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Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies

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In Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, the author contends that women may only be fairly, truthfully, and respectfully viewed and acknowledged in society if people observed reason, rectitude and justice. De Pizan’s novel is in defense of women treated poorly and unfairly due to sexist and misogynistic views and thoughtlessly depicted and misrepresented in society. Moreover, de Pizan’s novel is a counterargument, a show of resistance, against a patriarchal society that demeans and devalues women. The novel was the author’s response to the prevalent misrepresentations of women, especially in literature. The formation of the “City of Ladies” in de Pizan’s novel was also the author’s means of creating a society, albeit in a literary sense, which honors and acknowledges the value of virtuous women. The “City of Ladies” is a place where society treats women fairly and recognizes their works and contributions to societal development.  

The Book of the City of Ladies, a three-part novel, begins with an account of de Pizan’s impetus for writing her literary piece. While de Pizan was working in the library, she came across a novel written by Matheolus. Matheolus’ novel was full of immoral language that de Pizan chose not to finish reading it. Consequently, Matheolus’ novel made de Pizan think about the boldness of male authors, and even philosophers, during her time in writing immoral content and demeaning women in their works. “It is all manner of philosophers, poets and orators too numerous to mention, who all seem to speak with one voice and are unanimous in their view that female nature is wholly given up to vice” (de Pizan). De Pizan was overwhelmed with disheartening emotions about how poets, playwrights, and philosophers could easily humiliate women in literature, and felt ashamed for being a woman as they were often represented as immoral, insufferable creatures, when suddenly a bright light surfaced. Before de Pizan, three women “crowned and of majestic appearance, whose faces shone with a brightness that lit up me and everything else in the place” (de Pizan) appeared. The three women aimed to comfort de Pizan and teach her that the portrayals of women in literature during her time were iniquitous, unfair, and unjustifiable. In the same way, de Pizan aimed to comfort her female readers and tell them not to feel guilty or ashamed about being women no matter how vile and downcast society viewed or treated them.

One of the three women aimed to enlighten de Pizan through Reason. The woman who subscribes to reason aims to “bring back men and women when they drift aware from the straight and narrow… instructing them in the error of their ways and showing them how exactly it is that they have done wrong. Then I teach them to follow the correct road and to avoid doing what is undesirable” (de Pizan). Lady Reason laid out the three women’s plan in building the City of Ladies and de Pizan’s important role in its construction. According to Lady Reason, de Pizan would help them build the City with strong foundations that would make it indestructible. Lady Reason will equip de Pizan with the material – “tough, indestructible cement” (de Pizan) – to construct the foundations and fortifications of the city and make it unassailable even from direct attacks to the city. The other woman’s name is Rectitude. Lady Rectitude’s duty is to “encourage [the just] to do good in all things, to strive as far as possible to give each person his or her due, to speak and preserve the truth, to protect the rights of the poor and the innocent, to refrain from stealing from others, and to uphold the good name of those who are wrongfully accused” (de Pizan). According to Lady Rectitude, de Pizan would need the Lady’s words and guidance to lay out the interiors of the City and accommodate its inhabitants. The third woman’s name is Justice. Lady Justice “divides up and allots to each person their share of the good or bad that each has done… judges and repays everyone according to their just deserts”. According to Lady Justice, de Pizan would need her to create the “high turrets of the great towers, houses and palaces which will all be covered in bright gold”. Lady Justice would also help de Pizan name the City’s noble queen “who shall be revered and honoured above all the other great ladies present” (de Pizan).

The “City of Ladies” symbolizes the veil that women need to put up so they can protect themselves from the viciousness of the male gaze or patriarchal views of women. In the novel, Lady Reason equips de Pizan with strong cement that should be used in building the foundations of the City. Lady Reason’s role in the novel illustrates the important function of reason in creating defenses for women. Defending the rights and privileges of women to be honored, respected, and acknowledged equitably would require good sense, wisdom, and logical rationalization, just as any strong argument on any topic or issue would need solid reasoning. Hence, de Pizan argues that through reason, women can protect and stand up for themselves. If women knew what is right from wrong or fact from fiction and denounce prevalent male ideas that all women are depraved, then they would be able to defend themselves. If women knew the truth and use reason to uphold it, then they would be impenetrable and indomitable against wrongful criticisms. De Pizan argues that women should stand by the truth and when boorish and uninformed men present them with wrong and misleading ideas about women, they must learn to contest through solid reasoning. “Even the strongest city will fall if there is no one to defend it, and even the most undeserving case will win if there is no one to testify against it”.

De Pizan also argues that women can defend themselves through rectitude. Being righteous means exhibiting the innate desire and predilection to defend the weak and oppressed and fight for their right. Moreover, rectitude also means exhibiting good qualities and virtuosity not only to set an example but also to show how human beings should behave and conduct themselves. Women must behave similarly, such that they should work together to defend all women. Good reasoning will be useless if women only look out for themselves. Part of defending women against misrepresentations and vicious portrayals is to act virtuously. De Pizan argues that the collective will cease to believe the criticisms of ignorant men if women themselves prove through their actions, behaviors, and values that those criticisms are erroneous and dishonest. Consequently, if women continue to behave righteously, act virtuously, uphold the truth, and defend their honor, justice will be served. Therefore, de Pizan argues that women and society should observe reason, rectitude, and justice to achieve the objective of defending women because these three virtues complement one another. “What the first lady [reason] decides, the second one [rectitude] puts into effect and then I, In the text, de Pizan explored the various reasons why some men would choose to humiliate women: “some because they are themselves steeped in sin, some because of a bodily impediment, some out of sheer envy, and some quite simply because they naturally take delight in slandering others. There are also some who do so because they like to flaunt their erudition” (de Pizan). A deeper understanding of the reasons de Pizan pointed out would lead us to surmise that men loathe women because of pride. Consequently, we can deduce that the author wrote the novel within the context of a society where patriarchy is dominant.  During her time, men attacked women because of “bodily impediments” and sheer envy. The envy and insecurities of men are evidences of a dominant patriarchal society, which allows men to regard themselves as superior than women. The existing patriarchal society also allows men to think that since they belong to the superior gender, they must be better than women in all aspects. Therefore, when the bodily impediments and incapacities of men prove otherwise, they resort to bringing down women so they can feel good about themselves.

De Pizan’s novel illustrates a conventional feminist perspective. The novel is a literary work that aims to enlighten readers about the unfair portrayal or misrepresentation of women in literature. The Book of the City of Ladies stands out because de Pizan wrote a fair-minded novel which illustrates an objective view of men and women in society. While de Pizan, through Lady Reason’s voice, criticized poets, playwrights, and philosophers during her time who demeaned women through their works, the author also noted that not all men view and treat women unfairly. Similarly, de Pizan did not entirely refute disparaging commentaries against women as the author also acknowledged that some women do abuse and take advantage of men. “It’s true that there’s nothing worse than a women who is dissolute and depraved: she’s like a monster, a creature going against its own nature, which is to be timid, meek and pure” (de Pizan) but de Pizan also noted that there are many virtuous women. De Pizan argued that not all women are depraved and most of them are virtuous. Men should know not to condemn all women just because of the corrupt behavior of a few. Likewise, women should not struggle against men just because of the narrow-mindedness and cruelty of some men who choose to put down women. “Condemning all women in order to help some misguided men get over their foolish behaviour is tantamount to denouncing fire, which is a vital and beneficial element, just because some people are burnt by it, or to cursing water just because some people are drowned in it” (de Pizan). According to de Pizan, only those who are learned, wise, and with good sense of judgment and justice are capable of exhibiting equitable judgment about men and women.

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