Christine de Pisan: From Book of the City of the Ladies
Analysis Question: Of the many arguments that Christine offers in support of her argument about the true nature of women. which do you find most compelling and would it have been as compelling to a European man of her time?
Evaluative Question: How does Christine use history to make her case for educating women?
Christine de Pisan (1365-1428?), was the daughter of an Italian physician, she was married to a French nobleman when she was fifteen—medieval women usually married in their mid to late teens. Ten years later, when her husband died, Christine was left to support three children, a task she met by becoming the first female professional writer. Christine attacked the long anti-female tradition that had demeaned women and denied them the right to a university education. Her writing is
all the more significant because it occurred in a time in which men were making systematic efforts to restrict female inheritance of land and female membership in the guilds.
Christine was keenlv aware of the fact that Western literary tradition did not offer a representative picture of women’s importance to society. Eager to correct this inequity, she became a spokesperson for female achievements and talents. In her Book of the City of Ladies (1405), Christine attacks male misogyny and exalts the accomplishments of famous women throughout the ages. Patterned as an allegorical debate, The City of Ladies pictures Christine herself “interviewing” three goddesses—Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice–as she seeks moral guidance on matters such as whether
women can and should be educated in the same manner as men and why men claim it is not good for women to be educated at all.
One day as I was sitting alone in my study surrounded by books on all kinds of subjects, devoting myself to literary studies, my usual habit, my mind dwelt at length on the weighty opinions of various authors whom I had studied for a long time. I looked up from my book, having decided to leave such subtle questions in peace and to relax by reading some small book. By chance a strange volume came into my hands, not one of my own, but one which had been given to me along with some others. When I held it open and saw its title page that it was by Matheolus, I smiled, for though I had never seen it before, I had often heard that like books it discussed respect for women. I thought I would browse through it to amuse myself. I had not been reading for very long when my good mother called me to refresh myself with some supper, for it was evening. Intending to look at it the next day, I put it down. The next morning, again seated in my study as was my habit, I remembered wanting to examine this book by Matheolus. I started to read it and went on for a little while. Because the subject seemed to me not very pleasant for people who do not enjoy lies, and of no use in developing virtue or manners, given its lack of integrity in diction and theme, and after browsing here and there and reading the end, I put it down in order to turn my attention to more elevated and useful study. But just the sight of this book, even though it was of no authority, made me wonder how it happened that so many different men – and learned men among them – have been and are so inclined to express both in speaking and in their treatises and writings so many wicked insults about women and their behavior. Not only one or two and not even just this Matheolus (for this book had a bad name anyways and was intended as a satire) but, more generally, from the treatises of all philosophers and poets and from all the orators – it would take too long to mention their names – it seems that they all speak from one and the same mouth. Thinking deeply about these matters, I began to examine my character and conduct as a natural woman and, similarly, I considered other women whose company I frequently kept, princesses, great ladies, women of the middle and lower classes, who had graciously told me of their most private and intimate thoughts, hoping that I could judge impartially and in good conscience whether the testimony of so many notable men could be true. To the best of my knowledge, no matter how long I confronted or dissected the problem, I could not see or realize how their claims could be true when compared to the natural behavior and character of women. Yet I still argued vehemently against women, saying that it would be impossible that so many famous men – such solemn scholars, possessed of such deep and great understanding, so clear-sighted in all things, as it seemed – could have spoken falsely on so many occasions that I could hardly find a book on morals where, even before I had read it in its entirety, I did not find several chapters or certain sections attacking women, no matter who the author was. This reason alone, in short, made me conclude that, although my intellect did not perceive my own great faults and, likewise, those of other women because of its simpleness and ignorance, it was however truly fitting that such was the case. And so I relied more on the judgment of others than on what I myself felt and knew. I was so transfixed in this line of thinking for such a long time that it seemed as if I were in a stupor. Like a gushing fountain, a series of authorities, whom I recalled one after another, came to mind, along with their opinions on this topic. And I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have designed to make such an abominable work which, from what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice.
Book I. 27 Christine Asks Reason Whether God Has Ever Wished to Ennoble the Mind of Woman With
the Loftiness of the Sciences; and Reason’s Answer.
. . . please enlighten me again, whether it has ever pleased this God, who has bestowed so many favors on women, to honor the feminine sex with the privilege of the virtue of high understanding and great
learning, and whether women ever have a clever enough mind for this. I wish very much to know this
because men maintain that the mind of women can learn only a little.”
