Citation
Excavating the city of ladies

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Title:
Excavating the city of ladies a cache of feminist prototypes
Creator:
Wagner, Linda K
Place of Publication:
Denver, CO
Publisher:
University of Colorado Denver
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
171 leaves : ; 28 cm

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Feminism and literature ( lcsh )
Genre:
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 169-171).
Thesis:
Humanities
General Note:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
Linda K. Wagner.

Record Information

Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
|Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
40326556 ( OCLC )
ocm40326556
Classification:
LD1190.L58 1998m .W34 ( lcc )

Full Text
EXCAVATING THE CITY OF LADIES:
A CACHE OF FEMINIST PROTOTYPES
B.A., University ofNorthern Colorado, 1977
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities
1998
by
Linda K. Wagner


1998 by Linda K. Wagner
All rights reserved.


This thesis for the Master of Humanities
degree by
Linda K. Wagner
has been approved
by


Wagner, Linda K. (Master of Humanities)
Excavating the City of Ladies: a Cache of Feminist Prototypes
Thesis directed by Assistant Professor Nancy F. Ciccone
ABSTRACT
In The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan anticipates Victorian
feminists in respect to rhetorical strategies. She exposes contradictions in misogynistic
discourse in her effort to debunk prevailing notions regarding women. Moreover, in
spite of historical differences, the heroines whom Christine portrays epitomize three
trends evidenced in Victorian womens writing, as postulated by Elaine Showalter.
The feminine stage imitates the prevailing ideologies of the dominant tradition
and internalizes its standards of conduct. This mode encompasses both "custodial"
and "imitative" women. Custodians accept and promulgate a male ideal of
womanhood. Characters in the City of Ladies who represent this orientation include
the narrator as she introduces and concludes the Book, and heroines who exemplify
the patriarchal ideal in their roles as wives of men or brides of Christ. "Imitative"
women engage in traditionally masculine activities. In Christines City this group
includes warriors and scholars who outshine their male counterparts. By means of her
proto-feminine characters and her use of allegory, Christine implies that speciousness
inheres in any definition of womanhood based solely on the female body and its alleged
defects because physical form constitutes any individuals most mutable feature.
Protest against patriarchal attitudes and advocacy for womens rights and
values characterize thq feminist stage. The celestial figures who appear to the narrator
in her vision reflect this stage because they openly challenge common misogynistic
assumptions, and advocate the right of women to expect courtesy and fairness from
authors who write about them. Some of the arguments that Reason and Rectitude put
forth parallel those of Victorian feminists, in that they marshal patriarchal arguments
against each other to support their own points.
Finally, self-exploration and a search for identity characterize the female stage.
Christine anticipates twentieth-century female authors in her creation of a separate
IV


"female space" for these purposes and in her descriptive exploration of women in the
privileged female roles of mystic and mother.
Parallels between Showalters categories and Christines characters suggest
that the feminine, feminist, and female orientations are a-historical. They reify
Christines City as the forgotten cornerstone of a feminine literary tradition.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I recommend
its publication
Signed
Nancy F. Ciccone
v


DEDICATION
To Ashley and Willie, who inspire my best efforts; to my folks, who support all my
ventures; and to Doug, who invests his considerable talents to promote my success.


ACKNOWLEDGMENT
My deepest appreciation to Nancy Ciccone for her clear and insightful guidance,
gracious encouragement, and steadfast patience.


CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION...............................................1
2. THE PROTOTYPE OF THE FEMININE MODE
IN THE BOOK OF THE CITY OF LADIES .......................4
The Custodial Aspect of the Feminine Mode ...............5
Literary Background and Stereotypes about Women
that Medieval Custodians Would Preserve..............6
The Custodial Aspect of the Feminine Mode
Represented in The Book of the City of Ladies .....21
The Imitative Aspect of the Feminine Mode................47
The Imitative Aspect of the Feminine Mode
Represented in The Book of the City of Ladies .....48
3. THE PROTOTYPE OF THE FEMINIST MODE
IN THE BOOK OF THE CITY OF LADIES........................78
The Assumption that Women are Physically,
and Therefore Morally and Intellectually Impaired .......81
The Assumption that Women Have Nothing
Worthwhile to Say........................................89
The Assumption that Marriage is a Trap for Men...........92
viii


Christines Challenge of Patriarchal Values ........ 100
Agendized Historiography in The Book of the City of Ladies .... 106
4. THE PROTOTYPE OF THE FEMALE MODE
IN THE BOOK OF THE CITY OF LADIES................... 119
A Separate Female Space............................. 121
Female Mysticism ................................... 126
Motherhood.......................................... 132
Search for Identity and Self-Discovery.............. 137
5. CONCLUSION.......................................... 140
NOTES........................................................... 144
BIBLIOGRAPHY.................................................... 169
IX


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION
The Book of the City of Ladies, written between 1405 and 1407 by Christine
de Pizan, was the first text authored by a woman in praise of women. Its purpose was
not only to defend women, but also to establish that they are the intellectual, moral,
and spiritual equals of men in a world where misogynistic assumptions were
commonplace. Ultimately, this collection of womens lives is an effort to reinterpret
femininity from a womans perspective. The author does not advocate sweeping
changes in the existing political, social, or religious order, nor does she suggest that
the roles of men and women in society be significantly altered. Instead, she urges
women to disregard antifeminist rhetoric, to recognize the strengths and virtues of
their sex, and to realize these strengths and virtues to their fullest capacity.
Half a millennium after Christine composed The Book of the City of Ladies,
feminist writers still chafed against the stigma attached to womanhood. Their
collective struggle to overcome that stigma took much the same form that Christines
individual struggle did. Like Christine, Victorian feminists exposed contradictions
inherent in patriarchal suppositions about women, and by doing so, they chipped away
at the counterfeit image of womanhood that antifeminist writers had created.
Moreover, Christines encyclopedic history of women can be seen to prefigure the
1


stages of writing of nineteenth and twentieth-century feminist authors, who were, for
the most part, unaware of her achievements. That is, in the City of Ladies, Christine
anticipates the categories of women writers that Elaine Showalter, a historian of
feminist criticism, describes in A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists
from Bronte to Lessing (1977). Showalter posits an evolutionary theory of the
development of women's writing:
First, there is a prolonged phase of imitation of the prevailing modes of
the dominant tradition, and internalization of its standards of art and its
views on social roles. Second, there is a phase of protest against these
standards and values, and advocacy of minority rights and values,
including a demand for autonomy. Finally, there is a phase of self-
discovery, a turning inward freed from some of the dependency of
position, a search for identity. An appropriate terminology for women
writers is to call these stages, Feminine, Feminist, and Female1
Showalter's book focuses on nineteenth and twentieth-century English writers,
whereas Christine was a fifteenth-century Italian immigrant to France. The difference
between eras and cultures accentuates the remarkable comprehensiveness of
Christines endeavor, as well as of Showalter's theory. In just one volume Christine
foreshadows, in the persons of the women she portrays, each of the three phases of
modern feminist writing that Showalter describes. The feminine, feminist, and female
phases do not unfold chronologically or sequentially in Christine's text; rather they are
ranged together. Even their simultaneity anticipates Showalter's theory, which
recognizes that women's writing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries cannot be
strictly classified and placed in precise time periods. She writes:
2


These are obviously not rigid categories, distinctly separable in time, to
which individual writers can be assigned with perfect assurance. The
phases overlap; there are feminist elements in feminine writing, and vice
versa.2
In The Book of the City of Ladies, precursors of the modern women whose writings
appertain to these three modes, appear together in one place Christine's allegorical
stronghold; acting in conjunction, they open the gates to a positive vision of
womanhood.
3


CHAPTER 2
THE PROTOTYPE OF THE FEMININE MODE
IN THE BOOK OF THE CITY OF LADIES
Elaine Showalter uses the terms feminine, feminist, and female, in reference to
a "literary subculture," specifically, English women writers of the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. To apply these expressions in precisely the same manner that she
does to the characters that appear in Christine de Pizans catalog of virtuous women,
obviously would be anachronistic. However, Showalters terms identify diverse
approaches that women in patriarchal societies take to art and to life in general. These
terms can therefore be used in a broader sense, relative to The Book of the City of
Ladies, to describe the different types of female attitudes and modi operand'i that
Christine's heroines exhibit in their respective ages and locales.3
Showalter defines the feminine stage as "imitation of the prevailing modes of
the dominant tradition, and internalization of its standards of art and its views on
social roles."4 In this study, the term feminine applies to the art of living, and not
exclusively to the art of writing; "modes" are subsequently broadened to mean
"ideologies," and "standards of art" to read "standards of conduct." A paradox is
embedded within this definition: the internalization of male views on social roles
which exclude women from male occupations is incompatible with women's imitation
of men. On the one hand, there are women who take a feminine approach to writing
4


or to life by assuming a custodial function; they not only accept but also promulgate a
male ideal of womanhood. Such a position can be self-immolating. Using Charlotte
Bronte's Jane Eyre as an example, Showalter points out that "the feminine heroine
grows up in a world without female solidarity, where women in fact police each other
on behalf of patriarchal tyranny."5 On the other hand, there are feminine women who
imitate men by engaging in traditionally masculine activities. They do not dispute the
patriarchal values of their society; to the contrary, they join in the competition for its
rewards. The difference between these attitudes is currently illustrated by one type of
woman who admires a man in uniform, and another type who dons the uniform herself
and fights for the right to participate in combat. Both types of women endorse the
military values of a patriarchal society.
The Custodial Aspect of the Feminine Mode
Custodians of the traditional ideal of womanhood function as the registers and
the mouthpieces of their patriarchal society. Custodial women accept the imprint of
male beliefs and attitudes toward women and perpetuate these notions, regardless of
whether or not they are detrimental to their own stature or to that of their female
progeny. These women can be regarded as "sociological chameleons . taking on the
class, lifestyle, and culture of their male relatives."6 Custodial women, both in secular
and religious walks of life, tend to believe in the inferiority of their own sex. For
example, Anna Comnena, daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexius I (1081-1118),
5


indicates her poor opinion of most women when she describes her exceptional mother
in The Alexiad:
For she was manly and staunch in mind, like that woman sung of by
Solomon in Proverbs, and showed no womanly and cowardly feelings,
such as we mostly see women experiencing when they hear something
alarming. Their very colour accuses their soul of cowardice, and
frequently they wail dolefully when ills are impending over them as it
were near at hand.7
The German abbess, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), advocates a role for women
that may be spiritually transcendent, but that is operatively subordinate:
For woman is weak, and looks to man that she may gain strength from
him, as the moon receives its strength from the sun; wherefore is she
subject to the man, and ought always to be prepared to serve him.8
The tendency of custodial women to adopt the attitudes of men toward themselves
precludes dissention and maintains the social status quo.
Literary Background and Stereotypes about Women
that Medieval Custodians Would Preserve
If the medieval period had been unequivocally misogynistic, women who
conformed could be seen as more or less traitorous to their sex. However, the
patriarchal view of women during the Middle Ages was ambivalent and complex. On
one hand, women were maligned both by ecclesiastic polemicists and by secular
writers who sought to instruct or to entertain. On the other hand, they were often
revered in literature as special recipients of Gods grace or as sources of inspiration for
chevalric heroes. It seems that for every example of a derogatory portrayal of women,
6


one could find a correspondingly favorable depiction, both in religious and in secular
literature. Any attempt at generalization about how women were represented in the
various genres of writing is bound to be confounded by exceptions. This very
ambivalence made the writing of Christine de Pizans book possible. If all women had
been universally and absolutely despised, there would have been no readership for a
book authored by a woman, nor would Christine have been capable of writing a work
requiring any degree of erudition, since she would not have had the opportunity to
educate herself. Conversely, if women in general had been esteemed and spoken of
with respect, Christine would have had no reason to write a book in their defense.
The denunciation of women had been a cultural constant throughout history.
It inevitably made its way into the medieval world. R. Howard Bloch observes:
Reaching back to the Old Testament and to ancient Greece and
extending through classical Hellenic, Judaic, and Roman traditions all
the way to the fifteenth century, it dominates ecclesiastical writing,
letters, sermons, theological tracts, and discussions and compilations of
canon law; scientific works, as part of biological, gynecological, and
medical knowledge; folklore and philosophy. The discourse of
misogyny runs like a vein . throughout medieval literature.9
Since the most literate segment of society in the Middle Ages was the clergy, the
views of churchmen dominated written texts during that span of time.
Christianity had begun as a religion of asceticism and renunciation of the things
of this world. Vern Bullough points out in The Subordinated Sex that "asceticism
quite early was equated with sexual celibacy, and at times the sexual aspects of
holiness have seemed to eclipse all other issues. Morality, in fact, became identified
7


with sexual purity, a definition that has not quite been lost in our day."10 The Christian
church began to regard sexual desire as a sin on a par with murder and heresy.
Exactly how or when the church adopted this stance is not clear. Bloch writes:
Indeed, it is next to impossible to say at what precise moment sex
became "identified as something intrinsically evil" and "as the
controlling element in morality," for there is no single figure or event
that can be said to be decisive, and no year, decade or even century that
unequivocally marks the difference, where the question of sexual
renunciation is concerned, between Christianity and either other
cultures or its own past.11
According to Thomas Heffernan, author of Sacred Biography, the "varied traditions
governing virginity and asceticism coalesced by the mid-fourth century and gave birth
in the Christian church to a theology which held sexual abstinence to be a sign of
singular virtue."12
Unfortunately for women, female virginity, as postulated by the church fathers,
was an unattainable ideal. It was not enough that a woman renounce her sexuality,
because virginity was considered to be as much a state of mind as a condition of bodily
integrity. Literally, of course, virginity meant a lack of sexual experience, but
figuratively, as Origen in the third century, and St. Jerome in the fourth affirmed, it
entailed a total absence of physical desire.13 St. Cyprian, a third-century bishop of
Carthage, and Tertullian, another third-century father of the church, went a step
further by adding that a virgin is a woman who has never been desired by a man.14 By
extension, the fathers maintained, since desire is aroused by a look, a virgin is a
woman who has never been seen, either by a man, another woman, or even herself.
8


