The Logic of The Book of the City of Ladies

Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies is a book of philosophical and logical refutations and arguments. It is a direct response to several writings in which the male authors make claims against women’s purity. These books, according to de Pizan, slander Woman, and she has been ordained by God, with the help of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, to bring the truth to light. The Book of the City of Ladies, as the title implies, builds a pure and holy city in which noble and good women could live apart from the slandering men and the impure women upon whom those slanders are based. In order to be taken seriously by those she is refuting, de Pizan makes use of logic forms and attempts to create both valid and sound arguments throughout her writing. But she herself is not above fallacy, no matter her noble intentions.

In writing this book, de Pizan hopes not only to refute the arguments that women are evil, base, and that they cannot think for themselves, but also to empower women in general. Her claims are a breath of fresh air after being bogged down by the heavy accusations of men. It is not enough for a woman to simply write her opinions on a matter, though. de Pizan has to utilize her education, read and research extensively to be sure she can properly understand and refute the arguments she includes, and see that she has enough to write a book—the latter, at least, is certain, given how often one of the heavenly sisters must cut a story short for want of time and space!

She emulates the writing style of the men before her; it reads almost like Dante’s Inferno, with the self-insertion and her being guided by famous figures (if we can consider the personification of virtues to be famous) who tell her stories of other women. In this light, The Book of the City of Ladies can be read as entertainment. It is not a political work, as she does not claim nor advocate anything as radical as social equality, nor is the book merely meant as a source of information about women in history. The purpose of the book is to change the views of men and women alike who believe that women are inferior. She does this through what I term “logical narrative.”

A prime example of de Pizan’s use of logic is the following quote: “If, in fact, they themselves are lacking in constancy it’s totally unacceptable for [men] to accuse others of having the same failing or to insist that others should possess a virtue which they themselves do not” (150). The form is If p, then q. P; therefore, q. In other words, If men are not virtuous, it is unethical for men to condemn those who are also not virtuous. Men are not virtuous; therefore, it is unethical for them to condemn others for the same failing.

To contrast, from the men’s perspective, an argument might look something like this: If a woman is not virtuous, it is because women are imperfect or evil. As we can see, women are imperfect or evil; therefore, a woman is not virtuous. This argument confirms the consequent (If p, then q. Q; therefore p) rather than the antecedent, which makes the argument invalid. de Pizan’s argument confirms the antecedent, making hers logically valid. (Whether it is sound—i.e., true—is a matter that does not concern this paper.)

We could claim that the men’s arguments, which de Pizan is countering, are inherently fallacious, whether it is due to backwards reasoning, ad hominem, false analogy, and so on. But it is wrong to claim that de Pizan is above such fallacies, for she utilizes them throughout The Book of the City of Ladies. There are two in particular that this paper addresses, mostly because they are often used by men as well.

The first offense is de Pizan’s assumption that God exists. She effectively replaces pagan deities and philosophies with God, stating that God has always been present and benevolent despite not being worshiped by the pagans (and also despite obvious excerpts of the Bible detailing such times when he was not so lenient). Furthermore, she ascribes all virtue to God’s endowing of gifts, no matter who receives those gifts. For example, de Pizan (34 – 37) writes that “God clearly wished to prove to men that, just because all women are not as physically strong and courageous as men,” and goes on to use Queen Semiramis as a heroine. This indicates that God has endowed the gift of strength and strategy to her; however, de Pizan also excuses Semiramis for marrying her son due to the fact she was not Christian. In trying to reconcile pagan women like Semiramis with Christian virtues, she is forcing her point. Further, in order to reaffirm that there is only God, de Pizan (66 – 68) relegates the Roman goddess Minerva to mortal form, albeit an extraordinarily—indeed, almost supernaturally—gifted mortal. de Pizan’s book is based on her assumption that God exists, so all her facts must follow from this, which is why many of her explanations of her examples feel inconsistent and forced.

The author’s second offense in logic is hypocrisy. A prime example is: “…God alone has the right to judge us” (189). de Pizan writes this despite passing judgment on others throughout the book. She judges not only men who judge women, but judges women who don’t meet up to the standards she prescribes for “noble” and “virtuous” ladies. Although it is probably not a stretch to presume that men also use the “judge not lest ye be judged” in their own judging works, de Pizan’s hypocritical use of it seems to derail her argument. That is, of course, unless one believes her writing of this book actually is the result of some divine vision, in which case God might have passed judgment and sent his verdict along with the command to preach the truth. But even so, this is never explicitly stated, so it stands to reason that de Pizan could be making her own judgments.

