Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies is a 1405 French medieval, proto-feminist allegory that aims to build a space for women safe from misogyny, sexism, and physical/sexual abuse. It’s a wonderful text to read and teach in a college literature or even rhet/comp course—and its concerns are, sadly, still just as relevant today as they were in 1405.
My goal in this post is to share some ideas, resources, and lesson plans that I have found helpful in teaching this incredible text. For more resources, including a Powerpoint slideshow or other information, please feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Book of the City of Ladies is Pizan’s second long book of prose and most famous work. In it, she casts herself as a character visited by three foremothers (I think of them as “fairy godmothers”)—Reason, Justice, and Rectitude. In the three parts of the book, each of these foremothers helps Christine build the City of Ladies, from its walls to its houses and buildings, by providing examples of strong women in history and literature, including (to name just a few) Sappho, Medea, Minerva, Dido, the Amazons, and the Virgin Mary. In this way, with each woman serving as a “building block” of Pizan’s argument, the City is of, for, and built by ladies—a symbolic space for defending and appreciating women.
The women listed by the foremothers include fictional women and women of past eras, including pagans, Jews, and medieval Christian saints. These women exemplify the many positive contributions women have made to society throughout history. Pizan argues in favor of education for women, pointing out women’s natural affinity to learn as well as their talents in government. She argues for the criminality of rape and points out the positive aspects of the institution of marriage, which was under attack at the time by many male writers.
Later, Simone de Beauvoir helped re-popularize Pizan’s works in the 1970’s, writing that Pizan marks “the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defense of her sex.” Pizan is remembered today as a proto-feminist (since the term and concept of “feminism” as we know it technically did not exist at the time) writer effectively using language to support the ideal of treating women equally. Her persuasive rhetorical techniques are studied by modern-day rhetoriticians, and historians recognize her as the first female professional writer in Europe. (After she was widowed at age 25, Pizan supported her children, mother, and niece by serving as a court writer for several French dukes and later King Charles VI for more than 30 years.)
I first encountered The Book of the City of Ladies in the fall of 2013, when I was teaching a survey course at the University of Alaska Anchorage titled Masterpieces of World Literature I, which spanned all of early world literature from The Epic of Gilgamesh through John Milton. The assigned textbooks for this course are the Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volumes A-C, which contain canonical works from a diversity of geographical locations, ranging from Aesop’s Fables to Homer to Virgil to Valmiki’s Ramayana.
Although these textbooks represent an impressive amount of cultural and geographical diversity, they severely lack in representations of female voices—a point that my students and I discuss early in the semester. Together, we negotiate the complexities of approaching gender and sexuality in an ancient, medieval, and Renaissance world literature class—the complications of culture, time period, and politics; the inequalities of educational privilege across gender and class lines throughout these historical eras; and the enduring sexism in modern Western politics and education and how these have shaped what we think of today as “the canon.” We discuss how all of these factors, and more, affect the amount of writing by women we have available to us in our textbooks.
With all of that said, I wanted to include more female voices in the class, and the small amount of background I knew about Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies led me to believe that it would be a valuable addition to the themes of the course. My students ended up falling in love with the text, and I did, too. One day, after a student asked, “Why does Pizan use mostly fictional characters to represent strong women?” I felt inspired to write a series of poems in response to this question, using my own modern-day fairy godmothers from pop culture: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, and Dana Scully from The X-Files.
So, without further ado: why is this text worth assigning?
Historical significance: Pizan was one of the world’s first female professional writers, and, as de Beauvoir points out, The Book of the City of Ladies marks one of the first times in history that a woman defended her gender in writing.
Expanding (and complicating) the canon: In an ancient lit class, which focuses on canonical works by mostly male writers using a male-dominated textbook, Pizan’s female voice is an incredibly significant inclusion. Her unique (and very different!) perspective on the female characters in other texts my students read in the semester, such as Euripedes’ Medea and Virgil’s Aeneid, was intriguing and crucially important for students to consider. Pizan complicates the canon in extremely valuable ways.
Rhetorical value: This book is a rhetorical masterpiece, using incredibly well-crafted arguments and strategies to make its points. My students very much enjoyed examining Pizan’s book from a rhetorical perspective.
Beautiful writing: Overall, the biggest reason I teach this text is because it’s a great literary masterpiece! It’s beautifully written and fascinating to read. Pizan’s writing is at turns funny and heartbreaking, and all along, incredibly well-researched.
What do students need to know as background information about this text?
Each time I have taught this text, I have shared a brief Powerpoint presentation with my students providing some literary and historical background about Pizan and the context in which she was writing. The amount of background you’ll need to give your students will vary depending on the scope of your own course. Since my course spanned more than 3,000 years of literature around the globe, allowing little time to focus on any one historical period or location in great detail, I needed to provide a larger amount of background about general misogyny in medieval western European culture, as well as in literature. I found this to be a very important piece of context for my students.
