Christine de Pizan A Dandizette Doyenne
by Tyne O’Connell
The first Dandizette to take up charms by using her pen to counteract misogyny was Christine de Pizan who was born in 1364 in Venice. Her greatest work, The City of Ladies is a true dandizette call to charms.
Christine de Pizan was not only a rhetorical genius who brought great women in history back into prominence, but she exposed crude and vulgar language as another weapon used to slander women while simultaneously denigrating the sexual act itself.
For the modern dandizette, Pizan deserves to be praised as the first woman in history to reinterpret the word Lady, to mean not a woman of noble birth, but a woman of noble spirit, wit, courage and charm.
Self educated, she immersed herself in languages and classics and when left widowed with three children she turned to writing to support her young family, composing love ballads and poems to survive.
She was already a renowned and successful professional author when she took up charms to wage her bold crusade to clear the good name of women after reading the best selling book of her time, Romance of the Rose.
Written by a man, Jean de Meuns, as a satire on “courtly love”, the book was in essence an all out attack on women who were portrayed by Jean de Meuns as vile seductresses and cold hearted manipulators; “unchaste, inconstant, unfaithful, and mean by nature.”
When Germaine Greer said, “Women don’t realise just how much men really hate us” I suspect her inspiration came from reading Christine de Pizan’s, City of Ladies, a book in which Christine addresses the sheer volume of literary hate and slander against women through the ages. The Book Of The City Of The Ladies was a revolutionary book over six hundred and ten years ago. Even now this book remains a salutary reminder of men’s unerring low opinion of women.
However rather than launching a counter attack on the failings of men, Christine De Pizan lay a clever and witty literary trap by writing a lament explaining that she, “could scarcely find a moral work by any author which didn’t devote some chapter or paragraph to attacking the female sex.” Disheartened by the works of male authors, Christine writes that she agrees, that “indeed women must be a lost cause, since it was unlikely that so many learned men, who seemed to be endowed with such great intelligence and insight into all things, could possibly have lied on so many different occasions.”
Gloriously, men fell into her clever trap, falling over themselves to argue against their own case and extolling the virtues of women.
In Christine’s literary riposte to Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose she praised her opponent as an “expert in rhetoric” as compared to herself “a woman ignorant of subtle understanding and agile sentiment.” Her unique rhetorical strategy – belittling her style and writing against the grain of her meaning – became her trademark literary weapon.
After her text was published, Jean de Meun wrote a treatise defending his misogynist sentiments. Her literary riposte to this treatise soon turned into a full blown literary war known as the Querelle du Roman de la Rose. In the end, the principal issue was no longer the literary capabilities of Jean de Meun but the unjust slander of women within literary texts generally.
De Pizan’s reputation as a formidable female intellectual was firmly established and she continued to defend women in literature settling the issue that women are not the cruel cold hearted seductresses men would have them believe and actually have a significant place within society.
Her greatest literary work is the City of Ladies in which she describes a female utopia, an allegorical society built by ladies for ladies.
I read it first while a teenager at a time when women were burning their bras for equal rights and the word Lady had become a word of hate. Reading City of Ladies ignited in me a burning determination to reclaim the word lady as a definition of a woman of spirit, wit, courage and charm.
I felt I owed it to the ladies of history and my own matriarchal lineage to preserve and honour the word Lady. My female ancestors, beleaguered Irish Catholic women who faced oppression not just by virtue of their gender but for their race and religion, managed to maintain their noble spirit despite oppression violence and starvation. These ladies – for they were ladies and proudly classified themselves as such despite their poverty – educated, protected, fed and fought for their families armed solely with the dandizette weapons of dignity, razor sharp wit, humour, charm and impeccable manners. I owe it to their bravery and sacrifices to reclaim the word lady as a description of all women of courage, wit, good manners and charm.
Christine de Pizan showed true dandizette spirit in that while taking umbrage at the calumnies and slanders against her sex by male writers, her umbrage did not manifest itself as hatred toward men, even those who attacked her personally. Eventually she won them round with her elegant rhetoric and superior debate, earning their respect and praise.
Her greatest work, The City of Ladies begins with Christine responding to Matheolus’s Lamentations a misogynist text in which Matheolus insists women make men’s lives miserable. She says quite simply that, “This thought inspired such a great sense of disgust and sadness in me that I began to despise myself and the whole of my sex as an aberration in nature.”
The three Virtues then appear to Christine; Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude & Lady Justice and one by one they dispel the myths and slanders against women by men and aid the allegorical Christine to create a utopian city built for and by valiant ladies of great renown.
Lady Reason is the first of the Virtues to come to women’s defence listing all the great deeds women have accomplished in history. By creating the character Lady Reason, Christine not only teaches her own allegorical self, but also her readers. Giving all women reason to believe that women are not bad eggs and actually have a significant place within society. Lady Reason instructs Christine to lay the foundation for The City of Ladies by “taking the spade of her intelligence” to dig up the lies and slanders of men against women thereby uncovering the merits and great accomplishments of women in history that lie beneath these lies.
Lady Rectitude appears next to assist Christine in creating the walls and houses of the City of Ladies which will be filled with the ladies of great renown regaling Christine with “stories of pagan, Hebrew, and Christian ladies” who were loyal, compassionate and learned and devoted to their family and others.
Christine questions Lady Rectitude about men’s claims that women are by nature “unchaste, inconstant, unfaithful, and mean by nature”. Lady Rectitude corrects these misconceptions with examples of women who loved their husbands and acted virtuously, noting that those women who are evil toward their husbands are “like creatures who go totally against their nature”.
Lady Justice completes the city by filling it with female saints and other great women of history including installing the Virgin Mary as queen. Finally Lady Justice warns the inhabitants against the lies of men, saying, “Drive back these treacherous liars who use nothing but tricks and honeyed words to steal from you that which you should keep safe above all else: your chastity and your glorious good name”.
In The City of Ladies, Pizan questions why men are adverse to women being educated especially as woman display such a natural affinity to learn. Christine like many women until very recently was entirely self educated to a very high level though no formal education was ever offered to her. She also explores the criminality of rape which was then as now a controversial theme with questions of a woman’s own culpability in her assault being called into question.
This great revolutionary dandizette text was written over six hundred and ten years ago, so it seems only proper that Christine de Pizan should be at the cornerstone of the Dandizette Manifesto, reminding us that charm, humour, wit and impeccable manners are the greatest weapons of every elegant feminist