Christine de Pizan’s rhetorical talent lay in her ability to mimic the political thinkers, both contemporary and historical, and adapt their style to her will.

In order to lend herself authority and stake a claim for women’s rationality, in The Book of the City of Ladies, de Pizan’s writing style is heavily influenced by historical and contemporary political treatise and literature.

The allegory and dialogue styles were both popular in mediaeval Europe as was the ‘mirror of princes’ genre, which similarly influenced Machiavelli 100 years later.

The tools of the oppressor

In many of her works, de Pizan adopts the mirror for princes style, providing guidelines for monarchical behaviour. This literary genre is known for collating a bibliographical catalogue of historical, mythological, literary, and biblical figures to exemplify the behaviour the text is endorsing.

She uses the mirror of princes technique within her works written for the benefit of the Dauphin Louis of Guyenne, The Book of Peace and The Book of the Body Politic, as well as within her subversive take on the genre, her ‘mirror for princesses’, The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies.

While these books all display de Pizan’s unique brand of ‘virtue ethics’, it is in her letters and poems, and The Book of the City of Ladies, that de Pizan presents her original political thought. She was an influential participant in the Querelle de la Rose surrounding Jean de Meun’s popular expansion on the poem Roman de la Rose, which insinuated that all women were inferior to men in terms of rationality and virtue.

In response to the poem and the praise it garnered, de Pizan went on the attack. She wrote scathing critiques of the poem and defended women in letters and poems, which she sent to book publishers, eminent thinkers, and compiled to present to the Queen of France.

Style and The City of Ladies

Like Machievelli’s The Prince, The Book of the City of Ladies and its companion The Treasure of the City of Ladies form an instruction manual on behaviour and inspirational stories to educate, in de Pizan’s case, princesses and ladies of every class.

The use of Plato’s Socratic dialogue adds considerable weight to de Pizan’s arguments in The Book of the City of Ladies. Christine (the character) is the student and devil’s advocate, giving voice to every negative generalisation made about women de Pizan (the author) has encountered.

Through her allegorical Virtues, Reason, Rectitude and Justice, de Pizan systematically refutes the negative stereotype she sees in print, not only providing arguments countering these accusations but also presenting the evidence needed to back their claims. Her methodical and rational defence of women is juxtaposed with the unreasonable and unnatural claims of those who slander womenp.

Like Plato’s Republic and St Augustine’s City of God, in The Book of the City of Ladies de Pizan builds a utopian vision with her words. While the Republic depicts a society beyond politics the cities of God and ladies provide their virtuous inhabitants with eternal life.

Instead of a perfect or spiritual polis, however, de Pizan’s utopic city is an intellectual refuge and defence against a barrage of literary misogyny.

It has been built as a sanctuary not just for de Pizan’s contemporaries but as a defence for all those who follow her. The city, filled with virtuous, courageous and intelligent women, is the only arsenal a woman needs to counter negative stereotypes.

In summary

It is in The Book of the City of Ladies that de Pizan presents her most thorough and cohesive defence against claims of women’s inferiority using her rhetorical talent for mimicry to provide authority to her arguments.

Her evidence, drawn from mythology, history, scripture, and contemporary society, mirrors the literary, philosophical and theological evidence used to assert women’s inferiority.

By utilising established writing frameworks, de Pizan is able to secure a place for herself within a long tradition of political philosophy lending credibility and authority to her ideas.

Using established stylistic traditions de Pizan beats male philosophers at their own game, logic and reason, thereby defeating their arguments.

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