Review: Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan
Title: 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)
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.