Study Guide

The Book of the City of Ladies Analysis

By Christine de Pizan

  • Tone

    Polite and Sophisticated

    The (sad) fact is that there weren't any women writing philosophical books about the goodness of women during Christine de Pizan's time. So she had to make sure that her readers took her seriously.

    That's one of the reasons why she writes with a lot of style and flourish, because she'll have to impress if she plans on getting any reader (male or female) to listen to her for long.

    When she first criticizes Mathéolus' negative views on women, de Pizan writes,

    Because the subject seemed to me not very pleasant for people who do not enjoy lies, and of no use in developing virtue or manners, given its lack of integrity in diction and theme, and after browsing here and there and reading the end, I put it down in order to turn my attention to more elevated and useful study. (1.1.1)

    As you can see, de Pizan's choice to turn to "more elevated and useful study" shows her desire to take the high ground and to argue for women's goodness on the basis of reason and justice, not because she has an axe to grind like this Mathéolus does. All in all, the tone is effective. We're still talking about de Pizan today, and no one cares a lick what Mathéolus wrote.

  • Genre

    Philosophical Literature

    Yes, there's a bit of a plot to this book. But it's pretty clear from the get-go that de Pizan wrote this thing to spread her ideas about womankind and to criticize all the horrible things men had written about women over the years. Sure, there are three different ladies who show up and tell Christine all kinds of useful things. But there's not really a conversation going on here.

    Christine is speaking through each of the ladies, then turning back to her own character to say, "Oh gee, well I see now that you're totally right." It's not like Christine's character is debating any of the stuff the women say, though it's true that she asks some follow-up questions.

    What she's doing is speaking directly to the reader, both as herself and through the filter of the Ladies Justice, Reason, and Rectitude. And she's lecturing us on her philosophical stance on women's value.

    And just to drive it home, you know you're definitely looking at a book that falls within the philosophical literature genre when philosophical ideas are overwhelmingly more important than the plot or characters.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The Book of the City of Ladies is just about as straightforward as titles get. On the surface, it is indeed a book about a woman who builds a city that's just for ladies. It's important to note here that Christine de Pizan uses an old French world that translates as "ladies" instead of "women."

    She does this because she thinks that only proper "ladies" should be allowed in her city, and not just any old women. The word "lady" means that a person has good breeding and good manners, and Christine de Pizan has little interest in inviting bad women into her city. Make no mistake; the city of ladies isn't for everyone.

    This may seem pretty messed in today's world, but cut de Pizan some slack. She was a feminist way before her time—it would be almost too much for her to be class-conscious way before her time as well.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    "And may I, your servant, commend myself to you, praying to God who by His grace has granted me to live in this world and to persevere in His holy service. May He in the end have mercy on my great sins and grant to me the joy which lasts forever, which I may, by His grace, afford to you. Amen." (3.19.6)

    At the end of the book, Christine reminds her readers that she is ultimately a servant of God, just like any other good Christian. She's well aware that as the first woman to ever write a book defending women, she might get accused of having a big ego. She wants to assure her readers, though, that she has only written this book to serve God.

    She also hopes that she'll go to heaven when she dies, because in heaven, all people are truly equal and the spirits of women are just as good as the spirits of men. This book has shown us her effort to convince people on Earth of this equality.

  • Setting

    15th Century France/ Christine de Pizan's Mind

    This book starts out as a typical autobiographical story. Christine de Pizan talks as though she's going to tell us about something that happened to her just the other day. As the story begins, we find ourselves in her library. She writes,

    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. (1.1.1)

    Ok, cool. So far, so realistic.

    But then these three magical Ladies show up, the whole story seems to transport us into some kind of metaphorical, mental world that is half-real, half-dreamscape.

    By the end of the book, we've seen Christine de Pizan build the City of Ladies. It sure sounds like a physical place, as de Pizan says,

    I have built it up with beautiful palaces and many fair inns and mansions. I have populated it for your sake with noble ladies and with such great numbers of women from all classes that it is already completely filled. (2.68.11)

    But at the same time, we have to ask how real this city actually is. How could Christine build an entire city by herself with the help of only a few magical ladies? Does de Pizan want us to think of this setting literally, or is the City of Ladies a metaphor for her book as a whole?

    Hey, you could argue for hours about just how real or imaginary the setting of this book is. It's a book, so ultimately the setting is fantasy even if we're supposed to suspend our disbelief when it comes to a woman building a city by hand.

    There are positives for believing in the physical reality of this city, just as there are bonuses for believing in the reality of Hogwarts. The City of Ladies sounds like a pretty sweet town, after all. But there are also definite bonuses for understand the City itself to be contained within the book: this would mean that de Pizan is engaging in some well-before-her-time metafiction.

