|As did Dante, in Italy, Pisan straddles the divide between
the medieval world and the Renaissance in France. She was probably
the first well-educated woman in France, having grown up at the
court of the French King Charles V, where her father was the
court physician and astrologer. Her first major work, The Book
of the City of Ladies, is a compilation of stories from history
and myth of the heroism and virtue of women. In it, Pisan showed
an impressive breadth of knowledge and an undeniable familiarity
with such giants in the world of literature as Homer, Herodotus,
Pisan’s views were not those of modern feminists, but she
was a woman who knew her worth, and who did not accept the misogyny
of her times. Allegorically, The Book of the City of Ladies is
a bitter criticism of the more famous Roman de la Rose, which
presented “high” ideals of courtly love and which
was grounded in the conventional view of women as chattel of
The Book begins with the author’s narrator explaining its
purpose and introducing three main allegorical figures, the three
virtues: Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. With them Pisan then
starts a discussion, asking such questions as, for example, why
women were not allowed in courts of law, and did the virtues
knew of any female inventors? Why were many men, and some women,
displeased when they gave birth to a daughter instead of a son?
and many more. The virtues, being all-knowing creatures, answered
with examples from history and myth.
The book is written in an interesting style. Pisan’s narrator
is humble, careful not to offend, and in no way encourages women
to anything even close to 20th-century standards of human rights.
She merely proves the misogynists, and all those who consider
women inferior, wrong. She does it in the way of medieval scholastics,
with documentation from the most respected of authors and historians.
And in doing so, she is telling women they can and should stand
up straight, for they have nothing to be ashamed of. Women, these
stories prove, are just as good as men.
The way Pisan avoids anger towards those who malign her genders
reminds modern readers of those who fight for human rights, no
matter gender or color, today. Today, it is still a common misconception
that the fight for human rights for women is branded “feminism,” a
word with negative connotations in most countries, as compared
with the effort of males for integrity and dignity and worth.
The latter is always referred to simply as “the struggle
for human rights,” something pure and idealistic. Pisan’s
views on the chief female virtues—humility and obedience—are
provocatively old fashioned today, but were appropriate to her
time. She celebrated the ideals of a good woman, or person, in
her time, while simultaneously revealing the falseness of the
common slander and lies about women. She was like one without
sin, throwing the first stone. It was a missile not intended
to kill but to enlighten.
Like Geoffrey Chaucer, who also satirized the Roman de la Rose
in his Parliament of Foules, Christine de Pisan did not change
the world, or her times, but she was influential in bringing
the Renaissance—in the form of Greek literature, philosophy,
and history—to her countrymen, and in moving the dialogue
between the sexes to another level. Held in high praised by some
of the most powerful people in medieval Europe, she undoubtedly
changed some minds and may have influenced many more.
Pisan’s book can be read in this socio-historical context,
but it is also, on its own, an interesting compilation of historic
and mythical figures. Anyone who likes history or a good story
will enjoy meeting all of the people Pisan writes about: Achilles,
Medea, Queen Artemisia, the Amazons, the Kings of Persia, Roman
lawyers, and royal men and women up to her time. Pisan knew all
of their stories, and she wrote with clarity, elegance, and compassion.
Pisan wrote several other works, including Le Ditié Jehanne
d’Arc, which is the only work about Joan of Arc written
while Joan was still alive. She wrote a highly acclaimed biography
of the late King Charles V of France, numerous poems and political
essays as well as essays on the art of government. She wrote
with knowledge and insight, and became one of the most respected
literary figures at the courts of Medieval Europe.
Penguins Classic Library has a good version, translated by Rosalind
Brown-Grant, of The Book of the City of Ladies. Written almost
700 years ago, The Book is a little-known treasure that modern
readers of both sexes will enjoy.
||The Lady with the Unicorn suggest the traditional
medieval view of the power of love to subdue all the forces of
nature and man, even the fiercest of passions, including agression
and lust, symbolized by the allegorical lion and unicorn. This
is the vision of the Roman de la Rose that Chaucer satirizes
in his Parliament of Foules and De Pays mocks in The Book of
the City of Ladies.
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