Jerome was suspicious of women who bathed, because he held that there was a
potential for desire when women saw their own bodies. 15 It gets worse. Tertullian
warned that a woman cannot, be considered a virgin if anyone even suspects that she
might not be pure in thought and deed; her virginity is contingent upon other people's
perception of her, as well as upon her own impeccability.16 Bloch encapsulates the
patristic rationale concerning virginity:
Since desire resides in sight, and since it makes no difference whether
one sees or is seen, either by others or oneself, and finally since sight
does not reside entirely in the faculty of perception but is also a faculty
of the intellect, a virgin is a woman who is not thought not to be one in
the thought of another.17
The inevitable conclusion of such logic is that the only real virgin is a dead virgin,
because embodiment itself, that is, the ability to see and to be seen, constitutes
defilement. It is not surprising, then, that virginity and martyrdom should be almost
synonymous.
An interesting alternative to death for a devoted female Christian was to deny
her femininity completely, and thereby become "male." In other words, if a woman
repudiated her physicality and turned her back on worldly concerns, she could sidestep
the dichotomy that placed man on the side of the spirit and woman on the side of the
senses and seduction. Paradoxically, while almost all patristic writers subscribed to
the Pauline principle that "there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ
Jesus" (Galatians 3:28), they simultaneously maintained what Bloch calls "an
omnipresent antifeminism."18 Therefore, Jerome asserted that a woman who leaves
9


her husband in order to follow Christ "will cease to be a woman and will be called
man. . ,"19 He recommended this course of action, "so that wives may be converted
into men and their bodies into souls."20 Bullough describes the consequences of such
thinking:
The problem of a religious vocation for women proved a
troublesome question in the masculine-oriented society of the fourth
and fifth centuries. Many of the early women who turned to the ascetic
life had been forced to disguise themselves as men in order to follow
their vocation.21
The fact that some women actually had passed themselves off as monks in order both
to hide their feminine identity and to surpass the perceived limits of gender, was often
discussed in the writings of the early fathers.22
Christine devotes the third part of The Book of the City of Ladies almost
entirely to Christian women who voluntarily, often joyously, removed themselves from
the physical world altogether, or who withdrew from secular society. Many of her
heroines embraced martyrdom, and two became "men" by assuming male identities and
living as monks. Lady Justice emphasizes the chastity of these heroines, and closely
aligns their Christianity with their sexual purity. She thus demonstrates that women
are indeed able to meet the ascetic standards set by patristic writers; they can bypass
what the majority of medieval exegetes claimed was their special weakness, that is, an
overweening sexual appetite. She also indicates womens ability to exercise
independent judgment. Christine uses the vitae of female saints, which were
chronicled by various male hagiographers and then compiled by Vincent de Beauvais
10


in the thirteenth century, to invalidate the negative image of women promulgated by
misogynistic churchmen.
In the fourth century St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, both of whom
profoundly influenced the world of Christian thought, endorsed St. Pauls censorious
attitude toward women, along with his view that virginity was the ideal state.
Consequently, a mans sexual desire came to be considered a grievous sin entered into
involuntarily at the mere sight of a woman; celibates tended to perceive women as a
continual threat to their chastity, if not to their salvation. Conrad of Marchtal, an
abbot of the general chapter of Premontre, justified the Premonstratensians' decision in
the twelfth century to exclude women from their order in terms that illustrate this
conviction:
We and our whole community of canons, recognizing that the
wickedness of women is greater than all the other wickedness of the
world, and there is no anger like that of women, and that the poison of
asps and dragons is more curable and less dangerous for men than the
familiarity of women, have unanimously decreed for the safety of our
souls, no less than for that of our bodies and goods, that we will on no
account receive any more sisters to the increase of our perdition, but
will avoid them like poisonous animals.23
Salimbene, a thirteenth-century Franciscan, included a collection of antifeminist
statements in his autobiography. These pronouncements reveal the deeply ingrained
fear underlying clerical attitudes about women. At the same time, they convey a sense
of the hammering, tedious vituperation that confronted Christine at every turn. Such a
collection of outlandish declarations, piled up in a monument of invective, represents
the belief system she set out to dismantle.
11


With flames of fire doth a woman sear the conscience of him who
dwelleth by her.
Where women are with men, there shall be no lack of the devil's
birdlime.
Wouldst thou define or know what woman is? She is glittering mud, a
stinking rose, sweet poison, ever leaning towards that which is
forbidden her.
Woman is adamant, pitch, buckthorn, a rough thistle, a clinging burr, a
stinging wasp, a burning nettle.
Man hath three joys ~ praise, wisdom, and glory: which three things
are overthrown and ruined by woman's art.
What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inevitable penance, a
necessary evil, a natural temptation, a coveted calamity, a domestic
peril, a pleasant harm, the nature of evil painted over with the colours
of good; wherefore it is a sin to desert her, but a torment to keep her.
Woman was evil from the beginnings, a gate of death, a disciple of the
servant, the devil's accomplice, a fount of deception, a dogstar to godly
labours, rust corrupting the saints; whose perilous face hath
overthrown such as had already become almost angels.
Lo, woman is the head of sin, a weapon of the devil, expulsion from
Paradise, mother of guilt, corruption of the ancient law.24
Bullough speculates that medieval women were not necessarily aware of such vilifying
characterizations, because the misogynistic decrees of churchmen were often intended
only for clerical audiences and readers. Only extremists within the celibate priesthood
made public statements regarding the evils of the feminine sex.25 Nevertheless,
allegations such as the ones recorded by Conrad and by Salimbene evidence the kind
of exaggerated maledictions that Christine undertook to combat.
12


Because the Church was such a powerful force in the medieval world, its
hostility toward women was bound to influence secular attitudes. Bloch points out
that the patristic obsession with virginity passed into the vernacular literary works of
the High Middle Ages, as a number of texts in Old French attest.26 He writes that
antifeminism was a genre in itself, and adds:
Misogyny is, moreover, virtually synonymous with the works grouped
under the rubric of "les genres du realisme bourgeois": the comic tale
or fabliau . ; the animal fable {Roman de Renart); the comic theater
or farce. It is also associated with certain mixed or unclassifiable types,
like the chantefable Aucassin et Nicolette or Adam de la Halle's Jeu de
la feuillee and, of course, Jean de Meun's portion of the Roman de la
27
rose.
The Roman de la rose was one of the most widely read books in Western Europe in
the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine
occasionally makes references to Jean de Meuns section of the Rose; her book, then,
continues her criticism of this allegorical poem. She refutes the Rose in particular
when she invalidates misogynistic assertions in general. Earl Jeffrey Richards writes:
This task is all the more difficult because Christine must establish her
erudition and credibility by demonstrating her fluency with the very
same classical canon whose consistent misogyny she attacks. By being
able to correct her predecessors, Christine demonstrates her superiority
over them and consequently her greater authority and credibility.28
In order to discredit the image of women set forth by Jean de Meun and writers of his
ilk, Christine had to be able to "speak their language." She modified the rhetoric of
the Rose in such a way that it served her own purpose of contradicting the
misogynistic notions that Jeun de Meun propounded. For example, in the Rose, the
13


figure who personifies Nature denigrates women for their unchastity. In the City of
Ladies, Christine turns the tables on Nature by presenting a counter-version of the
"natural" behavior of women-. Moreover, she makes the personification of Reason,
who is not favorably depicted in the Rose, the first of her narrators allegorical guides
and mentors in building the city.29
Allegory is a powerful tool in Christine's hands as she undertakes to expose the
inconsistencies of antifeminist discourse. Although secular writers produced
allegorical poems about courtly love, medieval allegory originated as a method of
scriptural exegesis, and had been practiced by theologians since the fifth century.
Joan Ferrante explains the essential difference between an exegetic and an allegorical
tradition: "In the former, we have established texts and stories from which a meaning
must be derived; in the latter, we have a meaning for which a fable must be
constructed."30 According to A. J. Minnis, allegory as a method of interpretation
ultimately derived from John Cassian (c. 360-435), and was summarized in a distich
that became well known:
Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria,
Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia.
The literal sense provides the historical data; the allegorical, that which
one should believe by faith; the tropological or moral, how one should
behave; the anagogical, where one is gong in terms of spiritual
progress.31
Six and half centuries later, shortly before 1084, Guibert of Nogent prefaced his
commentary on Genesis with a more detailed explanation of allegory:
14


There are four ways of interpreting Scripture . The first is history,
which speaks of actual events as they occurred; the second is allegory,
in which one thing stands for something else; the third is tropology, or
moral instruction, which treats of the ordering and arranging of one's
life; and the last is ascetics, or spiritual enlightenment, through which
we who are about to treat of lofty and heavenly topics are led to a
higher way of life. For example, the word Jerusalem: historically, it
represents a specific city; in allegory it represents holy Church;
tropologically or morally, it is the soul of every faithful man who longs
for the vision of eternal peace; and anagogically it refers to the life of
the heavenly citizens, who already see the God of Gods, revealed in all
His glory in Sion.32
Although The Book of the City of Ladies is primarily a secular text, its title alludes to
St. Augustine's City of God, which in turn refers to the New Jerusalem. Christine thus
signals her application of what was originally a patristic literary tradition to the
correction of faulty concepts of womanhood that patristic writers had promulgated.
On the literal or historical level, Christine's city is actually a literary entity. As
she writes her book, she also builds the city, because the city and the book are the
same thing. Allegorically, the city can be seen as a type of literary canon, in which the
stories of the lives of each of the heroines who inhabit it are texts. If, as Bloch claims,
misogyny consists of "a series of specific associations between the esthetic and the
feminine, which in essence turns women into a text to be read, and thus to be
appropriated,"33 Christines defense of women entails a series of associations between
the essential and the feminine. Patristic writers distrusted women for the same reason
that they distrusted poetry: both were associated with the senses, the cosmetic, and the
decorative, and so threatened mens minds and consequently their souls. Similarly,
Bloch points out, the reproach against wives for their alleged verbal abuses "is
15


virtually identical to the medieval reproach against rhetoric for being uncontrollable,
untruthful, appealing, and deceptive to the senses."34 Christine takes the idea of
women as texts and turns it around to serve her own purpose. With the sole exception
of Claudia Quinta (11.63), the women whose lives she uses as examples of female
virtue show no interest in personal ornamentation; they exercise prodigious self-
control, and many of them strive to reveal the truth, while none of them attempt to
hide or distort it. Whereas misogynistic writers tend to quote what others have said
about women hence the narrators observation: "it seems that they all speak from
one and the same mouth" (1.1.1) Christine supports her arguments, not with
hearsay, but with specific historical examples and with the evidence of her own
experience. Bloch suggests that "the alliance of woman with the material, with the
senses, with the superficiality of signs and artifice, lies at the root of a deep
identification between the feminine and the literary.1,35 Christine, on the contrary,
considers writing to be the greatest invention of all time, "nothing more worthy in the
world was ever invented" (1.33.2). She points out that "books describe and facilitate
the understanding and knowledge of God, [and] celestial things" (1.37.1). Her
association of the feminine with the literary, then, arises from a deep appreciation of
the goodness both of women and of writing. Continuing from the allegorical to the
tropological level, the City of Ladies symbolizes a stronghold of virtue, and only
upright and courageous women are admitted. Anagogically, it refers to the salvation
16


of women's reputation, because within its walls they are restored to a place of respect
and honor.
The luminous beings who commission Christine to build the City of Ladies also
have meaning on each of the four levels outlined above. Literally, they are three
beautiful ladies who appear to Christine in her study. Allegorically, they personify the
virtues whose names they bear, Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. On the tropological
level, they represent taking a stand for truth and justice, in the certitude that right
thinking inclines one to righteous living. Finally, on the anagogical level, they point
the way to salavation for women, because they prove that women are on an equal
footing with men, both morally and spiritually. The Book of the City of Ladies
demonstrates that in allegory women can be forces for good instead of evil. Christine
does not include in her city women who seduce and destroy, but rather women who
protect and nourish.
The picture of medieval misogyny becomes obscured because favorable images
of women stood alongside unfavorable ones, in both religious and secular writing.
While many churchmen depicted females as being instruments of the Devil, others
portrayed them as mediators between God and man, symbols of the union of the soul
with Christ, and avenues of redemption.36 Church leaders had to keep in mind that
women, particularly widows, often had the financial resources and the power to endow
convents, monasteries, churches and educational institutions. Among the rare
churchmen sympathetic to the feminine contingent was Humbert de Romans, a
17


thirteenth-century master general of the Dominican order. Humbert left a sermon,
which he intended other friars to use when they preached to women, that presented
quite a flattering view of them:
God gave women many prerogatives, not only over other living things
but even over man himself, and this (I) by nature; (ii) by grace; and
(iii) by glory. (I) In the world of nature she excelled man by her origin,
for man He made of the vile earth, but woman He made in Paradise.
Man He formed of the slime, but woman of man's rib. She was not
made of a lower limb of man as for example of his foot lest man
should esteem her his servant, but from his midmost part, that he
should hold her to be his fellow, as Adam himself said: "The Woman
Whom Thou gavest as my helpmate. (ii) In the world of grace she
excelled man, for God, Who could have taken flesh of a man, did not
do so, but took flesh of a woman. Again, we do not read of any man
trying to prevent the Passion of Our Lord, but we do read of a woman
who tried namely, Pilate's wife to dissuade her husband from so
great a crime because she had suffered much in a dream because of
Christ. Again, at His Resurrection, it was to a woman He first
appeared namely, to Mary Magdalen, (iii) In the world of glory, for
the king in that country is no mere man but a mere woman is its queen
[Mary], It is not a mere man who is set above the angels and all the
rest of the heavenly court, but a mere woman is; nor is anyone who is
merely man as powerful there as is a mere woman. Thus is woman's
nature in Our Lady raised above woman's in worth, dignity, and power;
and this should lead women to love God and to hate evil.37
Christine also uses the well-established arguments of ecclesiastical luminaries such as
Peter Abelard, whose thoughts on the subject of women are echoed in Humberts
sermon, Hugh of St. Victor, and Thomas Aquinas, to refute the claims of their less-
enlightened antifeminist colleagues.
The concept of a spiritually beneficial function of women carried over into lyric
poetry and romance, just as the converse carried over into ribald satire. According to
the ideal of romantic love that was developed by twelfth-century French troubadours
18


and typically portrayed in chivalric literature, a man's devotion to his lady inspired him
to develop his prowess and to increase his knightly honor. His love for her ennobled
him so that if he were cowardly, she could make him brave, and if he were already
brave, she could make him even more so, so that he could perform great deeds in the
service of others. Ferrante refers to early Provengal lyric poems and French romances
as the earliest examples of this genre, works which influenced later writers. She
asserts that "the lyric lady is a kind of super-personification, the source and repository
of all good qualities. She is an ideal being the poet adores . ."38 In fact, there was
some doubt as to whether a man who did not adore a lady could even be a true knight.
Of course, many scholars contend that courtly love literature was strictly fictional;
neverthess, it does indicate the significance of women as patrons of literature, just as
Humbert de Romans' sermon indicates the importance of women as patrons of the
Church.
The images of women found in literature, the attitudes that men in various
walks of life held about women, and the experiences of women themselves were
diverse and contradictory. Women were seen as both helpful and harmful, central and
peripheral, powerful and submissive.39
Whether male authors portrayed women as stumbling blocks or as stepping
stones, they tended to see them as symbols rather than as human beings. They were
assigned to unreal roles that neutralized them and removed them from the sphere of
competition. Bloch argues that any generalization about women, whether negative or
19


positive, is misogynistic, because it relegates them to the domain of the abstract, and
so excludes individual women from the arena of actual events. He explains that:
the simultaneous condemnation and idealization of woman and of love
are not contrasting manifestations of the same phenomenon, opposite
sides of the same coin. They are not opposites at all. Rather,
antifeminism and courtliness stand in a dialectical rapport which, as we
saw in our analysis of the copresent images of the "Devil's gateway"
and the "Bride of Christ" among the early church fathers, assumes a
logical necessity according to which woman is placed in the
overdetermined and polarized position of being neither one nor the
other but both at once, and thus trapped in an ideological entanglement
whose ultimate effect is her abstraction from history.40
Women were abstracted from serious literature, as well as from history. Glenda
McLeod writes that medieval literary misogyny "consistently relegated women to
minor genres," which she characterizes as "those lacking in immediate ethical utility."41
A clear distinction was made between belles lettres, works which were read for
entertainment, and "literary" texts, which were studied for their moral content.
According to McLeod, women generally appeared in the former, but not in the latter.
Their absence from philosophical texts is consistent with the medieval opinion that
Woman was a creature who by nature desired ornamentation above all else; she was
associated with the inessential and the decorative.42
The Book of the City of Ladies addresses the historical and the literary
relegation of women to inconsequential roles. Christine de Pizan deliberately restores
women to their proper place in history. Eleni Stecopoulos observes:
Christine wishes to destroy the pernicious, and in several important
respects recent, idee regue according to which women cannot be
20