    So we'll go ahead and say that it could go either way, depending on which evidence you highlight in the text and depending on what makes The Book of The City of Ladies a cooler read for you personally.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (7) Snow Line

    The modern translation of this book is no problem in terms of accessibility. The real challenge with Pizan's writing is that she writes in a way that tends to bore modern brains kind of quickly.

    First she'll make an argument, and then she'll give example after example showing that the argument is correct. These examples start to get really list-y after a while, and your mind will probably start to drift. But try to stick with the individual stories she tells, because all of them are from classical history and literature.

    We suggest you approach The Book of the City of Ladies the way you might tackle a box of chocolates. Sure, you could just devour the whole dang thing at once, but you might feel lethargic afterwards (and during, ugh).

    Instead, do the equivalent of eating one chocolate, savoring it, checking the key for what kind of truffle you just ate (orange cream, mmmm), and moving on. Slow and steady wins the race. Read a few historical tidbits about awesome women in The Book of the City of Ladies, Google any heroines that might inspire you, and move on to the next delicious biographical morsel.

  • Writing Style

    Argumentative and Anecdotal

    You only need to read a few chapters of this book to realize that Christine de Pizan uses the same writing formula over and over to make her points. She'll ask one of her three magical lady characters about a feminine stereotype, then have the ladies prove the stereotype wrong by giving lots of examples of women who don't fit this stereotype. Along the way, some of her stories can get really violent, as we read at one point:

    After this story, Rectitude told me many others which I will omit for the sake of brevity, such as, for instance, the one about Leaena, a Greek woman who, in spite of all the torture used on her, refused to accuse the two men with whom she was associated, but instead bit her own tongue off with her teeth in front of the judge so that he would have no chance of making her talk using torture. (2.53.1)

    It's funny that de Pizan says she'll leave certain stories out for the sake of "brevity" (or to save time), since this book contains more than enough stories to convince anyone of women's goodness. But then again, maybe we should be thankful that the book isn't twice as long, which it definitely could have been, according to de Pizan.

  • The City of Ladies

    The main symbol in this book is (drumroll please…) the City of Ladies. Well that's probably a little anticlimactic, but there are still lots of interesting things to be said about the city itself. At the opening of this book, we don't know anything about this city other than that Christine de Pizan is supposed to build it.

    As Lady Reason tells her,

    "Thus, fair daughter, the prerogative among women has been bestowed on you to establish and build the City of Ladies." (1.4.1)

    Christine is kinda-sorta comparing herself to Noah from the Book of Genesis. Just like Noah was supposed to build an ark, Christine is supposed to build a city. This city is to be a sanctuary from the flood of misogynistic philosophy out there.

    But what kind of ladies are going to live in this new city? Well according to the three magical ladies who visit Christine, the city's inhabitants "shall all be women of integrity, of great beauty and authority, for there could be no fairer populace nor any greater adornment in the City than women of good character" (2.12.2).

    In other words, Christine wants to populate her city with (pretty) women who are so good that men won't be able to criticize them. But where is this City of Ladies located, you ask? Trick question, Shmoopers!

    This book itself is a City of Ladies, since within its pages Christine de Pizan tries to include as many women as possible that are good examples of virtue, intelligence, and strength. Christine de Pizan was meta before meta was in vogue.

    And what is this City of Ladies symbolic of, then? Well, seeing as how the City of Ladies is contained within The Book of the City of Ladies, it's a pretty safe bet to say that the City of Ladies is symbolic of education and curiosity.

    At the beginning of this book de Pizan is bummed out because of what some terrible dirtbag wrote about women. So what she does is, in essence, educate herself about the history of great women in order to prove women-hating philosophers everywhere wrong. The truth contained in history and literature sets de Pizan free of self-loathing.

    So let's hear it for quashing misogyny through education, eh?

  • Mirror

    When Lady Reason first visits Christine de Pizan, Christine is judging herself completely based on all the horrible things that men have said about women throughout history. But Lady Reason holds up a special mirror that shows things as they actually are, not just as people think they are. Good ol' Lady Reason.

    As she says to Christine,

    "My mirror has such great dignity that not without reason is it surrounded by rich and precious gems, so that you see, thanks to this mirror, the essences, qualities, proportions, and measures of all things are known, nor can anything be done well without it." (1.3.2)

    When Christine sees herself in this mirror, she learns to see herself for what she truly is—a good person—instead of just seeing all of the bad things that men have said about her and women in general. In a sense, Christine wants this book to be like a mirror for her female readers, showing them the truth about just how good women can be.

