This semester I teach Great Books II for the fourth time. It is also the first time that I include two major texts by women. I’ve always included Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, which we normally read after The Divine Comedy. This time, I assigned Revelations of the Divine Love by Julian of Norwich between Dante and de Pizan. Also known as Showings, Revelations had been on my radar for some time, and I decided on the inclusion partially because of a presentation by a faculty at Samford University about teaching it to undergraduates. The presentation occurred online during the 2021 annual conference of the Association for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC).
There is a zero-sum experience in the four-course Great Books sequence at Pepperdine, and something gotta give: Lives of the Artists in this case. Pained that I was to drop Vasari–and pained were a couple of alumni when they saw it on my Instagram Stories–it was the right choice to add Julian. The ACTC presentation focused on solitude and the pandemic-like context, and there were definitely some echoes to our recent situation. For the most part, though, I approached teaching it in a comparative context to Dante. It proved to be a very good pairing.
Incidentally, it was at the 2014 ACTC that I chatted with an art historian about Vasari. The following year, I included four of Vasari’s biographies when teaching Great Books II: Giotto, Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo. The guiding and thematic analysis was on Vasari’s concept of “the divinely inspired” artist. In class, we also examined a number of artworks described in these biographies.
Back to this semester, I also included for the first time “The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicity,” whose partial authorship is attributed to the third-century Perpetua. Even though we spent only one class discussing it, the inclusion of this text means that the students were exposed to three women authors.
Yesterday my students completed all readings and forum responses, and we had the last regular discussion. In the last forum, I offered a question asking which one or two texts that they would consider their favorites. Not all responded to this question, but many did and the answers were varied. Augustine’s Confessions continues to be the top choice for many students while a few votes go to The Prince. Two students, including one that grew up Lutheran, selects On the Freedom of a Christian as a top-two. Each student wrote an essay on either the Inferno or Purgatorio/Paradiso–and several chose to write both essays. To my surprise, however, only a couple of students chose The Divine Comedy as a top-two this time. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t like Dante; I know they did. It’s only that some ideas resonated with them or challenged them a little more this time.
To my surprise, too, the largest number of students picked de Pizan to be a favorite. Two or three chose Julian of Norwich, and one counted St. Perpetua as a top-two. Since this is the first time that there are more than one woman author in this course, I’d like to share what students have written about them: Julian in purple, de Pizan in red, and Perpetua in blue.
Revelations of Divine Love and Confessions are equally my favorite books from Great Books II. Revelations of Divine Love challenged me to reexamine how powerful and unconditional God’s love for each person. As a Christian, I have grown up hearing many of the same notions Julian discussed regarding Christ’s suffering on the cross and his mercy and grace. But in Revelations of Divine Love, Julian goes into the depths of their significance and how understanding the love of God is transformational. Christ’s suffering on the cross was the ultimate demonstration of his love for man. He died so that we could live. There’s been a lot of discussion of the events surrounding Jesus’s sacrifice for man on the cross since it’s Easter weekend. Having read Revelations of Divine Love, I feel like I have been able to reflect on what his sacrifice means for my life and how I can allow the truth of Christ and his love to shape my life. Also, no amount of sin will make God revoke his love. In fact, “through love, mercy lets us fail to some degree” (48, p. 102) but also, “mercy works by turning everything to good for us” (48, p. 102). God does not blame or get angry at a man for his sinfulness. He shows abundant compassion and love for people like his children. There is nothing anyone can do, nothing I can do, that will make God stop loving. The goodness of God shifts how Christians view their life and allows them to rejoice in the completeness of God’s love through the good times and the hard times alike.
The two books that I found to be the most important to me were probably by Julian and de Pizan, for very different reasons. Julian’s text challenged me. At times it made me uncomfortable, and at other times I felt like I understood what she was saying. Although I ended the book with disagreeing about most of what Julian was saying, I felt as though the experience of the book was what made it important to me. In class, defending our opinions and beliefs up against this esteemed author of a canon book, that is when I felt like this book was something to be talked about. That is when I saw the importance of the book come to fruition, even if we left the class frustrated with the text, we left the class knowing that we defended our perspective of Christianity and felt more certain about specific ideas than we had been before this book.
On the other hand with de Pizan, the book spoke less on Christianity and more on my idea of femininity. De Pizan’s balance between timidity and femininity was worth noting and worth speaking about, because of how revolutionary her ideas must have seemed to be at the time. With her emphasis on both the physical and intellectual superiority of some women at the time, I felt as though she was not objectifying women and valuing them for their beauty. I recall specifically her reference to a woman named Hortensia, who was seen as a woman to belong in their perfect city because of her power over men. And this power was not physical, it didn’t have anything to do with the battlefield. No, instead, the battle was in court as she was fighting against a certain tax placed on women where she was from. And because of the education her father had given her about law and society in her upbringing, she alone was capable of winning the case and for that she was praised. De Pizan did a remarkable job at covering a large scope of abilities of women, and for that the book stood out to be of great importance to me.