considered as the indispensable historical, and equal, partners of
men."43
At the same time, she makes illustrious women the focus of a literary work meant to
be studied for its moral content rather than simply enjoyed for its entertainment value.
Although the narrator's final admonitions to women are clearly custodial, she cannot
be considered antifeminist herself. On the contrary, by recounting the stories of
specific individuals, such as Lucretia and Sappho, within their historical contexts, and
by demythifying legendary figures, such as Minerva, Isis, and Ceres, Christine
transforms women from symbols into entities in their own right.
The Custodial Aspect of the Feminine Mode
Represented in The Book of the City of Ladies
The Narrator as Custodian. In The Book of the City of Ladies, the narrator
plays a custodial role both at the beginning and at the end of the text. Her focus in the
opening chapter is on the nature of women. She initially accepts, albeit with
reluctance, the pronouncements of "all philosophers and poets" that "the behavior of
women is inclined to and full of every vice." She takes to heart, or "internalizes," the
antifeminist assertions of these supposedly great thinkers, and is overcome with
sorrow:
And I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made
woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have deigned
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. As I was
thinking this, a great unhappiness and sadness welled up in my heart,
21


for I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were
monstrosities in nature (1.1.1).44
Christine cleverly uses the custodial stance to demonstrate what is morally wrong with
the bigoted claims that the narrator is accepting. The latter's anguished response
dramatizes the author's point that antifeminist writers, particularly satirists such as
Andreas Capellanus, Jean de Meun, and Matheolus, actually foster delinquency, thus
undermining their own authority. That is, the deep sadness and spiritual doubt that
Matheolus's book produces in the narrator herself is a sinful condition; his text does
not inspire virtue. Furthermore, Christine demonstrates how a custodial woman can
actually exploit a derogatory concept of femininity to excuse her own spiritual
carelessness. The narrator almost reproaches God, and complains,
But since Your kindness has not been extended to me, then forgive my
negligence in Your service, most fair Lord God, and may it not
displease You, for the servant who receives fewer gifts from his lord is
less obliged in his service" (1.1.2).
McLeod observes that Matheolus thus generates "a faulty tropological assimilation."45
In other words, he encourages his female readers to model themselves upon a pattern
of depravity because his text presents such behavior as normal for women. The
narrators anguish in the first chapter and her complaint to God illustrate the kind of
wrong thinking that a book such as Matheolus can provoke in his reader.
In fact, it is the narrator's custodial receptivity that makes apparent the need to
reconstrue womanhood. She wails, "Alas, God, why did You not let me be born in the
world as a man . ?" A few lines later she recalls, "in my folly I considered myself
22


most unfortunate because God had made me inhabit a female body in this world"
(1.1.2). These complaints imply that the narrator at the start of the book thinks men
differ from women physically, not intellectually or spiritually. This view will be
modified during the course of her "reindoctrination" by the allegorical figures, Reason,
Rectitude, and Justice. Christine again takes up the idea of the relationship between
spirit and body when she later speaks with Lady Reason:
"It is a proven fact that women have weak bodies, tender and feeble in
deeds of strength, and are cowards by nature. .These things, in men's
judgment, substantially reduce the degree and authority of the feminine
sex, for men contend that the more imperfect a body, the lesser is its
virtue and, consequently, the less praiseworthy" (1.14.1).
According to "men's judgment," then, the body determines the worth of the person.
As the narrator deplores her feminine body, she speaks as if her soul, that is, her
essence, which is without gender, could have just as easily incarnated into a male body
as into a female one. Since the body is a being's most impermanent feature, being
material, and therefore transient, it should be the least pertinent to that being's identity.
Therefore, Christine hints, the denunciation of women by philosophers and poets on
the basis of their physical form is specious. Confirming Christines insinuation, Lady
Reason remarks:
"You resemble the fool in the prank who was dressed in women's
clothes while he slept; because those who were making fun of him
repeatedly told him he was a woman, he believed their false testimony
more readily than the certainty of his own identity" (1.2.2).
The narrator's laments seem to cry out for a revised, more philosophically sound,
concept of womanhood. The obvious deficiency of the prevalent view of the nature of
23


women gives purpose and impetus to the construction of the allegorical City of Ladies
As a fourfold method of determining or conveying meaning, allegory underlines the
shallowness of any opinion of woman which is based upon the female body alone.
Yet, according to Bloch, patristic writers made no distinction between the notion of
woman and of woman's body; "for the fathers they were practically synonymous."46
Lady Reason invites the narrator to "consider the question of the highest form of
reality, which consists in ideas or celestial substances" (1.2.2); it does not consist in
matter or physical form. The building of an allegorical city with the help of allegorical
guides reminds her philosophical adversaries that a superficial evaluation of women
can only result in error and transgression on the part of both the judge and the judged.
Christines narrator expresses self-hatred in the first chapter of the book, and
throughout the text, she seeks assurance from her celestial mentors. Christine used a
dream vision to justify her construction of the City of Ladies. Her choice of genre
infers that writing the book was not her idea, but an act of obedience to quasi-divine
beings. Ladies Reason, Rectitude, and Justice virtually command her to perform this
act. Reason announces, "Thus, fair daughter, the prerogative among women has been
bestowed on you to establish and build the City of Ladies" (1.4.1). Rectitude says that
the ruler she carries "will serve you to measure the edifice of the City which you have
been commissioned to build" (1.5.1). Justice finishes Christine's briefing by telling her
that after the city has been populated, "I will place the keys in your hands" (1.6.1), just
as Christ gave Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Christine's response is
24


almost identical to the Virgin Mary's response to the annunciation of the incarnation of
Christ: "Behold your handmaiden ready to serve. Command and I will obey, and may
it be unto me according to your words" (1.7.1). Christine's Biblical allusions suggest
that she is acting not only as a conduit of the authority of Reason, Rectitude, and
Justice, but also as an instrument of God. The narrator's representation of herself as a
trowel, or a pen, in the hands of her celestial guides, conforms to the medieval practice
of relying on an external authority, but because she is a "simple and ignorant student"
(1.1.1), in other words, a woman, her need for this kind of authorization to write is
particularly acute. Although the narrator relies on the authority of her radiant visitors,
Reason implies that the authority of truth had rested with Christine in the first place.
The three Virtues had come merely to lead Christine back to what she already knew.
Reason says, "we have come to bring you out of the ignorance which so blinds your
own intellect that you shun what you know for a certainty and believe what you do not
know or see or recognize except by virtue of many strange opinions" (1.2.2).
Christines attitude and approach anticipate the custodial feminine novelists of
the nineteenth century. Victorian writers often used a strategy of deprecating
themselves as women, expressing humility and seeking assurance from outside
sources. Showalter mentions that Margaret Oliphant, in a letter to her publisher, John
Blackwood, expressed doubt about "whether in your most manly and masculine of
magazines a womanish story-teller like myself may not become wearisome."47 Like
Christine, many feminine writers relied on some external stimulus to justify their work.
25


For them, such an incentive might be a financial crisis which motivated them to
generate an income, a recommendation from a doctor or a husband to write as a means
of releasing pent-up energies* or a clear didactic purpose or worthy cause. Women
writers claimed authority in the world of literary fiction because they were specialists
in sentiment, refinement, tact, and observation, and because they possessed domestic
expertise, high moral standards, and knowledge of female character. Paradoxically, as
Showaiter points out:
women novelists had authority to describe the lives of ordinary women,
those powerless lives of influence, example, and silence, precisely
because they had outgrown them. . They were writing not only to
develop direct personal power, but also to change the perceptions and
aspirations of their female readers. The strong utilitarian thrust of
feminine criticism ~ what good will this book do us? was partly the
spirit of the age, but it was also a part of the search for new heroines,
new role-models, and new lives.48
The furtive effort that custodial feminine novelists make to change the perceptions and
aspirations of female readers and to find worthy role-models, echoes Christine de
Pizans endeavor to redefine womanhood and to hold up examples of feminine virtue
for her readers to emulate. The narrator's custodial posture in the opening chapters
serves as her springboard for this endeavor.
Christine as narrator scrutinizes the contemporary, inaccurate definition of
women throughout the first two parts of the City of Ladies, as she seeks information
from her celestial mentors. The answers they provide her indicate that a new
definition of womanhood is taking shape. Christine formulates her questions in such a
way that they do not appear to be merely rhetorical. They betray her self-doubt, which
26


persists as a result of her custodial acceptance of the disapproving opinions she has
read. When she refers to authors who deprecate all women in order to steer men away
from imprudent contact with the unsavory few, she asks Lady Reason, "have such
authors acted well, since they were prompted by a laudable intention?" (1.8.3). In
other words, are their statements justified, even though slanderous? That she must
pose such a question suggests a disinclination to dispute the wisdom of male
authorities. Some of her questions concern the origins of hostile opinions about
women. For example, she asks Reason, "My lady, how does it happen that Ovid, who
is thought to be one of the best poets . attacks women so much and so
frequently . ?" (1.9.2). She inquires into the intellectual and moral performance of
women, as she strives to identify how they are distinguishable from, and therefore
vastly inferior to men. She asks Reason, "My lady, since they have minds skilled in
conceptualizing and learning, just like men, why don't women learn more?" (1.27.1).
Later she asks Rectitude if daughters are more burdensome than sons and less
attentive to the needs of their parents (II. 7.1), and if men, but not women, are
absolutely reliable (11.47.1). The narrator hesitates to reject traditional views outright,
but instead seeks to understand the rationale or the authority behind them.
Christine's movement toward a new vision of womanhood takes into account
the fact that individuals tend to live up or down to the expectations that their
community holds for them. Human beings presumed to be morally and physically
27


weak more likely default on their obligations to God and to their fellows than those
presumed to be righteous and steadfast. McLeod points out:
As a medieval reader and writer, Christine would have felt that
the merit of her art lay in its rhetorical effect on the reader. She had
argued that the imitcitio encouraged by misogynist texts pushed women
into vice and error and in her own work invites a more beneficial
imitation, noting that the City "is made entirely of virtue, so resplendent
that you may see yourselves mirrored in it" (255). She hopes that her
readers will find the City "an occasion for you to conduct yourselves
honestly and with integrity and to be all the more virtuous and humble"
(255).... In terms of her defense of women, the book's most
important legacy may be its realization that self-images are made in part
by cultural forces subject to manipulation.49
Paradoxically, the narrators custodial approach generates this new image. It is based
on ample historical evidence of womanly virtues; it no longer rests on the
misconceptions of male authors, whether theologians, philosophers, or poets.
Paradoxically, this new image is generated by the narrator's custodial approach.
Rather than flatly contradict the defamatory pronouncements of male authorities, an
office she leaves to Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, she tries to discover the basis of
such allegations. This attempt at understanding brings forth a revised concept of
women.
In the final chapter of the City of Ladies, the narrator's focus shifts to women's
place in society. After her concept of womanhood has been amended, she is content
with the realization that women can bring to light their truly feminine, that is, virtuous,
qualities by faithfully performing the roles prescribed for them in the existing social
order. Since she no longer allows her view of womanhood to be influenced by
28


misogynistic texts, she ceases to lament the fact that she was bom into a female body.
Nevertheless, her advice to her readers to conform to the accepted standards of
behavior for women perpetuates the social status quo, and can therefore be regarded
as custodial. Christine's parting advice may appear surprising, if not disappointing, to
a modern feminist critic. Although the crowned ladies have debunked common
misogynistic opinions about women, Christine nevertheless exhorts her readers to
conduct themselves virtuously and humbly in the domestic and cloistered roles
prescribed for them by the patriarchal social order. In this sense she prefigures the
Victorian "Angel-of-the-House" ideal of womanhood promulgated by feminine
novelists. It must be remembered that Christine's views do not cease to be deeply
embedded in a patriarchal religion, even though she was a secular writer. It would not
occur to a medieval Christian, even a female, to advocate a new social order in which
women would enjoy complete autonomy. Sheila Delany remarks:
But for an orthodox Catholic, the subordination of women like the
weather or the existence of social classes was a natural consequence
of the Fall, to be remedied only in the afterlife; there is no paradise
now.50
Therefore, Christine offers typically custodial advice when she urges her readers to be
submissive and serene: "And you ladies who are married, do not scorn being subject
to your husbands, for sometimes it is not the best thing for a creature to be
independent" (III. 19.2), regardless of whether the husbands are decent and good,
savage and cruel, or somewhere in between. She continues, "So, my ladies, be humble
and patient, and God's grace will grow in you, and praise will be given to you as well
29


as the Kingdom of Heaven" (III. 19.3).31 She gives equally traditional advice to
unmarried women and to widows. Exemplary women in the City of Ladies are
described as having conducted themselves in a manner generally consistent with
Christine's exhortations in the final chapter. In those cases where a heroine deviated
from the path of kindness, humility, and chastity, that deviation is presented as being
anomalous and regrettable. For example, Reason says that Fredegund's cruelty was
unnatural for women (1.13.1), and she refers to Semiramis' incestuous relationship
with her son as a "great mistake" (1.15.2). Rectitude tells a series of stories about
tragic love affairs which she concludes with a disclaimer and a warning:
"But these pitiful examples, as well as many others which I could also
tell you, should in no way move women's hearts to set themselves adrift
in the dangerous and damnable sea of foolish love, for its end is always
detrimental and harmful to their bodies, their property, their honor,
and most important of all to their souls. Women should conduct
themselves wisely and with good sense and should know how to avoid
this kind of love and not to listen to those who incessantly strive to
deceive them in such cases" (II.60.3). _
The narrator does not simply revert to the outlook with which she began. Her initial
anguish at the realization that so many "solemn scholars" proclaim women to be vile
creatures has begotten a new and improved definition of women which does not
characterize them as models of unbridled vice and folly. Armed with a more salutary
vision of femininity, the narrator confidently advises her readers to prove their
womanly virtues in the roles God and men ordained for them.
Custodial Heroines. Many of the characters who appear in the second part of
the City of Ladies exemplify the conduct that the narrator urges upon her female
30


readers when she addresses them in the final chapter of the book. These heroines
epitomize the custodial aspect of the feminine mode, because they conform fully to
their prescribed roles. Their stories are legends of conventional feminine virtue.
One group of women that Lady Rectitude describes consists of young, usually
beautiful wives, who are married to men much older than they are. Their husbands
don't necessarily take much interest in them, being preoccupied with other matters,
such as military or philosophical pursuits. Through marriage, these women have come
under the guardianship of their aged husbands, who seem more like fathers, or even
grandfathers, than spouses. Although their youth and beauty are virtually wasted on
such "old coots," they lay aside their own desires in order properly to serve and honor
their husbands. A woman's place was to be a "helpmate" and a companion to men,
and her own hopes and dreams were entirely beside the point. Tertia Aemilia, for
example, was the wife of Scipio Africanus the Elder. Not only was he "already aged
while she was still young and beautiful" (11.20.1), but he also humiliated her by taking
her chambermaid as a concubine. Tertia preferred to keep her anguish to herself rather
than to rebuke her husband or to besmirch his reputation by confiding in anyone else,
and "the good lady never ceased to serve him loyally, to love him, and to honor him."
She internalized the patriarchal double standard of sexuality, according to which a wife
was required to tolerate her husband's infidelity, while she remained unwaveringly true
to him. Moreover, Tertia did not retaliate against the slave, but rather freed her after
Scipio's death, and arranged her marriage to a free man. Tertia is presented as having
31


accepted the life that fate or a male-dominated society ~ had dealt her with grace
and dignity, and consequently, she is considered prudent and upright.
Lady Rectitude cites Lucretia as an example of another wife who honored her
husband by following the rules laid down for women by a patriarchal society. This
Roman matron dressed appropriately; she occupied herself with suitably feminine
work, taking care of the material needs of her family; and she valued her chastity, the
emblem of her loyalty to her husband, more than she valued her life. Even when her
husband was away from home, and she had the run of the household, this "wise and
upright woman, clothed in a simple gown, sitting at home among her women servants,
working in wool, and discoursing on various subjects" (II.64.2) did what she was
supposed to be doing. Her hospitality to a man who claimed to be a friend of her
husband, was appropriate for a woman of her rank and position as manager of the
household in her husband's absence. Her refusal of the "friend's" sexual advances, in
spite of the bribes he offered and his threat to kill her, was also, obviously,
appropriate. When faced with the dilemma of whether to perish on the spot, in which
case her murderer would tell her husband that she had committed adultery with one of
his sergeants, or to submit to the rape, she chose the second option only so that she
could clear her name and mitigate her husband's shame before killing herself. Suicide,
of course, was the only suitable ending for a wife who had disgraced her husband,
even though she had no choice. His disgrace would have been worse if the false story
had gotten around that she had willingly betrayed him with another man. Lucretia
32