    This mirror also compounds our theory that Lady Reason is actually Albus Dumbledore. Pardon us while we geek out a sec—doesn't Lady Reason's mirror bear a passing resemblance to the Mirror of Erised? We bet you five bucks that J.K. Rowling read a little Christine de Pizan at some point in her illustrious career.

  • Amazons

    In Greek and Roman history, the Amazons were an all-female warrior culture that was feared and admired by all the kingdoms surrounding it. It's not surprising then that Christine de Pizan uses this civilization as a model for the City of Ladies she plans on building.

    As she mentions (with a sense of wonder) at the beginning of her book,

    [They] courageously assembled and took counsel among themselves and decided finally that thenceforth they would maintain their dominion by themselves without being subject to men. (1.16.1)

    Now Christine isn't going to go so far as saying that women should be independent of men. But she definitely envies the way the Amazons were able to live the life they wanted.

    The Amazon women were so committed to becoming warriors that they actually altered their bodies in order to achieve their goals. As Christine de Pizan tells us,

    [When] they were little girls, [they] 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)

    The Amazon women weren't going to stand around and let men tell them that nature put men in charge. Instead, the Amazons punched nature in the face and did what they had to in order to create the world they wanted.

  • Chastity

    Of all the things Christine de Pizan values in women, chastity is one of the most important. Many of the insults that men made against women during Christine's time were based on the idea that women were very lusty and always after sex.

    This is a totally flipped stereotype from the one that floats around today, where men are perpetually lusty and women mostly put up with sex for the rewards of companionship. Back in the day, men had willpowers of steel and women were horny.

    According to Christian morality, lust was a very dirty thing, so Pizan makes arguments for women's virtuous chastity when she writes,

    How many valiant and chaste ladies does Holy Scripture mention who chose death rather than transgress against the chastity and purity of their bodies and thoughts? (2.37.1)

    If women weren't chaste, reasons de Pizan, then why would the Holy Bible contain so many great stories about women who'd rather die than lose their virginity? Christine de Pizan: 1. Male philosophers: nil.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First-Person (Central Narrator)

    Christine de Pizan doesn't give us just any first-person narrator. She makes herself the narrator of her own book, giving the whole story an autobiographical spin.

    She starts out like this, for Pete's sake:

    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. (1.1.1)

    This intimacy allows her a pretty cool platform. By putting herself smack-dab in the middle of the book, she provides the intimacy to allow herself talk directly to her readers, saying stuff like,

    Most excellent, revered, and honored princesses of France and of all lands, and all ladies and maidens, and, indeed, 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 […] (2.69.1)

    As you can see form this quote, Christine is usually speaking to female readers and characters, hoping that they'll draw strength and inspiration from her book. And she sets a good example for this strength by putting herself right in the center of her own story.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    The Call

    After reading a book about how horrible women are, Christine de Pizan sinks into despair over the fact that she was born a woman. She figures that there's no way all of the great male philosophers have been wrong in saying that women are weaker and more immoral than men.

    But just when all hope seems lost, three magical ladies appear in Christine's bedroom and literally call on her to build a great City of Ladies. They insist that there are tons of great women in history and literature, and they want Christine to build a city where they might all live happily together.

    The Journey

    It's time to get to work, so Christine goes to a field near her town and starts digging holes for the foundations of the City of Ladies. The book never really mentions how impossible it'd be for a single person to dig enough foundations for an entire city with nothing but a shovel. But oh well, maybe Christine has some sort of magic shovel. In any case, Christine likes to pass the time she spends digging by talking to the three ladies. Their conversation focuses on all the horrible lies men have said about women over the years.

    Arrival and Frustration

    Once Christine has finished constructing the City of Ladies, she needs to find great women to live in it. At the same time, the stories told to her by the three ladies (especially Lady Justice) take on a really violent tone, with many of them focusing on torture and rape. Righteous indignation flaring, Christine de Pizan starts to think twice about the whole "men are saints and women are sinners" philosophical stance she was so bummed out about at the book's beginning.

    The Final Ordeals

    With one last big effort, Christine and the three magical ladies sweep through the great stories of history and summon up all of the great heroines who have existed within them. Again: don't question how this happens. It just does.

    Christine populates her City of Ladies not only with great women from her own time, but women from history and literature. It's around this point that we realize the true City of Ladies is contained in Christine's book, which is like an encyclopedia of women. Whenever we want to meet great women or read about their adventures, all we need to do is look in Christine's book.

    So in a sense, the City of Ladies isn't really a physical place, but somewhere in our minds that we can visit by reading Christine's book. That's pretty freaking meta for 1405.

    The Goal

    With her project finished, Christine feels confident that whenever someone tries to criticize women in the future, that person will be forced to read Christine's book and to confront all of the examples of great women that it offers.

