The Book of the City of Ladies: the Medieval Model for Female Companionship

Throughout time, a wide range of studies evolved around male friendship. Nonetheless, in The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), Christine de Pizan introduces examples of female friendship to reveal the androcentric bonds that lie beneath them. Pizan’s interest in female communities contributes to her “quest to legitimize herself as an author” since female affection appears as women’s “goal of self-authorization” (Verini, 2016, p. 367).

For centuries, scholars have disregarded female affection as a sociological and philosophical concept. On the one hand, French philosopher Jacques Derrida defined friendship by its historical “androcentrism or phallocentrism” (Borren, 2010, p. 140). On the other hand, Roman scholar Cicero depicted friendship as “an accord in all things, human and divine, conjoined with mutual good will and affection.” (Cicero, 1963, p. 131). Therefore, the principle of equality, which stands as the root for moral, civil and political life, is mandatory for friendship. Nevertheless, owing to the fact that, at the time, women did not engage in social life, they were not comprised in the traditional theories on human relationships. British historian Alan Bray also highlighted the absence of formal evidence of female attachment prior to the seventeenth century and, according to him, “friendship has been no less asymmetrical than gender itself” (2003, p.10). Hence, female communities and relationships existed but were conditional on conventional definitions of friendship (Verini, 2016).

Figure 1. Christine de Pizan. Anonymous. 1407.

Christine de Pizan, one of the most admired authors of the Middle Ages, was an Italian writer who relocated to the French court. Pizan held a unique position to criticize medieval society and ideology because she “belonged to and existed on the periphery of dominant culture” (Verini, 2016, p.368). The author, a foreigner in France, was a woman committed to a male-dominated area: literature. Thus, she counter-wrote predominant ideologies and conventions and did not stick to the norm. Pizan sets The Book of the Ladies in an imaginary city of extraordinary women ruled/governed by virtuousness and peace. The story presents an allegory that showcases “women’s spaces, self-defense, and memory as keys to the creation of women’s history and future” (Wagner, 2008, p. 69).

The Book of the Ladies stood as a literary contestation to Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose, a medieval poem that underestimated female storytelling. Its influence spread all over England and Italy while Jean de Meun was “the prime model for the exclusively male clerkly establishment” in which Christine “was manifestly an outsider” (Hult, 2003, p. 187). Christine’s response to literary misogyny not only dealt with Jean de Meun but with the entire intellectual world as it was part of the querelle de femmes (The woman question), a philosophical discussion on the intelligence of women developed from the late Middle Ages to the fall of the Ancient Régime. By stressing past, present and future in her story, Pizan establishes a model closely followed, nowadays, by scholars and artists nowadays (Wagner, 2008). In addition, Christine does not organize her imaginary city in chronological order but, rather, thematically. Therefore, the reader can easily recall parts of the city according to the women that occupy them: these female characters can either be saints, notable women or even mythological characters (Blumenfeld-Kosinski, 1996). Hence, Christine de Pizan takes part in the quarrel by establishing a “mnemonic matrix for future literary creations by women” (Enders, 1994, p. 239).

Figure 2. Jean de Meun. Hippolyte Lecomte. 1820.

While discussing female intelligence, Pizan embraces traditional theories on affection. In particular, Cicero’s De amicitia (On Friendship) is one of the most popular texts which discusses this topic, depicting human attachment as a bond determined by “sameness and exact reciprocity” (Verini, 2016, p. 369). According to Cicero (1963), a friend reflects on oneself, being the relationship based on ethical and moral principles. Pizan appropriates the Ciceronian outlook on relationships and includes his principle of sameness and virtue. The Book of the City of Ladies opens with Pizan finding a literary work from the thirteenth-century poet Matheolus, who makes harsh statements about female nature. Luckily, she suddenly witnesses a vision of three women—Reason, Rectitude, and Justice—who instruct her about stories of honorable heroines. From these tales, Christine and the three virtues build a city of extraordinary women from the past. Therefore, although the opening of the work suggests “scholarly solitude” for Pizan in the realm of male authors, “the subsequent narrative foregrounds a female community dedicated to creating a safe space for women” (Verini, 2016, p. 371).

The opening sentence reflects her sense of solitude and entrapment: “One day as I was sitting alone in my study surrounded by books…” (Pizan, 1982, p. 3). In the original French version, Pizan uses the term mon cele (my cell), reminiscent of monachal life. However, the term could also refer to a solitary prison where the main protagonist feels enclosed (Wagner, 2008). She even states that her room is a “troubled and dark” space meaning that her isolation is severe (Pizan, 1982, p. 3). A Room of One’s Own (1929) by Virginia Woolf also explores the need for women to be financially independent, to develop a career of their own: an idea appearing to root in Pizan, differentiated by her choice of the medieval model of narration. That is why she decides to construct a city instead of focusing on a single room following the model of St. Augustine’s City of God (426 AD).

