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Come Ye Now and Heere of the Beating of Tygers

So! My birthday is happening this week! Yes, it is true. As part of my birthday celebration, I went with my mom (hi, Mom! You are not allowed to read this blog!) to the Cloisters. Goodness, I love the Cloisters. They are beautiful. Also? They will bum you right out.

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.
In case you are missing this, Christine de Pizan is opening this – her book on feminism, which she wrote, before feminism existed, and before books on feminism existed, because she is basically inventing feminist literary criticism, right now, before your eyes – by reminding you that she is very smart. She is probably smarter than you! She has almost definitely read more books than you have! Also: she is a woman. Just letting you know about that, is what Christine de Pizan is doing. Also? The book she read this afternoon was kind of awful. And:

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?


… “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.


  1. Chex wrote:

    Haha, that was awesome. I especially liked how you said how smart and wonderful and clever Christine de Pizan was, and then how she was just exactly like you! It's true! You ARE smart and wonderful and clever! 🙂

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 8:33 am | Permalink
  2. Sady wrote:

    @Chex: Ha, WHOOPS. Fixed that. Did not mean to draw an equivalency there. Although, to be fair, there is a point in City of Ladies where Reason tells Christine how smart she is and how much Reason likes her writing. Coincidentally, I just got an e-mail!

    SUBJECT: Your Blog

    Hi! It's the Allegorical Spirit of Reason! Just wanted to let you know that your blog is my very favorite thing ever spewed forth by the Internet. I, Reason, am not on the Internet very often! Regardless, I, Reason, am a frequent visitor to your personal blog. Not since the Middle Ages have I been so entertained!

    PS: You may be wondering why I have an AOL address. It is because I am very old! Also I still use dial-up.

    So weird, right?

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 8:48 am | Permalink
  3. Renée wrote:

    Oooooo, love this. Not enough attention is paid to savvy Medieval ladies. Please also check out Héloise's letters to Peter Abelard, in which she rakes his ass over the coals for his self-indulgent "moralist" writings (post-castration – notice a theme?) and his portrait of her in Historia Calamitatum.

    He was apologetic when she was through with him.

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 8:58 am | Permalink
  4. octopod wrote:

    Today, this is the best thing on the Internet. I want to… I don't know, personally typeset, print, and bind in leather a copy of this City of Ladies book and send it to you. Where would I go about finding a copy of it?

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  5. Judith wrote:

    I'm always shocked (and by shocked I mean pleased!) when women living in shitty oppressive times manage to kick out and open a faceful of OH SNAP onto the dude hierarchy and, you know, are funny and clever about it instead of just going on a knifing spree.

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 9:27 am | Permalink
  6. susanita wrote:

    Bright birthday blessings to you, Sady! This post made me smile. I learn something every time I read your blog. Thanks!

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 9:42 am | Permalink
  7. natface wrote:

    Hello. You must read the Pillow Book. You must. It is by Sei Shonagon, a lady in waiting to the Japanese empress in the year 1000. In it, she gets down with a number of dudes! And she chastises them for not leaving early enough or gracefully enough in the morning, and also for not writing as well as she does. She has all these face offs with one of her lovers in the halls where she schools him! She likes to talk about men being stupid. It is perfect.

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 9:49 am | Permalink
  8. Vertigo wrote:

    Awesome! I will have to put her on my 'to read list'. She seemed like a really cool person to chat about everthing. 🙂

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 9:57 am | Permalink
  9. Mendacious D wrote:

    Reason has an AOL email address?

    This would explain its lengthy absences in certain parts of the blogosphere.

    I'm curious about historical background on de Pizan. Given the (more) rampant misogyny of the time, how did her writings even survive?

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 10:10 am | Permalink
  10. C. L. Minou wrote:

    Happy Birthday, Sady!

    And let me second Renee on Heloise–a great scholar in her own right, unafraid to tell her lover Peter Abelard that she was his intellectual equal (and he was one of the greatest philosophers in the Middle Ages), a better writer of Latin than he was, and a wildly successful Abbess when the job was much more like a CEO than something from "The Sound of Music."

    I shalle seeke ye Christine to heere the beatynge of Tygeres.

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  11. snobographer wrote:

    I need to get my hands on this book.
    I was watching this thing on the medieval times recently, and it turns out for a while there women were comparatively pretty independent. The plagues had killed off so many people that women had no choice but to get out and perform traditionally male labor and collaborate with each other. So it was kind of like WWII, complete with subsequent anti-feminist backlash.

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  12. Lis wrote:

    I adore Christine de Pizan. She was also a huge fan of Joan of Arc, and part of me's really happy that Christine managed to die before the whole witch-trial thing.

