Friday Feminist – Christine de Pizan

Cross posted

After hearing these things, I replied to the lady [Reason] who spoke infallibly: “My lady, truly has God revealed great wonders in the strength of these women whom you describe. But please enlighten me again, whether it has ever pleased this God, who has bestowed so many favors on women, to honor the feminine sex with the privilege of the virtue of high understanding and great learning, and whether women ever have a clever enough mind for this. I wish very much to know this because men maintain that the mind of women can learn only a little.” She answered, “My daughter, since I told you before, you know quite well that the opposite of their opinion is true, and to show you this even more clearly, I will give you proof through examples. I tell you again-and don’t fear a contradiction-if it were customary to send daughters to school like sons, and if they were then taught the natural sciences, they would learn as thoroughly and understand the subtleties of all the arts and sciences as well as sons. And by chance there happen to be such women, for, as I touched on before, just as women have more delicate bodies than men, weaker and less able to perform many tasks, so do they have minds that are freer and sharper whenever they apply themselves.”

“My lady, what are you saying? With all due respect, could you dwell longer on this point, please. Certainly men would never admit this answer is true, unless it is explained more plainly, for they believe that one normally sees that men know more than women do.”

She answered, “Do you know why women know less?”

“Not unless you tell me, my lady.”

“Without the slightest doubt, it is because they are not involved in many different things, but stay at home, where it is enough for them to run the household, and there is nothing which so instructs a reasonable creature as the exercise and experience of many different things.”

“My lady, since they have minds skilled in conceptualizing and learning, just like men, why don’t women learn more?”

She replied, “Because, my daughter, the public does not require them to get involved in the affairs which men are commissioned to execute, just as I told you before. It is enough for women to perform the usual duties to which they are ordained. As for judging from experience, since one sees that women usually know less than men, that therefore their capacity for understanding is less, look at men who farm the flat lands or who live in the mountains. You will find that in many countries they seem completely savage because they are so simple-minded. All the same, there is no doubt that Nature provided them with the qualities of body and mind found in the wisest and most learned men. All of this stems from a failure to learn, though, just as I told you, among men and women, some possess better minds than others. Let me tell you about women who have possessed great learning and profound understanding and treat the question of the similarity of women’s minds to men’s.”

Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, 1405


6 responses to “Friday Feminist – Christine de Pizan

  1. In some ways, I find this passage even more amazing than some of the modern passages you post on a Friday.

    It’s so easy to read Christine and think that what she’s saying is common sense and therefore unexceptional. But you only have to read what else was written and assumed about women in this period to realise how much she’s swimming against the tide here.

    For example, if you look at the responses to John Knox’s ‘Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’ over 150 years later, they seem so luke-warm in comparison. They defend the ‘regiment’ [rule] of women like Mary Tudor and Marie de Guise just as a kind of emergency exemption; once things get back to normal, men can reassume their reassuringly ‘natural’ position of dominance.

    I would love to know more about Christine and the context in which her ideas took shape.

  2. I’m idly wondering what the word for “conceptualizing” was in the original. It seems a really anachronistic translation.

  3. The full text in French is available at project Gutenberg ( Deborah could probably locate the bit in question from the translation.

    “Conceptualise” is likely to have older roots in Romance languages than in English though, so maybe it’s an accurate translation.

    I propose a simulviewing of Fellini’s City of Women followed by blogly discussion.

  4. I’ve sent a query off to a historian who specialises in medieval women, but she may not have time to reply. But I do promise a follow-up, probably next Friday, because I have something absolutely delicious to post.

  5. I had a bit of a look at the site Giovanni recommended on Project Gutenberg, but that’s not Christine’s Cité des Dames, but a kind of Reader’s Digest version. Possibly bowdlerised, too. My hunch would be that it was produced in the early Renaissance by some male Humanist interested in women’s education.

    In fact I can’t find the original French text on the web — which is saying something, because it is utterly amazing what obscure texts you can dredge up on the web nowadays. I can now download images of manuscripts and Early Modern texts I once travelled to Switzerland to look at.

  6. According to this excellent and scholarly site:

    There’s only one modern edition of the original French, and it’s someone’s PhD thesis. It must have been a difficult PhD, because there are so many manuscripts to work from. There are only a few photocopied versions of the dissertation here in the UK, though you can download it from ProQuest (if you have access; we don’t here).

    Sorry to get obsessive about this. It’s an occupational hazard.

    By the way. I was wrong about that work Giovanni pointed out. It’s not a Reader’s Digest version, and is by Christine herself. However, it’s not the work quoted in the passage above. The Gutenberg one is called, ‘Treasury of the City of Ladies.’