exemplifies the custodial aspect of the feminine mode not only because she carried out
the role prescribed for women by her patriarchal culture, but also because she
promulgated the ideals that this culture upheld. Her last words, according to Lady
Rectitude, were, "From now on no woman will ever live shamed and disgraced by
Lucretia's example" (11.44.1).
One of the most extreme examples of a tolerant and long-suffering wife is
Griselda, because she cheerfully served her cruel and deceitful husband with
prodigious serenity and self-restraint. Griselda followed the patriarchal program to a
fault. The daughter of an impoverished peasant, she waited upon her father "with
great diligence," in accordance with the patriarchal code of conduct for daughters.
She earned a living with her spinning, a typically appropriate occupation for women.
After her marriage to the Marquis of Saluces, Rectitude says,
"This lady conducted herself so well toward everyone that the nobles
both the great and minor nobility and the people greatly loved her
and she handled herself to the satisfaction of all and served and
cherished her lord as she should have. That year the marquise bore a
daughter whose birth was received with great joy ..." 11.50.1)
When her husband fabricated a story that the child had to be killed for political
reasons, "Griselda replied that the daughter was his," to do with as he pleased. The
scenario was repeated soon after she gave birth to the marquis's son. Griselda thus
acknowledged her husband to be the pater familias, who had absolute and
uncontrolled power over his wife, his children, his grandchildren, his slaves, and his
property, which included all of the above. When her husband disowned her after
33


twelve years of marriage, Griselda did not reproach him in any way, but returned home
to serve and comfort her poor father. When the marquis then reclaimed her, having
tested her to his satisfaction, he praised "the faith, loyalty and great love, obedience,
and proven humility" (II. 50.4) which Griselda had demonstrated. These, of course,
were the qualities which made for "good" wives according to Jewish, Greek, Roman
and Christian traditions, and the ideal was passed along as a legacy to medieval
Europe. Griselda, then, was the quintessential "worthy wife," as defined by patriarchal
cultures for centuries, and so epitomizes the custodial aspect of the feminine mode.
Christine does not openly express outrage either at Griselda's abject submission, or at
the acclaim that it procured for her. However, the actions and the words that
Rectitude ascribes to Griselda's husband make his betrayal of her trust and his sadistic
misuse of power and authority all too apparent to the reader. He is clearly a madman,
and the praise that he bestows upon Griselda is therefore suspect. The reader is left to
draw his own conclusion as to whether a mother who is willing to hand her newborn
children over to the executioner without a murmur is truly good, or whether she is
exasperatingly spineless and irresponsible.52
While Lady Rectitude speaks of several women who were "good" wives to
mortal men because they met the expectations and requirements of their male-
dominated society, Lady Justice draws from hagiographic literature examples of
women who were ideal "brides of Christ." The church fathers associated women with
the material world, which they devalued as transient and corrupt.53 The holy women
34


that Justice describes acted as custodians of patristic values by choosing to renounce
the degraded corporeal life that they, as females, represented.
The most exalted group of heroines to populate the City of Ladies are the
virgin martyrs, whose stories fill the third and last part of the Book. The life of
Christines patron saint, whose story appears at the midpoint one could say the
zenith of the third part, can be seen as an archetype of all the other saints' lives that
are included in this section of the text. While telling their stories, Lady Justice
indicates that these women chose to embrace Christianity when it was still quite new,
and was only one of several competing religions in the Roman Empire. In fact, the
Christian church was an illegal organization until the conversion of Constantine in
312 A.D., when only ten percent of the population of the western half of the empire
was Christian.54 Pagan religions, favored by Roman aristocrats and Italian and Greek
academics, revered female as well as male deities. Although the state religious
hierarchy before 312 was dominated by men, Vestal Virgins and the priestesses of
Ceres did have a place in it, and women held significant roles in some of the oriental
mystery cults imported into Rome, particularly the cult of Isis, which had established
itself in the second century B.C.55 Not only did the virgin martyrs turn to the worship
of a single male god, adopting a faith that was based upon the teachings of men, but
their entire identities were wrapped up in this new religion. While they refused to be
dominated by the temporal male figures in their lives fathers, rulers, or judges they
did submit completely to the exigencies of a male-centered, sex-denouncing religion
35


that had a strong misogynistic tendency due to its suspicion of women as sexual
creatures. Lady Justice does not suggest that these saints thought about their
Christianity in terms of its position toward women. Nevertheless, the Christian
culture, shaped by patristic views, replaced the pagan culture into which they had been
born. They were giving themselves over to what they believed was a higher authority.
The martyrs complete identification with this culture, and their dauntless
promulgation of its ideals make them classic prototypes of women who operate in the
custodial mode.
Justice describes many of the virgin martyrs, born into noble families, as being
young and beautiful, thus inadvertently provoking lust.56 St. Christine, for example,
was converted at the age of twelve. She was so beautiful that her father, Urban,
master of the knights, kept her shut up in a tower for safekeeping. According to the
rarefied patristic definition of virginity, all of these maidens, who were absolutely pure
in thought as well as in deed, nevertheless technically "lost" their virginity either
because they involuntarily stirred up the lust of powerful rulers or because their
ordeals, which were often eroticized by forcible disrobement and abuse of the
breasts,57 became public spectacles. St. Christine was lusted after by the judge Dyon,
and her father "had her sprawled completely nude and beaten" (III. 10.1). The judge
Julian ordered her breasts ripped off. The men whom these martyrs defied in order to
profess Christ and preserve their virtue, tortured them in an effort to force them to
36


worship idols and/or to lay aside their virginity. The destruction of their flesh was the
only means by which they could remain holy. Thomas Heffernan observes:
Broken, naked bodies are the concern of these narratives. Here, in the
guise of suitor, magistrate, governor, or emperor, the saint's male
antagonist combines his interest in forcing her to recant her Christianity
with his desire to possess her sexually. The action turns on both her
ability to defend her religious principle and her chastity at once. The
subject is enmeshed in an erotic matrix. It is precisely because she is
comely, because she remains Virgo intacta, that she is attractive and
will be forced to suffer and die.58
As indicated earlier, since the logic of several of the church fathers led to the
conclusion that the only true virgin was a dead virgin, the most laudable role for
women according to patristic ideology was martyrdom. The female saints whom Lady
Justice describes thus represent the custodial aspect of the feminine mode not only by
embracing a patriarchal religion, but moreover by dying. The fact that they do so in a
violent and gruesome manner accords well with the church's disdain for corporeality
and its obsessive fear of sexuality, and one could conclude that the martyrs' physicality
itself is primarily what was being punished.
The accounts of the virgin martyrs' triumphs over dismemberment and death
reinforce the idea the narrator tacitly introduced earlier that the censure of women on
the basis of their feminine bodies ensues from false reasoning, because the physical
form is the least permanent feature of any individual, and also because the soul has no
sex in the eyes of God. The martyrs undergo seemingly endless rounds of torture, and
sometimes emerge unscathed;59 many of them can only be killed by decapitation.60
Meanwhile, their would-be executioners become exhausted from their efforts.61
37


Just as St. Christine is an archetype of the virgin martyrs because she was
young, beautiful, of noble birth, and lusted after, she is also an archetype from the
standpoint of suffering, in that she was subjected to a wider range of tortures than any
of the other virgin martyrs, and many of the forms of abuse heaped upon her were also
inflicted upon the other female saints. By her own fathers command, St. Christine
was publicly beaten,62 while being led around town in chains; she was tied to a wheel
under which a fire was built, and then doused with boiling oil, while more than a
thousand spectators looked on.63 When she had been "completely crushed" by the
wheel, an angel came to her rescue, wrecking the instrument of torture, extinguishing
the fire, and "delivering the virgin healthy and whole." Her father then ordered that
Christine be thrown into prison, but three angels visited and comforted her there.64 He
next commanded that she be thrown into the sea with a big stone tied around her neck.
Angels again came to her rescue, so that, amazingly, St. Christine actually outlasted
her father, who died before she did.63 Urban's replacement, Dyon, had St. Christine
thrown into a cauldron filled with scalding oil, in which she was rotated with iron
hooks. She sang hymns to God while this was going on.66 Dyon also "ordered her to
be hanged by her long golden hair in the square,"67 but this time she was rescued by
the townswomen, who took pity on her. Interestingly, women take over the rescuing
function angels had performed earlier. Again, Christine outlived her persecutor, Dyon,
who was then replaced by Julian, Julian ordered a fire to be built around her, because
he couldn't get her to move. She sang in the fire for three days, and "when the fire had
38


burned out, she emerged fully healthy" (III. 10.1). Next, he had six venomous snakes
released upon her, all of which submitted themselves to her.68 After Julian ordered her
breasts to be ripped off, milk, rather than blood, flowed out.69 He had her tongue cut
out, but when she still managed to speak, in fact, even better than she had before, he
ordered her tongue ripped out completely. She was finally killed by two arrows, one
of which entered her side, recalling the spear that pierced the side of Christ, and the
other her heart.
The miraculous and continuing restoration of St. Christine's battered female
body even before she achieved martyrdom, is a phenomenon also experienced by many
of the other saints in Part III. This restoration suggests that it is the virtue of the spirit
that determines the vitality of the body; the apparent weakness of a body does not
debilitate the worth of the soul. St. Christine attests to this relationship between body
and spirit in her retort to Julian: "Tyrant, what does it profit you to have my tongue
cut out so that it cannot bless God, when my soul will bless Him forever . ?" For
saints in particular, divine favor suspends cause and effect. Lady Justice emphasizes
the consequently immutable nature of the bodies of the virgin martyrs by inviting them
to be citizens of the City of Ladies, as opposed to architectural components. Maureen
Quilligan observes:
Unlike the stories in the first two sections about women whose
experience is architectural, the saints in this group of narratives are
curiously resistant to mutation, not only within the metaphor of the
city, but, of course, also within the various vitae that Christine recasts.
Just as they have already triumphed in life over a politically motivated
39


dismemberment and death, so too, in the text their "bodies" are not
transmuted metaphorically into allegorical elements.70
In terms of issues concerning the female body and its relationship to virtue,
St. Christine, along with the other virgin martyrs in Part III, stands in apposition to
Christine the narrator as she appears in the first chapter. When Lady Justice
introduces the holy women, she supplies answers to the two questions the narrator
subtly raised at the beginning of the book: should women really be judged on the basis
of their inferior physical strength, and can women claim this supposed inferiority as an
excuse for laxity in their service to God? Justice declares:
"We must lodge holy women with the Blessed Virgin the holy Queen
of Heaven, Empress and Princess of the City of Ladies to keep her
company and to demonstrate God's approval of the feminine sex with
examples of His giving young and tender women (just as He has done
with men) the constancy and strength to suffer horrible martyrdom for
His holy law, ..."
The answer to the first question, then, is that it doesn't matter if women are not as
strong physically as men are, because God himself gives them the strength they need to
serve his purposes. The extraordinary nature of the physical forms of the virgin
martyrs their indifference to pain, their remarkable stamina, and their resistance to
abuse confirms what the narrator seemed, inadvertently, to insinuate: that a
denunciation of women based on the comparative physical weakness of the female
body is fatuous. Justice continues:
"women who are crowned in glory and whose fair lives serve as
excellent examples for every woman above all other wisdom. For this
reason these women are the most outstanding of our City" (III.3.1).
40


She thus indicates the answer to the second question, as well: women do not have to
be limited in their service to God by their physical "inferiority."
All the while representing the custodial aspect of the feminine mode
themselves, the virgin martyrs prove that the negative judgments about women that
Christine has encountered stem from wrong assumptions regarding the dynamics of
body and spirit. The prodigious courage and determination exhibited by St. Christine
et al., who did not identify with the definitions of femininity expressed in misogynistic
texts, but rather with their status as brides of Christ, foil the "faulty tropological
assimilation" of antifeminist works that the narrator demonstrated in the first chapter.
When the narrator asked God's forgiveness for her negligence in his service, she
implied that her carelessness was God's own fault because he had created her as a
woman. St. Christine and her cohorts, by contrast, prove that women with the right
self-concept can go to extraordinary lengths in their service to God.
St. Christine appears in the City of Ladies as the archetypal virgin martyr, but
Lady Justice emphasizes her individuality. The saint's suffering, as well as her joy, are
presented as real human experiences; she does not simply personify Christian piety.
Justice's description of St. Christine's baptism is a revision of the account found in
Christine de Pizan's source for the story, the Speculum historiale of Vincent de
Beauvais. Quilligan explains how the changes that Justice makes to Vincent's version
turn his "metaphorical episode" into a "literal event":
In his text, the waters are only a "signacle de beptesme" and God's
presence is only rendered by signs: first, by a voice saying that "our
41


father" has heard her prayer; second, by a crown and a purple star
descending upon the saint's head while angels sing her praises. In the
Cite, Jesus Christ himself descends in his own person with a great
company of angels, baptizes the saint, and names her Christine from his
own name. ... He then crowns her and puts a resplendent star on her
head.71
Vincent makes no mention of Christ bestowing upon Christine her baptismal name,
derived from his own. The significance of this name becomes apparent in light of
Alison Goddard Elliotts explanation:
"One of the clearest indications of the collective ethos of passion
literature is the frequency with which martyrs abandoned their personal
names in favor of generic identification, '"Christianus sum'....
Names ... do not serve to distinguish one saint from another. What
the name "Christianus1 does is to distinguish one religion from
another."72
Lady Justice, then, does not present St. Christine as a stylized icon of religious
fortitude; to the contrary, she turns the generic label "Christian" into an individual
woman's name, "Christine," with the result that this heroine appears as a human
individual rather than as an otherworldly stereotype. She, moreover, plays an
important part in the history of early Christianity.
According to Lady Justice, St. Christine, as well as several of the other female
saints Justice mentions, advances the cause of Christianity by eliminating adherence to
paganism. Quilligan points out that the "otherness" of the pagans who figure in the
stories of the virgin martyrs can be destroyed "in one of two ways by simple
annihilation or by becoming the same,"73 that is, the same as the Christians they
persecute. Christine destroys the objects of pagan worship, first by smashing her
42


father's golden and silver idols to pieces, then by exorcizing an evil spirit from Dyon's
idol. When an angel rescues her from her father's torture wheel, "more than a
thousand treacherous spectators who had been watching her without pity" are stricken
dead. Christine's father is himself tortured to death by the Devil, and Dyon dies from
fear of the king's punishment. On the flip side, when St. Christine enlists God's power
to pulverize Dyon's vacated idol, "more than three thousand men were converted
through the words and signs of this virgin" (III. 10.1). Curiously, the removal of pagan
"otherness" that takes place in the stories of St. Christine and some of the other female
saints correlates to the removal of feminine "otherness" endorsed by the church
fathers. Christian women could live up to patristic ideals in one of two ways. They
could either transcend corporeal existence by dying, in which case their death would
correspond to the "annihilation" of pagans that Quilligan mentions; or they could
renounce their femininity and become "men." Their "conversion" to maleness
effectively corresponds to a pagan's conversion to Christianity.74
Two of the holy women Justice describes comply with the patristic ideal by
"converting" to manhood. They completely relinquish their femininity and live out
their days on earth disguised as monks. Justice tells the legend of St. Marina, the
young daughter of a man who entered a monastery. Her father was so attached to his
child that he disguised her as a little boy so that he could bring her into the monastery
with him as his "son." "Thus this virgin came to be with her father, dressed like a little
monk, cleverly disguised and well disciplined" (III. 12.1). She took the name "Brother
43


