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The daybreak of feminism.

A Summary of meu314 from wordpress.com

Note: I added a few notes in parenthesis and broke down long paragraphs to match my reading style. You can always read the original of meu314

(Versión en Español aquí)

Christine de Pizan was studying at home, like many other nights, when she run into Matheolus’ Lamentations.

At first, she was completely sure that all the misogynistic statements of the book were nothing but nonsense, but then, she remembered some other great writers and philosophers who said the same things, and she wondered whether she was wrong in her perception of women, being herself one of them.

This thought made her fall in despair.

At that point, the Three Virtues (Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude and Lady Justice) decided to appear to Christine to make her see that she was Not the wrong one and to help her build a city where any woman in the same situation of Christine could go and seek for refuge.

This way, a long conversation between the Three Virtues and Christine started, where they refuted and explained all the misogynistic ideas of that time.

Introduction to the book and influences

Firstly, I ought to mention that this book was written between the end of 1404 and the beginning of 1405.

Even though it has more than five hundred years, some of the subjects treated are still ongoing and the perspective with which they are treated is very progressist, even for today’s society.

Nevertheless, we cannot forget when the book was written, as there are some other ideas that could look old-fashioned to us, but they were a complete breakdown at the time. (where the book was published? In Spain?)

The title of the book (in French is “The City of Ladies”. How odd, the title is English) is a clear reference to the book The City of Godwritten by Saint Augustine, and even the idea of Christine´s book receives a clear influence from Saint Augustine’s, where he makes an defense of the Christianity by confronting a Christian city against a pagan one, and uses this to explain theological ideas.

Christine also receives a strong influence from the exemplum, books that started to become popular a couple of centuries before and which aim was to lecture the reader in a religious way.

We see that the Book of the City of the Ladies draws from centuries of theological thinking to refute the misogynistic ideas spread mainly by the Church.

As a matter of fact, Christine uses the major theological authority, one of the four Doctors of the Church, to precisely dismantle the reasoning of bishops and priests, and even those of the same Doctor. It is simply brilliant.

The first thing that caught my attention when I started the book was the fact that almost all women that appear there were Ancient History figures, Christian or pagan.

I was expecting for a collection of women contemporary to Christine, I was hoping to discover a lot of unknown Renaissance women.

There is indeed a moment when Christine explicitly says that not only foreign are to enter the city, and she mentions some contemporary women that are at the same level as all the other she has mentioned before, but this is not a big part of the book.

Why, if there were contemporary women who could serve as an example to refute these sexist ideas, does Christine decide to use women so distant in time? Even though at first this was shocking, now I can understand that the impact of the book would have been smaller had Christine not used these figures.

First of all, being able to show this knowledge of history, Greek and Roman mythology, biblical stories … It gives Christine authority. She is not a woman saying that her neighbors are good people, she is a scholar giving us hundreds of examples that show how the established ideas are a nonsense.

In addition, bishops and theologians often used mythological or biblical examples to build sexist arguments, like Judith´s story or the myth of the Gorgon which we will discuss later.

It makes sense that she uses the same source as the people she wants to refute. Same as she did with the simile with Saint Augustine’s book, Christine is showing her ability to pick up the weapons used against women and to use them in their favor.

We also have to take into account that she wrote the book in the Renaissance (Not quite the Renaissance yet), when Roman culture and their myths were in the spotlight. Also, the value of these figures was unquestionable, so she could avoid any kind of clash of interests with the examples she is making to refute an idea.

In addition, she is showing that women have been subdued to the same pressure since the beginning of time, and it is not related with their attitude or their religion.

Finally, Christine is also able to turn out some myths which were used to support the idea that women were evil, she reinterprets them to also show that a misogynistic interpretation is not the only way to see the world.

Christine’s value as a historian by interpreting, analyzing and reinterpreting myths and stories is incalculable, and again, she is able to use all of it to defend her ideas, creating a book that after more than five hundred years is still on point.