These two errors in logic—the assumption of God and the hypocrisy—are easily explained by the time in which de Pizan lives. In all likelihood, the men against whom de Pizan argues also utilized these fallacies, which is why it is acceptable for her to follow suit. Of course, given the religiosity of the period and location, the assumption of God’s existent is overwhelmingly predominant. If she had not appealed to God, the book would not have worked, and it would have had no credibility. Further, that she responds to men’s criticisms in this way, makes it more difficult for opponents to claim that she is hysterical: God has ordained her to this task, so God-fearing men may not refute her without denying His will. So we see that this foundational assumption works in her favor, at least for a Christian audience, in two ways: by presenting herself as a good and knowledgeable Christian, and by giving her a weapon against those who wield religion as one.

de Pizan also knows how to effectively play her hand. One cannot presume that she believed women should be equal in all spheres (i.e., the home as well as politics or war), but if she did, she never alludes to it. Instead, de Pizan is sure to never overstep her bounds too dramatically. She remains confined to God’s order of revealing the truth, and does not prescribe egalitarian views. Indeed, de Pizan (188) writes that “wearing clothes that aren’t fitting to one’s station in life is particularly reprehensible”—yet another judgment she makes. de Pizan (235) also states: “It’s not necessarily the best thing in the world to be free.” That is, women should stay in their stations, and “be humble and long-suffering.”

It is unclear whether she really believes women belong in a separate sphere. Given all the evidence she portrays, building up women and tearing down men to their level, here at the end de Pizan seems to contradict herself. Women, she purports, should tolerate wicked husbands, but in the next moment she cautions them to fly from the wicked. A [Christian] charitable reading would ascribe this to her attempting to reconcile the aforementioned strong women with her own period’s views. A modern feminist might like to argue that de Pizan is doing this, but struggling against her own radical ideas of equality, which is why she has a conflicting end to The Book of the City of Ladies.

To conclude, although de Pizan is not above using the same fallacies that her opponents do, her logic is overwhelmingly straightforward. Her examples and presentations on various subjects and refutations largely follow valid logic structures as well as have sound premises, which is more than can be said for many other writers (such as Aquinas). To argue the ethics of the fallacy is anachronistic; I merely argue that the book does contain fallacies, though they are explained by the circumstances in which de Pizan was raised and wrote.

Religion in Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies

Religion plays a huge role in many of the works of the Middle Ages. This is certainly true in Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies. De Pizan knew that in order to get through to men, using God and the Bible was the best way. Through her reading of Adam and Eve, her use of the Virgin Mary, her placement of the three women, and her belief that God loves all humans equally, de Pizan shows how Christianity has influenced gender roles in her time and how men have been wrongly interpreting the Bible. De Pizan shows in her writings that women were made as equal and not as inferior beings. Although there are other interpretations, de Pizan uses religion to prove to women of her own time that women are not evil and to appeal to many readers because women’s role in society was so massive.

When talking about Christianity and gender roles, one is inclined to say that, historically, men are construed as superior to women. The story of Adam and Eve is sometimes seen as God saying that women must be slaves to men. Many see the way Eve was created as clear evidence of this. De Pizan uses the creation story to show that God wants women to be at men’s side, as equals: “there Adam slept, and God formed the body of woman from one of his ribs, signifying that she should stand at his side as a companion and never lie at his feet like a slave, and also that he should love her as his own flesh” (FYP Handbook 73). De Pizan argues that since Eve came from Adam’s rib that they are a part of each other; one is not whole without the other. Adam must rely on Eve as she would him. This idea can be applied to all men and women and de Pizan emphasizes that throughout her writings: “I don’t know if you have already noted this: she was created in the image of God. How can any mouth dare to slander the vessel which bears such a moral imprint” (FYP Handbook 73). De Pizan is sharing the notion that if one speaks ill of women, then one is denouncing God and his creations. If women were created in God’s image, then they must be perfect creations. De Pizan’s point is simple but true, as she discusses the idea of humans being created in God’s image: “but some men are foolish enough to think when they hear that God made man in His image, that this refers to the material body…God created the soul and placed wholly similar souls, equally good and noble in the feminine and in the masculine bodies” (FYP Handbook 73). De Pizan’s interpretation of this idea is that God does not have a human body at the time of creation so how could He create a body in his image? He created a soul in his image; these souls have no gender. De Pizan thus uses the creation story as proof that men and women are equal even though men used it to prove the opposite.

