Introduction to The Book of the City of Ladies
March 3, 2012
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I’ve so been looking forward to this book! I’ve never done a group discussion blog or anything before, though, so I hope you’ll forgive me for being a newbie.
Christine de Pizan (1363-c.1430) was quite a well-known poet in her day. She was born in Venice, but her father accepted a position at the French court soon after. Christine grew up in Paris, privileged with with unusual opportunities for self-education, which she pursued with zeal. She married at 15 and was widowed at 24, at which point she started writing as a professional pursuit in order to support herself and several dependents. Over a 30-year career, she wrote exclusively in Middle French and moved from ballads and courtly poems to longer works and discussion with literary intellectuals of the time. She was deeply involved in the “Querelle du Roman de la Rose,” an argument over the merits of of that work, and her Book of the City of Ladies is her answer to that rather misogynistic poem (which I just read!) and other texts that slandered women as weak, morally corrupt, and generally impossible to live with.
In her book, Christine builds an entire metaphorical city out of noble, heroic, or righteous women. She creates three allegorical women, Reason, Justice, and Rectitude, who engage in a dialogue with her about why women are slandered and how to show that women do not deserve this reputation. They help her to build the City of Ladies out of stories: first by dismantling literary lies about women, and then by building their city out of stories about great deeds done by women. Finally they choose a queen for their city, and Christine appeals to her readers to refute the lies of men.
The Book of the City of Ladies was a big deal in 1405, but in the intervening centuries it fell into obscurity–in the English language, at least. Simone de Beauvoir knew of it, but a modern English translation did not appear until the early 1980’s. Scholars have brought Christine de Pizan back into prominence over the last few decades, for which I am thankful. I hope you’ll join us in reading this early defense of women’s rights.