy, providing us with the birth of three hundred plus gods and goddesses into the world. Since the gods and goddesses are almost all abstractions of nature (the sea, the earth, the wind), this genealogy of the deities is also the literal creation of the world.

Within the structure of the genealogical narrative we have the birth of Mother Earth from the Chasm (often translated as Chaos in English, but the concept is really more void than it is disorderly). Earth mates with Uranos (the sky) and gives birth to the Titans. Uranos prevents the Earth from giving birth, leaving her groaning in perpetual pregnancy. Eventually Mother Earth convinces her child, Kronos, to rebel against their tyrannical father and he castrates him. The white foam from Uranos’s severed member gives birth to Aphrodite, the goddess of love–a very suggestive sexual image.

The next generation features Kronos as king who marries his sister, Rhea. He eats his children so that none of them will overthrow him. Eventually with the help of Mother Earth, Zeus comes to power, forcing Kronos to vomit up his brothers and sisters, which leads to a civil war between the gods that the Olympians win. Zeus avoids the fate of his father by eating his first wife, Metis, after she becomes pregnant with the goddess Athena.

The Earth in this myth serves as a reproductive force that consistently renews society. This of course actually captures the natural attributes of the earth; for it is the earth that provides food and grain that gives society its sustenance and thus renews it for another day, while the earth also possesses the ability to destroy societies through natural disasters, allowing for a superior civilization to replace another in a different sort of renewal. The rise of Zeus and his permanent reign can be seen as symbolic of civilization reaching such a state of agricultural complexity that it can conquer nature and the destructive renewing powers of Mother Earth; like Zeus such a society has reached a point where it can control its own fate.

Likewise, there is a gender role theme buried in the myth. Uranos tries to prevent the pregnancy of Mother Earth and control the female body. Kronos tries to appropriate the female domain of pregnancy by swallowing his children and returning them to the womb so to speak. Zeus, however, realizes that men cannot steal the power of reproduction from women by making it their own or preventing it altogether. Instead he swallows the woman, letting her keep her unique power of life and traditional role as mother. His strategy is to establish his authority over her, rather than to steal or prevent her power. He literally incorporates her into his domain, symbolized by his body, by swallowing her. He learns from the mistakes of his fathers; he decides to let the women keep the ability to produce children, but claims ultimate power over the women themselves and thus by extension their children. Does this myth then hide an ancient cult of the Mother goddess that was later replaced by a pantheon of male gods and document the historical rise of patriarchal rule over women as certain feminists suggest? It’s hard to say for sure, but certainly the imagery is rich in symbolic possibilities concerning these issues on a more abstract level.

Other stories besides the creation are incorporated into the long-winded genealogy: the Prometheus trickster tales, the creation of woman, and even hints at the Trojan War stories that would inspire Homer’s famous epic poems. However, the main thrust is the creation of the gods and by extension the creation of human society and the abstractions of high importance to the formation of human societies.

Hesiod’s second poem is a didactic manual that includes our first known example of a fable, shares wisdom about the good life, what pitfalls one should avoid to achieve happiness, odd superstitions, biographical details about his life, and remonstrations against his brother Preses who apparently bribed officials so that he could take a bigger slice of land that their father left to them as inheritance. Elements of it remind me of biblical wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc.); it also clearly influenced Virgil’s own didactic manual about cultivating the land known as the Georgics. Not the most exciting work I’ve ever read, but worth reading at least once I suppose.