Excerpt from Heptaméron (1558)
Translated by Arthur Machen
Published in 1905
Heptaméron is considered one of the great prose works of the French Renaissance. (The Renaissance was a transition period in European history from medieval to modern times, marked by a revival of classical culture, which brought innovations in the arts and literature and initiated modern science.) The author, Margaret of Navarre (1492–1549), duchess of Angoulême, modeled Heptaméron on Decameron, a popular book by the fourteenth-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. She herself had commissioned a French translation of Decameron, which appeared in 1545. Margaret was a prominent figure at the court of her brother, King Francis I (see accompanying box). It was at court that she was joined by Catherine de Médicis, wife of Francis's son Henry (the future King Henry II), and others in conceiving of the idea of a French version of Decameron. The result was Heptaméron, a collection of seventy-two short stories that take place over seven days, with ten stories on each day. Two tales are told on an eighth day. Margaret had planned to write one hundred stories, as in Decameron, but she died before she completed the manuscript. Heptaméron was published in 1558.
Heptaméron draws moral lessons
The characters in Heptaméron are ten French aristocrats—five men and five women—who are stranded by a flood in the Pyrenees, a mountain range between France and Spain. They take refuge at an abbey (church of a monastery) and decide to tell stories while waiting for a bridge to be built. After each story, they comment on the tale just told, drawing from it moral lessons that usually present contradictions and have no neat conclusions. Complex relationships are established among the speakers. They focus on the difficulties of meeting the demands of a worldly life while trying to live according to the Christian message of charity.
A knight (nobleman warrior) named Simontault begins the narrative on the first day with a tale about "the bad turns done by women to men, and by men to women." The story has a complicated plot revolving around the "misdeeds"of the beautiful wife—who is not given a name—of Saint Aignan, a proctor, or clergyman, in the town of Alençon. The woman has two lovers. The first is the Bishop of Séez, who heads the district where her husband's church is located. Saint Aignan approves of this relationship because the bishop gives her money. The woman's other lover is her favorite, Du Mesnil, the handsome young son of Alençon's lieutenant-general. Saint Aignan does not know about Du Mesnil. "And this fashion of life lasted a long while," Simontault says, "she having the Bishop for profit, and Du Mesnil for pleasure…" Du Mesnil does not know the woman is having an affair with the bishop, however, so he is shocked when he discovers them together. Desperate to hide her affair with Du Mesnil, the woman tells the bishop and Saint Aignan that Du Mesnil has been trying to "lay assault to her honour." Saint Aignan hires a man to kill Du Mesnil and has the body burned. Saint Aignan soon realizes he will be charged with the crime, so he flees with his wife to England.
The following excerpt from Heptaméron opens near the end of the first tale, while Saint Aignan and his wife are in England.
Things to Remember While Reading an Excerpt from Heptaméron:
- In their absence Saint Aignan and his wife are found guilty of murder. They are ordered to pay a fine to Du Mesnil's father, and their property is seized. They return to France in disguise after Saint Aignan manages to have himself declared dead in that country. Saint Aignan then hires a wizard, or magician, named Gallery to help him escape paying the fine. Saint Aignan's wife overhears Gallery saying that he will make wax images of five people upon whom he will cast spells—three who are to die and two with whom Saint Aignan will gain favor. When she realizes she is one of those marked for death, she reveals the plot. As a result, Saint Aignan and Gallery are put on trial. The court has mercy on them, however, because they were manipulated by Saint Aignan's wife and they are not put to death. The wife continues to sin, meeting a just fate by dying a miserable death.
- At the conclusion of the tale Simontault challenges an aged widow, Mistress Oisille, to tell a story about a virtuous woman, if one can be found. Oisille gladly takes the challenge and begins the second tale.
Excerpt from Heptaméron
Judgment went by default, they [St. Aignan and his wife] were condemned to death, to pay fifteen hundred crowns to the father of the murdered man, and the rest of their goods were escheated to the crown. St. Aignan, seeing that though he was living in England, in France the law accounted him dead, accomplished so much by his services to some great lords, and by the favour of the kinsfolk of his wife, that the King of England entreated the King of France to grant him free pardon, and to restore to him his goods and his offices. But the King of France being assured of the enormity of his crime, sent the case to the King of England, asking him if such a deed deserved pardon, and saying that to the Duke of Alençon alone it pertained to grant pardon for offences done in his duchy. But for all these excuses he could not satisfy the King of England, who so earnestly entreated him that at last the proctor gained what he desired and returned to his home. And there, to fill up the measure of his wickedness, he called to him a wizard, named Gallery, hoping by this means to escape the paying of the fifteen hundred crowns to the father of the dead man.
