Literary Criticism of Christine de Pisan

Christine de Pisan (ca. 1365–1429) was perhaps the most articulate and prolific female voice of the European Middle Ages. Being widowed at the age of 25 without an inheritance and with three children, she was obliged to earn her living as a writer. She was commissioned as biographer of Charles V. Her patrons included King Charles VI of France, King Charles of Navarre, and two dukes of Burgundy. Her publications, which were translated into English, Italian, and other languages, included Epistle of the God of Love (1399), where she impugned the misogynistic portrayals of women and the dearth of morality in the popular French work Roman de la Rose, an allegorical love poem written by Guillaume de Lorris and expanded by Jean de Meung. The controversial quarrel surrounding these texts was known as the Querelle de la Rose, with Christine and Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris, allied against the esteemed humanist royal secretaries Jean de Montreuil and Pierre Col. In a further work, Christine’s Vision (1405), she complained against her fortune as a female writer and scholar burdened by the conventional obligations of womanhood. Another work produced in the same year, Livre des Trois Vertus (Book of Three Virtues), concerns the status and role of women in society. Her most renowned work was The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), which was influenced by Boccaccio’s Concerning Famous Women (1361), as well as by the linguistic and allegorical theories of Quintilian, Augustine (to whose book City of God Christine’s title alludes), Hugh of St. Victor, and Dante. Almost uniquely among women of her time, Christine was enabled to obtain a fine education through her family’s connections to the royal court; her father, Tommaso di Benvenuto da Pizzano, was appointed court astrologer by Charles V, and her reading may well have included Ovid, Boethius, and John of Salisbury, as well as the figures mentioned above.1 Christine also published a poem on Joan of Arc, Ditie de la pucelle (1429).

download.jpgThe Book of the City of Ladies attempts effectively to rewrite the history of women, its scope extending through past and future, as well as over pagan and Christian eras. Such rewriting entails an explosion of age-long male myths about women, such as their inability to govern, their unfitness for learning, and their moral deficiencies. It also entails both adapting and refashioning Boccaccio’s text Concerning Famous Women, which had restricted its scope to pagan women, omitting treatment of both the renowned female figures of sacred history and contemporary women. Moreover, Boccaccio’s “praise” of women had been deeply ironic, portraying them as mentally tardy and including numerous examples of unrighteous women. Christine’s scope is far more comprehensive, including women from the Judeo-Christian tradition as well as illustrious women from her own time. Above all, all of her examples subserve her general argument which refutes the slanderous charges brought by men against women. As Earl Jeffrey Richards points out, the historical perspective of Christine’s text is further deepened by its continuation in the vernacular, following Dante, of the poetic achievement of Vergil (BCL, xlii–xliv). Richards states that one of the purposes of Christine’s text is to exhibit women’s affinity for learning; and an effective means of doing this was to display her own erudition, in a “learned and cultivated prose,” using Latinate syntax, such that her “defence and illustration” of the vernacular was also a “defence and illustration” of femininity (BCL, xxvii, xli).

Indeed, the nature of Christine’s feminism has been a disputed issue, with some scholars pointing to her conservatism, her espousal of the medieval class structure, her appeals to tradition and above all to Christianity. Again, Richards provides a clear insight here, explaining that Christine’s invocation of Christianity sees it as “a means of overcoming oppression,” and that her defense of Christian marriage “was a call for the highest form of moral commitment between a man and a woman and not an endorsement of institutionalized domination.” Not only this, but Christine hardly longed for a return to some idealized past; rather, she was calling for a “realization of the ideals transmitted by the tradition which she had inherited.” Hence, her portrayal of women’s suffering throughout history was “an appeal for change” (BCL, xxix–xxx).