Marinus," and after her father's death, "she remained alone in her father's cell,
following the monastic life, so that the abbot and all the other monks acclaimed her
way of living, thinking all the while that she was a man." Her true sex was not
discovered until she died and was being bathed for burial.
St. Marina upheld patriarchal values on two levels simultaneously. She gave
up being a woman, but nevertheless exhibited the ideal feminine qualities of humility,
patience, and self-abnegation when the female roles of mother and charwoman were
thrust upon her. First, "Brother Marinus" is accused by an innkeeper's daughter of
being the father of her illegitimate child, whom she dumps on "Dad" as soon as he is
born. Marina would rather remain a "man" than exonerate herself, and so, though
obviously not the biological father, she becomes in fact the child's adoptive mother.
Second, when Brother Marinus is finally admitted back into the monastery after five
years of penance, he is ordered "to perform all the filthy and servile duties inside, to
fetch water for the latrines and to wait on everyone" (III. 12.1). These tasks were
traditionally assigned to women, because they deal with the physical requirements of
the body.75 The abbot who severely punished Brother Marinus for what he assumed
were his unholy actions, ends up asking forgiveness of the dead monk for his own sin.
This lesson encapsulates two of Christine's reasons for writing the City of Ladies.
St. Marina's impeccable deportment reinforces the fact, so graphically demonstrated by
the virgin martyrs, that a female body in and of itself does not diminish an individual's
virtue; and just as Brother Marinus should have been judged on the basis of his
44


exemplary conduct, rather than on the basis of the accusation of a deceitful hussy,
Christine insists that women should be judged on the basis of empirical reality, not on
the basis of the assertions of self-serving slanderers, who place blame on others in an
effort to deny their own guilt.
Whereas St. Marina entered the monastery in accordance with her father's
wishes, Euphrosyna, Lady Justice relates, entered a monastery in defiance of her
father's plans for her. Euphrosyna ran away from home to avoid a marriage her father,
Paphnutius, had arranged. Because she wanted to remain a virgin dedicated to God,
"she fled, dressed like a man" (III. 13.1). Like the virgin martyrs, Euphrosyna
exchanged the authority of her father and her prospective husband for the higher
authority of a patriarchal deity. "She asked to be received into the monastery and gave
the abbot to believe that she was a young man from the emperor's court who was
eager to be admitted." She assumed the identity of "Brother Smaragdus," and her
father was beside himself with grief over her loss. Euphrosyna's "otherness" as a
woman was thus removed in two senses. She had effectively "died" to her father and
to the world, since she disappeared without a trace; and she "became" a man by living
the life of a monk. When the abbot, to whom Paphnutius had turned for consolation,
introduced him to Brother Smaragdus, he did not recognize his daughter, possibly
because "the beauty and freshness of her face had withered away because of the
harshness of her self-denial." The story suggests that Paphnutius identified his
daughter with her femaleness to such an extent that even after thirty-eight years,
45


during which time he visited her regularly, he was incapable of recognizing the real
essence of who she was. It was only when she left her physical body that the truth
became known. Euphrosyna falls into the custodial category because she embraced
patriarchal values to such a degree that she gave up her own identity as a woman. At
the same time, her story serves Christine's purposes by making clear that the nature of
a woman cannot be adequately discerned merely on the basis of her feminine body.
The "custodial" women in the City of Ladies prefigure the feminine mode of
Victorian novelists because they espouse patriarchal beliefs, and they support the
values that arise from those beliefs. They either assume traditionally feminine roles
and work at occupations considered to be suitable for women; or they remove their
own "otherness" either by dying or, as in the cases of St. Marina and Euphrosyna, by
"converting" to manhood. However, these are not the only ways, and certainly not the
most viable, by which characters in Christine's book prefigure what Showalter calls the
feminine phase of development. Women promulgate patriarchal values without
necessarily confining themselves to female roles or sacrificing their own lives or
identities.
46


The Imitative Aspect of the Feminine Mode
The imitation of masculine endeavors constitues another manifestation of the
feminine mode. Women who imitate men do not necessarily try to look or act like
men, although some do. However, they engage in activities usually reserved for men,
and adopt typically masculine doctrines and standards of conduct. The custodial
aspect and the imitative aspect of the feminine mode overlap in the stories of
St. Marina and Euphrosina. These women can be considered custodial because they
renounced their femininity and so were called "men," in accordance with the
recommendation of St. Jerome (above, p. 9). At the same time, they evidence
imitation because they actually impersonated monks.76 However, imitative women do
not always renounce their femininity or try to "convert" to manhood. Instead, they
encompass within their femininity activities that are culturally designated male.
Showalter identifies the feminine phase of women's writing as the period
beginning with the appearance of the male pseudonym in the 1840s and ending with
the death of George Eliot in 1880.77 Feminine novelists, she maintains, perceived that
their vocation directly conflicted with their status as women. They invented the male
pen name as a means to get around the problem. This conflict emblematizes the
dilemma faced by women who attempt to integrate themselves as equals into a male-
dominated society. They may pursue careers in fields generally occupied by men, and
endorse the standards and values that pertain to those careers, but by doing so, they
47


break the rules of the patriarchal society. In a culture where gender roles are rigidly
defined, a woman can never become the equal of a man, simply because she isnt one.
The male pseudonym, suggests that nineteenth-century women novelists
believed the differences between male and female writing were insignificant. If, merely
by affixing a man's name to her book, a female author could fool her readership into
thinking that it was written by a man, then her work must not be intrinsically inferior
to that of a male writer. The idea that only the gender of the name on a book cover
differentiates men and womens writings parallels Christines insinuation that the type
of body clothing the immortal soul differentiates men and women. Their inequality
simply results from a disparity in education and experience.
The Imitative Aspect of the Feminine Mode
Represented in The Book of the City of Ladies
Christine's early exposure of the superficiality of the prevailing notions
regarding womanhood triggered the process by which a deeper understanding could be
reached. In the opening section of the City of Ladies she drew upon a patriarchal
concept to make her own point: The church fathers and their successors associated
the feminine sex with corporeality, and so devalued women as being superficial and
ornamental. Consequently, learned men considered women to be "inclined to and full
of every vice" (1.1.1). Paradoxically, this opinion is itself superficial, since it rests on
women's physical differences from men and not on an understanding of women's
48


metaphysical nature. Misogynistic writers condemned the superficiality of women, but
their reasons for doing so were themselves superficial.
The characters in the City of Ladies who emulate men by choosing traditionally
masculine vocations take the first steps toward correcting misconceptions about the
nature of women. Reason and Rectitude tell several stories in which women overturn
conventional roles. These heroines frequently outperform men, and some of them
fundamentally advance a particular field. Indeed, according to Reason, men often owe
to a woman the tools of their occupations. Christine portrays women as being
inherently dynamic and innovative. Her view of feminine nature is the reverse of that
put forward by her primary source, Boccaccio. Stecopoulos points out:
For Boccaccio, womanly fame is to be construed as a function of the
individual woman's overcoming her "nature." He compliments these
women who "surpass the endowments of womankind" (33): he
attributes their accomplishments to "manly courage" (virilem animum,
37) ... The profound implications of the Cite des Dames, as well as
the bedrock upon which this work rests, may be located in her
[Christine's] most un-Boccaccian certainty that it is precisely in the
nature of women to perform illustrious deeds (gestes, fads').
Exceptionality for Christine thus resides not in a woman's denial of her
nature, but rather despite the obstacles placed in her path in the
intensity and purity of her fidelity to it.78
The true nature of women becomes discernible when they participate in the same kinds
of activities that men do. From Christine's perspective, women often appear to have
been the original adherents to ideologies which men subsequently adopted, and women
were among the first practitioners of vocations that men subsequently arrogated; the
latter then turned around and pronounced women incapable of understanding these
49


ideologies or of functioning in these occupations. The narrator calls attention to their
chicanery:
"Henceforth, let all writers be silent who speak badly of women . ;
this noble lady, Carmentis, through the profundity of her understanding
taught them like a school-mistress nor can they deny it the lesson
thanks to which they consider themselves so lofty and honored, that is,
she taught them the Latin alphabet!" (1.38.4)
Following a brief recital of Minerva's achievements, Reason says that military men,
who generally slander women with false remarks, owe much of their lore to her:
"From now on let them keep their mouths shut and remember that the
customs of bearing arms, of dividing armies into battalions, and of
fighting in ordered ranks a vocation upon which they so pride
themselves and for which they consider themselves so great came to
them from a woman and were given to them by a woman" (1.38.5).
Christine reveals the irony that women of "manly courage" are not really imitating
men. Those who array themselves in iron and leather war-gear instead of silken frocks
or monks habits follow in the footsteps of the women whom men themselves have
imitated for so long. Men have now taken credit for what were originally feminine
contributions to civilization.
Military Prowess. Minerva's femaleness did not prevent her from making
significant advances in military science. Nevertheless, when the narrator laments the
fact that she was born a woman instead of a man, she implies that the supposed
inferiority of the female body gives rise to mysognistic notions about women. To
rectify current misconceptions, Christine first addresses the influence that the body
exerts on the character and worth of the individual. Women military leaders contribute
50


to Christine's new vision of womanhood. They demonstrate, more explicitly than do
the custodial virgin martyrs discussed above, that the comparative weakness of the
female body does not necessarily limit women. They can achieve greatness
irrespective of their personal physical constitution. Unlike the virgin martyrs, the
warrior women do not win universal admiration and respect; these are women who
have overstepped their bounds and encroached on male territory both literally and
figuratively. Not surprisingly, Christine's sources for their stories, Boccaccio's De
Claris Mulieribus79 and the Grandes Chroniques de France, both compilations of
accounts already in existence, portray these characters in a less-than-eulogistic light, as
will be shown below. The women warriors were not comforted or encouraged by
God's angels, as were the virgin martyrs. Yet, unaided, they actually surpassed their
male counterparts in the greatness of their achievements.
The military heroines exemplify the feminine mode because they imitate the
soldierly conduct of men and adopt a warrior ideology. Not all of these women are
naturally predisposed toward their vocations as warriors; most of them do not take up
arms spontaneously, but in support of the interests of children, fathers, or
husbands, whether dead or still living. Nevertheless, they distinguish themselves by
excelling in endeavors traditionally reserved for men, and so, by means of imitation,
overturn the claim that women are inferior, weaker beings.
In the City of Ladies Semiramis imitates the men in her culture by becoming a
warrior, and then she outshines them. Lady Reason identifies her as "a woman of very
51


great strength. . She undertook and accomplished so many notable works that no
man could surpass her in vigor and strength" (1.15.1). The story of Semiramis is
particularly interesting because of the modifications Christine makes to Boccaccio's
version in De Claris Mulieribus. Lady Reason presents the motives and character of
the legendary queen in an entirely different light than he.
The first change that Christine makes concerns the way in which Semiramis
imitated men. Boccaccio portrays the queens conduct as opportunistic
impersonation; Christine converts it to valiant emulation. According to Boccaccio, the
lady's husband, Ninus, king of Assyria, died from an arrow wound when Semiramis
was still quite young and when their only son, also named Ninus, was still a boy. "She
thought it unsafe to entrust the reins of such a great and growing kingdom to so young
a child," and rather than act as regent, she actually impersonated Ninus Jr. Boccaccio
writes:
Having conceived a great stratagem, she first proceeded with feminine
wiles to deceive her late husband's army. Semiramis' face looked very
much like her son's; both were beardless; her woman's voice sounded
no different from her young son's; and she was just a trifle taller, if at
all. Taking advantage of this resemblance, she always wore a turban
and kept her arms and legs covered so that in the future nothing might
disclose her deceit. At that time it was not the custom of the Assyrians
to dress in this guise. Lest the novelty of her garb shock her
countrymen, Semiramis decreed that everyone should dress in this
fashion. And so this woman, who had been Ninus' wife, masqueraded
as a man and pretended to be her own son. Having assumed royal
majesty, she preserved it and the rule of the armies, and by pretending
very carefully to be a man she achieved many things which would have
been great and noble even for the strongest of men. She spared herself
no labors, feared no dangers, and with her unheard-of deeds overcame
the envy of all men. Finally she did not fear to reveal to everyone who
52


3-
she really was and how with womanly deceit she had pretended to be a
man. It was almost as if she wanted to show that in order to govern it
is not necessary to be a man, but to have courage.80
In this account, Boccaccio denigrates women for undertaking traditionally masculine
endeavors. He describes Semiramis physical characteristics, which allowed her to
impersonate her son, in much more detail than her intangible qualities, her tirelessness
and her courage. In addition, he emphasizes the queen's duplicity, all the while
ostensibly praising her achievements. He seems to take it for granted that women
naturally employ "feminine wiles" and "womanly deceit." Christine does not give a
physical description of Semiramis, and in her version of the story, Semiramis did not
assume her young son's identity. Rather, she imitated military men by campaigning at
her husband's side, and she participated in his conquests. After his death, she merely
carried on as she had before, but without Ninus Sr. at her side. All of her actions were
above-board. Boccaccio presents Semiramis as a "typically" scheming female;
Christine shows her comporting herself with integrity and initiative.
The second change that Christine makes to Boccaccio's story concerns
Semiramis anomalous relationship with Ninus Jr. According to Boccaccio, Semiramis
took her own son as one of her many lovers. He contends that the wickedness of her
promiscuity, and especially of her incest, canceled out all the good that she had
accomplished. Moreover, in Boccaccio's version, Semiramis usurped her son's place
as the military commander-in-chief: "As if he had changed sex with his mother, Ninus
rotted away idly in bed, while she sweated in arms against her enemies."81 Quilligan
53


makes an interesting observation regarding a manuscript illumination that appeared in
a French translation of Boccaccio's text.
Boccaccio's figurative sense of Ninus's exchange of sex with his
mother implies an emasculation that the illumination also hints at in
inus' posture: the truncated hand, stuffed (protectively?) into the young
boy's placket in the general area of the genitals all too clearly answers
the menace of the queen's remarkably large sword. Doubtless the
sword is meant to represent Semiramis's great martial courage and
achievements, but juxtaposed with the figure of Ninus, it points to the
young man's effeminization (his unworn armor hangs on a rack above
him). By depicting Semiramis's sword as bisecting the head of the [s/c]
one of the armed soldiers standing behind her, the miniaturist may be
implying that her martial prowess menaces more than Ninus.82
Again, Boccaccio emphasizes Semiramis' physicality rather than strength of character.
In the case of her relationship with her son, he allows the ignominy of the one to
eclipse the grandeur of the other. His ambiguous praise of Semiramis changes to
condemnation of her voracious sexual appetite, and he presents her as an unnerving
threat to men in general. Here is a woman, Boccaccio says, who not only deceived her
people and tyrannized her son, but who instituted laws to justify her behavior. In
addition to establishing a new dress code to facilitate her impersonation of her son, she
"decreed that notorious law which allowed her subjects to do as they pleased in sexual
conduct,"83 and thus lowered the moral standards of society to her own abysmal level.
By contrast, Lady Reason tells the story of Semiramis in such a way that her
achievements as a warrior queen and a builder of cities carry far more weight than her
regrettable incest with her son. Reason maintains that, in any case, Semiramis' flaw is
pardonable, since she lived in an age that preceded God's revealed law, and so could
54


