The Book of the City of Ladies

A Review by Alana Wingfoot

Women's rights advocacy, of course, did not begin with the 20th century, or even the 19th. Probably every era has had its women who disagreed with the role their society pushed them into, or the image their society had of women in general.

Christine de Pizan wrote Le livre de la cité des dames in response to the philosophers and authors of her time who cast women as inferior, mentally weak, unreliable sources of evil. Here are anecdotes about ancient and medieval women who did great deeds, women who lived virtuously, learned and wise women, faithful women, saints and queens. Some of the stories are utterly hilarious, like the woman who told her cowardly soldier son to just retreat back into her womb as long as he was running away from battle; some are touching, like the woman who drank the ashes of her husband so that he would always be a part of her; some are gruesome, like the story of the saint who Christine was named for. Yes the historical accuracy of many are quite...questionable. (The Greek deities were actually real women who invented more things than Auel's Ayla and were therefore considered as goddesses??? Riiiiight....) But it's a fascinating list of women who would have been known to her contemporary readers.

By modern standards, Christine de Pizan doesn't look very feminist -- she believes women should stay in their domestic sphere, and she lauds the women who stay faithful and obedient even to abusive husbands. But judging by medieval standards, this is frigging Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

I read this book in Rosalind Brown-Grant's translation, which doesn't try to imitate the style of the original and is therefore eminently readable. (Having peeked at a sample of another translation in an anthology, I think Brown-Grant made the right decision.) I heartily recommend it to anyone who's interested in a medieval view of women's rights, or just anyone who wants some cool stories about ancient and medieval women.

Copyright © 2001 Alana Wingfoot.