The Book of the City of Ladies is written as a conversation between Christine and three allegorical virtues, Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Just as Virginia Woolf, some six hundred years later, began A Room of One’s Own by reflecting on the enormous number of books written about women by men, so Christine opens her text by wondering why so many treatises by men contain “so many wicked insults about women and their behavior” (BCL, I.1.1). All the philosophers and poets appear, she notes, to “concur in one conclusion: that the behavior of women is inclined to and full of every vice” (BCL, I.1.1). What puzzles Christine is the disparity between these male theories about women and her own practical experience of women of all social ranks, “princesses, great ladies, women of the middle and lower classes” (I.1.1). Initially, says Christine, she did not trust her own intellect and felt inclined to rely “more on the judgment of others than on what I myself felt and knew” (I.1.1). She describes herself as detesting both herself and “the entire feminine sex,” and as wondering how God, who “could not go wrong in anything,” could have made a creature so “abominable” (I.1.1–I.1.2). Christine’s strategy here is both ingenious and disingenuous: she places herself initially in the customarily inferior position of woman, lacking confidence, distrustful of even her first-hand experience, and allowing herself to be intimidated by the traditions of male authority. Yet, as the book proceeds, the tentative testimony of her own experience is broadened to include the experience of women from a wide range of historical periods, until its comprehensiveness can be ranged theoretically against the male presumptions that were initially so overbearing.

As Christine ponders, debilitated, by these thoughts, there appears to her a vision of “three crowned ladies” (I.2.1). The first of these both consoles her and gently chides her for shunning the evidence of her senses and relying on the testimony of “many strange opinions.” She points out to Christine that the “greatest philosophers” who hold these negative opinions about women “contradict and criticize one another.” Hence, the claims of the philosophers are fallible and cannot be taken as “articles of faith” (I.2.2). As for the poets, the lady points out that they often speak in a fictional and ironic manner, often meaning the contrary of what their literal language appears to assert. The various attacks by men against the institution of marriage – which is a “holy state . . . ordained by God” – are refuted by experience: no husband can actually be found who will allow his wife to abuse and insult him as these male detractors claim (I.2.1).

The lady explains that she and her two companions are “celestial beings,” whose function is to circulate among the world’s people so as “to bring order and maintain in balance those institutions we created according to the will of God” (I.3.1–2). The first lady herself carries a mirror: whoever looks into this will achieve self-knowledge, as well as a knowledge of “the essences, qualities, proportions, and measures of all things” (I.3.2). The three ladies, however, are also embarked on a further mission: to provide a refuge for “ladies and all valiant women” against the numerous assailants of the female sex. In this mission, she tells Christine that she must, with the help of the three ladies, build a city, “which has been predestined,” and where only ladies of fame and virtue will reside (I.3.3). The three ladies do not appear to everyone: Christine was chosen for her “great love of investigating the truth” (I.3.2). And the first lady, identifying herself as “Lady Reason,” charges Christine with the foundation and building of this “City of Ladies,” which will be both extremely beautiful and of “perpetual duration” in the world, notwithstanding the assaults of “jealous enemies” (I.4.1–3).

The second lady introduces herself as Rectitude: she is the messenger of God’s goodness, exhorting and defending righteousness and resisting the power of evil-doers. She carries a straight ruler “which separates right from wrong and shows the difference between good and evil.” Since all things are measured by this ruler, Christine must use it to measure the edifice of the City of Ladies (I.5.1). The third lady identifies herself as Justice: her duty is to judge fairly, to “dispense according to each man’s just deserts.” She teaches men and women of sound mind to correct themselves, “to speak the truth” and “to reject all viciousness.” She carries in her hand a vessel of gold which serves “to measure out to each his rightful portion.” She also explains that the other virtues are based on her, and that each of the three ladies could not exist without the others. Justice will construct the high roofs and towers of the city, and populate it with “worthy ladies and the mighty Queen,” after which she will turn over the keys of the city to Christine (I.6.1).

