Study Guide

The Book of the City of Ladies

By Christine de Pizan

The Book of the City of Ladies Introduction

Ok, guys, here goes:

Woman in 1405 has crazy philosophical fever dream, meets three mythological women, builds an entire city from scratch with her bare hands, populates said city with female ghosts (plus the Virgin Mary for good measure), proves that women are as good as men, does a victory dance.

For real, this is what The Book of the City of Ladies is about. It's just that trippy.

Okay, okay. Not completely. It is just that trippy, but it's equal parts hallucinatory mayhem and philosophical treatise. It's what would happen if you made a collage out of a) a weird 1970s blacklight paisley poster and b) a cut-up copy of A Vindication For The Rights of Women. It's like a mashup of A Christmas Carol and a bizarre-o Terry Gilliam movie.

It's also one of the world's most important works of feminist literature.

Christine de Pizan wrote The Book of the City of Ladies for one reason: to show the folks of the 1400s that women weren't nearly as bad as men at the time said they were. And trust us, men were saying some ferociously nasty stuff about women back then. When she finished City of Ladies in 1405, Christine de Pizan was particularly annoyed at a writer named Mathéolus who had written that women were among the worst things God ever created.

Yup, that's pretty harsh. So Christine de Pizan decided to write a book to show that women were every bit as rational and virtuous as men.

In The Book of the City of Ladies, three magical women appear to Christine de Pizan (she's in the book as herself, in a sort of Louis C.K. in Louie way) and instruct her to build a great city that will be populated entirely by the best women from history. It's only while building the city that Christine makes conversation with the three magical women and learns about all of the amazing things women have done throughout history.

Ultimately, The Book of the City of Ladies acts as sort of a global encyclopedia of great women. Christine de Pizan no doubt thought that in making a case for women, it would be good to write a book that references all the great women of history and literature. No one before Christine de Pizan had paid enough attention to women to do this sort of thing. And even now—600 years later—we're still talking Christine de Pizan and all the butt-kicking women contained in The Book of the City of Ladies.

What is The Book of the City of Ladies About and Why Should I Care?

It's no secret: feminism still has a looong ways to go. Women still get paid less than men for doing the same job. Misogyny still runs rampant. Women still fear walking down the street at night. And we're just listing problems that occur in countries where women's rights are pretty strong.

But dang, have women's rights improved since 1405. When Christine de Pizan penned The Book of The City of Ladies, she was doing so in part because a dirtbag philosopher said that women were among the worst things that God had ever created. Yeah. Ouch. And this evil statement was made during a time when the bubonic plague was decimating Europe.

So Christine de Pizan was up against a world where women and the pestilence that killed 30-60% of Europe's population were both considered to be, eh, approximately the same amount of evil.

You can see why she got a little peeved.

The Book of the City of Ladies has one project: to show the world that men and women are as good as one another. We're not even talking equality in terms of ability, intelligence, emotional IQ, or memory recall. The arguments for that kind of equality came later. Christine de Pizan had to fight to write that women weren't inherently terrible.

So you should care about The Book of the City of Ladies if you agree that women's rights still has a long way to go. You should care if you just want to know how far women's rights have come since 1405. You should care if you are interested in medieval history, or ancient history. You should care if you are interested in philosophy.

You should also care if you like reading about ghosts, legends, magical beings, building an entire city from scratch with your bare hands, severed heads, severed breasts, pining lovers, warrior civilizations, or bloody battles.

The Book of the City of Ladies isn't just a dry philosophical treatise. It's kind of an anthology of women from ancient history doing crazy, awesomesauce, and often gory things. We hope you come to the The Book of the City of Ladies table with a respect for the history of feminism, but it's a-ok if you just come with a passion for insane exploits of jealousy, duty, mayhem, vengeance and bloodlust.

Because we swear on a stack of medieval literature that you'll come away from The Book of The City of Ladies not only entertained, but with a newfound awe for historical women and full of righteous anger over the mistreatment of women both historical and present-day.

The Book of the City of Ladies Resources

WEBSITES

Christine de Pizan at lordsandladies.org…which is a hilarious name for a site.
Here's where you'll find all the best vital stats on Christine de Pizan.

De Pizan at Mount St. Mary's
Ok, the site is a little dated (look at those roses!) but this info on de Pizan is awesomesauce.

Christine de Pizan goes to King's College
Here you'll find one or two historical nuggets of info that just might make more sense of de Pizan's work.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Christine de Pizan in her Study
Check out this awesome article on how you might picture Christine in her study at the beginning of The Book of the City of Ladies.

Christine de Pizan: An Illuminated Voice
This article gives us all kinds of insight into the tension that de Pizan felt between challenging her society's views and trying to keep her status in it.

Christine de Pizan at King's College
This article is more general than the others, but it gives some great notes on how de Pizan supported her family through her writing after her husband passed away.

VIDEO

Plot Summary for The City of Ladies
If you're tired of reading, this video will give you a nice ten-minute plot summary to help you remember the gist of The Book of the City of Ladies. There audio sounds at times like you're listening in an echo chamber, but the content is A+.

Fearless Females Lecture
This university professor gives a great hour-long lecture on the impact that Christine de Pizan had on the culture of her time.

AUDIO

Whisper Project Reading of De Pizan
This person knows that medieval literature puts most people to sleep. So she decided to roll with it and read City of Ladies as quietly as possible to put you to sleep even more quickly than usual. We're not being sarcastic here, guys: this is seriously the project on this recording. Sweet, (feminist) dreams!

IMAGES

De Pizan Engraving
Sorry, but there weren't exactly a bunch of photos of Christine kicking around in 1405.

De Pizan Portrait
This painting might give a slightly better idea of what Christine de Pizan looked like: steely-eyed.

De Pizan in Her Study
This drawing gives us a good look at what Christine is doing in the opening lines of City of Ladies.