Saturday, 7 May 2016

The City of Ladies

This book is so interesting that I'm probably going to have to do it in two posts. This one and one to see if I can D&Dify it.


The City of Ladies is a book created as a counter-blast to chauvinism, woman-hatred and patriarchy.

(Well, not quite Patriarchy in the modern sense. Christine is someone living at the centre of her society and who believes in the stated values of that society, she isn't a revolutionary, except  in the same way that anyone who believes in people living by the most heroic standards of their own culture is a kind of revolutionary becasue most societies depend on people not doing that).

The writer, Christine de Pizan, is sitting alone in her study when she picks up a book, one of many with a poor opinion of women. She is so depressed by this and by things like this that she falls into sorrow;

"'Alas God, why did you not let me be born in the world as a man? ...' I spoke these words to God in my lament and a great deal more for a very long time in sad reflection, and in my folly I considered myself most unfortunate becasue God had made me inhabit a female body in this word."

Upon this thought, Christine is visited by three crowned women, supernatural entities (though Christine does not believe in the supernatural), and Virtues incarnated in human form, these are Reason (who carries a mirror), Rectitude (who carries a ruler) and Justice (who carries a golden vessel).

These three women tell Christine that they are here to assist her in creating The City of Ladies, which is a metaphorical city or argument, a kind-of highly imagined supernatural city in which various ladies will be invited to live, and also this book. The rest of the work is a conversation between Christine and the virtues about the various women who will live in, and make up, the City of Ladies.


Of particular and immediate interest (to me anyway) is the power and incarnation of heroism as a response to moral chaos, and how this seems to mirror the generation of the heroic tales of the Arthurian Mythos.

Mallory, sitting alone in his cell during a civil war, dreams of unity and order and chivalry.

The Welsh chroniclers, pushed back to the mountains by the Saxons, dream of their war-leader and redeemer.

Christine, oppressed by misogyny and patriarchy, brings into being heroines of superlative (and specific) power, and with them builds an argument which is a list of heroines. The City of Ladies is a list of great and remarkable things that women have done, and not in a general sense, but the particular. Tales of individual, named, women and their deeds.

And like a lot of heroic myths it's brilliant, imaginative, emotionally powerful, carefully and almost obsessively delineated and very slightly nuts.

When someone builds a list of heroes, not just general heroes but ones brought forth to meet a powerful need, they show you the inside of their head. And like someone improvising music, becasue they are concentrating so ferociously and absolutely on their creation, they show you much more of the inside of their head than they probably thought they would.

And the inside of Christine de Pizan's head is weeeeiiirrrrrd.

An Ideal

Christine has an ideal. An ideal vision of womanhood, of what women are and could be. (Probably every feminist or near-feminist writer has one in a quiet or half-regarded way, but you will rarely find them stating it with such specific passion.)

The ideal Pizanian woman is;

  • Learned.
  • Honourable.
  • Loyal.
  • Brave.
  • Compassionate.
  • Beautiful (but not vain).
  • A murderer or mass-murderer.
  • Under a terrifying level of self-control.
  • Christian, or at least has a good excuse why she isn't.
  • Utterly in love with her husband/father/child (and preferably no-one else).
  • An inventor (preferably of an entire subject or schema of knowledge).
  • Either a virgin or married.
  • Independently Wealthy.
  • Family-minded.
  • Lateral-thinking.
  • Cunning.
  • NOT supernatural.
  • Royal.
  • Tall.
  • And Blonde.

In short, the ideal Pizanian woman is a lot like Christine de Pizan.

And the ideal Pizanian woman lives in a Pizanian history. And a Pizanian history is one in which there are NO GODS BUT ONE. AND YES I MEAN TO GOD OF ABRAHAM. THE ONLY REAL ONE.

There are also no monsters, very few supernatural events except for ones allowed by god, no lesbians, no sluts and no crazy bitches.

And if written history disagrees with Christine de Pizan and keeps saying that these things did happen, then written history is just going to have to get out of the way. Christine does not want any of that clap-trap cluttering up the City of Ladies.

A woman who acts crazy or slutty is acting against her own nature. All women have Reason inside them, they are naturally, inherently reasonable and not listening to that inner voice or force means acting against your gender.