Figure 1. Semiramis andNinus84
55


not be edified by it. By Reason's account, Semiramis did not emasculate her son,
Ninus, either by acting as regent or by bedding him. To the contrary, she honored him
by becoming his wife: "It seemed to her that no other man was worthy to have her as
wife except her own son (1.15.2). By emphasizing Semiramis' achievements, rather
than reiterating the criticisms typically leveled against her, Reason exonerates her and
reclaims her worthiness.
Christine repeats the type of revision she uses in Semiramis story in accounts
of other women who had also gotten "bad press." She recasts the characters of
traditionally maligned women from various walks of life. Stecopoulos writes:
The Livre de la Cite des Dames is noted for its often surprising
vindication of figures traditionally held in low esteem, even condemned.
By highlighting the virtuous deeds of these women of ill repute
virtues that had been either ignored or unfavorably construed by male
authorities Christine shows (indeed proves) that these women have
been improperly slandered by post-Romance of the Rose
historiography, and she articulates new functions for their experiences
within her own, restorative history.85.
Misogynistic writers tended to focus on the "diabolic" influence that women exerted
upon men. They portrayed women as using their inferior physicality in devious and
perverted ways to undermine male strength, and so gain the ascendancy.
Consequently, such authors developed a definition of women as instruments of evil.
Christine, on the other hand, demonstrates that strength and courage are moral, not
physical qualities. She focuses on the remarkable achievements of women who have
the gumption to take on male tasks in spite of their physical differences. She
56


consequently develops a revised definition of women as strong and capable
contributors to society.
A series of tales about various Amazon queens reinforces the idea that women
are by nature courageous and forceful, notwithstanding the presumed "weakness" of
their feminine bodies. Lady Reason presents the Amazons as women who refused to
become the booty of war. They imitated men by adopting a warrior culture in order to
avoid subjugation to foreigners, and they ended up outperforming male warriors.
They managed not only to take revenge on their husbands enemies, but they went on
to claim victories over other foes that no one else in the masculine world of martial
arts had been able to subdue.86 By the time that Penthesilea, the last Amazon that
Reason describes, ascended the throne, the Amazons had become such outstanding
warriors that this queen seemed to take it for granted that they were on the cutting
edge of military achievement. Reason relates that Penthesilea, "who was sovereign of
all ladies of the world" (1.19.1) traveled with an impressive retinue to visit Hector of
Troy, whom she wanted to meet, but arrived after he had already been killed in the
Trojan War. Upon seeing his entombed body, she exclaimed:
O most noble prince, why was Fate so contrary to me that I was not
near you when the traitor who did this to you lay waiting in ambush?
This would never have happened for I would have protected you well
against it (1.19.2).
According to Lady Reason, Penthesilea wished to assume the traditionally male role of
protector by shielding the man she herself calls the "flower and excellence of the
world's knighthood, summit, height, and consummation of all valor" (1.19.2).
57


Moreover, she took up the fight against the Greeks in order to avenge Hector's death.
Like Hector, she was killed in battle. Hector had been slain by Achilles, and
Penthesilea was subsequently slain by Pyrrhus, the son of Achilless. She thus imitated
her hero, albeit involuntarily, as closely as she possibly could have in the manner of her
own demise. Similarly, the Amazon kingdom itself was doomed to the fate of the
warrior cultures it imitated: "After a time, the power of this kingdom declined, so that
as with all earthly kingdoms, nothing but its name has survived to the present" (1.4.3).
With the story of Penthesilea, Lady Reason points out that even though women
achieve the same military heights as men, nevertheless, any kind of greatness based on
physicality is only temporary. This observation corresponds to the narrators
implication that any concept of women based solely on physical form is seriously
wanting.
The Amazons imitated men by taking up arms, but their imitation was carried
to more drastic extremes than that of other warrior women who appear in the City.
First, the Amazons established the practice of removing a breast, even before they
reached adulthood. Reason explains:
And in this way the women of Scythia began to carry arms and were
then called Amazons, which actually means the 'breastless ones,'
because they had a custom whereby the nobles among them, when they
were little girls, burned off their left breast through some technique so
that it would not hinder them from carrying a shield, and they removed
the right breast of commoners to make it easier for them to shoot a
bow (1.16.1).
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The Amazons actually dispossessed themselves of a female anatomical characteristic in
order to be able to function better in a male capacity. Second, they barred men from
their society: "They promulgated an edict whereby no man was allowed to enter into
their jurisdiction." Although the Amazons periodically visited men in neighboring
lands in order to beget children, preferably daughters, they excluded men from the
day-to-day activities of their community. They imitated those men who considered the
opposite sex to be good only for procreation, consequently, a necessary evil. The
Amazons exclusion of men corresponds to the medieval exclusion of women from
public life, history, and serious literature.
Just as Lady Reason restores the character of Semiramis, so also she portrays
the Amazons as less brutal than they were portrayed by male writers. Boccaccio
recounted that the Amazon kingdom came into being after exiled Scythian princes
invaded Cappadocia, plundered the land, and killed many people. Curiously, in
Christine's version, it is the Scythians themselves who are assaulted by an unnamed
enemy; they are not the invading people. The widows who survived became the first
Amazons. Boccaccio writes:
Finally, they thought that if they married men of other nations
they would be slaves rather than wives, and they felt that they were able
to wage war by themselves, although they were only women. They
therefore attacked and in common accord killed all their husbands, so
that those whose husbands Fortune had saved from the Scythians'
massacre would not seem to have been favored more than the others by
the gods. Then they turned their fury against the enemy as if they
wanted to avenge their dead husbands and so exhausted them that they
easily imposed peace upon them.87
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As with Semiramis, Boccaccio ascribes deceit to this group of women. Reason,
however, does not say that the Amazons massacred their surviving husbands, but
rather, they banished the old men and the boys who remained after all the other males
had been killed in battle. According to Boccaccio, the Amazons were also notorious
for killing their newborn sons in order to maintain a strictly female kingdom. His
account continues:
This done, they occasionally joined their neighbors in order to beget
children, but as soon as they became pregnant they returned home.
Finally, they immediately killed the babies who were bom boys and
carefully saved the girls for the military arts.88
Reason counters by explaining that the Amazons sent their male infants off to be raised
by their fathers in the neighboring lands where they had been conceived; no mention at
all is made of infanticide.
Lady Reason does not present the Amazons as bloodthirsty aggressors whose
military careers derive from an innate desire to slash and burn. Instead, she portrays
these heroines as taking up arms in response to aggression by others. They imitate
men in order to protect themselves and those to whom they owe allegiance, and in the
process, prove themselves at least as worthy of admiration as male military types.
Their stories discredit the traditional image of women as passive and weak nonentities,
and so they contribute to the development of a new and improved understanding of the
nature of women.89
The warriors who appear in the City of Ladies triumph primarily by means of
their moral strength and courage, and only incidentally by means of their own brawn;
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in addition, they apply native intelligence to maneuvers that bring about the defeat of
their enemies. The Amazon queen, Thamiris, crushed Cyrus invading army by means
of an ambush (1.17.1); Artemisia, queen of Caria, defeated the invading Rhodians
through strategic deployment of her forces, and she subsequently captured the city of
Rhodes itself by approaching it in confiscated Rhodian ships flying flags of victory
(1.21.1). Fredegund disguised her army as a forest so that they could approach the
enemy undetected (1.23.1). Two of the military women that Lady Reason describes,
Zenobia and Minerva, cultivate this innate feminine intelligence and become quite
learned. These women excel both in chivalry and in scholarship, two areas of
endeavor traditionally reserved for men.
Zenobia is described as having internalized patriarchal values to such an extent
that she hardly seems to have been a woman at all. She differs from the female monks,
St. Marina and Euphrosyna, in that she made no attempt to disguise herself. She did
not have to give up her identity in order to achieve her ends. For one thing, although
blessed with physical beauty, she did not particularly value it. Lady Reason
emphasizes instead Zenobia's "chivalrous inclination," and says that when still a child
she left the domestic, private world of "walled cities, palaces, and royal chambers," the
sphere of women, in order to camp out in the woods and tussle with wild animals. Her
triumphs over these beasts may represent the triumph of reason, a virtue attributed to
men, over passion, a weakness associated with women. Repudiating her sexuality, she
"despised all physical love and refused to marry for a long time, for she was a woman
61


who wished to keep her virginity for life" (1.20.1). When she did marry, it was in
deference to the wishes of her parents, and she consummated her marriage only in
order to produce children. Bloch explains that:
the price for women of liberation from the patriarchal clan is femininity
itself. Only so long as a woman was willing to renounce
sexuality that is, to remain unmarried if she was a virgin, and not to
remarry if she was a widow, or even to renounce sexuality within
marriage ("house monasticism") was she able to escape the tutelage
of fathers and husbands, and indeed to become the equal of man.90
Zenobia reluctantly chose to marry in order to please her parents, and so had to find a
way within the estate of marriage to attain equality with men. She achieved this
purpose by fully participating in her husband's undertakings.
A bit of a tomboy to begin with, Zenobia imitated men by engaging in military
exploits. She followed her husband, the king of the Palmyrenes, into battle, resolving
"to suffer the exercise of arms with her husband, to arm herself and to participate with
him in all the labors of the exercise of chivalry" (1.20.1). Eventually, she "surpassed in
discipline and chivalry all the knights of her time in the world," and "there was never
seen a prince of greater generosity nor of greater magnificence." Nevertheless,
Reason respects her erudition even more than her military prowess.
The high point of her virtues which I have to tell you was, in summary,
her profound learnedness in letters, both in those of the Egyptians and
in those of her own language. When she rested, she diligently applied
herself to study and wished to be instructed by Longinus the
philosopher, who was her master and introduced her to philosophy.
She knew Latin as well as Greek, through the aid of which she
organized and arranged all historical works in concise and very careful
form. Similarly, she desired that her children, whom she raised with
strict discipline, be introduced to learning (1.20.2).
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Zenobia thus doubly exemplifies the imitative aspect of the feminine mode: Reason
describes her as following her husband into a military career and subsequently
following a male tutor, Longinus, into the world of scholarship. She combines
physical discipline with wisdom, and, by means of example, serves Christine's purpose
of projecting an image of womanhood that will elicit praiseworthy conduct.
Martial prowess and intellectual depth overlap in the figure of Minerva, as
well. Lady Reason asserts that Minerva had a keen mind and an understanding of
several subjects, which she applied to military purposes. Reason explains:
She invented the art and technique of making harnesses and armor from
iron and steel, which knights and armed soldiers employ in battle and
with which they cover their bodies, and which she first gave to the
Athenians whom she taught how to deploy an army and battalions and
how to fight in organized ranks (1.34.3).
A lengthy description of a statue, erected by the Athenians, in the likeness of Minerva
classicly illustrates the kind of reversal of position that often takes place in Christine's
narrative when a woman devotes her considerable talents and efforts to traditionally
masculine enterprises. While the statue depicts Minerva as a maiden, her image also
symbolizes wisdom and chivalry, two attributes normally associated with men. As
Reason describes the features of Minerva's statue, she points out that each one
symbolizes qualities belonging both to a knight and to a wise man. She explains that
Minerva was so revered that she came to be considered a goddess, the ultimate symbol
of wisdom and chivalry. Christine added the symbolism of chivalry to Boccaccio's
account of Minerva, and so connected strength and wisdom. Stecopoulos explains:
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This addition is of the greatest interest, on at least two major counts.
First, by extending the symbol of Minerva to armed defense, Christine
depicts wisdom as strength and real power. This revision of the
Minerva tale could thus stand as an allegory for her entire work:
"getting wise" to falsehoods about women's abilities will empower
women to explore and to reach their true feminine potential, that is, to
complete the restoration of their rightful indeed, humanly essential --
feminine power.91
Reason reports that Minerva was included among the Roman deities, but Christine
denies her divinity, as she does with other mythical heroines in the city. Minerva is
thus presented as a mortal woman who participated in historical events, and who
therefore serves as an actual, not merely a legendary, example for Christine's readers.
Scholarship. The stories of Zenobia and Minerva demonstrate that the
accomplishments of women are not limited to the physical realm of military excellence,
glorious as this excellence is, especially since it is achieved through strength and
courage of character. The learned women who appear in the City of Ladies constitute
another group that embodies the feminine mode; they "imitate" men by means of their
scholarship. Like the warrior women, these scholars immerse themselves in a
traditionally masculine field, and go on to distinguish themselves as "textual adepts.92"
Unlike the warrior women, they have a natural propensity for their chosen careers.
Their intellectual and artistic excellence necessitates a correction of the premise that
women are primarily physical beings.
The narrator herself "imitates" scholarly men by studying, traditionally a
masculine activity, since women were more associated with reading lyric poetry and
romance than with scrutinizing philosophical treatises. The fact that the narrator
64


introduces herself as a student indicates the importance she personally attaches to
education. She begins the book with an image of herself absorbed in her reading:
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 light poetry (I.l.l).93
At this point in the narrative an interesting reversal takes place: moral authority is
shifted from Matheolus, a misogynistic churchman who purports to advance the cause
of holiness, to the narrator, who, simply because she is a woman, represents, in the
eyes of most ecclesiastics, a hindrance to holiness. Wanting to take a break from her
studies, Christine decides to turn to some light reading. She looks around for "aucun
petit livret"; her use of a diminutive form of the word "book" reinforces the idea that
she is looking for something more or less frivolous. She comes across one that
someone had placed in her keeping; it turns out to be a volume written by Matheolus.
She writes, "I thought I would browse through it to amuse myself' (1.1.1). McLeod
explains the transfer of authority that occurs in this first chapter:
By rights, Matheolus should hold authority over this woman reader.
He is a clerk and a scholar; Liber lamentationum, a medieval Latin
satire, makes ample use of classical and patristic erudition to expound a
venerable topos, that women are antithetical to a life of the mind.
Instead, the woman reader is associated with "estude" and Matheolus
with the "dities," which have limited ethical import.94
The narrators position is further substantiated by her abhorrence of immoral attitudes
and behavior. The three figures who appear to her, who represent her own sense of
65


