Jan-Maat's Reviews > The Treasure of the City of Ladies: or The Book of Three Virtues

The Treasure of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan
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Jun 18, 14

bookshelves: france, medieval-history, 15th-century, politics-and-polemic
Read from June 15 to 17, 2014

Introduction
Christine De Pisan's Treasure of the City of Ladies is a lively compendium of advice on how to live for women of all social classes arranged by social order from the highest to lowest.

The conceit of the work is that the three Ladies of Virtue: Reason, Rectitude and Justice descend and dictate the work to de Pisan before disappearing leaving her almost exhausted from writing so long, but very happy, looking at the beautiful work of their worthy lessons (p180).

It is divided into three unequal parts, the first of advice to 'princesses' or women of the highest social statuses, the second advises women in service to the princesses and the wives of barons the distinction here between the first two groups is that de Pisan expects these women will be left to head their households while their husbands are away in service to the magnates and kings. In the third part there is advice to women of the remaining levels of society from the wives of merchants, tradesmen and craftsmen, down through servants, prostitutes (here the advice in brief is to give up this trade in favour of becoming a laundress or a child minder instead) to peasant women and women living in poverty.


Holding Up A Mirror to Society
Naturally the fun of this book is that de Pisan is condemning and advising women against either carrying out or turning a blind eye towards the kinds of things they actually were doing. For example pocketing the difference between what you paid for produce in the market and what you tell your mistress that it actually had cost, building your house out of wood taken from other people's forests, stealing other peoples fruit, having a good long sleep under a tree when you are being paid to work, telling your master that his sheep died and showing him false hides when you have actually stolen or eaten them yourself (see in particular pp176-177). As such the treatise is indirectly a catalogue of medieval French sharp practises.

While much of the advice is about how to behave appropriately at court so as not to give rise to rumour or tittle tattle, not to slander people yourself and how to protect your mistress from behaving badly, de Pisan also advises women to have a firm command of the requirements of their husbands roles in life to a surprising extent. For instance de Pisan expects that the wife of baron should be able to conduct and lead offensive or defensive military undertakings while her husband is away (presumably fighting the Hundred Years War in another part of the kingdom of France). De Pisan has no doubt, or at least entertains no doubt, that wives can (and need to be able to do) whatever their husbands are called upon to do in their stations in life.


Holding Up A Mirror to the Social Position of Men and Women
I hesitate to say that Christine is sly, or even that her writing has a subtext when her style is vigorous and direct as this might be taken to suggest that she is somehow being underhand, but the clear implication of her writing is that although in her society men were in charge this was not in her opinion on account of any innate or acquired superiority. Quite on the contrary, the social position of women means that women's lives are clearly in her opinion a form of the imitation of Christ. Women will be unjustly persecuted and will needlessly suffer because men spread slanders about their behaviour (a serious business since at the time adultery could be punished by being burnt alive), men are rash which is a risk in business and politics, and husbands can be churlish ignorant extremely perverse rude and unloving as well as warlike greedy and grasping. De Pisan would approve of the Griselda story in The Decameron, not because she approved of the persecution of women, but because she felt that restraint in the face of injustice was the correct course of action.

Here de Pisan is consciously writing a polemic. This book is the sequel to The book of the City of Ladies which was written as a counterpoint to St.Augustine's The City of God in order to assert the place and value of women in society.

The implication of what de Pisan says is that women are the moderating, restraining and reconsidering principle both constitutionally and socially. As such when the Duke levys unjust taxes, the people make representations to his wife or when the craftsman wants to sign up to an over ambitious deal it is the wife who stops him. In this de Pisan plays within a very traditional view of men and women, yet it seems to me comes up with a striking conclusion: it is the proper duty of the wise queen and princess: to be the means of peace and concord, to work for the avoidance of war because of the trouble that can come of it. Ladies in particular ought to attend to this business, for men are by nature more courageous and more hot-headed, and the great desire they have to avenge themselves prevents their considering either the perils or the evils that can result from war. But women are by nature more timid and also of a sweeter disposition, and for this reason, if they are wise and if they wish to, they can be the best means of pacifying men...how many great blessings in the world have often been caused by queens and princesses making peace between enemies, between princes and barons and between the rebellious people and their lords! (p51). Perhaps this is sly on de Pisan's part, because of a sudden courage is bad while timidity has become a social virtue (view spoiler).

However the role of the woman even as the wife of a magnate is more of a figurehead, de Pisan imagines that women receiving the complaints of the people about unjust taxes for example will be advised by men, but presumably ones unlike their courageous husbands (view spoiler).

