Simultaneity in the City of Ladies


Provisionally Together

Volume 5, Issue 05
October 17, 2019

In The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), Christine de Pizan lays out a city for the defense, inhabitation, and emancipation of women.[1] The City of Ladies is an extended metaphor: it is constructed, concretely, in the space of the text, while the abstract virtues and moral qualities of its inhabitants are mapped onto it. “[W]e three ladies…have come to you to announce a particular edifice built like a city wall, strongly constructed and well founded, which has been predestined and established by our aid and counsel for you to build.” [2] Christine is the author and protagonist of her text and the builder of the city. Three allegorical figures—Reason, Rectitude, and Justice—assist her in conceiving of the city. Armed with a mirror, a ruler, and a measuring-vessel respectively, they lay out its lineaments.[3]

The City of Ladies is a specific response to a specific condition. Christine writes against the backdrop of “the denigration of women” by male writers;4 her response is to build a citadel as protection from these predations. The city is thus highly particular. Its site is precise, being “a flat and fertile plain, where all fruits and freshwater rivers are found.” Its walls are “high and thick, with mighty towers and strong bastions […] just as is fitting for a city with a strong and lasting defense.”[5]

The defensive tenor of the city in the late-medieval text would resonate centuries later. Notably, in the mid-twentieth century, Simone de Beauvoir pointedly described women as being confined to prison, necessarily engaging in combat in order to escape. It is against this oppression that Beauvoir cites, approvingly, Christine’s writing as “the first time a woman takes up her pen to defend her sex.”[6]

Yet, as the oppositional edifice of the City of Ladies is developed, so are its metaphorical aspects. The site of the city is both the flat plain and the “Field of Letters,” a landscape at once territorial and literary. In excavating the foundation of the city, Christine wields “the pick of [her] understanding—a physical and epistemological tool.”[7] The mortar for the city walls is mixed in her ink bottle; her pen serves as her trowel. Christine moves fluidly between the concrete and the abstract within her metaphor.

In the metaphorical city, stories of women are simultaneously elements of its construction. Stone by stone, Christine develops accounts of historical and mythical women, highlighting their particular qualities and creating a network of stories, positions, and values across temporal and spatial bounds. The narrative of Semiramis serves as a foundation, alongside other women of political and martial strength. Sappho, Minerva, and numerous women of intellect, skill, and prudence make up the masonry of the city walls; later, Christian saints form the shimmering substance of the highest roofs. Because of its defensive crouch and its appeal to virtue and morality, Christine’s construction has been criticized as “conservative” and
“largely reactive.”[8] But this is to focus on the physical and adversarial half of the metaphor and to overlook the diversity of narrative, ethical, and didactic modes simultaneously existing in the city.

Gillian Rose’s feminist geography reflects on this simultaneity. Rose writes of “paradoxical spaces” where every location is a complex of “historical, social, sexual, racial, and class positions”; requiring maps that are “multiple and intersecting, provisional, and shifting.”[9] This simultaneity is also present whenever an attempt is made at creating a “counterhegemonic […] utopian space in which women are liberated from the inferiorizing definitions of men”,[10] especially when ‘woman’ is seen as a female-embodied social subject that is based on its specific, emergent, and conflictual history.[11] Ultimately, empowered by its metaphoric possibilities, the City of Ladies remains a source of emancipatory potential for contesting definitions of gender through space.

Shou Jie is a researcher, writer, and designer, whose work examines the relationships between narratives and spaces.

[1] Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards (1405; New York: Persea, 1982).
[2] Ibid., 10-11.
[3] Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, trans. Joseph Rykwert (1452; Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988), 5 & 7.
[4] Susan Groag Bell, The Lost Tapestries of the City of Ladies: Christine de Pizan’s Renaissance Legacy (Oakland: University of California Press, 2004), 21.
[5] Christine de Pizan, City of Ladies, 12.
[6] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (1949; New York: Vintage, 2011), 147.
[7] Christine de Pizan, City of Ladies, 16.
[8] Joan Kelly, “Early Feminist Theory and the Querelle des Femmes, 1400-1789,” Signs 8, no. 1 (Autumn 1982): 27.
[9] Gillian Rose, Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993), 150 & 155.
[10] Barbara Hooper, “Split at the Roots: A Critique of the Philosophical and Political Sources of Modern Planning Doctrine,” Frontiers 13, no. 1 (1992): 47.
[11] Teresa de Lauretis, “Upping the Anti [sic] in Feminist Theory,” in Figures of Resistance: Essays in Feminist Theory (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 198.

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Volume 5, Issue 05
October 17, 2019