Saturday, September 29, 2018

City of Ladies - Christine de Pizan

In both the Iliad and the Odyssey Homer writes complex narratives about the effects of war and the collateral damage it has on both sexes. Gender seems more of an aside then a focal point for characters, women can be protectresses or monsters, they can be cunning and devious or loyal and faithful. Their gender doesn’t lock them in. Meanwhile, his contemporary poet Hesiod has a singular role for women to play, namely the origination of evil.

“Iapetos’ boy, if you’re the smartest of them all!
I bet you’re glad you stole fire and outfoxed me. 
But things will go hard for you and for humans after this. 
I’m going to give them Evil in exchange for fire, 
Their very own Evil to love and embrace.” 

That’s what he said, the Father of gods and men, 
And he laughed out loud.  Then he called Hephaistos
And told him to hurry and knead some earth and water 
And put a human voice in it, and some strength, 
And to make the face like an immortal goddess’ face
And the figure like a beautiful, desirable virgin’s. 

Then he told Athene to teach her embroidery & weaving,
And Aphrodite golden to spill grace on her head
And painful desire and knee-weakening anguish. 
And he ordered the quicksilver messenger, Hermes, 
To give her a bitchy mind and a cheating heart. 
[Works and Days trans. Stanley Lombardo, 72-87]

It’s hard to think of this as tongue-in-cheek. But…then as Works and Days progresses it becomes apparent that women are necessary, and not just a necessary evil. In his advice on marrying Hesiod suggests that “A man couldn’t steal anything better than a good wife…” 1 And so there emerges between the lines of misogyny a portrait of a hard working woman who by her character can foil the curse of Zeus. 

But this is didactic farming poetry. The discussion becomes a bit more serious in the hands of philosophers, in particular Aristotle. If there’s been a single human being who has been the background radiation for misogynistic texts it is Aristotle. He deviated from his predecessor, Plato who argued that the soul is sexless and both genders are capable of high level reasoning. Instead, Aristotle believed not only that women were inferior to men, but that they were a deformity of the pure masculine body. His premise is founded on an amazing mashup of 3rd century BC biology which pretty much says since women are “cold” and contribute little to procreation except incubation they are biologically destined to be ruled by their superiors: men. 

“Whilst man was thought to to be dominated by heat and dryness, woman was supposed to be ruled by coldness and moisture…this lack of heat meant that her body and mind were unstable. For example, it was feared, that she was in danger of going mad if her animal-like womb, which wandered at will due to the coldness of her body, ever strayed up into her head.” 2

By the time Augustine was writing City of God, (410 AD) this view of the inferiority of the female body had become so entrenched in the public discourse that Augustine had to a argue that at the resurrection women would retain their bodies and NOT be transformed into men, because their bodies were God given and as such not anathema. 

By 1405, when Christine de Paz begins to write, Aristotle and a misinterpretation of Judeo-Christian theology have cemented women to the bottom of the barrel; morally and otherwise.  So she picks up her pen and becomes the first woman to challenge this tradition head on, using a title that will call to mind Augustine’s treaty on the heavenly city, a city comprised of both earthly and heavenly citizens that have as their foundation a call to virtue and the pursuit of the glory of God. Christine will argue that in every city women have been integral to the moral and spiritual pursuits of the urban community. Without women there is no city.

City of Ladies falls into the the biographical catalogue genre. It is essentially a catalogue of narratives that will anecdotally challenge each slur thrown at women. The book begins with Christine reading some contemporary literature in her study:

“One day, I was sitting in my study surrounded by many books of different kinds, for it has long been my habit to engage in the pursuit of knowledge. My mind had grown weary as I had spent the day struggling with the weighty tomes of various authors whom I had been studying for some time. I looked up from my books and decided that, for once, I would put aside these difficult texts and find instead something amusing and easy to read.” [I.1]

Things to note in this opening salvo: 1) Christine is capable of high level rationality, despite what Aristotle might think, 2) She is capable of wrestling with weighty issues which shows a mental strength and capacity not often associated with women, 3) the book that is causing issues is the light and easy reading you look for when your brain is tired: a jibe at the author Matheolus. 

What she finds in the “easy” reading is such an awful and damning accusation against the character of women as a sex that she immediately becomes depressed. When all the authors and experts are “unanimous in their view that the female nature is wholly given up to vice” what hope is left? Christine comes to the conclusion that these authors must be right, God truly did create a “vile thing when he created women.” [I.1] 

“Oh Lord, how can this be?  Unless I commit an error of faith, I cannot doubt that you in your infinite wisdom and perfect goodness, could make anything that wasn’t good. Didn’t you yourself create woman especially and then endow her with all the qualities you wished her to have? How could you possibly have made a mistake in anything? Yet here stand women not simply accused, but already judged, sentenced and condemned….Oh God, why wasn’t I born a male so that my every desire would be to serve you, to do right in all things, and to be as perfect a creature as man claims to be?” [I.1]

As she sits in her sorry state, depressed and dejected, she sees a vision: three women stand before her, Reason, Rectitude and Justice. They have been sent to her by God to speak the truth and walk her through a critical analysis of the attacks and the ultimate defense. When they are finished, Christine will have constructed not just a “room of ones own” but a City of Defense, a City of Ladies that will buttress women against the attacks that they have become culturally saturated in.  

“The female sex has been left defenseless for a long time now, like an orchard without a wall, and bereft of a champion to take up arms to protect it…Even the strongest city will fall if there is no one to defend it, and even the most undeserving case will win if there is no one to testify against it…Now, however, it is time for them to be delivered out of the hands of Pharaoh.” 

