The Birth of Modern Feminism: 15th Century Europe

In Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies, written circa 1405, the author places herself in the lead role of an allegorical tale of a philosophical journey in pursuit of truth.

She confers with three daughters of God in dialogues that describe a very different sort femininity than was recognized in her time. In these dialogues, Pizan seeks a reversal of negative attitudes towards women, replacing defamatory ideas with positive examples, all the while supporting peace and gentleness among humankind.

By pointing out the internal virtues of women, Pizan seeks to re-humanize the female, creating distance from the predominantly objectifying attitudes of their physical attributes that were adopted by many men in her time.

To accomplish this goal of re-humanizing the feminine ideal, Pizan uses a three-pronged approach: citing examples of virtuous female heroes, illuminating Biblical principles which support her cause, and contesting authors and other intellectuals who defame women through their ideology. This is a rather clever approach to changing the minds of her contemporaries, as the Christian religion, in conjunction with the Bible, folklore and other literature were foremost in influencing the minds of the 1400’s.

1. Citing the Example of Famous Females

By citing examples of women who embody diverse virtues, Pizan builds a case for womanhood. Borrowing famous names from historical, biblical, literary and mythical tales, Pizan demonstrates how women are capable of understanding and demonstrating virtue and talent as well as any man. She lists by example how females, like males, can fulfill roles in society that require esteemed virtues such as intelligence, prudence, charity and strength.

In one historical example of virtuous and judicious womanhood, Lady Justice describes the life of Saint Catherine, who was said to have been famously pious, beautiful, and brave. In the example Pizan provides, St. Catherine is objecting to the slaughter of animals in sacrificial rites. Being well versed in both theology and the sciences, Catherine used philosophical arguments to prove that there was only one God, the Creator of all things, and that He alone should be worshipped. Her philosophical arguments against Emperor Maxentuis and his advisors were so convincing that they could not find sufficient rebuttal and were all converted “by the virgin’s holy words” to Christianity. Similarly, Pizan also uses the voice of Lady Justice to describe several women who were so intent on pursuing a life of piety and devotion to God that they disguised themselves as men and lives as monks in monasteries undetected.

The Great Empress Nicaula, is cited by Pizan as being a magnificent ruler, presiding over a “huge territory which included the kingdoms of Arabia, Ethiopia, Egypt and the island of Meroe.” Nicuala is said to have been everything one could wish in a ruler: wise, just, wealthy, powerful, learned and independent. This example from history demonstrates how a woman can excel at the typically “male arts” of politics and military strategy. Likewise, through the character of Lady Reason, Pizan discusses the mythological society of the Amazons, made up entirely of female warriors. In Pizan’s tale of a battle between the Amazons and their Greek foes, these mighty female warriors are painted as being chaste, brilliant, beautiful, courageous and strong:

“Boiling with the most terrible rage and fury, they lowered their lances and aimed straight for the leaders of the Greek army: Menalippe against Hercules and Hippolyta against Theseus. Despite the great strength, bravery and courage of their enemies, the women’s anger soon bore fruit as each of them struck against her adversary with such power that the two knights were brought down, horses and all, in a big heap.

The two knights treated their captives with the greatest of honour and, once the ladies had disarmed and revealed themselves in all their true splendour and beauty, they were even more delighted. As they feasted their eyes on the two ladies, it seemed to them that they had never won a prize which gave them greater pleasure.”

It is interesting to note that it was this powerful Amazon society upon which Pizan’s own idea for The City of Ladies is based.

2. Extolling Religious Principles

It could be argued that the Biblical references in Pizan’s allegorical treatise on femininity are the hardest for her opponents to refute. By quoting scripturally-based Christian theology, Pizan gives deeper credibility to her own arguments for the equality of women in their virtuous characters and credibility as a sex. She begins the book with an entreaty to God, saying: “Behold your handmaiden, ready to do your bidding. I will obey your every command, so be it unto me according to your word.” This leaves the reader with the sense that she has been given a divine commission in writing the words to follow in The Book of the City of Ladies.