And to this end, he and his wife with him, went up to Paris in disguise. And she, perceiving him closeted for a long while with the enchanter Gallery, and not being told the reason of this, on one morning played the spy and saw Gallery showing to him five wooden images, of which three had their hands hanging down, and of the two others the hands were raised. And she heard the wizard: "We must have images made of wax like these, and they that have the hands drooping shall be made in the likeness of those that are to die, but they that have the hands uplifted shall be made in the likeness of those whose love and favour we desire." To whom the proctor: "This one shall be for the King whose grace I would gain, and this for my Lord Brinon, the chancellor of Alençon." And Gallery said to him, "We must lay these images beneath the altar, where they may hear mass, together with the words that you shall presently say after me." And speaking of them that had the drooping arms, the proctor said that one should be Master Gilles du Mesnil, father of him who was murdered, for he knew that as long as he was alive he would not cease from pursuing him. And another, that was made in the likeness of a woman, should be for my lady the Duchess of Alençon, the sister of the King; since so well did she love Du Mesnil, her old servant, and had so great a knowledge of the proctor's wickedness in other matters, that unless she died, he could not live. And the last image, that was also made in the likeness of a woman, should be his wife, since she was the beginning of all his evil hap, and he knew that she would never amend the wickedness of her ways. But when this wife of his, who saw through a chink in the door all that was done, heard that she was numbered among the dead, it was her humour to send her husband before her. And pretending to go and borrow money of an uncle of hers, named Neaufle, Master of Requests to the Duke of Alençon, she told him of her husband, and all that she had seen and heard him do. This Neaufle aforesaid, like a good old servant, went forthwith to the chancellor of the Duchy of Alençon, and showed him the whole of the matter. And since the Duke and Duchess chanced not to be at court on that day, the chancellor went and told this strange case to the Regent, mother of the King and of the Duchess, who straightway sought out La Barre, Provost of Paris; and such good diligence did he make that he clapped up the proctor and his wizard Gallery, who confessed freely the crime, without being put to the question, or in any way constrained. And the matter of their accusation was made out and brought to the King, whereupon some, willing to save the lives of these men, would fain persuade him that by their enchantments they sought nothing but his grace. But the King, being as tender of his sister's life as of his own, commanded that sentence should be given as if they had attempted his own peculiar person. Nevertheless, the Duchess of Alençon made entreatyfor the life of this proctor, and for the doom of death to be changed to some other punishment. So this was granted her, and the proctor, together with the wizard, were sent to the galleys of St. Blancart at Marseilles, where they ended their days in close imprisonment, having time wherein to consider their sins, how great they had been. And the wife, when her husband was removed, sinned more wickedly than before, and so died miserably.
[Simontault concludes] I entreat you, ladies, consider well the evil that cometh of a wicked woman, and how many mishaps proceeded from the sin of this one I have told you of. You will find that from the time Eve made Adam to sin, all women have been for the torturing, killing, and damnation of men. As for me, such an experience have I of their cruelty that I am well assured that when I meet with death and damnation, it will be through despair of her whom I love. Yet so besotted am I, that I must needs confess that this hell delights me more coming from her hand than would heaven from the hand of another." Parlamente [one of the five noblewomen], feigning not to understand that it was of her that he made this discourse, said to him: "Since this hell of yours is as pleasant as you say, it skills not to fear the devil who sends it." But wrathfully he replied to her: "If my devil should become visible as black as it has made me unhappy, this company would be struck with as great fear as my delight is in regarding it, but the fire of my love makes me to forget the fire of my hell. So to speak no more of this matter, I will give my vote to Mistress Oisille to tell the second novel, and sure am I, that if she would tell that she knows of women, she would be of my opinion." Instantly the company turned toward her, praying her to make a beginning. To this she agreed, and smiling began thus:
It seems to me, ladies, that he who has given his vote to me has made such an ill report of women by this true story of a woman who was exceedingly wicked, that I shall have to call to mind all these old years of mine, to find one woman whose virtue shall give the lie to his judgment. And since there is come into my mind the recollection of a woman well worthy of being had in everlasting remembrance, I will tell you her history.
What happened next…
Because of the frank and stark depiction of sexual desire, many sixteenth-century readers were perplexed by the book and tended to view it as a collection of indecent tales. Late-twentieth-century scholars reevaluated Heptaméron, however, stressing its complex narrative and the prominence of women in the tales. The book is now considered a classic of the French Renaissance.
Did you know…
- Since the publication of Heptaméron in 1558, there has been a dispute about the actual author of the tales. A nineteenth-century scholar, Charles Nodier, claimed that most or all of the stories were written by Bonaventure de Périers, an attendant in Margaret of Navarre's court. No evidence has been found to support this theory, but twentieth-century scholars concluded that Heptaméron probably had several authors instead of only one. The tales may have been told to Margaret by her court attendants. This is the view reported by a man named Brantôme, who was the grandson of one of her ladies-in-waiting. According to Brantôme, his grandmother said Margaret heard the stories and wrote them down while she was being carried around the country in a litter by her servants. (A litter is a covered and curtained couch with long handles called shafts used for carrying a single passenger.)
- Margaret of Navarre was an early supporter of reform in the Roman Catholic Church. She remained outwardly obedient to Catholicism, but she protected leading French reformers such as Guillaume Briçonnet and Jacques d'ètaples Lefèvre. They were suspected of advocating Lutheranism. Lutheranism was a religious reform movement led by the German priest Martin Luther, which later resulted in the Protestant Reformation and the formation of a Christian religion that is separate from Roman Catholicism (see Martin Luther entry). Margaret's poems Mirror of the sinful soul and Dialogue in the form of a nocturnal vision were condemned by the theology faculty (professors of religion) at the Sorbonne, a college in Paris, because of the reformist views she expressed in them.
For More Information
Machen, Arthur, trans. The Heptaméron, or Tales and Novels of Marguerite, Queen of Navarre. New York: E. F. Dutton, 1905.
Marguerite de Navarre. The Heptaméron. Translated by Paul A. Chilton. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.
The Heptameron of Margaret, Queen of Navarre. [Online] Available http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/navarre/heptameron/h... , April 10, 2002.
"Margaret of Angoulême." Britannica.com. [Online] Available http://www.britannica.com/seo/m/margaret-of-angouleme, April 10, 2002.
"Margaret of Navarre." Infoplease.com. [Online] Available http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/people/A0831778.html, April 10, 2002.