WHY IS IT, asks Christine de Pizan, that so manymale writers have spoken disparagingly about women? Are women really less moral than men? Are they really incapable of original work? Is it true that they are by nature seductive, that they really want to be raped? Christine's questions, for all their contemporary ring, were posed in 1405; and her own response was written in The Book of the City of Ladies, a history of women that records their neglected contribution to civilization. It is an extraordinary work, both as history and as an exploration of masculine myths about women.
The situation of women was one of the two major themes on which Christine de Pizan dwelt in her prolific and highly successful writing career--the second being peace and the unification of France, her adopted country. Born in 1365, she was brought to France from Venice when she was about 3 years old, to join her father who was court astrologer to Charles V. Christine lived a fortunate and, one may suppose, conventional life until she was 25 when, after 10 years of marriage, her husband's death--close upon her father's--left her with three children, her mother, and other relations to support, and no means to do so.
Christine turned to writing and between 1390 and 1429 produced more than 20 works in poetry and prose, including such diverse pieces as ballads, an authorized reminiscence of Charles V and a highly respected military essay, The Book of Feats of Arms and Chivalry.
The Book of the City of Ladies falls midway in Christine's career, and it is the work of mature vision and craft. If Christine was angry at the existing prejudice against women--and we know that she was--that anger is not present in the work, which is anything but polemical. On the contrary, the work's revolutionary nature is masked by a conservative and traditional guise-- one reason perhaps that feminists have not been quick to claim Christine.
In the opening paragraphs of The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine explains conversationally how she came to write it. One day, for diversion from her studies, she picked up a book of poetry and found the author most insulting on the subject of women. Although she knows the author is only a second-rate poet and that she shouldn't be disturbed, she is nevertheless--for his ideas echo those of many good, and even great, writers. With fine psychological acuity, Christine describes how she moves from annoyance to self-doubt--for how could so many writers be wrong?--to self-hatred, wishing, finally, she had been born a man.
While she is sinking into self-loathing, Christine discovers that three celestial beings have entered her room: Reason, Justice, and Rectitude, or "Right-doing" (Droiture). They tell her she should know better than to doubt her own worth: that she and many of the women she knows are both intelligent and virtuous. They try to explain some of the various motives men have for insulting women: jealousy, bad character, good intentions, and the mere fact that they can get away with it--for men, after all, write the books and "whoever goes to court without an opponent pleads very much at his ease."
The three Virtues tell Christine it should be obvious that while men's accusations may be true in regard to specific women, they cannot be true for women as a class. Men who claim that women as a group are worthless are "like people who live off the goods of others without knowing their source and without thanking anyone." And so the three sisters will help Christine build a city where past, present, and future women "who have been abandoned for so long, exposed like a field without a surrounding hedge" may find refuge.
The Book of the City of Ladies is divided into three parts. The first two are organized around a series of questions posed by Christine, which define for us the prejudices of medieval times. And what we find--mirabile dictu!--is that they resemble strongly the prejudices of our own times: that women are less capable than men, less courageous, intelligent, creative, reliable, that their work falls into the "lesser" realms, that they talk too much, and that they are unable to keep secrets. In denying each charge, the Virtues relate one or more stories about notable women who have disproven it. In the third part, Justice welcomes the Queen of Heaven into the City, and she peoples the City with the women martyrs and saints, whose stories we hear. Christine's City, we are thus assured, exists within the traditions of the church.
The City of Ladies is not, strictly speaking, a historical work. Legendary, historical, and mythical women are mingled indiscriminately: Dido, Sappho, and Minerva have their stories in turn. But it would be mistaken to assume Christine was entirely naive about what she was doing. For if we examine the sources of her book-- Ovid's Heroides and, more particularly, Boccaccio's De Claris Mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women)--we find that by conscious selection and revision, she entirely remolded that material to create a completely new work.
In an excellent introduction to his translation, Earl Jeffrey Richards dwells upon the relationship of Christine's book to Boccaccio's, the clarification of which is important in establishing the originality of Christine's work. Because she borrowed extensively from Boccaccio, many scholars have assumed that she was merely a compiler or translator. Christine's biographer, Enid McLeod, felt that there was no point really to The Book of the City of Ladies since Boccaccio and Ovid had, by their works, "nullified her complaint that men always slandered and despised women."
But if we examine Boccaccio's book, we discover that he does not think highly of women: he calls them stubborn, suspicious, lacking in generosity and talent; his highest praise is to call them "manly." His compliments are nearly all backhanded--he admires them for accomplishing anything, given that they are women, and men "have greater aptitude for everything." It is clearly in response to such blanket prejudices that Christine wrote her own book, and Boccaccio's biases seem primitive indeed beside her own perspective. For Christine does not claim all virtues--or all sins--for either sex; she speaks out against the double standard. "For the law does not maintain, nor can any such written opinion be found that permits (men) and not women to sin, or that their vice is more excusable."
Christine's history of women is not apology, but recognition: it is a book in praise of women by a woman who has constructed a world view to support her argument; as such, it is a work revolutionary in its own time and even, conceptually, today, when we have only begun to examine our historical methods, and our biases. One of those biases is epitomized in her almost total absence of Christine de Pizan and her works from our version of literary and social history. Now at least one of her many works is available in an excellent, readable translation-- the first in modern English. It is certainly a welcome addition, though for some of us the response must be mixed: admiration for Christine's perspicacity may be tinged by some sadness--at the tenacity of prejudice, and the distance we have yet to go to that ideal city.