The two literary works in question are stellar illustrations of the dichotomous views of men and women in medieval Catholic Europe. The two works are truly exceptional in that they represent the rare women’s voice in a cultural and intellectual milieu dominated by men. The Book of the City of Ladies (which originally appeared in French in 1405 as Le Livre de la Cite des Dames) was written by Christine de Pizan. The project is not only a product of creative storytelling, but also a polemical response to an earlier work by Jean de Meun, namely The Romance of the Rose. De Meun’s work exemplifies the stereotypical views and subordinate status of women of the era, as the prose is full of misogynist beliefs. In the creative yet culturally sensitive response to de Meun’s work, de Pizan constructs an allegorical story of the City of Ladies.
Drawing heavily from Giovanni Boccaccio’s On Famous Women (first published in French as De mulieribus claris), de Pizan weaves in the tales of famous woman personalities from the beginning of recorded history. In the magical surrealist world of the City of Ladies, these women inhabit, inform and transform the culture of the city. Here, one could see the theoretical anthropological interpretation of man versus woman conflict as culture versus nature. The erstwhile male preserve of culture of medieval Catholic Europe is challenged and transformed by the enlightened and progressive view of its illustrious female occupants. This includes Ghismonda, Lisabetta, Rhea Ilia, Virgin Mary, etc. In Christine’s exercise to find occupants for the city, she’s aided by the three Virtues – Reason, Rectitude and Justice.
Christine de Pizan then fleshes out the nature versus culture debate by deliberating several topics with the three Virtues. These include women’s rights to education, the reasons for men’s demeaning view and behavior toward women, women’s potential in public administration, etc. de Pizan accomplishes this challenge through an exegesis that operates at several levels. First, the exegesis of the historical record relating to great women of the past serves as the inspiration. Second, the exegesis of medieval male authors presents an understanding of the depressed station of women in the period. Third, the exegesis of The Book of the City of Ladies itself contains the other two interpretations. Through this literary device as well as with the aid of factual historical information, de Pizan successfully asserts the rights of women (nature) as against the impositions of patriarchal norms (culture).
Song of the Hummingbird is another classic piece of medieval literature, which complements the concerns raised by The Book of the City of Ladies. The story exposits another version of culture versus nature debate, wherein the former is represented by the Spanish-born priest Benito and the latter by the old woman Huitzitzilin (Hummingbird). At a broader level, Father Benito represents the masculinity and cultural imposition of the imperialists, while Huitzitzilin represents the native people of the Americas, whose culture is more aligned with Mother Nature. The Song of the Hummingbird thus lends itself to more than a merely feminist exegesis, for it also throws light on the ignorance and misplaced superiority of the occupiers. For example, an exegetic study of the text shows how Father Benito’s school-taught understanding of native Mexican culture is very different (and removed from reality) compared to the portrayal of it by Huitzitzilin. Here too, one could equate the arrogance and ignorance that goes with imperialism as an analogue to male domination of society. Conversely, the wisdom and pragmatism of the natives is analogous to the anthropological conception of nature and femininity.
De Pizan, Christine. The Book of the City of Ladies. 1405. Trans. Rosalind Brown-Grant. London: Penguin, 1999. Print.
Graciela Limon, Song of the Hummingbird, published by Arte Publico Press, Houston, 1995, ISBN 1-55885-091-0