Cities of Women

Image of Cities of Women
Release Date: 
September 5, 2023
Keylight Books
Reviewed by: 

This richly textured narrative whipsaws the reader between the 14th and 21st centuries. The comparisons between those times are intriguing and differences often less clear than one would think.”

A woman who writes medieval manuscripts, a woman whose skill as an artist illuminates that work, and a woman who is a struggling 21st century history professor make up the primary cast of figures in this remarkable novel from Dr. Kathleen B. Jones. What’s not to like?

This richly textured narrative whipsaws the reader between the 14th and 21st centuries. The comparisons between those times are intriguing and differences often less clear than one would think. Cities of Women uses Christine de Pizan as the focal point to delve into a world where women were ignored, abused, and erased; a time when women were disposable and dispensable.

Christine de Pizan, a well-known 14th century writer, and her books, The Book of the City of Ladies, and its sequel The Treasure of the City of Ladies, present a woman’s view of medieval life. She wrote for women, regardless of social status, and depicted their lives in a way unlike anyone else.

Questions are raised about who illuminated de Pizan’s manuscripts. The story challenges the default position that all illuminations were commissioned and produced by habit-cloaked monks—in other words, men. It recognizes the theory that anything marked “anonymous” was created by a woman. Far-fetched? No more so than believing that women were and continue to be incapable, intellectually or otherwise, of creating anything worthwhile. This book can make the reader think about possibilities and wonder about who created what and when.

Jones presents a different narrative by introducing readers to Anastasia, whose singular talent was recognized early on, and who produced remarkably intricate illuminations that brought her to the attention of royalty, and envious less-talented men.

Jones weaves a story that entertains and educates. She takes the reader on a visit to the Wiltshire village of Lacock, known in the cinema firmament as the location for films and television shows. Descriptions of how paper is made and the variations in quality take readers back to a time when such products were not readily available.

Jones’s protagonist, Verity Frazer, is a depressed, disillusioned history professor looking for something to jump start her life, and it isn’t the accepted topic of her proposed book, which is needed to obtain tenure at her university. Her journey of discovery follows an unplanned visit to a museum lecture and exhibit—one that is far outside her usual course of study.

Verity begins to wonder—Did Anastasia exist? Is she responsible for the intricate illuminations emblazoned on Christine de Pezan’s manuscripts? Readers will find themselves enmeshed in this gripping story of how a young woman from a small village found her way to Paris and became an artist whose existence is unknown to history.

The author introduces readers to the beginning of the Renaissance—the Dark Ages have ended; new and exciting adventures are being experienced across Europe. A different perspective is proposed in which women take a more exposed role in the development of art and writing. After all, knowing who Christine de Pizan was and what she wrote about, isn’t it logical she would seek out a woman to illuminate her work? Does anyone believe such a situation could never exist?

What adds to the excitement is how de Pizan reaches out across the centuries and touches a woman seeking something she cannot quite identify. It reflects the power of women to influence others regardless of time or space. In that regard, Cities of Women is a book about and for the ages.