Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Building the Ideal City: Female Memorial Praxis in Christine De Pizan's Cite Des Dames

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Building the Ideal City: Female Memorial Praxis in Christine De Pizan's Cite Des Dames

Article excerpt

Although ethical memory is vital to Christine de Pizan's rhetorical agenda, the fact that it is deeply embedded within the text of Le Livre de la Cite des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies) has been little explored. Since medieval rhetoric viewed memory as the path to ethical knowledge and wisdom, the individual memory had to be trained in order to be fully functional in ethical pursuits. So Christine fashions an artificial memory system within the text that provides a means for women to develop an ethical memory practice, thereby disproving the anti-feminist tradition of women's vice and inconstancy. As she builds a pro-feminist history of "Woman" in the Cite by revising the anti-feminist tradition, Christine concomitantly instructs her female audience in the ways they can remember and practice this new history. Ultimately, this architectural system organizes a memorial space into a haven for the memories of her female readers, the new citizens of Christine's visionary citadel.

By 1405, when she wrote Le Livre de la Cite des Dames, Christine de Pizan was already an active participant in the enduring literary and philosophical debate over the nature of "Woman." (1) Throughout its period of influence, this debate functioned as an intellectual literary game, a means by which individual writers could demonstrate their rhetorical skills and bolster their authority. The highly rhetorical nature of the debate's intellectual game was marked by its rigidly fixed, symbiotic structure of anti-feminist blame and pro-feminist praise in which each side brought into play the same rhetorical conventions and sources to make its particular case. (2) The debate's dialectical structure also required that pro-feminist authors counterargue anti-feminist polemic in addition to constructing a pro-feminist case. Christine maintained that the debate was detrimental to women not because their natures were inherently inconstant and unstable, as the anti-feminist side posited, but, rather, because women were uneducated in the rules of the game: without rhetorical training, women were unable to defend themselves against anti-feminist charges of inconstancy, imprudence, and vice, and still less able to construct a positive pro-feminist definition of, and for, themselves.

In the Cite des Dames, Christine corrects this lack of rhetorical education by critiquing the anti-feminist tradition while also creating a rhetorical arena to house and preserve her pro-feminist case. The didactic agenda underlying her Cite requires not just rewriting and revising the anti-feminist case but also educating her female audience in this new vision, because, as she argues, "Dieu ... a donne a entedement de femme assez apprehenssive de toutes choses entendibles concevoir, congnoistre et retenir" (762; "God ... has granted that the mind of an intelligent woman can conceive, know and retain all perceptible things"; 86-87). (3) Her Cite demonstrates the scholarly refutation of the anti-feminist tradition by one such intelligent female reader as she creates a new, positive definition of "Woman," replacing the anti-feminist definition in the minds of her female readers. As she replaces the accepted anti-feminist definition of "Woman" in both literary tradition and in women's own lives and minds, Christine simultaneously provides a specific space to house this new memory practice. By presenting herself as a model female reader who counterargues the anti-feminist tradition through pro-feminist polemic and rhetorical mnemonics, Christine constructs a new reception practice in which she tutors her female readers.

Christine's rendering of medieval female reception practice addresses contemporary critical concern as to how medieval women perceived the gender-based attacks emerging from the medieval debate. (4) In her responses to the "querelle de la Rose" (5) and in the Cite des Dames, Christine provides an example of gendered reception by a female medieval reader who had been trained in reading "as" a man. …

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