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The Book of the City of Ladies is a novel written by Christine de Pizan.

Plot

In her study, taking a break from her work, Christine de Pizan picks up a slim volume someone has given her. Shocked by the author's harsh and extreme portrayal of the immoral and inconstant nature of women, Christine is saddened by this state of affairs. A flash of light startles her, and three women, allegorical figures representing Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, appear to her. They tell her she is to build the City of Ladies and populate it with the noblest and most accomplished women the world has known. The city is to serve as a safeguard against the cruel accusations of men as well as a reminder of the true and laudable nature of women.


Lady Reason takes Christine to the Field of Letters, a fertile plain where the city is to be built, and encourages her to use her pen to start excavating the earth so they can lay the foundations that will support the City of Ladies. Reason narrates the lives of various women and the testament of their strength collectively helps to build the city's firm support. Reason first tells of women who have distinguished themselves in the political and military realms, individuals who have judiciously ruled vast realms as well as defended those realms from insurgents and attacks from beyond their borders. Next, she discusses learned women, like Christine, who have developed their intellectual capacities. Collectively, these women of letters have helped shape Western history and culture. Finally, Reason relates tales that demonstrate the prudence that women possess. Having completed the foundation and the walls, Reason turns over the city's completion to her two sisters.

Rectitude is the next to address Christine and help her, with the mortar of her words, to complete and enclose the palaces, mansions, and domiciles that will house the city's residents. Rectitude begins by telling of ladies of vision and prophecy who, despite the fact that few heeded their predictions, accurately foresaw the shape of the future. Rectitude then focuses on the family unit, relaying tales of faithful daughters and pious wives whose dedication to and love of their relatives superseded all. Rectitude celebrates all the good and countless benefits women have brought to the world and argues that they should be given the same access to education that is extended to men. She then tackles the importance of chastity to women and the horror and repulsion of rape, which is often insidiously characterized as something that is actively sought by women or which affects them little. Men, she claims, are the fickle ones when compared to the steadfastness of most women, especially those in love. Rectitude concludes her narration with the assertion that it is integrity, honesty, and generosity that earn a woman distinction, and not her physical attractiveness. Having completed the city's edifices and populated it with noble ladies, Rectitude turns the project over to her sister, Justice, for completion.

Justice is left with the task of putting on the city's finishing touches. Through her tales of holy women, she completes the roofs and adds doorways and gates to the City of Ladies. Most importantly, she brings the Virgin Mary to the city to serve as its guide and queen. Justice tells of various women who have been martyred for their faith. Faced with worshiping false idols and renouncing their love of Jesus Christ, they never wavered in their love of the one god. Though their physical bodies were abused, tortured, and violated, their intangible, spiritual selves remained intact, unsullied, and as strong as ever. Most of these women would go on to be declared saints. They wished to remain virginal and pure and went to their deaths in defense of their principles. Some even witnessed the torture and deaths of their children before succumbing themselves. Justice tells of several women who lived disguised as men in monasteries so they could remain free of the undesired attentions of suitors and pursue their religious devotion unhindered.

Having completed the city, the three Virtues turn it over to Christine, who rejoices in all that they have accomplished. Christine speaks to all women and declares the City of Ladies a refuge where they can find respite and safety from the sexual aggression and cruel attacks by men. She reminds the inhabitants of this community of women to stay strong and true and to uphold the noble virtues that have made the construction of the city possible. The city serves as a testament to the power and unity of women and of their own high standards and unshakeable virtue.