I think The Book of the City of Ladies was one of the most important texts that we covered in Great Books II. Specifically, it definitely helps to see a better representation of women in the text, and how it was implemented long before my time. Women’s rights were only emphasized in the modern era, but it is incredible to see the efforts and strength of women in literature in the past. In addition to its added perspective on women, I appreciated the implementation of religion and specifically martyrdom. It is also one of the reasons I chose to write my third essay on this topic. Reading about the tortures of female martyrs was nothing less than horrifying. However, De Pizan’s perspective of God’s endowment for women was interesting to read and analyze, and it allowed me to reflect on my role as a creation of God. Overall, this text provided me with perspectives on an early representation of women and the role of God in the female gender.
The text that we have read this semester that I found to be most important was The Book of the City of Ladies. This book was most important to me because it’s one of the first pieces of literature about gender inequality, and female empowerment. However, I found it different that a lot of the arguments that we commonly see in today’s society because instead of just focusing in on gender and how women lack in numerous areas compared to men, she expanded her analyses to focus on moral equality. By doing this she put both men and women on a level playing field and looked at a commonality between the too, especially during this time. Although De Pizan is somewhat elitist in her creation of the city, it is through this that she establishes a moral guideline for women and what they should strive for. This is empowering because at the time women didn’t necessarily have someone they were told to mimic morally and connect with that shared their gender.
The two texts that made the most significant impact on me were Augustine’s Confessions and The Book of the City of Ladies. I enjoyed reading Augustine because it forced me to analyze my faith more and dive deeper into my testimony while I was reading it… De Pizan’s book had a significant impact on me but in a different way. I think one of the significant things that I gained from that book was one of the major overarching ideas: the fact that everything you read and see is information influenced by a certain perspective, and just because it is well known does not make it true. Especially as a political science major, it is almost easy to believe everything you hear and read. However, de Pizan emphasized the importance of holding those words against examples and facts. Additionally, that book was honestly encouraging and almost empowering through seeing all those examples of all different kinds of women, whether of influence, virtue, or love. In middle school, my teacher talked about how people often do not read books, especially in school, written by women and or with a female lead. This book spoke to me as it had both and, in some ways, pushed and prodded at my views of femininity and misogyny.
The most important text that I have found have the greatest impact on me as a reader is from Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies. Although the book itself seemed hypocritical at some points, the beginning of the book has great quotes that fully apply in today’s society. One of the most important texts of the book states: “I had to accept their unfavorable opinion of women since it was unlikely that so many learned men, who seemed to be endowed with such great intelligence and insight into all things, could possibly have lied on so many different occasion”(1, p. 6). Two significant points must be addressed in this single text: education and gender. The text makes it clear that equal education is necessary. Historically, women couldn’t receive an education, simply due to their gender. Currently, multiple countries continue to give minimal or no schooling to women; the reason may be religion or simple beliefs, but frankly it’s simply brainwashing. Denying women the right to an education allows for the continuation of gender inequality and the supremacy of the oppressor’s voice. Another text that supports this claim: “Our aim is to help you get rid of those misconceptions which have clouded your mind and made you reject what you know and believe in fact to be the truth just because so many other people have come out with the opposite opinion”(2, p. 8). Another issue is the”follow the crowd” problem. With limited education, women many times lack the capacity to question and doubt a core belief of society when it is clearly illogical and untrue. Unfortunately, this trend has been a common practice since thousands of years ago; and, it is only recently that such practices have been broken. Ultimately, the beginning of the book portrays the importance of education because it promotes logical thought and individuality.
De Pizan’s City of Ladies has been one of the most important texts to me that we have read this semester. While it is easy to read her with heavy critique with a 21st-century lens (something I caught myself doing a lot), her words for her time period are quite powerful and impactful. The beauty of de Pizan’s text is that she takes the very concept that has been used to justify attacks on women’s character at this time and uses it to defend them. She is not the 21st-century woman, but rather she is an intelligent writer and clever with her use of words and examples. I always love reading old texts written by women because there seem to be so few of them that we actually learn about, so to read de Pizan, a woman writing about women, was delightful for me. Even if there are many times when reading this text that I felt frustrated and wanted her to be more modern, more outspoken, I had to catch myself and contextualize this text. For her time, de Pizan was a very clever defender of women and their character.
Throughout my time in Great Books II, I have found Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity and Dante’s Divine Comedy to be the most important. I found Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity to be important because it both sets an example of what it looks like to be a truly devoted follower of Christ and it illustrated women as having a very crucial and unique role in martyrdom. By discussing the martyrs and their great faith, I was inspired to live out my own boldly such as they did. The story discussed their sacrifice in such a way that still maintained hope, for they will be rewarded in Heaven. It also showed how women maintained their valuable and unique feminine qualities while giving their all to the Lord; I found it very inspirational.