These are just the stories I recognised but I'm pretty sure there are more;

Sappho - lesbianism not mentioned.

Medea - being fucking crazy not mentioned.

Circe - apparently a completely reasonable Queen who only changed people into animals through misunderstanding but it all got sorted out.

Minerva - "a maiden of Greece and surnamed Pallas. This maiden was of such excellence of mind that the foolish people of that time, because they did not know who her parents were and saw her doing things which had never been done before, said she was a Goddess descended from Heaven"

Ceres - a wise woman who invented agriculture and WHO WAS NOT A GODDESS.

Isis - same deal but Egyptian, invented gardening.

Arachne - invented dying wool. Seriously Christine?

Ops, Queen of Crete - "This lady was the daughter of Uranus, an extremely powerful man in Greece" yeah, real fucking powerful "Either with her wits or through ruse she succeeded in saving her three sons, Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto, from death....during her lifetime the acquired such a great reputation through the knowledge and authority of her children that foolish people called her a goddess and mother of gods"

Penelope, Wife of Ulysses - Same story told from the wife’s perspective, but Pizanified, Ulysses omni-gender mass-murder left out of the picture.

Europa - "daughter of the Phoenician Agenor, became quite famous because Jupiter, who loved her, named a third of the world after her. It should be remembered that various lands, cities and towns have been named after many women, just like England, after a woman named Angela, and many others."

Medusa - "according to the ancient stories, was of such striking beauty that not only did she surpass all other women - which was an amazing and supernatural thing - but she also attracted to herself, because of her pleasing appearance - her long and curly blond hair spun like gold, along with her beautiful face and body - every mortal creature upon whom she looked so that she seemed to make people immovable."

Incredible women being blonde is a thing with Christine. No other hair colour is mentioned in the whole book.

Censorious Muse

Part of the reason this is interesting to me is how much it reminds me of modern internet gender-wars stuff. It's a kind of tone of thought that begins with wanting to return women to history where they might not have been fully recorded, goes on to a quite-liberal version of history, kind of like a John Green history where everything is rational and reasonable and mistakes are unfortunate things that happened in the past and there's not real fire or blood or madness in there, everything can be explained, then finally just goes 'fuck it' and re-writes and overwrites a dark, inexplicable or unpleasant reality with the way things should have been.

It's a strange but potent mixture of rather whiggish liberalism, censoriousness and almost insanely-obsessive reasonableness.

It sounds strange to say you can be 'insanely reasonable', but that's what Christine is. She could have just accepted that the greek tales were reporting myths and repeated them as fiction, but that wouldn't have been enough for her. They had to be history, real history, misunderstood by its first recorders but revealed and explained by Christine.

It takes a staggering amount of intellectual energy and really strangely-employed imagination to actively remove the imagination from history. To not just de-mythologise it, but to un-mythologise it, turning it inside out.

You Can Be A Killer Too

You can't be a slut or a weirdo or an ancient goddess in the City of Ladies, but one thing you can be is; INCREDIBLY VIOLENT.

Remember when you read these that the voice describing them is Reason incarnate. These are some of the first remarkable women in the City of Ladies, the foundation is, apparently, murder;

Seramis - Married and fucked her own son, but according to Reason this is OK as "she wanted no other crowned lady in her Empire beside herself", "it seemed to her that no man was worthy to have her as wife except her own son" and "at this time there was no written law, and people lived according to the law of Nature, where all people were allowed to do whatever come into their hearts without sinning"

The Amazons - "advanced on their enemies and laid waste to their lands with fire and sword"

Synoppe - "could never be sated in the attacking and conquering of different lands. She soundly revenged her mother by having all the inhabitants of the country where he mother was killed put to the sword"

Thamiris - "Out of anger over the death of one of her beloved sons whom she had sent to Cyrus, she did not wish to take pity on him. First, she had all his barons beheaded in front of him, and then she told him, 'Cyrus, because of your cruelty, you were never sated with men's blood. Now you can drink all you want.' And then she had his head severed and thrown into a bucket in which she had collected the blood of his barons. Penthesila - falls in love with Hector through reputation only. Leads her army to Troy, so upset at finding him dead that she swears immediate revenge on the Acheans. "although she defended herself boldly, they smashed through her armour and struck off a large quarter of her helmet. Pyrrhus was there, and seeing her bare head with its blonde hair, dealt her such a blow that he split open her head and brain."

