Christine de Pizan was a 15th-century French feminist author. Her work The Book of the City of Ladies (~1405) is a full-throated defense of the spiritual and moral worth of women in a society that viewed them as base, lustful, and inferior. The largest part of the City of Ladies is a collection of short biographies of virtuous women. Some of these biographies can be turned into great NPCs!
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I’ll write more about the City of Ladies at the end of this blog post, but for now all you need to know is a little about the book’s framing device. In the framing story, Christine receives these biographies from three celestial women: Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. They offer these stories of virtuous, upstanding women as a counterargument to the misogynist claims Christine has to put up with every day.
The first noble counterargument we’ll look at is the Roman noblewoman Sempronia. Christine describes her as having a perfect memory, which made her a flawless musician and capable of repeating any task she’d seen performed once. But it was her rhetorical power that was most marvelous. Sempronia could convince anyone of anything, persuade people to do her bidding, and took special joy in changing people’s moods: making the downcast joyous and the gleeful angry. Christine doesn’t come right out and say that this was a supernatural gift and evidence of God’s favor, but it’s hard to read it any other way. In real life, there were many Roman noblewomen named Sempronia. We can narrow down this one’s identity a teeny bit; Christine’s description is pulled straight from Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris, where he makes clear that this one isn’t the most famous one, the sister of Tiberius Gracchus (whom I wrote about back in 2019). At your table, an NPC based on Sempronia is a perfect musician with an astonishing memory – and supernatural mind-control powers!
Our next NPC is Camilla, the daughter of Metabus, king of the Volsci. Camilla’s mother died in childbirth and King Metabus was soon overthrown. He fled to the woods carrying only his infant daughter. Camilla grew up on the milk of wild deer and wearing the skins of savage animals. She became a wild woman of the woods: faster than a hare, more accurate than a hawk. When she grew up, she retook her father’s kingdom for him. When he was king again, she was his foremost warrior. She refused to marry and lived as a virgin all her life. In real life, Camilla was not a historical figure. She’s a character in the Aeneid. At your table, Christine’s Camilla is a woods-dwelling wild woman and the champion of the royal court – a fun contrast!
Christine de Pizan presents a variety of Roman and Egyptian deities as historical humans. She claims that these women were so accomplished in life that their countrymen treated them as goddesses after they died (see also Euhemerism). So figures like Minerva, Ceres, and Isis appear in this deeply Christian text, carrying biographies that are similar to classical myths, but scrubbed partially of pagan references. In your fictional setting, priests might be very frustrated by persistent rumors that their gods are just misremembered mortals.
One of goddesses made mortal is Carmenta, a Roman deity of childbirth and prophecy. Christine has Carmenta come in a fleet of ships to the land that will one day be Rome, name the Palatine hill after her father, build a castle, and impose laws upon the indigenous population – effectively laying down the first laws of Rome. She also invents the Latin alphabet. The locals were so blown away by this cool lady that they worshipped her as a goddess in life and built a temple to her after she passed. At your table, an NPC based on Carmenta might be a rural polymath frustrated by her neighbors’ insistence that she’s some sort of god.
Almathea is another goddess turned mortal. She was born around the destruction of Troy and died during the reign of Tarquin the Proud, a lifespan somewhere in the neighborhood of seven centuries. She had the gift of prophecy. Her contemporaries attributed the gift to her being beloved of Apollo, but Christine recognizes it was because God loved Almathea’s chastity and purity. The greatest of Almathea’s prophecies concerned the coming birth and death of Christ. Towards the end of her life, Almathea traveled to Rome. She offered to sell King Tarquin nine books of her prophecies. He refused her price, so she burned three of the books in front of him. The next day, she returned to offer him the six remaining books for the same price she asked for all nine. Should he refuse, she’d burn three more, demand the same price, and – should that be refused too – burn the last three. Tarquin, intimidated, paid full price for six and found they contained full and accurate prophecies of the course of the Roman Empire, which would not be founded for another five hundred years. In Roman mythology, Almathea was the nursemaid of the infant Jupiter. Christine’s telling has little in common with that story save Almathea’s name. She is instead folded into a Christian reframing of the oracle at Delphi into ten God-blessed Sibyls. At your table, Almathea is an ancient, ballsy prophetess with a satchel full of critical foreknowledge and no time for anyone’s bullshit.
