Author: Marguerite de Navarre
Translator: Paul A. Chilton
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Date: 1984 (1549)
This review is not a typical review! Firstly, I’m going to write a little bit about Marguerite de Navarre before moving on to the Heptaméron itself. In the final section of this post, I’ll be looking at the book in a slight more academic way, sharing some of the research that I’ve read.
Marguerite de Navarre (1492 – 1549) was the princess of France, Queen of Navarre, and Duchess of Alençon and Berry. She was also a writer, a patron of the arts, and an important figure in the French Renaissance and the French Reformation. Although best-known for writing the Heptaméron, Susan Snyder states that ‘she also wrote plays and poems on both secular and spiritual themes, and possibly a treatise in letters defending the worth and superiority’.1
Her first marriage, arranged when she was seventeen by decree of King Louis XII, was to Charles IV of Alençon and in 1526, just a year after the death of her first husband, Marguerite married Henry II of Navarre. She had no children from her first marriage but she cared for her nieces Madeleine and Marguerite after the death of their mother, Queen Claude. She had two children during her second marriage: a daughter, the future Jeanne III of Narrave, and a son, Jean, who died just a few months after he was born. Her grief is said to have inspired her to write her most controversial work, Miroir de l’âme pécheresse (1531), which was condemned by Sorbonne theologians as heresy for its Reformist ideas.
Miroir de l’âme pécheresse was, as Susan Synder wrote, ‘an outpouring (over 1400 lines) of self-accusation and self-abasement, recalling Paul and Augustine in its theological stance’.2 It is a poetic monologue in which the speaker, a woman, explores and repairs her broken relationship with God. It has been suggested that Marguerite and her Reformist poem had an influence on the English Reformation through Anne Boleyn. Anne Boleyn had been a lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude (Marguerite’s sister-in-law) but a letter written by Anne Boleyn after she became queen of England suggests that she admired Marguerite and some have suggested that she may have become a follower of Marguerite and her affection for Marguerite may have influenced her own views about Christianity. Some scholars even think that Marguerite gave Anne the original manuscript of Miroir de l’âme pécheresse at some point before Anne’s execution in 1536. In 1544, Princess Elizabeth of England (who would later become Elizabeth I) translated Marguerite’s poem into English prose and presented it to Katherine Parr, who was a devout Protestant.
She was arguably the most influential woman in France during her lifetime.
The Heptaméron is a collection of 72 short stories written in French and the book was published posthumously in 1558 under the title Histoires des amans fortunez. It was clearly inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, from the subject matter to the form, and Marguerite’s work was originally meant to contain one hundred stories over ten days, just like The Decameron. She died before it was completed and so the book ends after the second story of the eighth day.
The first edition was edited by Pierre Boaistuau and the version he released was a bit of a mess. He only used 67 of the stories, many of which were shortened by him, and he omitted some of the significant material between the stories. He also transposed some of the stories, completely ignoring how Marguerite grouped them into specific days. He should have just written his own book if he was going to alter it so much. Claude Gruget edited a second edition, which appeared only a year later, and he claimed to have ‘restored the order previously confused in the first impression’. He also put the prologues and epilogues back where they belong! Gruget gave the book the title Heptaméron (derived from the Greek ἑπτά – “seven” and ἡμέρα – “day”), because there are seven complete days. I’m assuming that if Marguerite had lived long enough to finish the eighth day, which she had started, the book would have been called the Octameron. Would we have had another Decameron if she’d been able to complete the entire book? I think that she would have thought of a better title.
Unsurprisingly, I really enjoyed reading this book. It was easy to read over a week because of how the book is framed, the pacing was varied, and the tone swung between languid, upbeat, and sad depending on the story.
The edition I read includes short summaries of each story at the beginning of the book, which I didn’t read but they do act as spoilers and warnings if you need them, and it also included character descriptions, which I found really useful. In the character descriptions, Chilton mentions the historical figure(s) that each character may have been based on.