De Pizan incorporates a multitude of women from many different times and cultures. De Pizan lets these women have a value that defies the notion that women are inferior and sustains her stance on Christianity’s pro-female writings. It seems almost perfectly appropriate that the queen of the City of Ladies is the Virgin Mary. This is one woman that everyone could agree was good. It would be hard for a Christian to deny this. De Pizan claims that Christian writings are against misogyny, in the way the Virgin Mary and female saints are admired, “may all the devout sex of women humbly beseech you that it please you well to reside among them with grace and mercy, as their defender…the fountain of virtues which flows from you and be so satisfied that every sin and vice be abominable to them” (FYP Handbook 82). If Mary has all these virtues then she must be good, which goes against the idea that women are evil. In this manner, De Pizan employs the Bible and the most revered woman to show that there are women who possess goodness. She knows that men can’t deny this, as Mary is to be worshipped.

De Pizan also uses three women as the holy trinity to tie in religion. This trinity of ladies demonstrates what is human, what connects humans to God and what is purely divine. These three women are reason, rectitude and justice. They are the embodiment of their namesake. These are virtues that people would consider beautiful, good and of God and the ladies urge de Pizan to create the city on the foundation of these morals, “stronger and more durable than any marble with cement could be” (FYP Handbook 67). De Pizan describes Lady Reason as a flawless administrator, “you have me an administrator so that you may do your work flawlessly” (FYP Handbook 68). De Pizan uses the word flawless so the readers will assume the woman is Godly. Then, Lady Rectitude introduces herself as living in Heaven: “‘I am called Rectitude and reside more in Heaven than on Earth…and messenger of His goodness” (FYP Handbook 68). Rectitude shows that virtues that females can possess are tied directly to God. De Pizan uses this tool to further her argument. These women come straight from the divine and are still good women; this is something that the reader could understand. Then Lady Justice is introduced as the daughter of God, “the most singular daughter of God, and my nature proceeds purely from his person” (FYP Handbook 68). Lady Justice represents God in the city. She is Him and of Him. This trinity of women is there to help de Pisan and show the readers that females are no different than males. Men can inhabit these traits, so why can’t women?

Throughout the book, de Pizan shares her belief that God loves women and men equally. While she believes this she also believes that everyone was designed for a certain role. Men often criticized women for their differences from men but de Pizan suggests that God accepts these differences, “he did not despise the tears of Mary Magdalene, but accepted them and forgave her sins, and through the merits of those tears she is in glory in Heaven” (FYP Handbook 75). If Mary Magdalene was rewarded by God for her tears, then they can’t be bad. De Pizan knows how to get inside the reader’s head. Christine de Pizan thus sets forward the belief that God loves men and women impartially. Still, she thinks that there is a reason that God made men and women as opposed to just one gender. Each sex has its own job: “God has similarly ordained man and woman to serve Him in different offices” (FYP Handbook 77). For the year 1405, this was a unique view. While everyone has different jobs, this arrangement doesn’t make anyone’s soul less important than anyone else’s.

As religion plays such a large role in the Middle Ages, it is important to bring forward when discussing Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies. The roles of women and religion were important at this time. Through de Pizan’s writing, it is shown that women are not evil but are in fact another beautiful part of God’s creation. Through her interpretation of the creation story, her discussion of the Virgin Mary’s role in society, the placement of the three women, and the disclosure of her own beliefs, de Pizan shows, that through God’s love, women are equal to men. Throughout the story, it is seen that women are just as good as men can be. Although human bodies are different, their souls are equal in the eyes of God and so they should be to humans; the soul was created in God’s image, not the body. The Virgin Mary is a woman and holds all the values that Christians strive to hold. The three women hold ties to God and everyone is designed for a specific job. Everyone is important, man or woman.