The Book of the City of Ladies: Women and Goddesses

Cover of The Book of the City of Ladies

Title: The Book of the City of Ladies

Author: Christine de Pizan

Translator: Earl Jeffery Richards

Publication Date: 1405, this translation published 1982

LC Call Number: PQ1575.L56 E5

The March book for the Year of Feminist Classics is The Book of the City of Ladies.  This work is one that it’s very important to understand in context. Christine de Pizan is responding to a host of arguments that had been bandied about in the current popular culture, and of course, to know properly whether she represents them accurately, one would need to go back to the source. She also relies heavily on references and history that would certainly have a different meaning to a medieval reader (to whom I suspect many of them would be more familiar), and it would certainly be useful to know exactly how she shapes and in many cases adjusts these stories to better fit the point that she is trying to make.  Sadly, I’m no medievalist; in fact, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I haven’t even read Boccaccio, whom Christine uses extensively, nor The Romance of the Rose, to which this is partly a response.  So the thoughts that I can offer here are in many ways very limited.

Still, I can see that the way that Christine makes her argument throughout the book is very interesting.  According to both the blog post for this month and the introduction in the edition that I read, it follows on from the Quarrel of the Romance of the Rose, in which she attacked a very popular poem of her day for its misogyny. This makes her an early cultural critic, but in this work, she looks at this problem as a historian, identifying claims that have been made about women and using historical evidence to disprove them. So if there are people out there who claim that women are flighty and fickle, Christine produces a long list of examples of steadfast, faithful women and their stories.

I’m well aware that this isn’t how history is conducted today, but there are some interesting things about this approach. I really like its refusal of exceptionalism.  Christine de Pizan was a very privileged woman and also a talented one; she was very highly educated, had access to all kinds of writing, and was a good enough writer to participate in these debates.  She could set herself up as some extraordinary person because of her ability to accomplish what many women were discouraged from doing. This would be great for her ego and probably more pleasing to the powerful people around her.  But she doesn’t do this. Rather, she frames herself as part of a long tradition, one learned woman among many, both from a historical perspective and in the present.  One weakness of this approach, of course, is that the exceptionalism never really goes away. Hostile readers, upon being provided with a list of important women, will always shrug and claim that it is comprehensive.  Christine knows this is a possible criticism; more than once, throughout the book, she specifically points out that she could easily have listed many more examples, but is limiting herself for brevity.

Of course, her lists also have the peculiar feature that one of this month’s discussion questions points out: some of these women are goddesses or other mythological figures.  She also changes many of the stories. I’m not as sensitive to these changes as I would be if I knew all these stories inside out, but I was quite astounded by her treatment of Medea, whom she praises as both learned and faithful, while the murder of her children is not mentioned.  So, what is the effect of changing these stories, and treating goddesses as women? Well… once again, this is where I would love to have some context.  I understand why she wants them to be women. Just to take one example, let’s look at Nicostrata/Carmentis, who is said to have invented the Latin language, instituted laws in Rome, and more.  Her accomplishments, as recounted here, are obviously quite remarkable. Christine’s admiration for her is obvious:

“What more do you want, fair daughter? Can one say anything more solemn about any man born of woman? And do not think of a minute that she was the only woman in the world by whom numerous and varied branches of learning have been discovered!” (I.33.3)

But of course, Christine is also Christian and can’t exactly go around declaring her admiration of Roman goddesses. She doesn’t believe in these goddesses as such, and neither does the audience to whom she is writing. But if she assumes that they are women who were (erroneously, in her view) considered goddess by others, then she is in the clear. In the case of Nicostrata and a few others, she admits that they were known as goddesses, although she doesn’t initially present them that way, but I noticed some other cases where she simply fails to mention that. There are other women she mentions, like Arachne, whom we are very used to seeing as mythological.

To a modern reader, this is a very strange strategy to use.  It undermines her credibility because we think of these figures as embodiments of cultural ideals rather than as actual individuals. Thus, if Nicostrata is presented as knowing the future, writing laws, influencing the arts and inventing languages, we tend to think about how the Romans saw these things as being related, and why they might have conceptually embodied them as feminine.  We don’t think about what an amazing person she must have been, because we don’t think of her as a person at all.  Furthermore, when it’s claimed that she invented Latin, my immediate reaction is astonished skepticism, as we know that this is not how languages come to be.  (Esperanto may be an exception, since people actually do speak it, but this is not a blog about Esperanto.)   That, for me, is the moment at which I come to the conclusion that this particular story is not true.

But I’m a modern reader. Would a medieval reader have considered it reasonable to treat Nicostrata, Athena, etc. as real people? I have no idea, and whether they found it persuasive is much more important than whether I did. If this is not a reasonable rhetorical move, then it causes a problem for Christine’s entire strategy, because it suggests that she can’t come up with enough examples of actual women to fill out her list. Then again, what I like about this strategy is Christine’s willingness to pull stories from anywhere and everywhere to include them in her list.  If her point is that notable women have always existed, can come from anywhere and are as diverse as notable men—then that’s definitely something I can get behind.

I’ve focused pretty specifically on the first of the questions asked and ignored the more popular question about whether Christine can be considered a feminist. I seldom find it very interesting to label people or works as feminist or not—I’m more interested in what they might mean to a feminist—and this is no exception, but her work here pursues certain aims that are now very important to feminism.  One is to look at history from different perspectives and to remind us all of historical and artistic women who have been forgotten or overlooked—and this is really the heart of Christine’s project.


Filed under Literary thoughts

2 responses to “The Book of the City of Ladies: Women and Goddesses

  1. Great analysis, as yours so often are. I especially liked your point about how she refused to play the exceptional woman for personal gain.

  2. Fantastic post, I love your point on the importance of feminists looking at history from different perspectives. Interesting points too about whether treating the goddesses as real women would have affected her credibility… I wonder if maybe it was more common then to view them as possibly women, or as having come from.. somewhere? I mean, each legend has some basic fact of truth, right, so why not there having been some exceptional women who became goddesses in legend, I suppose the way she wrote about them made me consider goddesses in the way martyrs are ‘created’, in a way? Though clearly, they didn’t just invent the language! I’ll have to think on this one further!

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