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New Social Perspectives in Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron

Marguerite de Navarre, born in Angoulême in 1492, was a prominent figure in French politics, literature, and the Evangelical movement. She holds the distinction of being the first French noblewoman to publish her complete works, which comprised a diverse range of writings such as poems, prayers, religious meditations, songs and plays. As an active member of the Evangelical Circle of Meaux, she promoted the publication of the Bible in French so that it could be read by a wider public (Marguerite de Navarre. Poetry Foundation, s.d.). Her court in Angoulême was a stimulating cultural environment where poets, musicians, painters and artists would gather. Later, her court in Turin was defined as “the most vigorous intellectual centre in Italy” (Merlin, 1995).

Her unfinished novel, Heptaméron, was published posthumously in 1559, a decade after her death. It was conceived as a French version of the fourteenth-century Italian writer Boccaccio’s Decameron. The narrative revolves around ten characters who seek refuge in a monastery during a flood, engaging in a combination of dialogue and anecdote. What differentiates Marguerite’s work from her predecessor is her moral preoccupation, imbuing the dialogues between characters with deeper significance. Similarly, the Queen of Navarre increases the number of female characters (from three to five) to give them a wider space to express their voice. This acts as a pretext for an analysis of religious ethics and social inequalities.

Figure 1: "Marguerite de Navarre, sister of François I" (Lanté, 1827).

Shifting Social Paradigms

The vision of love and marriage arising in the Heptaméron corresponds to that of the author. Interestingly, the criticism surrounding the relationship between sexes extends beyond the situation of women and delves into the faults of a hierarchical society at large. Men from distinct social classes are judged differently for the same behaviors, while women are held to the Christian ideal of chastity, which eliminates all discrepancies between classes in their case. For instance, in the fifth novella, the storyteller Géburon recounts the episode of a rape attempt by two clergymen against a poor woman. This episode emphasizes the importance of popular justice as opposed to religious justice because the population can understand the Bible better than the clergy, who may have opportunistic intentions (de Navarre, 1982). Eventually, the writer suggests that popular justice has to be mediated through laws and institutions to avoid violence. In the end, the woman is not condemned because she found a way to save herself. As suggested above, her reputation depends not on her wealth but on her compliance with the religious code.

Author Giardina (1990) argues that there is a link between personal wealth and the right to express one’s opinion. This notion is exemplified in the ninth novella, where a poor man falls in love with a rich woman but cannot reveal his feelings because of his social condition. The implicit idea conveyed is that love has the potential to subvert social order if given the opportunity. This happens when the man dies of heartbreak, highlighting the perception of his unjust fate caused by the inflexible social structure. This perception compromises social stability. However, love is linked to a higher purpose as well Furthermore, Marguerite’s conception of love derives from her religious Neoplatonism. (Martineau, 1976). This doctrine, drawing inspiration from the works of Plato and Socrates, believes that this sentiment can elevate one’s soul towards the divine. Renaissance figures such as Baldassarre Castiglione and Marsilio Ficino are responsible for popularising Neoplatonism in Italy and in Europe. Marguerite de Navarre contributed significantly to its popularity in France as all Neoplatonists in the country in the first half of the sixteenth century were active in her court (Martineau, 1976).

Figure 2: "Roman Mosaic Depicting the Seven Sages" (1st century BCE).

From Dominant Discourse to Plural Discourse(s)

The influence of Neoplatonism in the Heptaméron is counterbalanced by the characters’ concern with the present world. This creates a seemingly ethereal atmosphere in which the earthly and divine dimensions overlap. A key concept in Marguerite de Navarre’s publications is cuyder, an ancient word derived from the Latin credere, meaning to “believe”. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it acquired further meanings, such as: 1. a general belief, opinion or idea; 2. a presumption that induces the person to have excessive confidence in themselves, thereby compromising their relation with God (Le Cadet, 2011). In that respect, the verb cuyder is used to underline the characters’ incapability of achieving higher Truth. Nevertheless, in the Heptaméron, this circumstance is described through the whimsical and farcical register (Le Cadet, 2011). In the thirtieth novella, Hircan associates this vice, cuyder, with women: “You see, ladies, what befalls those who think that by their own strength and virtue, they may subdue Love and Nature and all the faculties that God has given them” (Saintsbury, 1894. Emphasis mine). However, other characters, beginning with Oisille, later mitigate this statement: “Methinks every man and woman should bend low in the fear of God […]” (Saintsbury, 1894). Oisille suggests that both men and women should humble themselves in the fear of God, indicating a more balanced perspective.

The aforementioned examples show Marguerite de Navarre’s attempt at redistributing the enunciation. According to Giardina (1990), the dominant belief in the book is that only the nobility has the right to speak. However, Marguerite de Navarre challenges this notion by placing the common people, men and women, at the center of her novellas, to show that they too have a deep knowledge of what is socially and morally acceptable. Thus, the redistribution of the enunciation corresponds to a redistribution of social values as well. This explains why the writer adopts a humorous and grotesque register as she approaches serious issues, as her intention is to reverse the dominant discourse. In that respect, the comic dimension is presented as an alternative to violence, allowing conflicts to be overcome through humor. For instance, in the eighth novella, Longarine uses this approach during the debate that follows her narration of a woman’s betrayal of her husband (de Navarre, 1982). Yet, this mechanism does not always help achieve an agreement. What is notable about the book is the diversity of opinions presented. The author does not seek unanimity, but instead portrays the difficulties in the relationship between the sexes and all characters in general. By doing so, she conveys the intricate nature of the human condition.

Figure 3: "The Dying Gentleman Receiving the Embraces of his Sweetheart" (Freudenberg & Dunker, 1894).

Marguerite de Navarre’s depiction of social constraints and religious corruption serves a specific objective. Through her novellas, she demonstrates that minorities are capable of conquering power if they so desire. Surprisingly, the narrative does not advocate this solution. Instead, it suggests that reversing the current situation will only establish a new social structure that is equally unjust and corrupted. Marguerite de Navarre, therefore, promotes another solution: the abandonment of the logic of domination in favour of encouraging solidarity and equality. It is noteworthy that her fictional, enclosed world effectively encapsulates the reality of her time, highlighting its contradictions. Within this context, love emerges as a means to question established conventions and embark on a spiritual journey. However, the storytellers’ quest for compromise is never really resolved. Marguerite de Navarre’s literary endeavor does not aim to provide readers with definite answers, but rather equips them with tools to foster discussion, confront conflicting ideas and explore alternative paths to resolve conflict.

Bibliographical References

De Navarre, M. (1982). Heptaméron. Paris : Flammarion.

Giardina, C. (1990). La parole dans « L'Heptaméron » de Marguerite de Navarre, Bulletin de l'Association d'étude sur l'humanisme, la réforme et la renaissance, 31, pp.35-46

Le Cadet, N. (2011). Le cuyder dans l’œuvre de Marguerite de Navarre, Seizième Siècle, 7, pp. 139-157

Martineau, C. (1976). Le Platonisme de Marguerite de Navarre, Bulletin de l'Association d'étude sur l'humanisme, la réforme et la renaissance, 4, pp. 12-35;

Merlin, P. (1995). Emanuele Filiberto, Un principe tra il Piemonte e l’Europa. Turin: SEI.

Saintsbury, G. (1894). The Heptameron of the Tales of Margaret, Queen of Navarre. London: The Society of English Bibliophilists

Marguerite de Navarre | Poetry Foundation. (s.d.). Poetry Foundation.

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Debora Ricci

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