Some of the themes treated

Due to the huge number of subjects treated in the book, I am not going to go in depth in all of them, I will focus only in those I find more interesting. Nevertheless, I shall also mention some other themes treated, just to let us have an idea of what we will find in the book.

The book is divided in three partsthe three conversations with Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude and Lady Justice.

The Reason personified as a woman is an initial allegory to break down the idea that women were purely emotional beings and that they were unable to think logically, unable to use reason.

It already shows us that Lady Reason will be in the charge of building the foundation of the City, i.e. she will be in the charge of breaking the main ideas society had about women.

In this conversation with Lady Reason, they speak about why men want to badmouth women as a group, and they mention some books which were specifically written to speak about how mean women are or even about the bad functioning of women’s bodies.

Lady Reason points out that the fact that men did not allow women to read these books is an argument per se about how unconvincing these statements are, as any person who reads these books and knows a little bit about women would realize about the absurdity written.

Also, in this first part, Christine puts in the center of stage the abilities that women are supposed Not to have, such as intelligence, braveness, strength, leadership, creativeness, …

And she fills the book with women who have every single one of these skills. Here again, I was surprised that most of the examples of good rulers are from Middle East or Merovingian Franks queens.

Maybe, it has something to do with the fact that pre-islamic civilizations were matriarchies.

Merovingian Frank society, on the other hand, was not a matriarchy, but their legislative body was not very developed, so the power of personal influence was sometimes higher than the power of a title.

That left some accessible power for those women intelligent and ambitious enough who also had the luck of being born in a wealthy family.

We can see examples of this in the figure of the Queen Mother, who was a very respected figure who, in times of uncertainty or when there were weak kings, had complete power.

I think one of the arguments with Lady Reason is a good example of the mood of the book: Christine asks Lady Reason if there is some sense in the saying “women are only good for talking, crying and knitting.”

Against all odds, the answer of Lady Reason is that the saying is completely true, but she also explains why those are not characteristics to be ashamed of, but on the contrary skills to be proud of. 

Lady Reason shows several examples (all of them biblical) where a woman got the favor of Jesus over any man because of her tears or her talk (such as the Samaritan woman, Mary Magdalene, Lazaro’s sisters…). In this way, Christine chose to praise female “characteristics” instead of rejecting them.

The second part of the book is the conversation with Lady Rectitudea rhetoric figure created by Christine.

In French, Christine chooses to call her “Droiture” and not Rectitude like in the English translation, as rectitude can be associated with religious rigidity, and she wanted to avoid it.

Droit means straight, erect and so Droiture is a reference to the straight lines of the buildings that form the City, which in this analogy is a reference to the persistence and the good sense. 

In the conversation with Lady Rectitude, they discuss about the skills of the women who will be allowed to enter the city: filial, maternal and conjugal love, persistence, chastity and fidelity among many others.

Christine also makes a statement in defense of marriage, and she tells us that she had a happy marriage full of respect, although she is aware that she was incredibly lucky for that.

Again, by defending marriage and those skills, Christine is praising characteristics associated to women. Even though she is constantly speaking about examples of women who do not follow the stereotypes, she chooses to recognise women as a collective with common qualities that are different from those of men, and she decides to make a case for these skills.

We have to think that, if still today is difficult to deconstruct gender roles, in 1405 it was impossible to even think about them as a social construct.

In this part, Christine also speaks about abuse and rape.

When she is speaking about marriage, Christine says that there are women who have to suffer abuse from their husbands on a daily basis, and she lauds those women that continue with their role as a wife and mother in the family unity, as they are able to leave their sorrow and they chose the maternal and conjugal love instead.

This is obviously something crazy to say today. (Please, if somebody is in this situation you have to get out of there, ask for help and leave as soon as possible).

But in 1405 it was a complete break down with all the ideas they had.

Firstly, Christine is showing the reality that some women have to live in, and also, she is making the statement that, even though the situation is brutal for them, those women chose to honor the sacrament of marriage.

The ideas Christine presents about rape could form part of a book written today.

First of all, she refutes the idea that women do enjoy being raped by showing examples of women who committed suicide after being raped.

