THE BOOK OF THE CITY OF LADIES AND THE LEGEND OF GOOD WOMEN
The difference between a sincere and earnest representation of women’s capabilities and a half-hearted attempt to make a sorry-not-sorry apology.
Christine De Pizan was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, writing around the same time as he was during the middle ages in Europe. Being an educated and capable woman in the middle ages, it irritated her to see many of her male contemporaries paint women in a negative or slanderous light. She got so fed up with this horrible misrepresentation of her gender that she wrote an entire book to refute many of the criticisms she’d heard against women. She set her story up with a framework where she is the main character and is visited by three celestial ladies sent to her by God, who inform her that she has been chosen to build a city just for awesome and worthy women from the past and present. So, like Noah’s Ark but without the whole flood thing and it’s really just a cool place for women to go and get away from all the men. It is compared to Amazonia, which you may recognize from either Greek Mythology, or Wonder Woman comics/movies.
De Pizan constructs her city with the help of these three ladies, Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Since Christine has a lot of internalized misogyny going on due to all the men like Ovid constantly writing about how terrible women are, the first two-thirds of the book are reserved for Reason and Rectitude getting her out of that mindset. She asks questions like, “why do all these men say women are unfaithful?” and they tell her, “Stop reading Ovid! He was a player when he was young and now he tries to ruin everything for everyone else because he’s aged out of his salacious little lifestyle.” Every time she asks a question like this, they give her numerous of examples of women who proved themselves to be faithful, intelligent, powerful, and otherwise worthy. All of these women, and any women from the past, present, and future who prove themselves worthy will all be able to Reside in the City of Ladies Christine is building.
Chaucer wrote something similar, The Legend of Good Women, in that he gives a few examples of women who he thought were “good.” That’s pretty much where the similarities stop though, because Chaucer really didn’t seem as invested as De Pizan was in representing women and how they are just as capable intellectually and emotionally to men. Really, Chaucer seemed to be writing his Legend of Good Women more as a response to a slap on the wrist for portraying some women in his works unfavorably. He basically came out with Legend of Good Women as a way to say, “Hey, I’m not a bad guy! Here’s some women that I think are great!” and proceeds to primarily list women who don’t do much other than suffering for the men in their lives, usually enduring some pretty horrendous treatment and tragedy.
Chaucer spends the majority of The Legend of Good Women on the prologue where he, similarly to Pizan, is visited by celestial beings, only they are the God of Love and his Queen, and the God of Love is there to wreck him for being totally disrespectful to love in his works. Thankfully for Chaucer, the God of Love’s Queen Alceste intercedes and says that Chaucer just needs to pay some penance, do some community service and all that. She says that he needs to write a book about great women who were faithful despite the men in their lives being total garbage. And he needs to give the book to the Queen of England when he’s done.
Reading the two works, you can see the difference in conviction and motivations for Chaucer and De Pizan. Chaucer just clearly wants some people to get off his back. It’s like a modern day person saying, “How can you criticize my work for being misogynist? I totally love women!” and kind of going on a rant unrelated or irrelevant to the initial criticism. He spends very little time talking about most of the women, and he takes out all of the most interesting parts of one of Greek mythology’s best anti-heroes, Medea. (Although to be fair, De Pizan leaves out some of the more extreme stuff for Medea in order to make her appeal a bit more to her Christian ideology, too) The specific issue here seems representative of the whole work, where Chaucer does not really center the women in his Legend of Good Women. In Medea’s story her male counterpart is centered and she is reduced to how she was useful to him. In Legend of Good Women, Chaucer, in a sense, is reducing all of his female examples to their usefulness to his own purpose, redeeming his own reputation as a good guy.
De Pizan, however, gives us the perspective of a woman in the middle ages earnestly and seriously arguing that women are, in fact, capable and good and intelligent on their own. She’s not perfect, and unfortunately the ending of the Book of the City of Ladies is disappointing from a modern feminist perspective, but the first half of her book reads like an early version of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication on the Rights of Women, which is pretty amazing. She uses similar arguments, one example on women’s lack of exposure to education and experience as the more logical reason to why women at the time may not have had the same knowledge as women, and that if they were exposed to the same educational resources and experiences they would be just as intellectually capable as men in learning. Who would have thought?! For some perspective, De Pizan published the Book of the City of Ladies a whopping 387 years before Wollstonecraft’s Vindication. So, although De Pizan ends her book with an appeal to women to put up with their awful and even abusive husbands so they can be rewarded in Heaven, which is, again, from a modern feminist perspective, pretty disappointing, it is amazing to read a woman’s work from the early 1400’s that stands up to the misogyny of her day and makes sound arguments in defense of women.
-Arielle S. Arnold