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City of Ladies

Oct 08, 1999 1152 Words
Christine de Pizan An unlikely candidate to dispute the unfair, misogynistic treatment of women by men and society, Christine de Pizan successfully challenged the accepted negative views that were being expressed about women by the all-male literary world of her era. Part of Christine's uniqueness stems from the time in which she lived, the middle to late 1300's. The lack of a positive female role model to pattern herself after made Christine a true visionary in the fight for the equal rights of women. Her original ideas and insight provided a new and more intelligent way to view females. Pizan's work, The Book of the City of Ladies, provided women much needed guidance in how to survive without the support of a man.

It is Christine's literary work The Book of the City of Ladies that is most intriguing to contemporary readers. Christine was the first woman writer to possess the ability to identify and address the issues of misogyny in the literature of her time, as well as society. This characteristic made her a champion of the feminist movement that was yet to come. Although Christine never addressed the issue of "changing the structures of her society," her ability to identify misogyny during a time when it was a normal aspect of women's lives, reveals the insight of the young woman. The beginning scene of The Book of the City of Ladies describes Christine looking at a book by Matheolus "When I held it open and saw from its title that it was by Matheolus, I smiled, for though I had never seen it before, I had often heard that like other books it discussed respect for women" (3). Christine's belief in intellectual equality is found in the theme of this story with a young lady reading for pleasure. 14th century women were rarely literate. Choosing reading as a pleasurable activity would have been uncommon. What Christine discovers upon reading this text is just the opposite of her expectations. She realizes that Matheolus is not respectful toward women, but just the opposite. His work represents women as "devilish and wicked." However, she uses her wit to describe her displeasure in the text: "Because the subject seemed to me not very pleasant for people who do not enjoy lies, and of no use in developing virtue or manners, given its lack of integrity in diction and theme, and after browsing here and there and reading the end, I put it down in order to turn my attention to more elevated and useful study (3). Christine's remarks here criticize the subject of Matheolus text, and also his choice in diction. Her comments not only let the reader know that she is displeased with this piece of literature, but that she feels that reading it is neither elevating nor useful. Thus, she insinuates the futility of the work itself. Christine cleverly goes on to comment on the subject of the character of women by flattering her male contemporaries. She writes, "…it would be impossible that so many famous men--such solemn scholars, possessed of such deep and great understanding, so clear-sighted in all things, as it seemed--could have spoken falsely on so many occasions…" (4). Christine intelligently uses this "sugar coated" method to emphasize the point –- the point that these men were wrong. Although Christine was obviously outspoken, she knew her limitations. Her work would not be recognized, or even read, if she had openly attacked the male writers. Therefore, she instead chose to build them up the "solemn scholars" before opposing their positions. Christine's ironic humility does not stop with the prominent male writers of her time. She addresses God with the same rhetorical question as she asks, "Oh, God, how can this be? For unless I stray from my faith, I must never doubt that Your infinite wisdom and most perfect goodness ever created anything which was not good" (Pizan 5). Again, Christine carefully opposed the male point of view this time using Biblical references. Christine makes an unarguable point-- God would not create anything that was not good. Christine goes on to ask God how she could possibly doubt what these "learned men" have written about women when He Himself has said, "…the testimony of two or three witnesses lends credence…why shall I not doubt that this is true?" (5). The irony of her question is in the fact that she knows the testimony to be untrue. By asking God for guidance and understanding in the matter, she is revealing that she is a good, moral woman -- not the stereotypical "devilish demon." Christine continues to question God as she asks: Alas, God, why did You not let me be born in the world as a male, so that all my inclinations would be to serve You better, and so that I would not stray in anything and would be as perfect as a male is said to be? (Pizan 5) As Christine describes men as "perfect," an ironic overtone is felt. Although Christine was a very devout Christian, her question to God is not one of sincerity. Upon crying out to God for wisdom in these matters, Christine is visited, not by God Himself, but by three women who He has sent to her. The fact that Pizan chose to use these "three women" to bring forth comfort and wisdom is symbolic of the importance of women. She could have had God speak directly to Christine in a masculine voice, like the voice that spoke to Moses and Abraham. However, Pizan uses the three wise and angelic women to strengthen her defense of women.

Another strategy Pizan uses to emphasize the moral strengths of women is by alluding to powerful, mythological women throughout her text. She mentions a city governed by powerful queens, "…very noble ladies whom they elected themselves, who governed them will and maintained their dominion with great strength" (de Pizan 11). This example of powerful women portrays them in a masculine role –-as leaders and successful rulers. Pizan uses this example to foreshadow the building of the "City of Ladies" that Christine has been chosen by God to construct. By giving an example of a successful and strong dominion run by women, Pizan makes this idea of a city of women a more believable concept. Christine de Pizan was an extraordinary woman who has yet to be fully discovered. The wit and wisdom found within The Book of the City of Ladies eclipses some contemporary literature that defends the rights of women. Although Pizan's writing was done for practical reasons, survival, her work revealed a vision that women are still striving to accomplish today


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