Semiramis was a Mesopotamian warrior-queen. With her husband’s help she conquered Assyria and Babylon, then after he died she conquered the rest of the East. She rode in the vanguard and had no fear of pain. One time she was having her hair plaited when a messenger brought word that one of her governors had rebelled. She leapt up, hair only half-done, and declared she’d not plait the other half until she retook the rogue province. The deed done, she commissioned a statue in Babylon of herself holding a sword, with half her hair done up and half loose. Christine de Pizan was clearly a little skeeved out by the other thing Semiramis was famous for. After Semiramis’ husband died, she married their son. This meant she didn’t have to share her empire with another crowned lady, nor did she consider any man alive worthy of her save her son.
Many authors besides Christine de Pizan recount interesting Semiramis legends. The real historical queen Shammuramat, upon whom Semiramis was based, did not marry her own son, but did serve as his regent. The incest legend may have been popularized in the fifth century, and opinions of Semiramis’ virtue varied throughout the European Middle Ages. At your table, an NPC based on Christine’s Semiramis is a fierce warrior, general, and sovereign with a distinctive look and a skeevy relationship with her own son.
Griselda was the marchioness of Saluzzo, yet was born a peasant and terribly poor. Gualtieri, the marquis of Saluzzo, saw her and decided to marry her. He didn’t ask anyone’s permission (let alone Griselda’s), just told her peasant father his intentions and rode off with her. He supposedly loved her very much, yet trusted neither her faithfulness nor her constancy. So when Griselda gave birth to a daughter, Gualtieri whisked the girl away and told Griselda he’d had their child executed. A year later, Griselda gave birth to a son and Gualtieri pulled the same stunt. Though her heart was so broken that she offered to die in her son’s place, Griselda was such a dutiful wife that her facial expression never changed.
Ten years later, the marquis wanted to test Griselda again. He told her his knights were unhappy having such a lowborn lady over them. This was a lie; all of Gualtieri’s vassals thought Griselda was great. But he said he’d be marrying a highborn woman instead, so off Griselda must go to her aged father’s house without even the clothes on her back. When the supposed noblewoman was to arrive, Gualtieri further humiliated Griselda by ordering her to attend to his new bride. He summoned his son and daughter from their comfortable exile, and Griselda waited upon her own daughter dutifully, thinking this was her ex-husband’s eleven-year-old bride. Then Gualtieri revealed the truth of everything and took Griselda back. In the story, Griselda is grateful and happy and it’s all peachy keen – a wonderful demonstration of Griselda’s womanly virtues of subservience and infinite patience.
At your table, an NPC Griselda is justifiably black-hearted and bitter. She nurses a deep hatred for her cruel husband. In real life, there was no Griselda (thank goodness!). She’s from a fictional story in Boccaccio’s Decameron, though he took the tale from somebody else. A bunch of people have written their own versions of the Griselda story, including Chaucer and Margaret Atwood.
Finally, we’ve got three women who, while not fleshed-out enough to warrant their own NPC-ness, have fabulous little details that can be added to others. Lilia, mother of Theodoric the Great, changed the outcome of her son’s battle against King Odoacer. When Theodoric was preparing to flee, Lilia lifted up her skirts and cried, “Son, there’s nowhere to hide except my womb, so you should climb back inside!” Theodoric, ashamed, returned to the battle, defeated Odoacer, and saved Italy. In real history, Odoacer was King of Italy and Theodoric took his place.