Zenobia - "As soon as she was even slightly strong, no one could keep her from leaving the residence of walled cities, palaces, and royal chambers in order to live in the woods and forests, where, armed with sword and spear, she eagerly hunted wild game. After stags and hinds, she began to fight with lions and bears and all other wild beasts which she would attack fearlessly and conquer marvellously." Marries, conquers, husband dies. "she bravely and valiantly took possession of the empire on behalf of her children, who were still small. She placed herself on the royal throne as empress, took over the government, exercised great strength and care.."

Artemisa - Tricks invading army into city centre, surrounds and massacres them, steals their ships and uses them to successfully counter-invade their home city by stealth

Lilia - sees her son fleeing from battle; "the lady, overcome with great anger, lifted up the front of her dress and said to him 'Truly dear son you have nowhere to flee unless you return to the womb from which you came."

Fredegund - To inspire the army, she rides ahead of them with her son, the naked, baby, infant king held up in her arms.

Berenice - "When, during a battle in the course of this struggle, the uncle killed two of his nephews, that is, this lady's son, she was so grieved that her anger purged her of all feminine fear. She took up arms herself and with a great army advanced against her brother-in-law and fought so hard that in the end she killed him with her own hands and had her chariot driven over him, and won the battle."

That Jack Vance Shit

One other thing the women of the City of Ladies can be is; cunning beyond belief in a way not un-reminiscent of Cugel the Clever.

The Sibyl Almathea - "She bought nine books with her to Rome, which she presented to King Tarquin for sale. But when he refused to pay the price which she was asking for them, she burnt three of them in his presence. And when on the next day she demanded this same price for the six other remaining books which she had demanded for the nine and said that if he did not pay the price she was asking, she would immediately burn three more books and on the following day the last three, King Tarquin paid the price which she had first demanded. the books were well preserved, and so it was discovered that they declared in full the future of the Romans."

Well not 'in full' because she fucking burnt three.

Several Ladies Who Together Saved Their Husbands From Death - "It happened that several Knights ... went to live in another city of Greece called Lacedaemonia ... There they married the noble daughters of the city. They became so rich and acquired so many honours that in their pride they conspired against the town rulers in order to transfer power to themselves. their plot was discovered and they were imprisoned and condemned to death. Their wives ... went to the prison and, weeping, the begged the prison guards to allow them to see their husbands. Once the ladies were inside, they dressed their husbands in their robes and took for themselves the clothes their husbands were wearing. The next morning .. the executioners lead them outside to be tortured, and when it turned out that they were the wives, everyone admired this clever ruse and they were praised for it."

The Lady Curia - "her husband had been condemned to death with some other men for a particular crime with which they had all been charged ... When men seeking him came there, she held him in her arms in her bed, hiding him so cleverly that they did not notice him at all. She knew how to conceal him so well within the bedroom that none of her servants, nor anyone else, would have known he was there. She also covered up the deed with the clever ruse: she would race like a madwoman through the streets, temples and monasteries, wearing poor clothes, dishevelled and weeping, beating her palms. And everywhere she would ask whether anyone knew what had become of her husband or where he had fled, for wherever he was, she wanted to go to him to be the companion of his exile and miseries. In this way she managed to pretend so cleverly that no-one ever knew the difference, and so she saved her husband and consoled him in his fear."

Catulla – “Saint Rusticus and Saitn Eleutherius ..  the tyrant that ordered these saints beheaded ordered that their bodies be thrown into the Seine, and the men who were supposed to do this placed them in a sack to carry them there. These men were lodged with a good lady, a widow named Catulla, who got them drunk and then removed the holy bodies and placed dead pigs in the bag, and she buried the martyrs as honourable as she could in here house..”