Christine is given instructions to build the city on the “Field of Letters,” which is a “flat and fertile plain.” She must excavate the earth and lay the foundations there (I.8.1–2). In response to Christine’s inquiry as to the motives behind men’s attacks on women, Lady Reason explains that such behavior is “contrary to Nature, for no connection in the world is as great or as strong as the great love which, through the will of God, Nature places between a man and a woman” (I.8.3). As for the motives of men, she states that some men have been inspired by good intentions, to draw men away from the company of “vicious and dissolute women.” Lady Reason states that such attacks, when indiscriminately extended to all women, are based on ignorance rather than Reason (I.8.3). Other motives have included men’s own defects and vices, as well as jealousy of women’s greater understanding and nobility of conduct; still others have merely imitated, in poetry or prose, received opinions whose repetition might bring them repute (I.8.5–10). These attacks are metaphorically viewed as part of the rubbish which Christine must clear away in order to lay the city’s foundations. Indeed, the city itself will be a city of words, as Lady Reason’s subsequent exhortations – “Take the trowel of your pen and ready yourself to lay down bricks” – make clear (I.14.4).

Christine now asks Lady Reason how the eminence of various eminent poets and thinkers, such as Ovid, Cecco d’Ascoli, Cicero, and Cato, is to be reconciled with their severe attacks on women. Lady Reason responds by discussing the complex theological issues of the creation of woman and original sin. That woman was created from a rib of Adam, she says, signified that “she should stand at his side as a companion and never lie at his feet like a slave, and also that he should love her as his own flesh.” Moreover, if God, the “Supreme Craftsman,” was not ashamed of creating woman, why should Nature be ashamed? Indeed, woman “was created in the image of God.” Lady Reason corrects those who refer this statement to the material body: this was not the case because “God had not yet taken a human body.” The statement is meant to refer to the soul: “God created the soul and placed wholly similar souls, equally good and noble in the feminine and in the masculine bodies” (I.9.2). Contradicting Cicero’s statement that woman is lower than man, she states that loftiness or lowliness resides not in the gendered body but in “the perfection of conduct and virtues” (I.9.3). As for Cato’s statement that men would be able to converse with the gods if there were no women, she retorts that more was gained through the Virgin Mary than was lost through Eve: “humanity was conjoined to the Godhead, which would never have taken place if Eve’s misdeed had not occurred . . . as low as human nature fell through this creature woman, was human nature lifted higher by this same creature.” Lady Reason observes, regarding Cato: “You can now see the foolishness of the man who is considered wise” (I.8.3).

It may be worth remarking at this point on some of the strategies used by Christine in defense of women. On the surface, she appears to be invoking, in conventional medieval fashion, a theological sanction for her position, resting ultimately on the absolute authority of God. Yet the three virtues she cites as divinely descended – Reason, Rectitude, and Justice – could equally be seen as idealized projections of human – and humanistic – virtues. And the first of these, Reason, could be correlated with independent thinking rather than basing one’s beliefs on the authority of others. Indeed, their initial purpose was to furnish Christine with the confidence to rely on her own experience rather than on the testimony of male writers. Ironically, then, what the divine authorizes here is the validity of female experience. Moreover, the personification of “Reason” as a woman also extricates the faculty of reason from its history of male appropriation and abuse. So Christine’s appeal to Christianity might be viewed as broadly humanistic. A further strategy is to destabilize male interpretations of scripture and to show that male reputations, such as those of Cicero and Cato, are often based on misconceptions. In this manner, Christine’s rewriting of history is conducted on several concurrent levels: theological exegesis, the literary tradition as defined by males, and the psychological constitution of human beings.

Lady Reason contradicts those men who say that women have no natural sense for politics and government, by citing several examples of “great women rulers” of the past, as well as of contemporary women who managed their affairs well after the deaths of their husbands (I.11–13). She also relates narratives of women who possessed a physical strength and courage matching those of men, such as Queen Semiramis (I.15), the Amazons and Queen Thamiris (I.16–17), Queen Penthesilea, and many others (I.19–26). Concerning the intellectual capacity of women, Lady Reason states that if women were not kept at home and had access to learning, they would do even better than men since, just as they have weaker bodies, so “they have minds that are freer and sharper whenever they apply themselves” (I.27.1). And “there is nothing which so instructs a reasonable creature as the exercise and experience of many different things” (I.27.1). Again, what is remarkable about this passage is that, despite its ostensibly theological framework, it anticipates the major strands of Enlightenment thought, combining a proposed rationalism with actual experience of the variety of the world.

