The Heptameron of Marguerite de Navarre
This is the story of the Heptameron, an influential book that most people have probably never heard of, and the woman who wrote it.
Marguerite de Navarre, Queen and Author
Marguerite, Queen of the small state of Navarre near the Pyrenees Mountains and the sister of the King of France was a fascinating figure of the French Renaissance. In an era when most women could not read or write and whose education consisted primarily of learning household arts such as weaving and sewing, the future Queen received a classical education that rivaled the best of that time. She could read and write Latin, French and Italian in an age when most people could not even read or write at all. She became a central figure in the rebirth of intellectual life following the dark ages and she played a leading role in the revival of learning and art.
Her court was a mecca for intellectuals and artists from around Europe, including Leonardo da Vinci, who spent many years at the court of Marguerite and her brother until his death. She was also surprisingly open minded and tolerant in an age when religious dissent often led to being burned at the stake, advocating tolerance and moderation towards Protestants, despite being a devout Catholic herself.
Marguerite de Navarre's Early Life
Although she was a devout Catholic, Marguerite de Navarre believed that it was her religious duty to shelter religious dissidents including Protestants, and she exerted a moderating influence on her brother to prevent the military suppression of Protestant sects that were spreading to France as a result of the Reformation.
Early in her life, Marguerite wrote poetry, mostly religious in nature, such as a tract called "The Mirror of the Sinful Soul" in which she talked about her own religious struggles, including coming to terms with the loss of an infant child. Some of her religious writings got her into trouble with the leaders of the Church in France and she was in danger of being branded a heretic, despite the fact she identified closely with Catholicism and attended mass daily, but fortunately her political position saved her.
Marguerite was a favorite of her people who spoke of her charity and kindness, She often wandered the streets of the small capital city of Navarre without an escort or any body guards.
The critic and translator Samuel Putnam called her "The First Modern Woman" .
The Heptameron Copied the Decameron, but Achieved Originality
In many ways the Heptameron is not an original work. It is clearly modeled after the earlier and better known book called the Decameron by the Italian writer, Giovanni Boccaccio.
In the Decameron, a group of people have taken shelter at a villa in order to escape the Black Death, the horrible plague that was ravaging Europe. To pass the times, they tell each other stories -- one hundred in all -- told over a period of ten days.
In Marguerite's Heptameron, a group of ten travelers are stranded rains after they attending a health resort in the Pyrenees Mountains. While they wait for the rains to end and for a bridge to be repaired, the stranded travelers tell each other stories. They plan on telling one story each over the course of the next ten days, for a total of 100, with each day or group of ten stories being on a chosen subject, such as infidelity, or the wickedness of the monks, etc. In all, only 72 stories were written because Marguerite died before she could finish her book.
The book was left unpublished for many years, but was eventually released in the late 1500s under the name the "Les Histoires des Amants Fortunés" (The Fortunate Lovers, in Old Medieval French).
Later the title was changed to its more familiar form "The Heptameron". The name was given by later translators, and not Marguerite herself, as an homage to the Decameron. The Decameron is a compound of the Greek words for "ten" and "days". By analogy, the Marguerite's work was given the title of Heptameron, a compound of the Greek words for "seven" and "days", in reference to the fact that most of the stories take place during the first seven day period.
A Queen With Many Sides to Her Personality
Her life was an odd combination of religious passion, ruthless Renaissance politics, and licentious writing.
Despite being a gentle Queen beloved by her people, she could hold her own in the wicked statescraft of the time, acting essentially as co-ruler of France with her brother, Francis I, who valued his sister's counsel. When her brother the King was captured in battle during a military expedition to Italy against the rival Holy Roman Empire, she left France and personally negotiated her brother's release in direct talks with the enemy Emperor. A Venetian ambassador to her court praised Marguerite as knowing all of the secrets of diplomacy; high praise from a representative of a Republic known for its cunning and subtle diplomatic maneuvers.
Queen Marguerite de Navarre's contributions would probably have been remembered mainly as a footnote to history if she had also not written the Heptameron, a collection of often erotic and irreverent stories that ridicule the life and institutions of the times, including the Catholic Church, especially the monks.
Written mainly for the entertainment of herself and her courtiers, Marguerite envisioned a book that would pay homage to Boccaccio's Decameron, which was then a "best seller" in Renaissance Europe but which would be distinguished from Boccaccio by being based on real people and events. The Heptameron's stories cover every range of human behavior: they are stories of love, betrayal, infidelity, loyalty, and piety and irreverence which have fascinated readers for centuries and led to many guesses as to the true identity of the characters in these stories.
The Heptameron depicts a world in transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era. The critic George Saintsbury commented that the stories in the Heptameron are infused with "the fear of God, the sense of death, the voluptuous longing and voluptuous regret for the good things of life and love that pass away."
The Heptameron had a significant influence on the shaping of French literature and is considered a classic to this day.
Margueritte de Navarre had a daughter who was as independent and strong willed as her mother. She defied her mother's wishes and married for love rather than through an arranged political marriage.
Marguerite's daughter Jeanne III of Navarre married Antoine de Bourbon and with him founded the great Bourbon dynasty that would rule France for centuries. Her marriage to Antoine was actually Jeanne's second marriage, but her only valid one; she had first been married off, quite unwillingly, to a duke who was the brother of England's King Henry VII's fourth wife, but Jeanne resisted the marriage and had to be whipped in order to get her to take the oath of marriage at the altar. Four years later, her first marriage was annulled because it was never consummated and she went on to marry the man she loved. It was a story that would have made a great addition to the Heptameron, and in many ways it was truly the final chapter.
© 2011 Robert P