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by Siv Palm

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, and Virgil.
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 men.

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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