Medea, the sorceress from the Golden Fleece stories, comes up a few times in The City of Ladies, but no mention is ever made of her ill deeds, like when she murders her sons in Euripides’ play about her. Instead, we get a cool description of her magic powers. “She knew the properties of every plant and its spells. No art had been invented that she hadn’t mastered. Singing a song known only to her, Medea could call up storms, draw wind from dark caverns beneath the earth, stop the flow of rivers, brew poisons, and create fire to burn whatever she wished.”
Finally, we have a Roman woman, left unnamed, whose mother was sentenced to die in prison of thirst and starvation. This woman visited her mother every day. She couldn’t bring food or drink as she was searched, so instead she breast-fed her mother to keep her alive. The ruse was discovered when the mother didn’t die at the expected point, but the woman’s devotion to her mother touched the hearts of the judges. The mother was released from prison into her daughter’s care. This anecdote of ‘Roman charity’ is told in a lot of forms by different authors.
The framing device of The Book of the City of Ladies is that Christine, angry after having read yet another text treating women as a plague on mankind, is visited by three celestial women: Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. These beings answer Christine’s questions about the nature of woman and work with her to construct a walled and fortified city. Short biographies of virtuous women form the stone and mortar of this celestial city (a reflection of St. Augustine’s City of God) and also describe its inhabitants: the noble women who live in the divine City of Ladies. These ‘biographies’ are mostly false. Christine was writing at the start of the European rediscovery of classical sources (mostly through Arabic translation); most of what she’s recounting is taken from legend, scripture, and even fiction. She quotes extensively from a collection of ostensibly nonfictional biographies by Boccaccio, yet also quotes from his Decameron, which is definitely fiction. It was not clear to me as a reader whether Christine understood the difference.
City of Ladies gives modern readers a real appreciation for how standards of logic and evidence have changed in 600 years. While we obviously agree with the book’s conclusion – that women are the moral and spiritual equals of men – the arguments used to reach that conclusion are obsolete. Christine makes arguments based on etymology: this word derives from this other word, which proves some fundamental truth about the nature of reality. Today we understand that etymology is due more to happenstance and linguistic laziness (“the principle of least effort”) than to divine purpose. She cherry-picks arguments from scripture and ancient authorities. That does a good job of demonstrating that her misogynist opponents are also cherry-picking, since the same document can be used to support both positions. But today the argument that a man dead for a thousand years thought X so X must be true is dismissed as a logical fallacy: argument from authority. And the main thrust of the piece is the collection of biographies, yet any logician today would dismiss these as anecdotes. You need a broad representative sample, not a hundred samples carefully selected to produce one outcome.
You know that debate class learning tool where the teacher makes you argue for a position you disagree with? It’s supposed to get you to appreciate that arguments are value-neutral. You can make a good argument for something that’s wrong, and you can make a bad argument for something true or good. Reading Christine de Pizan feels a little like that: bad arguments in support of something self-evidently correct.
Additionally, for all that Christine de Pizan is definitely a feminist author, she was unable to escape the cultural context of her time and place. She presents women warriors as examples of courage and women leaders as examples of wisdom. But her advice to the women of her day is the same as that of any other contemporaneous author: be submissive, obey your husband, and endure.
I wrote back in August about Marie de France, Christine’s predecessor by 200 years. She was also a feminist writer working in a Medieval system. Yet where Christine’s work feels outdated, Marie’s still feels fresh and relevant. I feel like there’s a lesson in there for me as a writer, but I’m not sure I’m clever enough to piece it out.
Check out my book Making History: Three One-Session RPGs! It’s three awesome historical one-shots with pregenerated characters and a very simple rules system designed specifically for that story. Norse Ivory is a game about heritage and faith in the Viking Age. A Killing in Cahokia is a murder mystery in the Native American temple-city of Cahokia. And Darken Ship is a horror-adventure starring junior sailors on a U.S. Navy warship who wake up one morning to discover they’re alone on a ship that should carry three thousand.