Queen of the Galatians - "When the Romans were making their great conquests in foreign lands they captured this king of the Galatians in battle and his wife along with him. ... One of the Roman officers ... violently raped her. When the ransom was bought to deliver her husband and herself, the lady said that the money should be turned over in her presence to the officer who was holding them. She told him to weigh the gold to have a better count, so that he would not be deceived. When she saw that he intended to weigh the ransom and that none of his men would be there, the lady, who had a knife, stabbed him in the neck and killed him. She took his head and without difficulty bought it to her husband and told him the entire story and how she had taken vengeance."

The Virgins of Lombardy – “A city in Lombardy was once captured by its enemies who killed their lord. The beautiful daughters of this lord, thinking that their enemies were going to rape them, found a strange remedy, for which they deserve much praise: they took raw chicken meat and placed it on their breasts. This meat quickly rotted  because of the heat so that when enemies approached them and smelled the odour, they immediately left saying 'God, how these Lombards stink!'”

The Wife of Bernabo the Genovan - A story too long to retell in quotes, but briefly; Bernabo bets a scumbag that the scumbag can't sleep with his wife. The scumbag tricks his way into Bernabo's house & observes the wife, steals clothes, takes description and clothes to Bernabo as 'proof' that he fucked Bernabo's wife. Bernabo orders wife killed. Wife escapes. Changes into men’s clothes and acts as a man called 'Sagurat de Finoli'. 'Sagurat' ends up working for the sultan of Babylon & becomes his servant & chief advisor. Sagurat encounters the scumbag in the city market & hears from his own mouth about his creepy bet. Sagurat uses 'his' position as the Sultans advisor to get Bernabo and the scumbag in the same room and exposes both the entire deception and herself by whipping off her breast-plate. Ends up getting back with husband.


(The best parts of any medieval book are where the writer goes off on a tangent and accidentally describes some fragment of their daily life.

Christine describes a woman in paris who can illuminate manuscripts as well as only one in the city, a local girl married to a man her parents suspect to be a leper, she refuses to leave him and the parents want him tested so they can force her out of the house, a frustrated recollection of her own mother trying to force her away from the education and the sciences, keep her embroidering.)


Christine is so interesting and so odd. She is necessarily odd becasue she is the first one, if she wasn't odd she wouldn't have done what she did. Was she a feminist? That's a bit like a pigeon asking a T-Rex for its I.D. Christine is not interested in your categories.

It's an utterly charmingly bonkers sensation engaging with the vision of a woman whose three greatest virtues are Reason, rectitude and Justice creating a vision of femininity which is violent, crafty, tricky, passionate, sometimes heroically self-destructive, brilliant and blonde.

The counter-tow between Christines almost-patrician seriousness and the bordering-on-anarchic violent heroism she upholds is utterly engaging.

Is She Joking?

(Or at least, aware of the irony?)

I have no idea, I don;t understand either her, or her intellectual world well enough to judge. It's possible that either is true.

What about a D&D Audience?

The beauty and the specificity of the metaphor call out for a literalisation. The city is laid out, the Virtues are garbed and armed with their magic tools, the Mirror of Reason which shows the truth, the Ruler of Rectitude which decides reality and the Vessel of Justice which doles out what people will and will not receive.

Imagining what the City of ladies would actually be like is compelling, a city full of amazons, greek goddesses in disguise, crafty queens, clever wives, de-facto witches and numerous fools for love, plus one ruled by the mother of god, who goes about with a bodyguard of martyred saints.


  1. one of my favorite books
    the third part is full of christian super naturalism that shows the kind of shit early christians pulled to develop the cult and has a very different tone

    as a metaphorical dream land could feature in pendragon well

    1. I actually had to quit reading for a bit during the martyrs as the repetitive body horror was numbing me and freaking me out a bit.

  2. Yeah, de Troyes also makes sure to specify that any damsel/wonderful lady of note is blonde. Presumably that was not the case in the Roman/Greek legends a lot of these authors were working off of. (Or maybe it was, in which case TIL.) So I wonder when the switch to blondeness as ideal of beauty came about.

    Excited to read/run/adapt Blue Medusa when it comes out by the way.

  3. I'm so happy to see this! I picked up a copy of this book from a "free books, please take one" shelf and I've been wondering about it ever since.

  4. Of recent, this came up on the wireless.

    Naturally, I found my way back here at once.