(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Marguerite de Navarre, the sister of King Francis I of France, played an important role in the intellectual and spiritual life of France during the first half of the sixteenth century. She and her brother were Catholic, but she was much more tolerant of Protestants than was her brother. She befriended and protected such eminent French Protestant writers as Jean Calvin and Clément Marot. Although Marguerite wrote numerous excellent poems on religious and philosophical topics, she has remained famous for her creative series of short stories that Claude Gruget called The Heptameron when he prepared her manuscript for publication in 1559, ten years after her death.

Italian culture was influential in France in the sixteenth century, and eminent Italian artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, came to France and enriched the country’s cultural life. Many French intellectuals, including Marguerite herself, read Italian; the works of such important fourteenth century Italian writers as poet Francesco Petrarch and prose writer Giovanni Boccaccio were admired and frequently imitated by sixteenth century French writers.

Love was the principal theme in Petrarch’s refined sonnets written for his beloved Laura and in Boccaccio’s collection of one hundred short stories, Decameron (1349-1351; English translation, 1620), but Petrarch and Boccaccio wrote about love from different perspectives. Petrarch described love in an idealistic manner, and his love for Laura was based on true mutual respect and admiration. The tales in The Decameron often describe much less sympathetic characters, and love frequently is depicted in a violent and rather degrading manner. Boccaccio wrote a treatise on the dignity of women, and the moral commentaries that follow each tale in The Decameron make it clear that he did not approve of the mistreatment of women by men. Although these tales are told from many different fictional perspectives, it is Boccaccio himself who proposes the moral lesson for each tale, and his attitude toward the various characters is quite clear to his readers.

Marguerite chose to imitate Boccaccio’s masterpiece in a creative manner. The fictional framework of The Heptameron is deceptively simple. Ten well-educated French characters, five men and five women, are visiting an elegant spa at Cauterets in the Pyrenees, when flooding caused by heavy rains blocks the roads and forces them to stay in the mountain village. Once they realize that it will be impossible to leave Cauterets until the roads become passable, the travelers decide to pass the time by taking turns telling stories to one another for as many days as they are forced to stay in Cauterets. In her prologue to The Heptameron, Marguerite explains that her imitation of Boccaccio will not be servile, because her characters promise to tell stories about actual events, not fictional events, as Boccaccio did so masterfully in The Decameron. Although numerous references in The Heptameron are made to actual people, including Marguerite and her brother King Francis I, it has never been determined with certainty the degree to which her tales are historically correct. Most critics prefer to treat her tales as fictional stories in which historical characters are mentioned.

A more significant difference between The Heptameron and The Decameron is that in The Heptameron, Marguerite has her listeners comment on the tales that they have just heard. Thus, several different interpretations are proposed for each tale. The narrator presents a specific perspective for the events in each short story, but at the end of each tale, the listeners intervene and propose differing reactions to...

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The Heptameron Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Cholakian, Patricia F. Rape and Writing in “The Heptaméron” of Marguerite de Navarre. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. A fascinating feminist reading of The Heptameron. Examines many tales in which Marguerite de Navarre denounces rape and other acts of violence against women.

Cholakian, Patricia F., and Rouben C. Cholakian. Marguerite de Navarre: Mother of the Renaissance. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. The authors use Marguerite de Navarre’s writings, including The Heptameron, to chronicle her public and private lives.

Davis, Betty J. The Storytellers in Marguerite de Navarre’s “Heptaméron.” Lexington, Ky.: French Forum, 1978. Explores the personality differences among the storytellers in The Heptameron and their relationships with one another.

Lyons, John D. Exemplum: The Rhetoric of Example in Early Modern France and Italy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. Examines the narrative technique of using fictional examples to illustrate general psychological types. Contains an excellent analysis of Marguerite de Navarre’s insights into the motivation for human behavior.

Lyons, John D., and Mary B. McKinley, eds. Critical Tales: New Studies of “The Heptameron” and Early Modern Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Contains fifteen essays examining narrative and rhetorical techniques and the importance of gender and love in The Heptameron. Includes a bibliography of important critical studies on Marguerite de Navarre.

Parkin, John. The Humor of Marguerite de Navarre in the “Heptaméron”: A Feminist Author Before Her Time. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2008. Focuses on the work’s humor, which is based in Marguerite de Navarre’s ideas about religion and feminism.

Randall, Catharine. Earthly Treasures: Material Culture and Metaphysics in the “Heptaméron” and Evangelical Narrative. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2007. Describes the paradoxical use of material objects, such as tapestries, paintings, chalices, and jewelry, in The Heptameron, even though the book is about a religion whose mandate is to disregard worldly things.

Tetel, Marcel. Marguerite de Navarre’s “The Heptameron”: Themes, Language, and Structure. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1973. Contains an excellent analysis of both positive and negative representations of love in The Heptameron.