The most interesting example is that of Lucrecia’s rape which led into the fall of Roman Monarchy.

With this example, Christine also makes the point that clothes or attitude have nothing to do with being raped, as Tarquinius met Lucrecia when she was knitting with her slaves, wearing demure clothes and she did not even notice Tarquinius presence. This last point is also addressed to women who believe that whenever they maintain the “proper” attitude they will not suffer vexations from men.

Christine also makes the point that we should not judge a woman because she wants to feel beautiful. 

As an example of how appearance should not be judged she speaks about the Apostol Bartolomeo. He enjoyed dressing in silk, and this fact has nothing to do with all the good acts performed by him when he was following Jesus.

I think she makes an interesting point here, and it is very related with nowadays society, where the title “feminist” is given or taken according to whether you decide to wear make-up or wax yourself, same as the title of “respectable women”, which is more related with the length of the skirt.

Before going to the third part, I would like to speak about the reinterpretations of biblical or mythological stories made by Christine. There are more in the book, but I am going to mention only two of them: The story of Judith and the story of the Gorgon, both used to make the point of how evil and dangerous women are.

So, the legend of Judith tells us that, trying to stop the siege of Betulia, her city, Judith seduced Holofernes, the leader of the enemy army. After getting him drunk, she cut his head. It is clear how this story was used to warn men against beautiful women. Nevertheless, Christine focuses on how brave was Judith, as she risked her life by going to the enemy camp and seducing Holofernes.

She also focuses on the wittiness of Judith and in the fact that God was with her, as she succeeded with her plan, and so, she saved God´s chosen people. Then, Christine presents Judith as a hero, and not as an evil seductress.

About the Gorgone, a figure that was used to warn men against women seductive weapons, Christine explains that the origin of this myth was a woman with such deep eyes that made all who look at them to stop breathing for a moment, and due to jealousy people made up the legend.

In the third part of the book, Justice shows Christine who is going to rule the city and who shall be living in the most beautiful towers. Those are the Virgin Mary and all the (female) Saints. 

It is normal that is Justice who should speak about this, as at that time justice was linked with religion. Again, Christine is sending a message to the Church: now the city is full and ruled by worshiped women.

Finally, I think is very interesting to mention that the book is full of Christine´s monologues where she demands to those ungrateful men to shut up and to stop badmouth women.

In these monologues you can see the weariness and the unease Christine is feeling:

[…]Let them be silent! Let them be silent from now on, those writers who malign women and who talk about them in their books and poems. Let them be silent, in their books and poems. Let them be silent, all their accomplices and supporters! They should lower their eyes in shame for having dared to express criticism in the face of the truth, which contradicts their words […]

It is worth saying that she always mentions priests and bishops in these parts, so we can see that for her they lead the oppression against women.

To finish

To finish this entrance of the blog, I would like to leave some parts of the last chapter of the book:

Most honorable ladies, praise be to God: The construction of our city is finally at an end. All of you who love virtue, glory and a fine reputation can now be lodged in great splendor inside its walls, not just women of the past but also those of the present and the future, for this city has been founded and built to accommodate all deserving women.

My dearest ladies, the human heart is naturally filled with joy when it sees that it has triumphed in a particular endeavor and has defeated its enemies.

From this moment on, my ladies, you have every reason to rejoice -in a suitable devout and respectable manner- at seeing the completion of this new city.

It will not only shelter you all, or rather those of you who have proved yourselves to be worthy, but will also defend and protect you against your attackers and assailants, provided you look after it well.

For you can see this is made of virtuous material which shines so brightly that you can gaze at your reflections in it, especially the lofty turrets that were built in this final part of the book […]

I would like to finish the post by thanking Christine de Pizan for everything she started, even though today is still not near the end, and thanks to Victor for all our conversations that little by little are helping me to build my little city.

Note: In that period, many “Arab” authors in Andalusia had treated that subject in their poems. Toledo, though under the dominion of Spanish monarch,  was the center of radiation of translation, culture, education and the living together of all religious sects, to all of Europe


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