Furthermore, I also found it extremely helpful to provide my students with more specific background information about the literary debates and dialogues Pizan was engaging in throughout her career—in particular, the debate over Le Roman de la Rose. Le Roman de la Rose was a wildly popular medieval French poem satirizing courtly love, written first by Guilliaume de Lorris in 1230 and later completed by Jean de Meun in 1275. Meun’s portion contained rants against love, marriage, and women, representing women as seducers, tricksters, and sexual objects using often vulgar language. The poem was attacked by many writers throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, but Pizan was one of the only women to write in response to it.
Between 1400 and 1402, Pizan wrote many letters and essays attacking Le Roman de la Rose, while other male writers responded by defending the misogyny in letters, lectures, and criticism. The Book of the City of Ladies is Pizan’s book-length, allegorical response to Meun and others like him, and I believe it’s very important for students to know this context. Pizan’s role in this debate ultimately established her reputation as an intellectual who could defend her points and counter abusive literary treatements of women.
When providing background about Le Roman de La Rose, I show my students this quote from the poem as an example of Meun’s misogynistic writing:
“There is a life too full of torment and strife and arguments and riotousness because of the pride of foolish women—and dangers and reproaches which they do and say with their mouths, and requests and complaints which they invent on many occasions. It takes a great effort to keep them and to hold back their foolish wills” (lines 8569-78)
Then I show them this quote from one of Pizan’s letters attacking the poem, which points out some of the real-world problems that Meun’s poem meant for women:
“[I] heard one of your familiar companions and colleagues, a man of authority, say that he knew a married man who believed in the Roman de la Rose as in the gospel. This was an extremely jealous man, who, whenever in the grip of passion, would go and find the book and read it to his wife; then he would become violent and strike her and say such horrible things as, ‘These are the kinds of tricks you pull on me. This good, wise man Master Jean de Meun knew well what women are capable of!’ And at every word he finds appropriate, he gives her a couple of kicks or slaps” (The Debate of the Romance of the Rose 136)
My students usually also find it interesting to learn biographical background about Pizan’s life and her precedent as the first professional woman writer in Europe—about how she became so well-educated and well-read, and about how happy her marriage was before her husband passed away. The Norton Anthology of World Literature Volume B, which contains excerpts of Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, also includes one of her beautiful elegies to her husband, which is a helpful (albeit devastating) warm-up for the class session, showing students that Pizan wrote both poetry and prose, and that she loved her husband dearly.
Finally, I find it helpful to provide my students with some basic and brief definitions of feminism, as situated in the context of the three waves, as well as a definition of “proto-feminism.” This helps us all stay on the same page when we begin to discuss whether or not this text meets the definition of “feminism.” It allows students to engage in all the great nuances of that dialogue while receiving a brief introduction to the history of feminism, to boot!
Classroom activities for teaching The Book of the City of Ladies
Creative: Ask students to choose their own fairy godmother (like Pizan’s Reason, Rectitude or Justice) named after some virtuous trait. (Examples could include Curiosity, Courage, etc.). Then have them write their own list of modern-day women (a blend of historical and fictional) embodying that trait to build a modern-day city of ladies. Discuss in partners and as a class.
Literary: Invite students to compare Pizan’s descriptions of some of her female literary heroes with their original representations. For example, compare Pizan’s description of Dido with Virgil’s. What has Pizan changed in her representation of this character? Why? What is gained or lost in the change?
Rhetorical: In partners, students should examine Pizan’s rhetorical strategies in one selection of the text. Partners should catalogue these techniques in a list and identify how they work to communicate Pizan’s argument persuasively. It may help to provide your students with a list of rhetorical terms, such as antiphrasis, irony, rhetorical questions, allegory, etc.
Rhetorical (part 2): Ask students, once they have identified Pizan’s rhetorical strategies, to employ these strategies in an argument of their own. When, how, and why can an allegory be more effective than a direct argument? Are there any other examples of allegorical arguments in literature, film, or other media that students recognize?
Discussion questions for teaching The Book of the City of Ladies
Is Pizan a feminist? Is this a feminist text? Why or why not? According to which definition of feminism? Does it meet one definition while failing to meet another?
What is the tone in this text, and how does Pizan use it to make her points? Does the tone vary? When? Why?
What role does Nature play in this text?
Is Pizan using humor in this text at any point? If so, when and how?
What are some of the similarities and differences in the types of women that Pizan lists as her examples?
Why do you think Pizan used an allegory to make her points? Do you think it was an effective choice? From a rhetorical standpoint? From a political standpoint? From a creative/artistic/literary standpoint?
How does Pizan as a character differ from Pizan as an author? Why is this distinction important?
How does Pizan as a character change over the course of the text?
What is significant about the opening scene in the book? Why does Pizan choose to start her argument this way?
If you could add any female characters that we have read this semester to Pizan’s argument, who would you add and why?