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Review: Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan

March 30, 2012

Book of the City of Ladies coverTitle: Book of the City of Ladies
Author: de Pizan, Christine
Translator: Brown-Grant, Rosalind
Length: 284 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Medieval Allegory
Publisher / Year: Penguin Books / 1999 (originally published in 1405)
Source: Chapters.
Rating: 4/5
Why I Read It: The March read for A Year of Feminist Classics.
Date Read: 21/03/12

While this book is definitely dated, at the same time it is a fantastic and inspirational read. Christine de Pizan in this book has written a passionate defence of women using the common conceptions and forms of the 1400s as her starting point. She uses allegory and writes as herself building a city of ladies along with the help of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, who have shown up in her hour of need to help her see the truth of how women are true humans and shouldn’t be denigrated as they are. Using the sources that male writers were using to slander women such as religion, mythical, pagan and historical texts, de Pizan has the three ladies dispute all of the claims that Christine (the character) remembers that the male authors have made of women.

Through this work we see how women were portrayed and seen in this time, and a bit of how they lived. We also get a good grounding in the historical, religious, and mythological beliefs and stories that were common at the time. Among the stories were many of which I had heard, as well as many with which I was unfamiliar. Part of the interest in this book is definitely learning about all of these women through history and who populate many of the myths.

As Brown-Grant says in the introduction, de Pizan’s brand of feminism (if we can, indeed, apply that label historically to women who existed prior to our defining the term) certainly isn’t one that we would put much weight behind today. She doesn’t suggest that men and women should have equal opportunities, for example, but she nonetheless has paved the way. Without women like this throughout history who have performed some of the necessary beginning work of even simply proving men and women equally human, would we even be where we are today? Perhaps we would, but still important to acknowledge the historical women who came before us as well I think. Using the conventions and opinions of her time, de Pizan took on the misogynists and argued for equality at least of humanity, which is a fantastic and necessary start.

This work shows its time by displaying gross examples of racism, classism, and through its heavy reliance on the Christian religion to prove points. It is disappointing but I suppose not altogether surprising in a work written during such a period that has remained known up until today. Those few thinkers who didn’t show their privilege and display oppressions themselves seem to generally be less known!

Despite it’s issues (which may be partially explained due to the time during which it was written), this was a really interesting book that I would recommend to anyone interested in medieval literature or in early feminist works.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2012 11:48 am

    Oh, oh, oh! I read a historical fiction book not that long ago that featured Christine de Pizan, and seeing you review this book today is so wonderful! I bet this would be a wonderful read for me, and I would be curious to see what a feminist text from that time period looked like. Great review today, Amy!

    • April 8, 2012 6:08 pm

      Hey that sounds really interesting zibilee, which book was it?

  2. March 30, 2012 12:59 pm

    Shout out to Feminist Classics. Hope you enjoying Egypt.

  3. March 30, 2012 2:04 pm

    This is one I’ve always wanted to read. Thanks for a great review, Amy!

  4. aartichapati permalink
    March 30, 2012 2:48 pm

    Oh, interesting! I’ve never heard of this book and I think the racism/classism/religion would probably really bother me, so I’m not sure I *should* read it, but I’m glad it’s there 🙂

    • April 8, 2012 6:11 pm

      Yes, it is frustrating at the same time as being interesting Aarti. The historical perspective itself is interesting… but yeah…

  5. April 1, 2012 2:53 pm

    Love this book! Great review, Amy 😉

  6. April 1, 2012 5:10 pm

    I was very bothered by how she praised women who meekly submitted to the will of abusive husbands as examples of Christ-like patience and forbearance. It reminded me uncomfortably of those horrible Elsie Dinsmore books beloved by hardcore evangelical Christians today. But on the other hand, it ironically demonstrates that women, despite allegations otherwise, really are loyal and obedient even when they have every reason not to be. So she’s writing in a very different cultural context with a very different worldview. Interesting how much has changed in Western culture since then.

    • April 8, 2012 6:12 pm

      Yes, I could not and would not have done very well in that time period EL Fay! It was like all the good women either put up with and lived through complete hell, or were virgin martyrs. Yikes. It is definitely interesting to see how much has changed… and yet… as you say it does remind one of some of the evangelical movement stuff and that is so worrying. HOW can something so old still have relevance in such a horrid way?!

  7. Brian Joseph permalink
    June 15, 2012 8:55 pm

    Amy – Sorry for the late comment but I just completed this work and put up a post up over on my blog. I knew that you had blogged about it but intentionally did not read your post until mine was up as I did not want to unintentionally steal your ideas.

    I thought that this book was brilliant. As you allude to, Christine fit her very anti-misogynist message into Christian ideology. Though I am not an adherent to any religious theology tI actually think that this was another creative and interesting aspect to this book.

    • June 17, 2012 4:12 pm

      Hey never too late for a comment Brian! Especially if you just finished the book yourself – in that case, perfect time for a comment. I’m glad to hear you really enjoyed the book. Off to check out your review now.

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  1. March 2012 Reading Wrap-Up « Amy Reads

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