Thinking about Ye Medieval Tymes, in general, will bum you out. No literacy, no birth control, no rights (you got married off around puberty! Also, your husband could beat or kill you if you somehow managed to develop any independent sexuality after that, and slept with a dude of your choice!), most people were incredibly poor, lots didn’t even live past childhood (which is why your life would probably be spent pumping out baby upon baby upon baby until your body gave out), and maybe the closest you could get to self-determination would be to join a nunnery and spend your life within the EVEN MORE HUGELY AND GROTESQUELY MISOGYNIST church of the day. Also, no plumbing? And bathing was frowned upon? So your whole life would smell like poop? I am no scholar, but I am pretty confident that Ye Medieval Tymes sucked for everyone, and particularly for girls.
Which is why I am so glad that I am finally reading The Book of the City of Ladies, by Christine de Pizan. It is one of the first – if not the first – feminist texts ever written! And it is so, so good! Now, if I am ever transported accidentally into the terrible hell-world that was Ye Medieval Tymes, I know exactly what I will do: run away to France and hang out with Christine. Witness:
Following the practice that has become the habit of my life, namely the devoted study of literature…
Got to love a book by a lady that opens this way! In 1405!
… one day as I was sitting in my study, surrounded by books on many different subjects, my mind grew weary from dwelling at length on the weighty opinions of authors whom I had studied for so long.
It made me wonder how it happened that so many different men – and learned men among them – have been and are so inclined to express both in their speaking and in their treatises and writings so many devilish and wicked thoughts about women and their behavior. Not only one or two… judging from the treatises of all philosophers and poets, and from all the orators – it would take too long to mention their names – it seems that they all speak from one and the same mouth.
Okay. Are you following this? Christine de Pizan reads. A lot. Christine de Pizan notes that pretty much every book, if it touches on women, says dickish things about them. (It is as if there is some prejudice against women, or something! Some sort of “privilege” or “oppression” thing going on!) Christine now gets really bummed, and is like, “what if all these guys are right, and women are awful? Gosh, I wish I were a dude, because they are perfect.” (No, really – she wishes to be “as perfect as a male is said to be,” because one of the things that is not often noted about Christine de Pizan is that she is amazingly funny.) Then, THE IMMORTAL SPIRITS OF REASON, RECTITUDE, AND JUSTICE – which are all ladies! By sheer coincidence! In the work of Christine de Pizan – come down from the heavens and tell her to snap out of it, because women are just fine, and they are here to tell her why she should not listen to all of those annoying author guys. And to deliver some hilarious takedowns!
For here is where the book shifts gears, and I learn that Christine de Pizan is, in fact, my long-lost medieval soulmate. For The Book of the City of Ladies, upon close examination, is revealed to be Tiger Beatdown: Ye Olden Tymes Edition (if, you know, Tiger Beatdown was anywhere close to being this good). Let’s just listen, shall we?
QUESTIONS WHICH SHE PUT TO REASON, AND HOW REASON REPLIED TO HER
… “My lady, how does it happen that Ovid, who is thought to be one of the best poets – although many learned men say, and I would also judge it so, in any case thanks to your correcting me, that Virgil is much more praiseworthy and his works seem to me much more important –
Ha, yes! It is not that Christine de Pizan has anything against Ovid. Christine de Pizan has been told about how great he is and everything, so it’s not Christine de Pizan’s place to deliver an incredibly mean criticism of Ovid or anything. But, you know how some men say that Virgil is a lot better than Ovid? I mean. Tell Christine de Pizan if she’s wrong. But that seems reasonable. Maybe The Immortal Spirit of Reason Itself could weigh in with some thoughts on Ovid, maybe, hmmm?
– that Ovid attacks women so much and so frequently, as in the book he calls Ars Amatoria, as well as in the Remedia Amoris and other of his volumes?”
She replied, “Ovid was a man skilled in the learned craft of poetry, and he possessed great wit and understanding in his work.”
Ah, we’re going easy on Ovid, I see. OH SHIT WAIT NO:
“However, he dissipated his body in every vanity and pleasure of the flesh, not just in one romance, but he abandoned himself to every woman that he could, nor did he show restraint or loyalty, and so he stayed with no single woman. In his youth he led this life as much as he could, for which in the end he received the fitting reward – dishonor and loss of possessions and limbs…
Yes, Ovid was a filthy man-skank. Tell your friends! Isn’t it crazy that people are founding their ideas about women on a guy with such dubious moral authority? Really, I don’t see how this takedown could get any meaner or any more personal. Unless…
… when afterwards, thanks to the influence of several young, powerful Romans who were his supporters, he was called back from exile and failed to refrain from the misdeeds for which his guilt had already punished him, he was castrated and disfigured because of his faults… when he saw that he could no longer lead the life in which he was used to taking his pleasure, he began to attack women with his subtle reasonings, and through this effort he tried to make women unattractive to others.”
Oh, daaaaaaaamn. See? Don’t worry, ladies. Ovid is just mad at you because he’s bitter! Because he has no genitals! Yes, a genital-free man of extremely dubious moral authority: that is Ovid. Gosh, he certainly was a man learned in the craft of poetry, though!
Now: The Book of the City of Ladies is definitely a product of its times, in terms of its ideas about scholarly responsibility. For example: as far as I can tell, Christine de Pizan was the only person to argue that Ovid was called back from exile and subsequently had his junk cut off. On the other hand: Christine de Pizan was frustrated with Ovid and dealt with this by writing a book in which she said that Ovid literally had no balls, holy Christ, that is amazing. And its coyness – letting the really vicious stuff rip via The Immortal Spirit of Reason, or Justice, etcetera – leads to some truly fun passages. Such as this:
I can assure you that these attacks on all women – when there are so many excellent women – have never originated with me, Reason, and that all who subscribe to them have failed utterly and will continue to fail.
Yes: Christine de Pizan has summoned the spirit of EPIC FAIL upon misogyny. There are many excellent women, my friends! Christine de Pizan just so happens to be one of them.