reason, rectitude, and justice, express concern that her reading lead her to correct
thinking, which in turn leads to virtuous conduct. Her emulation of men by means of
her intellectual pursuits results in a reversal of position that places her on higher moral
ground than that of an antifeminist ecclesiastic whose satirical writings, as mentioned
earlier, generate "a faulty tropological assimilation" of misogynistic notions. This
reversal corroborates Christines point that women should not be categorically
associated with vice and degradation. She, for one, is inclined to elevate her soul by
enriching her mind.
Christine as narrator emulates men by writing as well as by studying. In fact,
her writing is an almost inevitable outcome of her studies. For a woman, however,
this choice of vocation was unprecedented: Christine was France's, and perhaps
Europe's, first professional female writer. Her emulation consists of not only the act of
writing, but also the manner in which she writes. She uses form to buttress the content
of her book, primarily by patterning her narrative after the protocol and language used
in the court system.95 The tribunal was, of course, a patriarchal institution, and women
were generally considered to be incompetent in courts of law. Curnow explains how
the exchanges between the narrator and the crowned ladies resemble legal arguments:
In the Cite des Dames, Christine's replies to attacks on women and her
positive ideas are usually presented in this form of a legal defense:
accusation or argument, reply and illustration, then judgment or
conclusion. She first states the basic argument, then one of the Virtues
replies to it, giving examples that illustrate and prove the reply.
Christine often concludes with a general summation or a statement of
agreement with the reply given by the Virtue.96
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Moreover, "Christine is extremely skilled at using the forms of legal debate and
argument."97
In keeping with her juridical approach, Christine uses a highly Latinized,
chancery style comparable to the style used in legal documents. Christine was familiar
with this kind of writing due to her husband's position as a royal secretary. It was in
imitating legalistic writing that she sometimes produced extremely long, syntactically
complicated, and incomplete sentences. Cumow observes:
Christine commonly uses a simple syntax when she cites her own words
in the dialogues with the Virtues. The most complex, legalistic,
pedantic sentences usually result from her desire to have the three
Virtues speak an elevated style that Christine perceives as noble.98
Another peculiarity of juristic language that Christine imitates is stylistic redundancy,
which had "characterized legal documents since the time of William the Conqueror and
other rulers who found it necessary to list terms from two languages in order to ensure
clarity."99 Christine uses this technique in forms of address, such as, "Oh ladies of
supreme dignity, radiance of the heavens and light of the earth, fountains of Paradise
and joy of the blessed" (1.7.1), as well as in various other descriptive passages. Her
careful identifications reinforce the legalistic tone of her narrative. Curnow writes:
As typical of a legal-judicial style, Christine begins each chapter with a
rather formal definition of the situation and the persons. The references
to herself, the forms of address she uses to address the allegorical
figures, and her descriptions of titles and relationships are presented
with the stylistic precision of legal documents.100
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Christine's imitation of juridical strategies and language informs the reader that she is
mounting a quasi-legal defense of women. At the same time, it enhances the
authoritative tone of her writing.
Other critics have remarked upon Christine's imitation of philosophical,
rhetorical, and stylistic techniques practiced by her male colleagues. In a discussion of
the City of Ladies in terms of medieval poetics, McLeod maintains that "Christine's
defense of women reveals both her indebtedness to scholastic traditions and her
shrewd reappropriation of them."101 Stecopoulos notes Christine's "revision of the
misogynistic canonical conception of femininity"
mimics the techniques and indeed the very tales of the misogynist
authorities (auctores) ~ even while undermining their unfavorable
depiction of women in order to authorize its rectification of women's
position in society.102
Nadia Margolis adds,
Various scholars continue to uncover the extent of her borrowing from
male authors, despite their often misogynistic messages, as a necessary
step toward becoming their equal, to be taken seriously by both
sexes.103
The narrator thus exemplifies the imitative side of the feminine mode in three ways.
She studies nonfictional texts, a habit usually practiced by men for the purpose of self-
edification; she writes a serious work herself; and she appropriates techniques of
persuasion and styles of writing used by male authors. Unlike her English
contemporary, Margery Kempe, Christine did not invent an entirely new technique or
style of her own.104
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The narrator shares a particular affinity with the heroines in the City of Ladies
who value education. Cornificia, the first scholar that Lady Reason brings to life as
she begins to help Christine construct the wall of the city, resembles the narrator in her
thirst for knowledge and her talent for writing. Cornificia is described as a
"consummate poet. . extremely brilliant and expert in the learnedness and craft of
poetry" (1.28.1). When Reason recounts her early interest in learning, she could just
as well be speaking of Christine;
This little girl so devoted herself to study and with such marvelous
intelligence that she began to savor the sweet taste of knowledge
acquired through study. Nor was it easy to take her away from this joy
to which she more and more applied herself, neglecting all other
feminine activities (1.28.1).
This portrayal creates an image similar to the first scene of the book, where the
narrator has to be called away from her studying in order to have supper. Like
Christine, Cornificia passed her learning and wisdom on to others; "Knowledge was
not enough for her unless she could put her mind to work and her pen to paper in the
compilation of several very famous books" (1.28.1). Quilligan points out that the
likenesses between Christine and Cornificia are depicted pictorially in a miniature that
appears in a Flemish translation of the City of Ladies. Before the appearance of the
crowned ladies, Christine had described herself as "occupied with these painful
thoughts" of feminine degeneracy, "my head bowed in shame, my eyes filled with
tears, leaning on the pommel of my chair's armrest" (1.2.1). The miniature shows
69


Cornificia sitting dejectedly in her study, surrounded by books. Her cheek is resting
on her fist, and her elbow is propped on the armrest of her chair. Quilligan observes:
The knife on the desk beneath the woman's left hand, a knife used for
correcting scribal errors, points to the books on the shelf to the left.
Such a detail may suggest that the illuminator understood quite well
Christine's argument about the need to correct the written tradition.105
Christine's redefinition of womanhood constitutes just such a correction. The
similarities between author and character are opportune, because while Christine is
composing the City of Ladies in order to defend virtuous women, she calls upon
Cornificia, a kindred spirit in terms of intelligence and literary talent, to be the first
constituent of the wall which will defend that city.
Cornificias portrait is particularly interesting because it points out the contrast
between the behaviors of custodial women, who accept misogynistic ideas about
femininity, and the behavior of an imitative woman who ignored such rhetoric and
instead undertook typically masculine endeavors. Paradoxically, both reactions
represent aspects of the feminine mode because they both support patriarchal values.
The distinction between the custodial and the imitative aspects of the feminine mode
lies in their contradictory attitudes toward the position of women in relation to men.
According to the first, women should genuflect before men; according to the second,
they should try to become like men. Reason suggests the custodial aspect of the
feminine mode when she cites Boccaccio, Christine's source for the story of Cornificia,
in her own commentary on his text:
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Figure 2. Cornificia in her study106
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"Boccaccio also talks about the attitude of women who despise
themselves and their own minds, and who, as though they were born in
the mountains totally ignorant of virtue and honor, turn disconsolate
and say that they are good and useful only for embracing men and
carrying and feeding children" (1.28.1).
As in the passage where Christine laments having been bom female, those women
"who despise themselves and their own minds," unlike Cornificia, focus on the
supposedly inferior feminine body as the defining feature of a woman. Wifehood, and
even motherhood itself are reduced to merely biological functions. Reason is referring
to a passage in the chapter on Cornificia in Boccaccio's De Claris Mulieribus that
reads:
Let slothful women be ashamed, and those who wretchedly have no
confidence in themselves, who, as if they were born for idleness and for
the marriage bed, convince themselves that they are good only for the
embraces of men, giving birth, and raising children, while they have in
common with men the ability to do those things which make men
famous, if only they are willing to work with perseverance.107
Lady Reason puts a different spin on this story. Whereas Boccaccio places the blame
for women's lack of achievement squarely on their own laziness, Reason affirms that
women are capable of gaining knowledge and understanding, but are denied access to
an education by the constraints of a society that defines women solely in terms of their
physical properties. Rather than upbraid Christine for her self-doubt, Reason gently
redirects her thinking, which had been utterly misguided by her perusal of misogynistic
texts. An unquestioning acceptance of such texts can lead custodial women to sloth
and moral weakness, as Boccaccio's comment implies, whereas the pursuit of goals
72


normally undertaken by men can lead an imitative woman to illustrious deeds. The
custodial and the imitative stances present opposite sides of the feminine coin.
Just as Lady Reason' describes women warriors in the City of Ladies as
outperforming their male counterparts, so also she presents the scholarly heroines as
overshadowing their male colleagues. She revises Boccaccios version of the story of
Cornificia in order to point out feminine excellence. Boccaccio wrote that Cornificia
"was equal in glory to her brother Cornificius, who was a much renowned poet at that
time."108 Reason claims that Cornificia actually surpassed her brother, "and excelled in
every field of learning." By emphasizing the superior performance of women who
embark on traditionally masculine fields of endeavor, Christine upholds patriarchal
values, and at the same time reassesses womanhood in terms of these values.
Several learned women join Cornificia in representing the imitative aspect of
th t feminine mode in the City of Ladies. All of them meet or exceed standards of
erudition and prolificacy established by their male counterparts. Among these women
are Proba, who rewrote various tales from both the Old and New Testaments in
Vergilian verse; "she arranged her verses so masterfully that no man could do better"
(1.29.1). Although this labor "would have been enough for one man's lifetime," Proba
went on to compose several other books. Sappho, "in the midst of bestial and
ignorant men, frequented the heights of Mount Parnassus, that is, of perfect study."
Sappho examplifies women who appear to imitate men in her choice of vocation, but
who actually gave men something to imitate themselves. Reason tells Christine,
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"Her writings and poems have survived to this day, most remarkably
constructed and composed, and they serve as illumination and models
of consummate poetic craft and composition to those who have come
afterward" (1.30.1).
Apparently, Sappho's writing was a source of inspiration to no less a luminary than
Plato, since a volume of her poetry was reportedly found under his pillow after his
death.
Another outstanding scholar, Novella, was the daughter of Giovanni Andrea, a
law professor at the University of Bologna, and a colleague of Christine's father. She
was "educated in the law to such an advanced degree" that she occasionally
substituted for her father in the classroom, and thus lightened his workload. The
contrast between the traditional, narrow-minded opinions that so many men held
concerning femininity, opinions based on assumptions regarding woman's physical
nature, and the new vision which Christine is creating, one based on historical evidence
of feminine intellect and spirituality, is particularly striking in the reference to Novella.
Her father's male students were more inclined to notice Novellas physical form than
the substance of her mind: "And to prevent her beauty from distracting the
concentration of her audience, she had a little curtain drawn in front of her" (II. 3 6.3).
The only way that Novella could effectively impart one aspect of herself, her
intellectual acumen, was to hide another aspect, her physical beauty. Lady Rectitude
makes it clear that this concealment was not necessary because of any fault of her
own, but because of the weakness of the male minds that could not function
adequately in her presence.109
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Both the custodial and the imitative aspects of the feminine mode signal
unsatisfactory, if not altogether unacceptable predicaments. Those who take a
custodial position must negate themselves one way or another, because they endorse a
value system that denigrates women. They may cast off physical existence altogether
by dying, and so preserve their chastity, which in the case of women, is equivalent to
decency, both from a secular and a religious standpoint. Lucretia and the virgin
martyrs represent women who take this route in the City of Ladies. St. Marina and
Euphrosyna exemplify women who take the somewhat less drastic measure of
completely repressing a fundamental element of their identity, that is, their femininity.
By "converting" to manhood, such women can never acknowledge who they really
are, but must always live incognito. Still other custodial women, such as Tertia
Aemilia and Griselda, act as "helpmates," and prostrate themselves so abjectly before
their husbands that they function not as adult human beings, but as domesticated
livestock. Each of these types of women, of course, is portrayed favorably in the
canonical texts.
Meanwhile, women who imitate men find themselves living a contradiction.
On one hand, they uphold the values of their patriarchal society and identify with the
dominant group. On the other hand, they display inappropriate, "unwomanly"
tendencies by entering into traditionally masculine preserves. Such women are not
usually portrayed in a flattering light by male chroniclers, such as Boccaccio and his
sources. Semiramis and the Amazons, for example, are generally presented as
75


