Christine de Pesan can be considered the world’s first professional female writer. During the fourteenth century, pre-dominant male authors wrote negatively about females. In her book, The Book of the City of Ladies, de Pesan confronts misogyny and defends women’s virtue by providing many historical examples. The book begins with Christine, cast as one of the main characters, who is upset after reading a book by Matheolus about women’s inferiority. She ponders on the subject, unconvinced by his claims but also doubtful because many scholars support his ideas.
She despairs in a monologue to God asking him why women were made imperfect and if she could have been born a man. Three celestial figures appear to her; allegorically portraying Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. The rest of the book is a conversation between Christine and the three symbolic ladies that circulates around the goodness and nobility of ancient females, building of the City of Ladies, and defense against the misogyny by sexist male writers. The Book of the City of Ladies is Christine’s portrayal of womanhood. She shows that females are equal to men in intellect, spirit, and physical attributes.
She cites various achievements of warriors, pious wives, devoted daughters, scholars, and poets from mythology, literature, and the Bible whom uphold the reputation and good nature of women. These women of the past and present are the building blocks of the community that the City of Ladies will inhabit. The author uses symbols connected to the allegorical figures Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Reason holds a mirror adorned with jewels that symbolizes wisdom and self-knowledge. This mirror guides Christine to pursue and understand the virtues of women.
The second allegorical figure that approaches her is Rectitude, carrying a shining ruler. This object signifies judgment, and draws the line between good and evil, and right from wrong. The third figure to approach Christine is Justice, bearing a vessel of gold in her right hand. This denotes the rightful portion a person receives based on how they lived life morally. Symbols are often seen in Holy Scriptures, and de Pesan uses them to enhance and illuminate the virtue of women, linking the three divine ladies to the Christian Trinity. Several themes exist in The Book of the City of Ladies.
A major theme discussed is misrepresentation vs. the truth. During the fourteenth and fifteenth century, many male authors misportrayed the nature of women. The pre dominant male society embedded falsehood though poetry, stories, and misconstrued females as an evil being since the beginning of time because of Eve. Through Christine’s line of questioning, the three ladies enlightened her with the truthfulness of what a female is and what she can do. Without Eve, there would have been no you nor I, and if God so willed, Eve would not have taken a bite from the apple.
Another important theme de Pisan illustrated was repossession of the female character. She broke the stereotypical image that women were helpless, dependent, and weaker physically and spiritually. In Christine’s dialogue with the three Virtues, several female models of brave warriors, just leaders, benevolent mothers, and intelligent scholars were illustrated. The personalities of these women construct the foundations of the City of Ladies, and de Pisan rights the injustice faced by women for several centuries.
Nonetheless, the author is not trying to uphold an extreme feminist view by portraying females as the more worthy sex. She just wants to justify that both men and women are equal in talent, intellect, and virtue. Christine is building a City of Ladies is a symbolical representation. She is not physically laboring by hauling stones and bricks. The walls are raised and built on the exemplary evidence of accomplished female pasts, in awe of their personality of goodness, righteousness, and morality. The city is an imaginative concept, a “place” that serves to hold and store women’s best attributes and greatest deeds.
In the many examples de Pisan cited, there was no mention of women slaves, prostitutes, and witches that would dwell in this city. The three Virtues insisted that this “place” would never collapse. I believe the author did not include lower classed females because it would taint the city walls with female submissiveness, and sinful deeds, both of which the author writes to overcome. However, if females do not teach others to overcome, but instead turn a blind eye towards them, the concept of misogyny will prevail.
In order to form a sturdy wall of morality and equality, all women, regardless of their occupation should be included. They can be guided by the achievement of other females. Therefore, Christine de Pesan starts The Book of the City of Ladies with doubts about the nature of women, and goes on restore the reputation of females in a series of dialogues with the three Virtues. She wrote a powerful dialogue with robust examples of worthy females, who even today many young females look up to.