    Her writings managed to survive because during the middle ages and renaissance, there was actually a huge subculture of women comissioning books, romances, and poems, reading them in groups, and bequeathing them to each other. That's why her other book, Treasure of the City of Ladies, was actually a how-to guide for women so they could navigate courtship, marriage, and widowhood.

    She got to write at all because her husband died and left her three small children and a pile of debts, and basically all she had going for her was good handwriting–so she worked as a clerk before she started writing poetry and other neat things. Like books that say, "Don't let your husband die on you and leave you with no money and a dearth of marketable skills. You can't help the dying, but you can probably do something about the money and the marketable skills."

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  13. Maeve wrote:

    Hey, I enjoyed your post, and I absolutely have to recommend a book about late medieval / Renaissance women reading Christine de Pizan in case you haven't come across it yet. It's by Susan Groag Bell, and it's called _The Lost Tapestries of the City of Ladies_. It's a facinating account of medieval aristocratic women and their relationships with each other and to their history.

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  14. oriniwen wrote:

    Congratz on another trip around the Sun, Sady! I'm thrilled you're here and delivering the beatdown.

    I think you are also one of those "excellent women" you talk about and I talk about your writing all the time to everyone! What you do is wonderful and meaningful as well, keep it up!

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  15. Jess wrote:

    Love this post! I will have to see if my library has this book.

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  16. blindmouse wrote:

    Oh wow, that's awesome. Definitely adding to my to-read list.

    Monday, June 8, 2009 at 8:08 pm | Permalink
  17. Chex wrote:

    Sady, you crack my shit right up.



    Tuesday, June 9, 2009 at 8:22 am | Permalink
  18. wildlyparenthetical wrote:

    Medieval feminism is so amazing. And sometimes bizarre. Like, let's all become nuns and hang out in convents and not eat til we have some awesomely erotic dreams/hallucinations about sexin' Jesus! Exciting! (If you're wondering how good a lay Jesus is, which I know you all are, these ladies can tell you!). And yes, sometimes I think that convents were just one of the few acceptable sites of lesbianism in the middle ages, which makes me smile to think that the sexin'-up techniques of Jesus, described in such loving detail in some old, old manuscripts, might be based on some late-night Sapphic convent action…

    Or, more medieval feminism, 'I know, I shall lock myself up in a lil room next to a church, and that way men won't be able to annoy me so much! And I can write my book! And read other stories written by women!' Yeah, okay, that latter one trips a nice problematic line between 'resisting sexism' and 'falling right in with it', what with them not really being able to leave these lil rooms, and them being almost like prisons. Still.

    Also, happy birthday, Sady! Yay for you and your ancient-ness! (I can say this because I outrank you in years by a few ;-)). You are part of a long proud history, and sometime in the future, another young woman will discover your ladybusiness and write about the awesomeness of you. I can see it now.

    Tuesday, June 9, 2009 at 6:21 pm | Permalink
  19. Anonymous wrote:

    wildlyparenthetical- do you love Hildegarde too? You know what with the hallucinatory drawings of the world contained in Mary's womb? And the fires of heaven dancing in H's eyes as she dictated to her male assistant what all those lady sex parts meant? As she apologized for being all feminine and therefore unworthy as she took control of well, everything she touched? From inside her locked cell? And the music….

    I'm trying not to go on ranting defense of Ye Olde Dark Ages, so I'll try to stop with pointing out that if you like astonishing womens the medievalism isn't a bad place to start looking for them. It's both a testament to the way women will break through wherever there's a crack big enough and also that there were a surprising number of cracks.

    (A lot of this was disappeared around teh Renaissance, stupid bastards. That's right, I blame the patriarchal Renaissance.)

    Wednesday, June 10, 2009 at 6:58 am | Permalink
  20. berryblade wrote:

    Thanks for just giving me something to read when I've finished digesting The Second Sex (I swear, I will finish it eventually.)

    Happy Birthday as well, I hope it's filled with good friends, good food and good times 🙂

    Wednesday, June 10, 2009 at 8:05 am | Permalink
  21. Larissa wrote:

    Some would say that Christine de Pizan, in her protofeminism, was antifeminist.

    But mostly these people are just medieval gender academics arguing for their side (Middle Ages/medieval writers as misogynistic/not-as-misogynistic-as-is-popularly-believed).

    I just visited NYC and didn't get around to going to the Cloisters. What a bad medievalist of me.

    Thursday, June 11, 2009 at 2:05 am | Permalink
  22. Rebekka wrote:

    Nice post. One small thing I have to comment on – "you got married off around puberty!" – only true if you were upper class. The lower classes couldn't get married until they could support a family, and generally that was in their early 20s.

    Sunday, June 21, 2009 at 7:28 pm | Permalink
  23. Minuteye wrote:

    Interesting post. For those interested, some of her work is up on Project Gutenburg, but unfortunately only in french. Wonder if she’s still in print…

    Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 1:17 pm | Permalink