The book then proceeds through three parts, or three main arguments. The first argument is against the weakness of women and it is filled with anecdotes of strength and valor. The second is against the promiscuity of women and it challenges these accusations with anecdotes of chastity and constancy. The third part looks at the faith of women, specifically those that have been martyred, despite the temptation to recant their faith, many women went through the most heinous of torture and did so with grace and the joy of their salvation. 

The first accusations are given with the benefit of a doubt: Some men are actually attempting to “rescue” innocent men that have fallen into the clutches of corrupt women…so in order to “prevent others from suffering the same fate, and to encourage men generally to avoid leading a lustful and sinful existence, they therefore attacked all women in order to persuade men to regard the entire sex as an abomination.” [I.8]

Christine asks the muses if in a scenario where misinformation is spread with good intentions…doesn’t that somewhat mitigate the damage? Reason responds emphatically: there is no excuse for plain ignorance. 

“Attacking one party in the belief that you are benefiting a third party is unfair. So is criticizing the nature of all women, which is completely unjustified, as I will prove to you by analogy. Condemning all women in order to help some misguided men get over their foolish behavior is tantamount to denouncing fire, which is a vital and beneficial element, just because some people are burnt by it, or to cursing water just because some people are drowned in it.” 

As Christine begins to build her metaphorical city, the foundation is built through anecdotes of female strength and valor. She picks up her shovel and removes a shovel full of soil while asking about Cicero and the philosophers. Aren’t they right when they say that a man should not be in subjection to a woman? Or that a man that is in subjection to a woman “debases himself” because it is morally wrong to be in subjection to your inferior? Or what about the the claim from Cato who argued that because the blight of “women” had been created, men no longer could converse with the gods? 

Again, Reason challenges these arguments, one spade full at a time. She argues that superiority or inferiority is not something regulated by gender but rather by “the degree to which one has perfected one’s nature and morals.” [I.9] And she further argues that mankind has gained far more through Mary than they have lost through Eve. The medieval obsession with making the focal point of Original Sin a female woman rather than humanity has distorted the actual Good News of the gospel. “If human nature is fallen, due to the actions of one of God’s creatures, it has been redeemed by the Creator Himself.” [I.9]

Christine begins to lay her foundation: who can match the political savvy of Empress Nicaula? [I.12] Or the noble warriors of the Amazons? [I.16] Or the cunning of Queen Artemisia who attacked Xerxes and routed his army. She pursued him over land and sea ultimately defeating him off the coast of Salamis. 

Here’s a quote from Aristotle: 

“The fact is, the nature of man is the most rounded off and complete, and consequently in man the qualities or capacities above referred to are found in their perfection. Hence, woman is more compassionate than man, more easily moved to tears, at the same time is more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike. She is, furthermore, more prone to despondency and less hopeful that the man, more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, and of more retentive memory. She is also more wakeful, more shrinking, more difficult to rouse to action, and requires a smaller quantity of nutrient. 

As was previously stated, the male is more courageous than the female, and more sympathetic in the way of standing by to help. Even in the case of the mollusks, when the cuttle-fish is struck with a trident the male stands by to help the female; but when the male is struck the female runs away.” 
[The History of Animal, Aristotle. 350 BC]

Christine’s task is almost impossible. She has to argue against the “it just makes sense” misogyny buttressed by “science” and cultural perceptions. Her argument is that women are more diverse that cuttle-fish, or Molossian dogs; not all women are capable of strength and valor, but some are. Not all women are capable of constancy and steadfastness, but equally so not all women are shrews. At the end of her book, after her city has been lovingly crafted, there is a place for all kinds of women. There is no role or objective for women, women are not expected to look a specific way or share specific tasks: the female spirit is diverse and beautiful and capable of grandeur in both the urban community and the domestic realm. This isn’t a treatise to get women out of the home, it’s a treatise to recognize that wherever women are they are a valuable asset. 

Rosalind Grant, in her introduction to City of Ladies, argues that Christine’s intent is twofold: “both to refute the misogynist equation of womankind with sinfulness and to instill a sense of self-worth in her female readers.” 3 But to equate Christine with our modern conception of feminism seems to miss the mark. Christine was not arguing for equality with men but rather basic dignity. She’s almost the same type of “feminist” as Plato, arguing that both men and women have been given souls, voices and rational minds. 

Reading City of Ladies six hundred years after it was written, still feels relevant and immediate. There are still debates about the appropriate “role” of women, without an emphasis placed on the diversity and talents given by God for his glory. There is still a debate about inferiority only now it’s referred to as “submission” and what Aristotle argued was true based on scientific observation, the Christian church has argued is true based on the “Eternal Subordination of the Son.” In any scenario where there is attempt to class and subdivide a population based on gender or race etc. this book is relevant. Human dignity shouldn’t be something left to the “feminists” to fight for; but rather anyone who believes we were created in the image of God with intent and specificity. 

Christine’s closing word of parting is this: 

“Let your hearts rejoice in doing good. I your servant, commend myself to you. I beg the Lord to shine His grace upon me and to allow me to carry on devoting my life to His holy service here on earth. May he pardon my great faults and grant me everlasting joy when I die, and may He do likewise unto you. Amen.” 

1. Lombardo, Stanley. Works and Days (Cambridge: HackettPublishing Company Inc, 1993), 777.
2. De Pizan, Christine, trans. Rosalind Brown-Grant. City of Ladies (London: Penguin Books) xx
3. De Pizan, Christine, trans. Rosalind Brown-Grant. City of Ladies (London: Penguin Books) xviii


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