Though Christine’s reaction against male traditions of theology and literature might be viewed as effected by an appeal to collective personal experience of women to shatter the claims of abstract reason and authority, her appeal to experience is sanctioned by broadening the compass of reason beyond its theological confines. Lady Reason assures Christine that, as before, she will offer “proof through examples,” examples which range from Cornificia, the Roman lady Proba, the Greek poetess Sappho to Queen Circe (I.28–32). She also cites women who furthered the path of knowledge by discovering new arts and sciences: Carmentis invented laws for the region where Rome was subsequently founded; she “established the Latin alphabet and syntax, spelling, . . . as well as a complete introduction to the science of grammar.” For her contributions she was honored and even considered a goddess (I.33.2). Other examples given include Minerva, Ceres, and Isis, who respectively invented the arts of making armor, cultivating the earth, and planting. Citing the authority of Boccaccio for her observations, Lady Reason infers from such examples that “God . . . wished to show men that He does not despise the feminine sex” (I.37.1). Christine herself concludes that the contribution of these women was greater even than that of Aristotle, and she admonishes: “Henceforth, let all writers be silent who speak badly of women . . . in their books and poems, and all their accomplices and supporters too – let them lower their eyes, ashamed for having dared to speak so badly, in view of the truth which runs counter to their poems” (I.38.4). As for the knights and nobles, who are indebted to Minerva, her message is unambiguous: “From now on let them keep their mouths shut” (I.38.5). Significantly, Christine’s stance has developed from an initial tentativeness to categorical assertion.

Having established that women can possess strength, understanding, and inventiveness, Lady Reason proceeds to argue that women are capable of prudence, which she equates with practical and moral intelligence, learning from the past, reflecting on the future, and wise management of present affairs (I.43.1). She points out that prudence can be both a natural gift or acquired. It is the latter, acquired learning, which is the more valuable because it endures. Again, Lady Reason provides several examples of prudent women, including Queen Gaia Cirilla, Queen Dido, Queen Ops of Crete, and Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus, who married Aeneas (I.44–48).

In the second book Christine describes how the city inside the walls was constructed and by whom it was peopled. Rectitude tells her that foremost among the ladies of dignity are the ten sibyls, upon whom God bestowed “greater honor in revelation” than upon any other prophet (II.1.3). Rectitude speaks in detail of some of the sibyls and also points out that there were many female prophets in the Jewish religion, such as Deborah, Elizabeth, who was cousin of the Virgin Mary, and Anna, who recognized Christ in the temple (II.4.1).

Eventually, Rectitude announces that she has finished building the houses and palaces of the city, and that it is time to people the city: “Now a New Kingdom of Femininity is begun” (II.12.1). She explains that after it has been populated with noble citizens – women of “integrity, of great beauty and authority” – Lady Justice will lead in the queen and high princesses to reside in the loftiest apartments (II.12.2). Christine broaches the topic of marriage; she cites authorities such as Valerius and Theophrastus who claim that the institution of marriage is unhappy and intolerable on account of women’s faults of rancor, impetuousness, and indifference. Rectitude replies that it is women who have been abused, beaten, and subjected to cruelty. Importantly, however, she states that not all marriages are full of spite and ill-feeling; some husbands are “very good” and some couples live together in “great peacefulness, love and loyalty” (II.13.1).

