Essays in Medieval Studies 21 (2005) 97-108
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Feminism and the Fall:
Boccaccio, Christine de Pizan, and Louise Labé
Julia Simms Holderness
Semiramis, the mythical queen of Babylon who conquered new lands and seduced her own son, was a focal point for early feminist debate. Her story underwent some surprising revisions, particularly in Boccaccio's De Claris Mulieribus (1362), Christine de Pizan's Cité des dames (1405), and Louise Labé's Oeuvres (1555). As I shall argue, however, these revisions are not attempts to whitewash Semiramis's story. Writers on both sides of the debate embrace Semiramis's imperfections, which they present in the light of the original Fall of woman and man. The feminists, Christine de Pizan and Louise Labé, seize on a historical concept—the Fall and its aftermath of woe—and turn it into a strange strength; the example of Semiramis's fall becomes an object lesson on the importance of education for women. Boccaccio paints Semiramis as almost but not quite manly—an example of military and political virtù, undone in the end by her innate feminine licentiousness. Coming right after the story of Eve (the first of Boccaccio's "remarkable women"), the story of Semiramis is that of a second Fall, again prompted by feminine frailty. This lurid tale is the point of departure for both Christine de Pizan's and Louise Labé's versions; Labé responds to Christine's version as well. As I shall argue, Christine's response to Boccaccio and Labé's response to Boccaccio and Christine illustrate the power of periodization as a rhetorical tool; in this case, it is the rhetoric of feminism.
The Cité des dames and the Oeuvres of Louise Labé each open with an apology for women's education, followed by the story of Semiramis. Both pointedly ignore the story of Eve's fatal curiosity, but their arguments for women's education suggest an indirect response to it. In the Cité, which is like Boccaccio's book an episodic history of women, Christine emphasizes Semiramis's heroism and good sense and through some rather surprising logic rationalizes her incest. According to Christine Semiramis did not know any better, because she lived at the dawn of [End Page 97] time, before the advent of written law. She was only doing what she felt was best, or as Christine puts it, "what her heart suggested to her." This is a prelapsarian Semiramis. Christine describes Semiramis's story as the "foundation stone" of the allegorical City of Ladies. Semiramis's story is also an object lesson on how to interpret misogynistic texts like the De Claris Mulieribus. In her lyrical "First Elegy" Louise Labé does not deny Semiramis's heroism, but she undermines it, reproducing Boccaccian images of the one-time warrior queen languishing in bed. Her mind is disordered; she has lost her "manly heart." This is a postlapsarian Semiramis. And yet Labé's description is less lurid than pathetic. She agrees with Christine that Semiramis should not be blamed for her mistakes, and she points to her possible redemption.
Christine de Pizan and Louise Labé reinvent history. Of course Christine's revisionism is clear to anyone who reads the Cité; many of her exempla offer a new and more positive look at previously maligned women such as Medea, and indeed, Semiramis. What is perhaps less clear is the depth of this reinvention. Both authors rewrite what is for them the beginning of history, the story of the Fall. Christine's Semiramis is literally prehistoric, the foundation stone on which that Augustinian memory palace, the City of Ladies, rests. Innocent in the full sense of the word, she exemplifies women's potential to do good, particularly when their natural intelligence has the benefit of education. Labé's Semiramis is decidedly fallen, and part of a community of fallen women, but the poet invests their state with a new dignity. She suggests that experience can make these women wise, if they choose to reflect on it as she does with lyrical passion. The stories...