A strong argument for the value of women to men is given by Pizan in the form of an intellectual appeal to reason as it applies to Biblical principles. She argues that it is only natural that man should love and protect a woman: “There is no stronger or closer bond in the world than that which Nature, in accordance with God’s wishes, creates between man and woman.” She then refers to the creation story, saying:

“He put Adam to sleep and created the body of woman from one of his ribs. This was a sign that she was meant to be his companion standing at his side, whom he would love as if they were one flesh, and not his servant lying at his feet. If the Divine Craftsman Himself wasn’t ashamed to create the female form, why should Nature be?”

This last defense is in response to the belief of the time that female children were accidental and deformed: a sort of mutation of the “ideal” male form. Pizan even goes so far as to chastise those who would say that a woman is not worthy of love:
Against nature, in that even the birds and the beasts naturally love their mate, the female of the species. So man acts in a most unnatural way when he, a rational being, fails to love woman. In this way, Pizan debunks various popular beliefs with Christian scriptures, reclaiming the rights of women through the strength of the love of their Creator.

In a remarkable twist of logic, Pizan cleverly alludes to Jesus Christ, who always had good things to say about women. When the veracity and worth of a woman’s ideas and speech come into question, she borrows this principle, citing the example of how Jesus desired his “resurrection to be announced first by a woman, as he told the blessed Magdalene to do when he appeared to her first on Easter day and sent her to inform Peter and the other apostles.”
Significantly, the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven, is also the Queen and holy guide to the Pizan’s allegorical City of Ladies. This demonstrates her reverence for this holy virgin and Pizan’s earnest desire to be like her in all her virtues.

3. Contesting Medieval Societal Beliefs and Literature

The Book of the City of Ladies is replete with examples of male authors who misspoke at such length in print that they became easy targets for Pizan to refute and shame for their absolute lack of humanity. True to Pizan’s character, this more direct attack on misogyny is conducted with grace and humility.

Pizan begins lightly, referring to Jean de Meun’s continuation of a famous love poem by Guillaume de Lorris, “The Romance of the Rose,” at once praising one poet and condemning the other, saying: “There are those who dabble in literature and delight in mimicking even the very finest works written by authors who are greatly superior to them.” The continuation written by de Meun attacks women as being immoral and devious, and is abruptly dismissed by Pizan as being utterly foolish.
A literary respect coupled with a blatant distaste, personally, for the poet Ovid is voiced next, with a warning for those who subscribe to his way of life:

“Ovid was a man very well versed in the theory and practice of writing poetry and his fine mind allowed him to excel in everything he wrote. However, his body was given over to all kinds of worldliness and vices of the flesh: he had affairs with many women, since he had no sense of moderation and showed no loyalty to any particular one.”

This statement suggests a judicial moderation on the part of Pizan, in that she is capable of recognizing positive and negative attributes in the same person, and lends substantial credibility to her intellect and opinions.

Pizan’s stance on the equality of the sexes is summarized well in her dialogue with Lady Reason, in which she asks “Wasn’t it Cicero who said that man should not be subject to woman and that he who did so abased himself because it is wrong to be subject to one who is your inferior?” Lady Reason’s reply is succinct, stating that superiority is based, not in “sexual differerence” but in virtue. Here, Pizan refers again to the Virgin Mary as the penultimate example of femininity, as she is obviously virtuous beyond measure and “exalted even above the angels.”

It is interesting that Pizan concludes her book on feminism by admonishing females to obey their husbands. Perhaps this was done in an attempt to placate her detractors sufficiently to promote its acceptance on a larger scale. More likely, this warning is a result of Pizan’s desire to promote the value of the female mind by presenting the idea of feminine strength and virtue in a more palatable light. She likely recognized the importance of being conservatively defiant while asserting the rights of women on such a large scale. It would have been hypocritical, in any case, to display any of the violence and hostility toward men that she so clearly is trying to eliminate for women. This encouragement on Pizan’s part to find value in a woman based in her integrity and moral fiber rather than her physical appearance undoubtedly paved the way for a much more humane world for females to live in.

De Pizan, Christine, tr. Brown-Grant, Rosalind. The Book of the City of Ladies. New York:Penguin Books, 1999. Kindle E-Book.

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