Christine-de-PisanChristine raises a variety of other charges brought against women by men, all of which are refuted by Rectitude’s appeal to experience and numerous examples. These include women’s inability to keep secrets (II.25.1–27.1), and the paucity of women’s advice (II.28.1–29.3). Rectitude gives examples of women who saved their people, or made peace among hostile factions, or converted their kin to Christianity (II.31.1– 35.3), as well as examples of women who were both beautiful and chaste (II.37.1–43.3). Numerous other allegations are confronted: women’s inconstancy (II.47.1–52.2), infidelity (II.54.1), coquettishness (II.62.1–63.11), and greed (II.66.1–67.2). Interestingly, Rectitude defines inconstancy as “nothing but acting against the commands of Reason, for it exhorts every reasonable creature to act well. When a man or woman allows regard for Reason to be conquered by sensuality, this is frailty or inconstancy, and the deeper one falls into error or sin, the greater the weakness is, the more one is removed from regard for reason” (II.49.5). By this standard, says Rectitude, not only does history show men to have been more inconstant than women but also the Church itself has long declined from the standards of Reason (II.49.4–5). Also significant here is the absolute equation Christine makes between reason and righteousness; her formulation is secular insofar as it exalts reason far beyond the function assigned to it in the theologies of Aquinas and other major formulators of orthodox Christian doctrine. Here Christine appears to extricate reason not only from its male history but also from the theological contexts by which it was constrained. Her strategy differs sharply from those twentieth-century feminists who reject reason altogether as too deeply tainted, and as perhaps constituted, by male values.

Concerning many men’s belief that education is harmful to a woman’s mores, Rectitude states that “not all opinions of men are based on reason” (II.36.1). She cites the most famous example of an accomplished woman in Christine’s text: Novella, the daughter of a law professor Giovanni Andrea, was so well educated in law that sometimes he “would send Novella . . . in his place to lecture to the students from his chair. And to prevent her beauty from distracting the concentration of her audience, she had a little curtain drawn in front of her” (II.36.3). Few images could match this portrayal of female power! Rectitude also refers to Christine’s own father who took pleasure from seeing his daughter learn (II.36.4). Indeed, Rectitude affirms that, in God’s plan, “everything comes to a head at the right time,” and that the task of defending women has been reserved for Christine.

At the end of book II, Rectitude announces that her task – of erecting beautiful palaces and populating the city with noble ladies – is complete. In turn, Christine remarks that she must now turn to Lady Justice to execute the remaining work in the city (II.68.11–69.1). In the third book, Lady Justice explains to Christine that the queen must be brought into the city so that she may govern it. She must be received with honor by all the inhabitants of the city for she is “not only their Queen but also has ministry and dominion over all created powers after the only Son whom she conceived of the Holy Spirit and carried and who is the Son of God the Father” (III.1.1). After all the women beseech her presence, the “Queen of Heaven” enters and announces: “I am and will always be the head of the feminine sex. This arrangement was present in the mind of God the Father from the start, revealed and ordained previously in the council of the Trinity” (III.1.3). Other ladies, including Mary Magdalene, and a host of saints and virgins are then invited to reside with the queen.

Christine ends the book in a manner that must disappoint modern feminists. While she reminds the city’s inhabitants that the city is a refuge against their enemies and assailants, she advises the women not to “scorn being subject to your husbands” (III.19.1–2). If their husbands are good or moderate, they should praise God; if their husbands are “cruel, mean, and savage,” they should display forbearance and attempt to lead them back to a life of reason and virtue (III.19.2). Addressing all classes of women, she admonishes: “all women – whether noble, bourgeois, or lower-class – be well-informed in all things and cautious in defending your honor” (III.19.6). Modern feminists might also raise the possibility that the city embodies a form of ghettoization, whereby women are protected from the evils of male institutions at the cost of foregoing any active and transformative participation. The reverse side of this situation is that the conversation between Christine and the three ladies invites participation by females only and that men are excluded, able only to overhear the proceedings in projected silence. In this manner, women are allowed the space they need, the room, to extricate themselves from the male writing of their history and to rearticulate that history without interference.


1. “Introduction,” in Christine de Pisan, The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards (New York: Persea, 1982), pp. xix, xxvii. Many of the details of this account of Christine’s life, as well as of the significance of her work, are taken from Richards’ excellent introduction to his translation. Hereafter cited as BCL.


Categories: Feminism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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