    At the very least, women now have some voice in the debate about whether women are just as good as men. And trust us, this was a completely one-sided conversation before Christine de Pizan wrote The Book of the City of Ladies.

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition (Initial Situation)

    Curse You, Mathéolus!

    In the opening lines of this book, Christine de Pizan describes how she was sitting down at her desk one day when she picked up a new book by a guy named Mathéolus. Looking for some light reading, she opens the book and is annoyed to find that it is mostly a rant against women in general. She puts the book away immediately, but no matter how much she tries to ignore it, she can't help but wonder why all the great men of history have tended to say harsh things about women. After thinking for a long time, she decides that all of these men can't be wrong and that she is truly cursed to be a woman.

    Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

    If You Build It, They Will Come

    While Christine is mourning the fact that she's a woman, three magical women appear in her bedroom and tell her not to be sad. These women introduce themselves as Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice. They inform Christine that God wants her to build a great city that'll house all of the best women from history and literature. So Christine starts digging some foundations in a nearby field. While building, she speaks to the three magical ladies one by one, asking them questions about the stereotypes that men have created about women. The ladies each give convincing arguments and lots of examples to show why these stereotypes are always wrong. In fact, they insist that women are capable of being just as rational, intelligent, and moral as men, if not more.

    Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

    We Built This City On Gender Equality (And Rock n' Roll

    Christine finally finishes building the City of Ladies and finds a whole bunch of great women to live inside it. With this complete, she also feels that talking to the three magical ladies (Reason, Rectitude, and Justice) has shown her once and for all that women are just as good in the eyes of God as men are.

    Falling Action

    Good Night, Sweet Ladies

    With their job nicely done, the three magical ladies disappear and leave Christine to live with the rest of the women inside the newly built City of Ladies. Now that her work is done, Christine turns to the women of the book (and probably her female readers, too) and tells them to stay humble and patient. Now that she has established that women are just as good as men, she doesn't want to get blamed for making women more haughty or egotistical.

    Resolution (Denouement)


    With everything wrapped up, Christine de Pizan adds one final thought to her book, instructing her female readers to obey their husbands in everything they do. This advice seems contrary to many of the things Christine has said throughout the book. But at the end of the day, she's probably scared of creating controversy in her society. So in the end, she settles for saying that women are just as morally good as men, but still obligated to obey men's power and to stay quiet and humble as wives. It's a bit of a copout, but it wasn't easy to say anything too radical back in 1405.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    Christine de Pizan sits down one day and reads a wretched book about how horrible women are. She is so saddened by the book (huh, wonder why?) that she bemoans the fact that she was born a woman.

    Just when things look totally bleak, though, she's visited by three magical ladies whose names are Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. No, The Book of the City of Ladies is not long on subtlety.

    These ladies inform her that in the eyes of God, women are just as good as men. And to give women a place where they can thrive, the ladies instruct Christine to build a City of Ladies. Christine gets to work right away, and while building the city, she chats with each of the three ladies.

    Act II

    Christine's conversations with the three ladies all go the same way. Christine will mention a common stereotype that men use to insult women, then one of the three ladies will show her why this argument is so wrong.

    The ladies are especially fond of using so many examples of great women to show how wrong men are for insulting women so much. Eventually, we get the sense that we're reading The Encyclopedia of Great Women from History and Literature. Which makes sense when you think about it, since Christine de Pizan wants her City of Ladies to be populated by only the best and brightest women.

    Act III

    Once Christine has finished building the City of Ladies, Lady Justice helps her fill it with all of the best women from history and literature. Things are looking really excellently feminist.

    In the end, Christine makes a complete 180 and encourages all women to be humble, moral, and—most of all—obedient to their husbands. This sudden emphasis on obedience is strange, but Christine no doubt uses it strategically so many of her male readers will be more inclined to agree with her earlier arguments about women's goodness.

    Also, this was 1405 and women's rights were very much not a thing. de Pizan was probably trying to stay out of trouble, so she topped this progressive literary sundae with an antiquated The Taming of The Shrew-type maraschino cherry ending.

  • Allusions

    This book is made entirely of references, and there are about a bajillion that we could list here. The project of The Book of the City of Ladies is, after all, to get the reader fired up to learn more about these butt-kicking notables from literature and history. We dare you to collect 'em all. We'll start you out with a few, as a sort of an appetizer.

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • Cicero (1.9.3)
    • Aristotle (1.14.1)
    • Vergil (1.29.1)
    • Seneca (2.22.1)

    Historical References

    • Julius Cesar (2.19.2)
    • Pompey (2.19.2)
    • Nero (3.18.7)