This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series–the Guardian’s book site of the week and mentioned on the Penguin blog. (Their latest post comments on the first 20.) From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.
The City of Ladies
by Christine de Pizan
“My dear friend, as you yourself know, there are so many wives who lead a wretched existence bound in marriage to a brutish husband who makes them suffer greater penance than if they were enslaved by Saracens. Oh God, how many fine and decent women have been viciously beaten for no good reason, heaped with insults, obscenities and curses, and subjected to all manner of burdens and indignities, without uttering even a murmur of protest. Not to mention all of those wives who are laden down with lots of tiny mouths to feed and lie starving to death in penury whilst their husbands are either out visiting places of depravity or living it up in town or in taverns.”
A sly, clever defense of women that is designed to disarm men even as it engages them head-on…
I think The City of Ladies might be one of my favorites in the second set of the Great Ideas series . This could be because of its clarity and striking intelligence, or it could be due to the sheer craftiness of the author–de Pizan has done an excellent job of not merely setting out an argument, but doing it in a way that it already includes the answers to any rebuttal. There’s a kind of statescraft or diplomacy, mixed with strength and bluntness, that gives the text an elegance and power.
The book begins a couple of times, to give de Pizan room to maneuver, introducing and reintroducing ideas slowly so that readers can acclimate themselves. There’s an almost apologetic tone to the way she relates finding a book by Matheolus denigrating women, setting it aside, and coming back to it only to find its arguments baseless.
She then enters into a conversation with God, which nicely elevates the stakes, and puts the argument above the heads of mere men. To God, she says:
Unless I commit an error of faith, I cannot doubt that you, in your infinite wisdom and perfect goodness, could make anything that wasn’t good. Didn’t you yourself create woman especially and then endow her with all the qualities that you wished her to have? How could you possibly have made a mistake in anything? Yet here stand women not simply accused, but already judged, sentenced and condemned! I just cannot understand this contradiction.
With God either neutralized or implicitly on her side, de Pizan then turns to a vision she had in which she encounters three women: Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice. With each she enters into lengthy conversations that while not as informal as Plato’s recollections in The Symposium serve much the same purpose: to create a debate in which all sides of an argument are examined, along with rebuttals.
From the perspective of de Pizan, who I believe is not just trying to rally women to her cause but to convert men to it, the distance created between the arguments and the author by inserting the three Ladies is essential. Then they, not de Pizan, can make the strongest arguments, can be aggressive. And not only are they not the author, who will suffer more than figments of her imagination should readers disagree, they represent sterling qualities or themes. Thus, as with the section in which she invokes God, she summons the abstract and all-powerful to her defense.*
And what a wonderful journey through time and space the reader gets as a result! From discussion of why women aren’t allowed in courts of law (and why they should) to an examination of the Amazons, ladies blessed with great learning and intelligence, Sappho, Minerva, the ten Sibyls, and much more, de Pizan provides a high-powered tutorial on women in history, society, and myth. It’s a tour de force of movement, most section just the right length, the pacing nimble and carefully thought out.
By the time I got to the Lady of Rectitude, the construction of the City of Ladies that forms one of the lasting metaphors of the book is well underway: “[it] now has plentiful housing all along its wide streets. The royal palaces are completed and the defence towers and keeps are now standing proud.”
It struck me as telling that de Pizan thinks of constructing a city of one’s own much as Virginia Woolf thought of constructing a room of one’s own–and, in part, for the same reason: so much of what men do imposes upon and impedes women that a natural thought is simply to find a place apart, where men’s presence cannot bring to bear their baleful influence.
After having made all of her arguments, de Pizan turns to address “all women,” for the construction of the city is at an end. In this section, she offers advice and comfort to the inhabitants of the City of Women, in their interactions with men. The most interesting part of this section is when she makes a very concerted effort to tell women to be nice to good men and to punish bad men. Again, she’s cloaking a radical book in less radical rhetoric. Any woman who wants to could use The City of Ladies as a rallying cry for revolution, but in it any man could find the promise of both a ceasefire mutual understanding.
* On a very humble, different level, this is part of the philosophy behind my own Evil Monkey, who on occasion haunts this blog.
Christine de Pizan might have been a very powerful politician if she had lived in modern times.
Question for Readers
Let’s just get down to the nitty-gritty: What is it about men that really irritates the heck out of you?
Next up, Baldesar Castiglioneâ€™sHow to Achieve True Greatness…