Figure 3. Christine de Pizan meets the three ladies and lays the foundation of the city of ladies. Anonymous. 1414.

By adopting the Ciceronian values of friendship, women must be virtuous to be part of the City of Ladies: “all women who have loved and do love and will love virtue and morality, as well as all who have died or who are now living or who are to come, rejoice and exult in our new City” (Pizan, 1982, p. 214). Pizan reproduces the aforementioned principle by explaining how the new city only represents “virtue, so resplendent that you may see yourselves mirrored in it, especially in the roofs built in the last part as well as in the other parts which concern you.” (Pizan, 1982, p. 214). This image corresponds to Cicero’s metaphor of friends as mirror images, sharing the same desires and goals (Verini, 2016). Nevertheless, Cicero’s concept of friendship was exclusive, being only accessible to virtuous individuals. Despite embracing virtue to form a lasting bond, Pizan subverts this ideal by establishing a diverse society. Therefore, women from the city of ladies exercise virtue differently and come from distinct traditions, such as Christianism, legends or mythology.

In addition, Pizan also accommodates female attachment in the different spheres of the city: public and private. The main distinction between modern and traditional affection stands between the latter being only relevant in the public space (Bray, 2003). For Cicero (1963), relationships were intrinsically connected to the public sphere since, for him, public and private areas were binaries linked by friendship. According to Verini (2016), Pizan stresses this intersection by juxtaposing individual female concerns with the problems of a whole community; however, including more sections in between. Christine adds semi-private spaces along the public ones to create a variety of bonds between the women, “imagining continuous intermingling and reassembling of smaller factions” (Verini, 2016, p. 374). On a final note, Christine builds a society based on self-sufficiency, self-defense and virtue that also serves as a template to criticize women’s exclusion from the public sphere. Her perspective envisions a community where women can pursue agency and communicate with others far beyond their homes (Wagner, 2008). For instance, Christine, Rectitude and Reason give examples of women who exercised public roles traditionally performed by men: science, war, philosophy or politics (Wheat, 1999). Reason counterarguments those who state “that women do not have a natural sense for politics and government” and provides Pizan with examples of “several great women rulers who have lived in past times” (Pizan, 1982, p. 32).

Figure 4. Illustration for The Book of the City of Ladies. Anonymous. n.d.

In conclusion, Pizan counterarguments the Roman de la Rose’s allegations against women and “erases the harmful implications of Jean de Meun’s fortifications.” (Hult, 2003, p. 193). Christine affirms that the city shall be protected only if ethically guarded. Thus, a higher number of women will be able to join in the future. Despite assimilating Ciceronian principles of friendship, Pizan deviated from them to form a “multicultural feminotopian space” and, consequently, departed from the idea of friendship between two identically matched beings (Verini, 2016, p. 376). By doing this, Christine de Pizan invents a female canon that has been used up to this day by gender studies to contrast normative discourse.

Bibliographical References

Blumenfeld-Kosinski, R. (1996). "Femme de corps et femme par sens": Christine de Pizan's saintly women. Romanic Review, 87(2), 157-175.

Borren M. (2010). Amor mundi: Hannah Arendt's political phenomenology of world. Amsterdam: F&N Eigen Beheer.

Bray, A. (2003). The Friend. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Cicero, M.T. (1963). Cicero. De Senectute, De Amicitia, De Divinatione. London and New York: W. Heinemann; G. P. Putnam's sons.

Enders, J. (1994). The Feminist Mnemonics of Christine de Pizan. Modern Language Quarterly: A Journal of Literary History, 55 (3), 231–249.

Haralambidou, P. (2020). The Female Body Politic: Enacting the Architecture of The Book of the City of Ladies. Architecture and Culture, 8 (3-4), 385-406. 10.1080/20507828.2020.1794146

Hult, D. F. (2003). The Roman de la Rose, Christine de Pizan, and the querelle des femmes. In C. Dinshaw and D. Wallace (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women's Writing (pp. 184–194). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pizan, Christine de. (1982). The Book of the City of Ladies. New York: Persea Books.

Verini, A. (2016). Medieval Models of Female Friendship in Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies and Margery Kempe’s The Book of Margery Kempe. Feminist Studies, 42 (2), 365–391.

Wagner, J. E. (2008). Christine de Pizan's City of Ladies: A Monumental (Re)construction of, by, and for Women of All Time. Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality, 44 (1), 69-80.

Wheat, E.M. (1999). Now a New Kingdom of Femininity is Begun. Women & Politics, 20 (4), 23-47. 10.1300/J014v20n04_02

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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