Each of the characters had a very distinct voice, both in their storytelling and in the material between each story, and I loved how they bickered with one another in the prologues and epilogues of each day. The relationships and interactions between the characters were just as interesting as the stories themselves and they felt so human (which might be because they were based on real people and real relationships). I did want to punch Hircan and Saffredent at several points in the book because they were so bloody annoying! It’s great when a character (or two, in this case) are still just as detestable today as they were intended to be at the time of writing. The arrogance and ignorance of Hircan and Saffredent transcended through language and time.
I enjoyed most of the stories but I didn’t enjoy others, especially those that contained rape and physical abuse. I wouldn’t usually be too affected by this because it’s fiction but I found the tone of these stories really off-putting for some reason. I don’t know if it was due to the translation or whether I just hated that some of these stories were framed as religious tests for women. Others were decidedly erotic, some were funny, some were solemn, and others dealt with religious themes. I really enjoyed the stories which sought to empower women (in an albeit limited way) and these were often told by the women in the group as a response to whatever sexist drivel Hircan or Saffredent had said beforehand. Although each story could easily stand alone, they do work better when read together.
Out of the entire book, I think my favourite stories were story three and story thirty-two.
Scholars tend to focus on one of the stories, or a particular set of stories that focus on a specific theme or idea, when writing about the Heptaméron. Joshua M. Blayloc, in an article entitled ‘A Skeleton in the Closet: Secrecy and Anamorphosis in Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron’ (2014), focuses on one of my favourite stories from the collection.3 Blayloc examines novella 32 in which a man forces his wife to drink from the skull of her dead lover. I found this story particularly interesting because it actually relates to my own research (and I’m trying to find a way to fit it into my PhD thesis even though my focus is not French literature) and Blayloc’s essay details Marguerite’s use of anamorphic images within this particularly novella. Blayloc explores the historical and cultural contexts of the novella, tying it to the artistic works of Hans Holbein and arguing that Marguerite, through anamorphic imagery, is mirroring the work that literary scholars do when they are interpreting a text.4 This is just one example of how scholars examine Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron.
Emily Butterworth’s ‘Scandal and Narrative in the Heptaméron’ (2018) explores, as the title suggests, Marguerite de Navarre’s representation of scandal (which Butterworth notes is ‘notably absent from its principal model, Boccaccio’s Decameron) throughout the entire book.5 Butterworth acknowledges that ‘the Heptaméron deploys the narrative of scandal to various ends’ but implies that this constant exploration of scandal may suggest ‘that narrative itself might be construed as scandalous’ as ‘reading romances and novels was seen by sixteenth-century moralists as a potentially seductive and corrupting activity, particularly for women’.6 Butterworth’s work on the Heptaméron gave me a new insight into how this book may have been received during its own time and how Marguerite deliberately constructed and deconstructed notions of scandal within her writing.
Of course, you don’t need to read the scholarship that surrounds a text like the Heptaméron to understand it, appreciate it, and enjoy it but I do appreciate the context that research provides and I like reading the opinions of other people.
Marguerite de Navarre was a fascinating woman and the Heptaméron is a fascinating text. I’m so glad that I was able to read this book during Women’s History Month and write about it.
If you enjoyed this post or found it interesting then please consider supporting me on ko-fi or, if you’re interested in the other books I’ve been talking about this month, check out my bookshop.org* list which features all of the books I’ve mentioned during my Women’s History Month 2021 posts.
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1. Susan Snyder, ‘Guilty Sisters: Marguerite de Navarre, Elizabeth of England, and the Miroir de l’âme Pécheresse’, Renaissance Quarterly, 50.2 (1997), 443-458 (444)
2. Snyder, 444
3. Joshua M. Blaylock, ‘A Skeleton in the Closet: Secrecy and Anamorphosis in Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 45.4 (2014), 951-972
4. Blayloc, p.972
5. Emily Butterworth, ‘Scandal and Narrative in the Heptaméron’, French Studies, 3 (2018), 350-363 (350)
6. Butterworth, p.358
1. Portrait of Marguerite of Navarre by Jean Clouet (c.1527) – National Museums Liverpool
2. Two pages from a complete manuscript of the Heptameron (c.1550) – Gallica