The Book of the City of Ladies

The Book of the City of Ladies (Penguin Classics)

Christine de Pizan’s masterpiece, translated into English in a very readable manner by Rosalind Brown-Grant. First, some biographical details about Christine de Pizan–born in Venice in 1364, she was widowed at an early age while living in France. She began writing in 1399 about the role of women in society. She went into a convent in 1418 to escape civil war, dying in 1430.

So the text is over 600 years old. That took awhile to sink into my thick head. But it’s one of the earliest defenses of women against the usual trumped up charges of frailty, mental laxity, cowardice, unimaginativeness, loose morals. A lot of this book is a direct shot at Roman de la Rose, a 13th century poem sure to delight any garden variety misogynist.

The narrator is visited by an apparition of three ladies- Reason, Rectitude, and Justice- who ask her to build a city of ladies to bolster women’s opinion of themselves and to fight against the lies being spread by the patriarchy. It’s early enlightenment; take this example of dialogue between the narrator and Reason:

‘Do you know why it is that women know less than men?’

‘No, my lady, you’ll have to enlighten me.’

‘It’s because they are less exposed to a wide variety of experiences since they have to stay at home all day to look after the household. There’s nothing like a whole range of different experiences and activities for expanding the mind of any rational creature.’

De Pizan strengthens her story by laying out, brick by brick, the history and myth and stories of all the intelligent, capable, loyal, brave, strong women that we’ve otherwise forgotten… like Nicostrata, creator of the Latin alphabet (A,B,C). The usual suspects (Sappho, Judith, Ruth, Zenobia, etc.) are all here, along with boatloads of women I’d never heard of. I can’t find a complete list of everyone mentioned, and am too lazy to create this.

Fantastic resource. Wish I’d been given a copy of this to study and learn from as a kid.