The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan was completed in the early 15th century, and today is one of her most famous books. Her writing career was long and varied, but somehow I had never heard of Christine or her books until I started studying illuminated manuscripts. The City tells the stories of famous women in history to argue that women are morally and intellectually capable. This book challenged many of my ideas about the medieval and early modern periods: Why did Christine praise witches like Medea? Why did she include the goddess Ceres? I wanted to learn more, and to share what I learned. My art is all about the medieval period, and challenging our assumptions about a very complicated time in history.

            In The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine builds a metaphorical city for all the women of the world to inhabit, where they can defend themselves from attacks on their gender. The inhabitants of this city include classical goddesses, famous queens, saints, witches, and artists, and Christine uses their stories to argue against the powerful (but vague) misogynistic arguments of her time. She is guided by the personifications of Reason, Righteousness, and Justice.

            One of Christine’s sources for these stories is Giovanni Boccaccio’s Famous Women, written several decades before. Boccaccio’s book tells the stories of famous women in myth and history, but unlike in Christine’s City, Boccaccio seems to have a dim view of women in general.     

            In the second part of her book, Christine de Pizan argues with people who say women are naturally greedy. She asks Righteousness about this. “My dear friend,” says Righteousness, “let me assure you that greed is no more natural in women than it is in men, and God only knows whether men are less greedy!”[1] Christine then recounts the stories of two women: Busa the Roman woman, and a contemporary French woman, the Dame Marguerite de la Rivière.

            Busa, or Paulina, sheltered Roman soldiers after their defeat at the battle of Cannae. Using her own funds, Busa provided food and medical care to the soldiers until they could return to Rome. [2], [3]


            Marguerite’s story is very sweet, and Christine tells it as something that happened in France very recently. While at a feast, the young lady Marguerite noticed that a famous old knight was missing, only to learn he was in prison for debt. Marguerite took of her golden chaplet and replaced it with a crown of flowers, and asked that her chaplet be used as a pledge for the old man’s debt so he could attend the feast.[4]

                  In Famous Women, Boccaccio uses Busa as an exception, a woman who overcame her gender’s usual greed and avarice. This is a common idea in Boccaccio’s writing: his famous women are exceptions, “manly” women who overcame their gender’s shortcomings. He compares Busa to a famous male exemplar of generosity, Alexander the Great, who showered his friends with precious gems, money, and kingdoms. But of course, he points out, Alexander was a conquerer who had gained all these precious gifts by force, while Busa was a private citizen and was giving out of her own inheritance. Alexander also could not guarantee that all of these gems and kingdoms would remain his,  while Busa had a legal right to her money.

            While Boccaccio sees Busa as an exception, Christine uses Busa and Marguerite to show that women can give generously when given any financial freedom to do so. Busa’s inheritance was legally hers, as was Marugerite’s gold chaplet. Women in Christine’s time would have had control over their personal property like clothes and jewelry, but little power over anything else. Boccaccio frequently complains about women’s desire for luxurious jewelry and clothing in Famous Women, but Christine notes that this is a natural response when women are financially suppressed.  Christine says it makes sense that women “guard the little they can have, knowing they can recover this only with the greatest pain.” [5] Keep in mind that every part of a medieval outfit would be made by hand, from spinning to weaving to dyeing to sewing, and the expense would be similar to buying a car today.[6] According to Christine, when women desire jewels and clothing, they are just trying to ensure the financial future for themselves and their families in the only way they can.

            And if a woman has a wasteful husband, asking him to spend less will of course be seen as mean and greedy.“But, just as I told you before,” says Righteousness, “the fool sees his neighbor’s peccadillo and fails to see his own enormous crime.”[7]


            I was excited to work on this piece that would feature luxury, beautiful dresses, and crowns. Busa’s headdress and dress were based on a different Paulina in the 15th century French translation of Famous Women illuminated by Robinet Testard.

            The ladies in the feast scene with Marguerite were based on figures in the Morgan Bible.

            I use gold ink, gouache, felt tip pens, and a plant-based parchment that mimics the texture of calfskin parchment.When I make an illuminated manuscript page, I start by sketching the design on graph paper. For a big design like this one, I usually end up taping several sketches together.

            Because the parchment is translucent, I can trace the finished design without using a light box. I trace over the pencils with Micron .45mm felt tip pens, then paint in the gold. My gouache palette is based on the colors in the Morgan Bible: blue, red, green, white, light blue, and light pink.

            The last step is tracing over the ink lines again to give everything a crisp outline. This step is really hard on the felt tip pens, and I usually go through a handful of them for each piece. My favorite step is always the chain mail, which uses a tiny .20mm felt tip pen.

            There are a lot of tiny tweaks and changes made at the end: adding a tiny tendril of hair, taking out a stray spot of gold ink, adjusting the shape of a crown. Eventually I have to decide that the piece is finished so Busa and Marguerite can join the City of Ladies.


[1] de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, 209.

[2] de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, 210.

[3] Boccaccio, Famous Women, 140.

[4] de Pizan, Famous Women, 211.

[5] de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, 209.

[6] Panel, Ada Palmer, “History of Fabric Arts”, 12/18/21.

[7] de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, 209.