Georgianna Ziegler on Christine de Pisan:
Christine de Pisan is the medieval precursor of all the women writers in Shakespeare's Sisters exhibition. She wrote her most famous work, The Book of the City of Ladies, in 1405, and it circulated widely in manuscript. On display is an English translation published in 1521, early in the reign of Henry VIII. Christine was both Italian and French, having been born in Italy around 1364 and then grown up in France where her physician and astrologer father worked at the court of Charles V. By the time she was twenty-five, both her father and husband had died, leaving her with a mother and three children to support. She embarked on a program of self-education and began writing as a way of supporting her family. She presented her beautifully decorated manuscripts to members of the nobility who rewarded her well.
The Book of the City of Ladies is Christine’s answer to many anti-feminist tracts that circulated in the Middle Ages. She writes that she noticed how many male writers “concur in one conclusion: that the behavior of women is inclined to . . . every vice.”† But when she thought about her own character and about “other women whose company I frequently kept, princesses, great ladies, women of the middle and lower classes, who had graciously told me of their most private and intimate thoughts,”† she could not see how the arguments of these men against women could be true. So she sets out to build a city of ladies, in which she tells the stories of many famous women, mostly from mythology and classical and religious history, whose lives prove their virtuousness and their intelligence. Included are the first women artists and poets, as well as those adept in early science, women who undertook warfare, and those who saved their husbands and others from death. She also gives examples of many women who were chaste and faithful.
At the end she writes: “My most honored ladies, may God be praised, for now our City is entirely finished . . . where all of you who love glory, virtue, and praise may be lodged in great honor, ladies from the past as well as from the present and future, for it has been built and established for every honorable lady.”†
†Translations by Earl Jeffrey Richards
Georiganna Ziegler has written on Lady Anne Clifford, Esther Inglis, and Elizabeth I, including the exhibition catalog, Elizabeth I: Then and Now. She is Louis B. Thalheimer Head of Reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and is the curator of the exhibition Shakespeare's Sisters.
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