notorious examples of unbridled female aggression. Christine takes it upon herself, at
the instigation of the crowned ladies, to rewrite their stories in such a way as to shift
attention from their "unladylike" behavior to the greatness of their achievements.
The custodial and imitative women who appear in the City of Ladies prefigure
two types of Victorian feminine writers. Sho waiter remarks on the paradox of
nineteenth-century women novelists who promulgated patriarchal ideologies while
simultaneously breaking out of their own "proper" spheres of activity: "The Victorians
expected women's novels to reflect the feminine values they exalted, although
obviously the woman novelist herself had outgrown the constraining feminine role."110
She quotes an early feminine novelist, Mary Brunton, who wrote to a friend in 1810:
I would rather, as you well know, glide through the world unknown,
than have (I will not call it enjoy) fame, however brilliant, to be pointed
at, ~ to be noticed and commented upon to be suspected of literary
airs to be shunned, as literary women are, by the more unpretending
of my own sex; and abhorred as literary women are, by the pretending
of the other! my dear, I would sooner exhibit as a rope-dancer.111
Like Tertullian's "true" virgin who can never be seen by men or even by other women,
this author wants to remain anonymous; yet she has betrayed the values she ostensibly
espouses by venturing into the male arena of professional writing. Cecily Hamilton,
one of the young journalists who founded the Women Writers Suffrage League in
1908, pointed out:
Any woman who has attained to even a small measure of success in
literature or art has done so by discarding, consciously or
unconsciously, the traditions in which she was reared, by turning her
back upon the conventional ideas of dependence that were held up for
her admiration in her youth.112
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Ultimately, then, the feminine mode is untenable. Women are deemed weak,
cowardly, and stupid because they presumably can't do the things that men do, such as
fight, study, and write. However, those women who do fight, study, and write are
maligned as ill-bred or even downright evil because they step across the line of
culturally-defined propriety. It is perhaps this conflict between the two aspects of the
feminine mode custodial acquiescence versus imitation that motivates women to
protest conventional assumptions. Since women are not tolerated as equals in an
obdurately patriarchal society, but are consistently disparaged or idealized, their only
alternative is to confront, rather than endorse, the beliefs and values of that society,
and to take a stand in their own defense.
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CHAPTER 3
THE PROTOTYPE OF THE FEMINIST MODE
IN THE BOOK OF THE CITY OF LADIES
In her theory of the evolution of modern women's writing, Showalter describes
a feminist stage of development that follows upon the prolonged feminine phase. She
explains: "Second, there is a phase of protest against these [traditional] standards and
values and advocacy of minority rights and values, including a demand for
autonomy."113 According to Showalter, the feminist stage of womens novel-writing
begins roughly with the death of George Eliot in 1880 and culminates with the winning
of the vote in 1920. The feminine mainly differs from the feminist phase in that "the
feminine novelists had expressed female cultural values obliquely and proclaimed
antifeminism publicly,"114 but feminist writers openly confronted male society and
mounted an assault on the citadel of masculine prerogatives. "The feminists
challenged many of the restrictions on women's self-expression, denounced the gospel
of self-sacrifice, attacked patriarchal religion, and constructed a theoretical model of
female oppression. . ,"115 Showalter observes that feminist novelists developed a
strong sense of kinship with other women. Unlike the feminine writers and their
heroines, they did not "police each other on behalf of patriarchal tyranny," but instead
united in a sisterhood of mutual support and encouragement. The feminist novelists
continued to glorify and idealize the womanly virtues of sexual temperance and
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maternal love, but they rejected female passivity and the separation of masculine and
feminine spheres of activity that is basic to the feminine ideal. They expressed a
profound sense of injustice, and maintained that chastity and fidelity should be required
of men as well as of women. These writers came to believe that women constituted a
spiritual avant-garde. Marie Corelli declared in 1905:
Woman must learn the chief lesson of successful progress, which is not
to copy Man, but to carefully preserve her beautiful Unlikeness to him
in every possible way so that, while asserting and gaining intellectual
equality with him, she shall gradually arrive at such ascendancy as to
prove herself ever the finer and the nobler Creature.116
Feminine pride was even reflected in the choice of pseudonyms. One turn-of-the-
century representative of the feminist phase, for example, called herself "Sarah
Grand."
Of the three stages of development of British women's writing in the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries, as postulated by Showalter, The Book of the City of Ladies
most conspicuously anticipates the early phase of the feminist mode. The contrast
between the narrators initial capitulation to the standard views about women which
she had just read, and the crowned ladies' rebuttal of these views portends the contrast
between a feminine and a feminist response to a patriarchal society. In the beginning
chapter the narrator ostensibly accepts the misogynistic opinions of "all philosophers
and poets" and of "all the orators." It is only by indirect means the narrator's
apparently unwitting exposure of the false reasoning of these pundits that the author
challenges the validity of their assertions. Like the feminine novelists, she expresses
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female values "obliquely," while outwardly proclaiming antifeminism. For example, in
the first chapter, the narrator regrets being female, not because her reasoning and
experience have led her to believe that women are wicked, but because a multitude of
literary authorities have proclaimed them to be so. She recalls:
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 . .(1.1.1).
This statement could be taken as sarcasm, and the qualifying "as it seemed" suggests
that the "solemn scholars" in question were in fact ignorant about women, that they
were not perspicacious or clear sighted at all and were probably inveterate liars, to
boot. The narrator hints that the authorities are wrong, but she does pay them lip
service. In contrast, Ladies Reason and Rectitude flatly contradict the misogynistic
assumptions that Christine reports to them; this is one means by which the author
protests the patriarchal definition of womanhood. For example, responding to the
charge that women abuse and insult their husbands, Reason says, "I believe that,
regardless of what you might have read, you will never see such a [henpecked]
husband with your own eyes, so badly colored are these lies" (1.2.2). Rectitude
concludes her retort to the accusation that there are not many chaste women in the
world by opining: "I do not think that in all times past there were so many evil
tongues as there are today, nor so many men inclined to slander women without
reason as there are today" (II.43.2). Reason and Rectitude counter allegations of
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womens misdeeds by charging the accusers themselves with libel. In this way
Christine emphasizes that misogynistic authors employ fraudulent rhetoric to denounce
women, although medieval tradition reproaches rhetoric as being untruthful. To
support their arguments, the crowned ladies give a multitude of examples of women
who are not only paragons of virtue, but who have made indispensable contributions
to the development of civilization. By calling attention to these contributions, they
advocate the rights of women to claim recognition for the achievements of their sex
and to demand the respect due them.
Many of the issues involved in the querelle des femmes, which the narrator
discusses with Reason and Rectitude, are the same as those which constituted the
"woman question" debated among nineteenth-century thinkers. The arguments
Reason and Rectitude put forth are remarkably similar to those propounded by some
of the most prominent mid-Victorian feminists.117 Misogynistic assumptions that irked
women in both eras elicited comparable rhetorical strategies.
The Assumption that Women are Physically, and
Therefore Morally and Intellectually Impaired
One of the most obstinate misogynistic assumptions regarding women, which
dates back at least as far as Aristotle, is that women's bodies are actually defective, in
addition to being less powerful than men's bodies. When the narrator presents this
belief to Lady Reason, she cites as an "authority" a certain gynecological treatise
which she apparently considers to be typical of medical writing:
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"I know another small book in Latin, my lady, called the Secreta
mulierum, The Secrets of Women, which discusses the constitution of
their natural bodies and especially their great defects" (1.9.2).
Reason refutes the claim that feminine bodies are defective, first by discounting the
credibility of the author of the treatise. She asserts:
"You can see for yourself without further proof, this book was written
carelessly and colored by hypocrisy, for if you have looked at it, you
know that it is obviously a treatise composed of lies. . For since
women can clearly know with proof that certain things which he treats
are not at all true, but pure fabrications, they can also conclude that the
other details which he handles are outright lies" (1.9.2).
The Secreta mulierum provides a clear example of man defining woman in terms of
himself; Reason insists that woman can define herself much more accurately. Christine
continues:
"My lady, I recall that among other things, after he has
discussed the impotence and weakness which cause the formation of a
feminine body in the womb of the mother, he says that Nature is
completely ashamed when she sees that she has formed such a body, as
though it were something imperfect" (1.9.2).
Reason easily exposes the illogic of this premise.
"But, sweet friend, don't you see the overweening madness, the
irrational blindness which prompt such observations? Is Nature, the
chambermaid of God, a greater mistress than her master, almighty
God . ? If the Supreme Craftsman was not ashamed to create and
form the feminine body, would Nature then have been ashamed? It is
the height of folly to say this!" (1.9.2)
She follows with theological arguments that were advanced by Hugh of St. Victor, a
twelfth-century exegete, by Peter Abelard, the supreme logician of the twelfth century,
and by St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest intellectuals of the thirteenth
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century.118 Reason thus counters one patriarchal assertion, that Nature is ashamed to
discover that she has formed a female body, with another patriarchal assertion, that
Nature is merely an instrument of God, and that God cannot do anything poorly.
Reason brings to bear arguments of eminent Biblical commentators who are greater
authorities by far than the writer of the "small book" that the narrator mentions. She
uses these creditable arguments, along with first-hand knowledge, to support her
denial of the validity of the claims made in the Seer eta mulierum.
The ignorance of medieval physicians regarding female physiology is
comparable to that of nineteenth and early twentieth-century physicians.. Addressing
the topic of womens health in the nineteenth century, Barbara Harrison writes:
Entrenched in medical theories about both physical and mental illness
was that the reproductive organs (the ovaries and uterus), and the
periodicity of reproductive biology as exhibited in the menstrual cycles,
caused womens weakness, nervous debility, sickness and disease. . .
A major event in the lives of all women menstruation was regarded
as being pathological, but despite the dominant role of reproductive
biology in the construction of womens disease, physicians understood
neither it nor womens sexuality.119
Prevailing medical views about women outraged feminists such as Frances Power
Cobbe (1822-1904).120 Like Lady Reason, Cobbe responds by attacking the credibility
of the medical profession. She claims that the majority of physicians in England do not
come from the upper echelons of society, but are drawn from the secondary
professional classes, or else are the sons of tradesmen, or of professional artisans.
Doctors, therefore, are even lower in social status than lawyers, and consequently, less
to be trusted. She writes that medicine is "a parvenu profession, with the merits and
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defects of the class."121 Among these defects is the tendency to stick together and
make common cause against outsiders. Like Lady Reason, Cobbe refutes the belief
that women are physically defective on religious grounds, as well as on empirical
observation. She refuses to accept the precept that a rational deity could have
designed a whole sex of Patients that the normal condition of the
female of the human species should be to have legs which walk not, and
brains which can only work on pain of disturbing the rest of the ill-
adjusted mechanism this is to me simply incredible.122
She maintains that doctors treat their female patients in such a way as to perpetuate
their subordination, and wonders if women would receive the same kind of medical
attention if England followed the old Chinese practice whereby patients only paid a
physician as long as they remained healthy, but stopped paying when they became
ill.123 Cobbe thus discredits a tenet of the medical profession, that the female body is
defective, by countering it with a fundamental precept of Christian theology, that God
is good, perfect, and just. He therefore would not create a body that was predisposed
to debility. For Cobbe it is easier to believe in the competence and the benevolence of
God than in the pronouncements of physicians whose relatively low social status make
their credibility suspect in the first place.
A corollary to the assumption that the female body poorly simulates the
paradigm of the masculine form is the idea that physical weakness translates into moral
weakness. Christine tells Reason, "men contend that the more imperfect a body, the
lesser is its virtue and, consequently, the less praiseworthy" (1.14.1). Reason refutes
this assumption in terms of Natures sense of balance:
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"My dear daughter, such a deduction is totally invalid and unsupported,
for invariably one often sees that when Nature does not give to one
body which she has formed as much perfection as she has given to
another and thereby makes some things imperfect, whether in shape or
beauty or with some impotence or weakness of limbs, she makes up the
difference with an even greater boon than she has taken away" (1.14.1).
She claims that Nature compensates women for the relative weakness of their bodies
by giving them "that most virtuous inclination to love one's God and to fear sinning
against His commandments. Women who act otherwise go against their own nature"
(1.14.2). In fact, Reason presents physical weakness as a blessing in disguise: less
powerful individuals are less likely to commit crimes of aggression.
The medieval view that physical weakness indicated moral susceptibility was
carried into the nineteenth century but with an interesting twist. Caine explains the
paradox contained in the domestic ideology of the Victorian era: although women
were believed to be weaker than men intellectually and morally, as well as physically,
they were nevertheless entrusted with the moral guardianship of the home. Many
Victorian writers, including women themselves, who expound on the roles and
obligations of women maintain that they
had to recognize their inferiority to men, acknowledging that their
lesser mental power was proportional to their inferiority in bodily
strength. At the same time, women had to accept that male superiority
did not necessarily entail that all men were noble, enlightened and
good. Had this been the case, men would themselves have provided
perfect models for the weaker sex. But since men usually failed to do
this, it was weak women who had to use their influence to ensure that
their husbands behaved properly and carried out their familial and social
role. The centre of womens influence was their religious strength and
their moral purity. This was protected by their domestic seclusion and
their isolation from the harsh material world which threatened the piety
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and the morality of their menfolk. It was because of this moral purity
that women could simultaneously be inferior to and guide their
menfolk and the provision of this guidance was their great mission.124
Women supposedly owed their moral purity and innocence to their confinement in the
home. If they were not secluded, they would undoubtedly lose their innocence in short
order, and fall prey to sensuality and evil even more easily than men. Feminist writers
maintained that, on the contrary, the reproductive capacity of women was central to
the formation of their characters. Cobbe, for example, writes that women are "human
beings of the mother sex."125 She upholds a connection between the female body and
womens moral qualities, but disavows notions of womens physical debility and moral
weakness. Rather, women carry with them their nurturing tendencies, their
compassion, their moral sense, and their chastity into any social situation or
occupation. These qualities inhere in every woman, regardless of whether or not she
has children; they tend to direct her actions, whether she chooses the domestic life of
a wife and mother, or the public role of a philanthropist. Like Lady Reason, some
Victorian feminists thus argue that while women are admittedly not as physically
powerful as men, they are endowed with gifts that more than compensate for their lack
of brawn.
The antifeminist assumption most vehemently disputed in the City of Ladies is
that women lack the aptitude for erudition. Christine de Pizan, a strong proponent of
women's education, particularly abhors this opinion. Her narrator says, "Men maintain
that the mind of women can learn only a little." Reason denies outright the truth of
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this assertion: "My daughter . 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" (1.27.1). Cornificia, Proba, and Sappho, mentioned above, prove her
point the minds of women can assimilate a great deal. She then refers to many
innovative women whose learning led them to wholly original discoveries and
inventions. Reason maintains that women "are intelligent enough not only to learn and
retain the sciences but also to discover new sciences themselves, indeed sciences of
such great utility and profit for the world that nothing has been more necessary"
(1.37.1).
. In the Victorian era, Frances Cobbe and Emily Davies emphatically reiterate
Lady Reasons refutation of the assumption that women lack an aptitude for learning.
Davies (1830-1921) led the fight for the higher education of women, and founded
Girton College for women at Cambridge University. Both of these feminist leaders
scorned the "medical" justification for depriving women of the opportunity for
academic achievement. The conclusions of Edward H. Clarke, a Harvard professor,
exemplify the kind of thinking that they were up against. According to Bullough,
Clarke was a major "scientific" investigator of the view that women could not be equal
to men because of the differences in their biological development. Bullough reports:
Thus he [Clarke] wrote in 1874 that although women undoubtedly had
the right as citizens to do many things men did, the nature of womens
physiology rendered them incapable of doing what men did and
retaining good health. Supposedly the female at puberty had a sudden
and unique period of growth around the development of her
reproductive system; the male, however, developed steadily and
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gradually from birth to manhood. The reproductive system in women
Clarke believed to be related to the nervous system. Because the
nervous system, to Clarkes mind, could not do "two things well as the
same time," the full development of the reproductive aspect of the
nervous system had to occur at puberty or it would never occur. For
Clarke, the female between twelve and twenty had to concentrate on
developing her reproductive system and avoid stress on other parts of
the nervous system, that is, the brain. Otherwise the female would
overload the switchboard, so to speak, and signals from the developing
organs of reproduction would be ignored in favor of those coming
from an overactive brain. Prohibitions associated with the menstrual
cycle meant that even after puberty, females were not to exercise their
minds without restriction.126
In response to this viewpoint, Cobbe maintains that the widespread medical concern
about the effects of "excessive" study on women derive, not from actual fact, but from
the medical professions desire to exclude women from its ranks. Accordingly, when
it became clear that female physicians might enter the market as competitors,
the doctors grew earnest and made a grand discovery namely, that
mental labour is peculiarly injurious to the weaker sex much worse, it
would appear, for the feeble constitution, than any amount of ball-
going and dissipation; and that, in short, a term at Girton was worse
than five London seasons. Women would perish, and the human race
cease to multiply, if female intellects ascended from gossip to Greek!127
In a somewhat less cynical vein, Davies likewise contended that no clear evidence
exists to support differences between the intellectual faculties of men and women. In
fact, the Taunton Commission, a parliamentary investigation of the 1860s, had found
that the mental capacity of the sexes was virtually the same.128 She insisted, therefore,
that the kind of education men received should also be made available to women.
Davies staunchly opposed the idea of a special education for women, because a lower
standard for women than that applied to men would not prepare them for degrees and
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would perpetuate a deleterious social separation of the sexes. She echoes Reasons
assertion that "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" (1.27.1).
The Assumption that Women Have Nothing Worthwhile to Say
If women were in fact incapable of erudition, it might logically follow that their
language would be "blameworthy," because it could display ignorance and would
therefore be of "small authority." To illustrate this opinion, Christine mentions a Latin
proverb implying the uselessness of womens speech (1.10.3).129 Reason in turn
refutes this proverb on religious grounds:
"If women's language had been so blameworthy and of such small
authority, as some men argue, our Lord Jesus Christ would never have
deigned to wish that so worthy a mystery as His most gracious
resurrection be first announced by a woman, just as He commanded the
blessed Magdalene, to whom He first appeared on Easter, to report and
announce it to His apostles and to Peter. Blessed God, may you be
praised, who, among the other infinite boons and favors which You
have bestowed upon the feminine sex, desired that woman carry such
lofty and worthy news" (1.10.5).
Her assertion that Christ himself commissioned a woman to spread the news of his
resurrection recalls Peter Abelard's argument: it was to women keeping vigil at
Christ's tomb that an angel first appeared after Christ had risen from the dead..130 In
this way Reason invokes evangelical and theological authority to supersede the
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authority of the old saw Christine brought up. After giving more examples of female
eloquence, she adds:
"God has demonstrated that He has truly placed language in women's
mouths so that He might be thereby served. They should not be
blamed for that from which issues so much good and so little evil, for
one rarely observes that great harm comes from their language"
(1.10.7).
Reason furthermore points out that proverbial wit is often at odds with everyday
experience. Although theologians and poets rant about womens misuse of language,
the "man on the street" sees for himself the insubstantiality of these harangues.
The notion that women's speech is discreditable and that their voice should not
be heard in the public sphere was passed down to the nineteenth century, and one of
its manifestations was the disenfranchisement of women. By the mid-1890s women's
suffrage had become the central issue of the feminist movement. For example,
Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who led the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies,
the non-militant wing of the women's suffrage movement, replies to a letter written by
a Member of Parliament, Samuel Smith, in which she addresses his objections to
granting women the right to vote. One of her arguments echoes that presented by
Lady Reason.
Mr. Smith in one passage of his letter appeals to the religious argument
and to the authority of St Paul. In this matter we appeal from Paul to a
greater than Paul, to Christ. No words ever fell from His lips which
were inconsistent with that elevation of womanhood which is so
marked a feature of practical Christianity. That women were among
the last at the cross, that they were the first at the tomb, that when all
forsook Him and fled, they remained faithful; that our Saviour
honoured them by specially addressing to them several of His most
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important conversations; that He proclaimed, what the world has not
yet accepted, that there is but one moral law for the man and the
woman; all these things afford indications that work for the uplifting of
the lives of women from a position of subordination is in accordance
with the spirit of His teaching.131
Both Christine and Fawcett rely on a well-tested defense. It makes evident the
tendency of misogynistic writers, who justify the subordination of women on religious
grounds, to draw only selectively from Scripture. Fighting fire with fire, Christine and
Fawcett draw their own conclusions from Scripture. They go over St. Paul's head, so
to speak, and base their arguments on the actions and words of Christ himself,
obviously a higher authority than his regrettably misogynistic apostle.
The opinion that women's speech is worthless corresponds with the belief that
only witless men take their wives' advice. Christine tells Rectitude that "several
authors claim that men who believe or lend credence to their wives' advice are
despicable and foolish" (11.28.1). Rectitude turns the tables on proponents of this
view: "I told you before that while all women are not wise, those men who have good
and wise wives behave like fools when they fail to believe them" (11.28.1). The
suffragists arguments echo Rectitudes rebuttal. Although taking a relatively
conservative position in campaigning only for the enfranchisement of single women of
means, Emily Davies maintains that a womans perspective is of value not only to her
husband, but to society at large:
Though I do not expect that any great effect of the womens vote
would at once be seen in the shape of extensive legislative reform, I do
expect that, gradually, laws which are unjust to women . would
disappear, and that women would gain a hearing on questions in regard
91