This all seems to me to fall down around education. Possibly de Pisan assumes that some socially beneficial qualities are innate to women, but equally much of the text is clear that the women requires specialist knowledge: about ploughing, the right depth to plant seeds, animal husbandry, how to practise a craft, how to manage a vineyard, how to run an estate. Yet at most de Pisan recommends that girls should be taught how to read and given a religious education. Perhaps by implication de Pisan's medieval women are a quick witted lot who will learn on the job or that they will have absorbed what is necessary for a person of their class to know while growing up from their parents, but there is no mention of any need to provide any formal education despite the range of competencies that de Pisan expects women to have. The Goodman of Paris makes an interesting comparison here, the purpose of that book is to teach the skills a young newly married woman needed to know to run a household. Curiously de Pisan writing perhaps a little later doesn't see any need to explain the need for any technical education for girls, even though she advises women to exercise technical skills.


Final Remarks
Rather to my surprise not all of de Pisan's works are in print, still less translated. After the death of her husband de Pisan, apparently successfully, raised a young family earning money through writing prolifically. She had a grasp of the value of social networking and so she would present the Duke of Berry with her latest book as a New Year's gift. This is literature as a vocation in the context of elite courtly culture in which women must not go about with their heads raised like wild deer (p75) but might in private pen a quick work on the heroism of Joan of Arc.

De Pisan is very aware of how publicly life is led, there is a stress on how courtly life has to be arranged to make the right impression down to having poor people arranged to be at the church door for the noble woman to display charity towards once the service has finished (p60).
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Reading Progress

06/15 page 80
41.0% ""There are many men who are so churlish & so ignorant that they do not know how to see or recognise common sense. They cherish the opinion that women are not sensible enough to have much administrative ability, although we often see the opposite of this."" 2 comments
06/16 page 131
68.0% "for wives of barons, knights or gentlemen "There is nothing dishonourable about making herself familiar with the accounts. She will see them often & wish to know how they are managed in regard to her vassals so that they are not being cheated or incommoded unreasonably...towards poor people a lady should, out of love for God, be more compassionate than strict""

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Steve (new)

Steve Most interesting!


message 2: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Steve wrote: "Most interesting!"

I'll have to keep an eye out to see if I come across any more of her books.


message 3: by Kalliope (new) - added it

Kalliope This is fascinating.. and may be I will read it.. I just checked and I think you have not written a review of The Book of the City of Ladies.. I should read that one first, no?.

Today I received Boccaccio's The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta


message 4: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Kalliope wrote: "This is fascinating.. and may be I will read it.. I just checked and I think you have not written a review of The Book of the City of Ladies.. I should read that one first, no?.

Today..."


I haven't read the City of Ladies, I just dived into this one, I don't think it will harm you to miss it or read it later.

This one possibly fits better with the Boccaccio because she is discussing the lives of contemporary women while I believe in City of Ladies she is also drawing examples from classical writings and the Bible.


message 5: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala This is very interesting material, jan-Maat. Thank you for reading through de Pisan for our edification.
She seems to think and write very clearly and wisely: and the great desire they have to avenge themselves prevents their considering either the perils or the evils that can result from war.
If she'd lived in our time, how even more convinced she'd have been of that argument! I'm thinking of the Gulf war and all that has come after it..


message 6: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Fionnuala wrote: "She seems to think and write very clearly and wisely: and the great desire they have to avenge themselves prevents their considering either the perils or the evils that can result from war.
If she'd lived in our time, how even more convinced she'd have been of that argument! I'm thinking of the Gulf war and all that has come after it.. "


*sigh* yes, that example does seem particularly true, and when you think about it her argument is convincing (but for the role of women in maintaining blood feuds in Sardinia that I have some faint memory of) also for her own times.


message 7: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Sorry for writing your name without a capital letter, Jan-Maat - I've obviously absorbed more of Saramago's style than I'd realised.

I don't know anything about those blood feuds in Sardinia but if the local women sought to perpetuate them, perhaps there was a good reason...some anthropological reason?


message 8: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Fionnuala wrote: "Sorry for writing your name without a capital letter, Jan-Maat - I've obviously absorbed more of Saramago's style than I'd realised.

I don't know anything about those blood feuds in Sardinia but i..."


oh, that's ok, I'm sure there was good reason, I just meant that maybe there are limits to de Pisan's argument.

Although in anycase I think given her society it is a very striking approach to make - turning values upside down like that and arguing that timidity is a good thing!


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