Characters

  • Christine de Pizan - The protagonist. Christine is a successful writer and scholar who is visited by three women representing Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. They help her to counter the sexist claims popularly made by male writers of the day. They also debate and discuss the merits and accomplishments of notable women, thereby constructing the titular City of Ladies.
  • Reason - The narrator of most of Part One. Reason helps Christine de Pizan lay the foundation for the City of Ladies and constructs the exterior walls for the city's buildings. She discusses women who have distinguished themselves intellectually, politically, and militarily. She also provides numerous examples of the prudence that women display.
  • Rectitude - The narrator of most of Part Two. Rectitude celebrates women as prophets, wives, and daughters, defends women against the horrors of rape, and pleads the case for the constancy of her sex. She completes the various structures that make up the City of Ladies and populates it with noble and upstanding women.
  • Justice - The narrator of most of Part Three. Justice finishes the construction of the city—roofing the structures, adding the doorways and gates, and then ushering in Mary, the Queen, and other holy women. She discusses the lives of women who have martyred themselves for their faith.
  • Artemisia - The Queen of Caria. Artemisia was praised for her moral insight and wisdom and known for her strength as a leader both in the palace and on the battlefield. She conquered the Rhodians and then defeated Xerxes and the Persians to help defend Sparta. In honor of her husband, King Mausolus, she built the first mausoleum.
  • Blanche - The Queen of France and mother of Saint Louis. After the death of her husband, Blanche kept the realm unified and ruled France until her son could come of age. Known for her goodness, wisdom, and integrity, her son's enemy became enamored of her and composed many love poems in her honor.
  • Saint Christine - The daughter of Urban. Christine's patron and namesake, Saint Christine refused to worship her father's gold and silver idols, which she smashed and gave to the poor. Imprisoned, beaten, burned, covered in boiling oil, crushed on a torture wheel, thrown into the sea with a stone tied to her, beset with snakes, her tongue and breasts cut out, and shot with arrows, she was martyred to her faith and responsible for thousands of conversions by the example she set with her unshakeable love of God.
  • Dido - The Queen of Carthage. Also called Elissa, Dido fled her cruel brother, Pygmalion, and founded a great city in North Africa. Known for her cunning, physical prowess, and nobility, she welcomed the warrior Aeneas and fell deeply in love with him. When he left her secretly in the night, she committed suicide.
  • Fredegund - The Queen of France. Cruel and severe, Fredegund ruled France until her son was old enough to assume the throne. A brilliant military strategist, she brought her infant son into battle to urge the men to secure victory for their future king at all costs. She had her men camouflage their horses with branches. Then she instructed them to tie bells to their mounts, which the enemy mistook for grazing animals, allowing Fredegund's forces to penetrate the enemy camp.
  • Lucretia - A Roman noblewoman. Lucretia was propositioned by Tarquin the Proud, son of the king. When he threatened to ruin her reputation with false accusations, she submitted to his demands, later confessing the violation to her husband, father, and family before taking out a dagger and plunging it into her breast.
  • Medea - The daughter of the king of Colchis. Beautiful and noble, Medea had extensive knowledge of herbs and botanicals and, through her enchantments, could control the elements and provoke spontaneous combustion. She fell in love with Jason and through her spells helped him secure the Golden Fleece. Soon after, he left her for another woman.
  • Nicostrata - A scholar also known as Carmentis. Nicostrata named the Palentine hill and in a vision predicted it would be the future site of the Roman Empire. She laid the city's first stone, instituted a system of laws for the surrounding region, and invented the Latin alphabet and language.
  • Sappho - A Greek poet and scholar. Beautiful, intelligent, and articulate, Sappho won the praise of Greece's leading literary lights for her talents as a writer. She invented new poetic forms and was honored as one of the leading figures of her times with a bronze statue erected in the city in which she lived.
  • Thisbe - The daughter of a nobleman. When Thisbe fell in love with Pyramus, her mother grew alarmed and locked her in her bedroom, the wall of which adjoined Pyramus's chambers. Finding a crack in the wall, Thisbe made a hole and was able to arrange to meet her lover. When Pyramus arrived, he found her handkerchief soiled with a lion's vomit. Thinking she had been mauled and eaten, he took his life. Thisbe emerged from her hiding spot, found her lover dead, and then committed suicide as well.

Symbolism

Justice's Vessel of Gold

The container of gold was given to Justice from God. It represents the eternal reward and salvation that await the faithful. It also stands for a justice that is higher and superior to the justice of man practiced and measured out on Earth. From this vessel, Justice gives out each person's “rightful portion,” the payment received as a reflection of how morally and forthrightly an individual lived his or her life. It is inscribed with the fleur-de-lis, or lily, which signifies the Trinity. In this way, the three Virtues appearing to Christine are symbolically linked to the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost that constitute the cornerstone of Christian faith.

Reason's Mirror

Encrusted with jewels, Reason's mirror is a source of wisdom, clarity, and, above all, self-knowledge. Reason brings the mirror to Christine to give her the direction and certainty she needs to pursue the truth about the virtues of women. The Virtues stress to Christine that she must do a good job of constructing the city and that the task must be performed flawlessly. The mirror aids this pursuit in unveiling to Christine the essence and inherent qualities of the subjects she will be tackling in her text.

Rectitude's Ruler

Rectitude carries her “shining ruler” in her right hand, and this ruler carries several meanings. In order to build the City of Ladies, Christine must measure her words carefully and proportion them to the task at hand. The ruler is offered to her as she constructs the facades of the palaces, houses, and public buildings and lays out the city's squares and streets. Rectitude wields her ruler as a staff of judgment. It separates right from wrong and indicates the dividing line between good and evil. The ruler is a guide that, when heeded, indicates the proper path or decision. Rectitude also declares that it is a rod of peace that supports the just and punishes the unjust.

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