She answered, “My daughter, since I told you before, you know quite well that the opposite of their
opinion is true, and to show you this even more clearly, I will give you proof through examples. I tell you
again–and don’t doubt the contrary–if it were customary to send daughters to school like sons, and if they were then taught the natural sciences, they would learn as thoroughly and understand the subtleties of all the arts and sciences as well as sons. And by chance there happen to be such women, for, as I touched on before, just as women have more delicate bodies than men, weaker and less able to perform many tasks, so do they have minds that are freer and sharper whenever they apply themselves.”
“My lady, since they have minds skilled in conceptualizing and learning, just like men, why don’t
women learn more?”
She replied, “Because, my daughter, the public does not require them to get involved in the affairs
which men are commissioned to execute, just as I told you before. It is enough for women to perform the
usual duties to which they are ordained. As for judging from experience, since one sees that women
usually know less than men. that therefore their capacity for understanding is less, look at men who farm
the flatlands or who live in the mountains. You will find that in many countries they seem completely
savage because they are so simple-minded. All the same, there is no doubt that Nature provided them with the qualities of body and mind found in the wisest and most learned men. All of this stems from a failure to learn, though, just as I told you, among men and women, some possess better minds than others….
Book II. 36 Against Those Men Who Claim It Is Not Good for Women to Be Educated.
Following these remarks, I, Christine, spoke, “My lady, I realize that women have accomplished
many good things and that even if evil women have done evil, it seems to me, nevertheless, that the
benefits accrued and still accruing because of good women–particularly the wise and literary ones and
those educated in the natural science whom I mentioned above–outweigh the evil. Therefore, I am
amazed by the opinion of some men who claim that they do not want their daughters, wives, or
kinswomen to be educated because their mores would be ruined as a result.”
She responded, “Here you can clearly see that not all opinions of men are based on reason and that
these men are wrong. For it must not be presumed that mores necessarily grow worse from knowing the
moral sciences, which teach the virtues, indeed, there is not the slightest doubt that moral education
amends and ennobles them. How could anyone think or believe that whoever follows good teaching or
doctrine is the worse for it? Such an opinion cannot be expressed or maintained. I do not mean that it
would be good for a man or a woman to study the art of divination or those fields of learning which are
forbidden—or the holy Church did not remove them from common use without good reason–but it
should not be believed that women are the worse for knowing what is good.
“Quintus Hortensius, a great rhetorician and consummately skilled orator in Rome, did not share this
opinion. He had a daughter, named Hortensia, whom he greatly loved for the subtlety of her wit. He had her learn letters and study the science of rhetoric, which she mastered so thoroughly that she resembled her father Hortensius not only in wit and lively memory but also in her excellent delivery and order of speech–in fact. he surpassed her in nothing. As for the subject discussed above, concerning the good which. comes about through women, the benefits realized by this woman and her learning were, among others, exceptionally remarkable.
“Similarly, to speak of more recent times, without searching for examples in ancient history,
Giovanni Andrea, a solemn law professor in Bologna not quite sixty years ago, was not of the opinion
that it was bad for women to be educated. He had a fair and good daughter, named Novella, who was
educated in the law to such an advanced degree that when he was occupied by some task and not at
leisure to present his lectures to his students, he would send Novella, his daughter, in his place to lecture
to the students from his chair. And to prevent her beauty from distracting the concentration of her
audience, she had a little curtain drawn in front of her. In this manner she could on occasion supplement
and lighten her father’s occupation. He loved her so much that, to commemorate her name, he wrote a
book of remarkable lectures on the law which he entitled Novella super Decretalium, after his daughter’s
“Thus, not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be
educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it displeased them that
women knew more than they did. Your father, who was a great scientist and philosopher, did not believe
that women were worth less by knowing science; rather, as you know, he took great pleasure from seeing
your inclination to learning. The feminine opinion of your mother, however, who wished to keep you
busy with spinning and silly girlishness, following the common custom of women, was the major obstacle
to your being more involved in the sciences. But just as the proverb already mentioned above says, ‘No
one can take away what Nature has given,’ your mother could not hinder in you the feeling for the
sciences which you, through natural inclination, had nevertheless gathered together in little droplets. I am sure that, on account of these things, you do not think you are worth less but rather that you consider it agreat treasure for yourself; and you doubtless have reason to.”
And I, Christine, replied to all of this, “Indeed, my lady, what you say is as true as the Lord’s Prayer.”