Marguerite de Navarre Essay - Critical Essays

Navarre, Marguerite de


Marguerite de Navarre 1492-1549

French short story writer, poet, and playwright.

An important figure in the transition between medieval and Renaissance literature, Marguerite de Navarre was one of the first women in Europe to write fiction. She is best known for L'Heptaméron des Nouvelles (1559; the Heptameron), a series of stories, or “novellas,” primarily concerned with the themes of love and spirituality. Marguerite also wrote devotional poetry and several plays that unite a mystical absorption with divinity, Neoplatonic ideas, and humanist concerns. Her innovative use of genre as well as her explorations of gender dynamics in early modern European society have led recent critics to reexamine the tensions and convictions at work in her writing.

Biographical Information

Born on April 11, 1492, Marguerite was distantly related to the ruling family of France. With the death of the Dauphin in 1495, Marguerite's younger brother, François, became second in line for kingship, which drew the family into closer contact with the court. In 1496 Marguerite's father, Charles d'Orleans, died, leaving her mother, Louis de Savoie, to protect the interests of her young children. Marguerite received a classical education and became particularly interested in literature. At the age of seventeen she was married to the Duke of Alençon, at whose provincial estate she suffered from an indifference to her husband and an isolation from the cultural milieu of the court. Her brother's coronation in 1515 rescued her from this stagnation, and she immersed herself not only in the social pleasures of court life but in diplomatic responsibilities and intellectual opportunities as well. During the king's absences at war with Spain, Marguerite and her mother ruled in his stead, and in 1525 she traveled to Madrid, where he was held captive, to bargain for his release. The Duke of Alençon died in 1524, and Marguerite remarried in 1527 to Henri d'Albret, the King of Navarre—an independent kingdom located between France and Spain. She continued to be active politically and became increasingly disenchanted with the institution of the Church, even as she became more interested in spiritual matters. She was also a patron of the arts and involved herself in charitable work. Toward the end of her life Marguerite withdrew from the political machinations between France, Spain and Navarre, and, particularly after the death of her brother François I in 1547, sequestered herself from courtly existence. She died on December 21, 1549.

Major Works

Often compared to Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, Marguerite's most famous work, the Heptameron, is a collection of seventy-two short stories drawn together by a frame narrative: ten travellers—five men and five women of various ages and social roles—are stranded in an abbey in Navarre after a bridge is washed out, and entertain themselves for a week by storytelling. Both comedic and tragic, the stories concern love, marriage, adultery, and human weakness; they offer glimpses of aristocratic, monastic, and common life in the sixteenth century, and suggest a critical perspective on the inequities that emerge from differences in class, gender, and political power. Church officials are almost universally depicted as corrupt, lecherous, and dishonest, and adultery forms the basis for many of the plots. Each story is followed by a “discussion” in which the storytellers debate the moral standing of the characters' actions and behavior. Many of the stories appear to be semi-autobiographical, as the setting is often Navarre, and some of the characters are clearly recognizable as figures in Marguerite's own life—her husband, her brother, and herself. A central feature of the stories is the dichotomy between virtue and carnality, and some recent critics have claimed that, although the Heptameron is thematically driven by very human concerns, its broader intent involves a spiritual and moralistic message. Timothy Hampton maintains that the romance of Amadour and Floride, the tenth tale of the Heptameron “is, in a sense, the founding narrative of modern French literature” (1996).

The expression of personal belief and emotion is even more pronounced in Marguerite's devotional poetry, contained in the Dernières Poésies (1547) and Les Marguerites de la Marguerite des princesses (1547), which reveal an intensely mystical and individual faith as well as a profound attention to the issue of penitence and salvation. Particularly in relation to her poetry, critical scholarship has attributed to Marguerite a turn to spiritual and Neoplatonic love against the secularism and materialism of court culture. Similarly, her dramatic poems—collected as the Théâtre Profane (1946)—reflect both a didactic tone and a longing to be united with the divine and cleansed of the sins of the flesh. Marguerite's theological conceptions invoke the imagery and devotional conventions of the medieval Church, but her passionate mysticism resonates more strongly of the female saints of the early Renaissance in Spain and Italy. Threaded through both aspects of her faith are humanist concerns with gender and sexuality, the power of the Church in ordinary lives, and the ideal of courtly love.

Critical Reception

Almost overwhelmingly, critics have neglected Marguerite's poetry and drama in favor of the Heptameron, which has been praised primarily for its psychological realism and complex narrative structure. Recent scholarship focuses on the disruption of social expectations through the transgression of prescribed gender and class roles, depicted in many of the stories, as well as Marguerite's own position as an female author in the Renaissance. However, an interest in the relationship between Marguerite's spirituality and her ideological positions in the Heptameron has led to increasing critical attention to her devotional poetry and the extent to which that body of work also reflects the transition between medieval and Renaissance forms of life. The Heptameron remains critically privileged as a major step toward the secular modern novel that was to dominate European literature, and in its own right as a subtly crafted vision of Renaissance society. Marcel Tetel articulates a judgment echoed by most readers of her work in his contention that Marguerite de Navarre was “an exemplary figure of her age,” but that her age is one that is best exemplified by those who exceeded the expectations and limits of the world as they found it.

Principal Works

Le Dialogue en forme de vision nocturne (poetry) c. 1524-26

Le Petit œuvre (poetry) c. 1524-26

Le Miroir de l'âme pécheresse (poetry) 1531

Le Mallade (play) c. 1535

L'Inquisiteur (play) 1536

Comédie des quatre femmes (play) 1542

Trop, Prou, Peu, Moins (play) 1544

Comédie sur le trespas du roy, (play) 1547

Les Dernières poèsies de Marguerite de Navarre (poetry) 1547

Les Marguerites de la Marguerite des princesses (poetry) 1547

La Navire (poetry) c. 1547-49

Les Prisons (poetry) c. 1547-49

Comédie de Mont-de-Marsan (play) 1548

Comédie du parfait amant (play) 1549

L'Heptaméron des Nouvelles (short stories) 1559

Lettres de Marguerite de Navarre (correspondence) 1841

Théâtre Profane (plays) 1946

Chansons spirituelles (poetry) 1971

Les Prisons (poetry) 1978


Jules Gelernt (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “World of Many Loves: The Discussions,” in World of Many Loves: The Heptameron of Marguerite de Navarre, University of North Carolina Press, 1966, pp. 126-64.

[In the following essay, Gelernt describes the characters, issues and tone of the discussions following the stories of the Heptameron, and argues that Marguerite's conclusion considers wedlock “the best chance man has for happiness in this world.”]

At the root of Marguerite's investigation of love lies the assumption that love is in essence good and that it is the vagaries of human nature which can twist it to evil ends: in Saffredent's words, “tout ainsy que amour faict faire aux...

(The entire section is 13941 words.)

Marcel Tetel (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Ambiguity or the Splintering of Truth,” in Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron: Themes, Language, and Structure, Duke University Press, 1973, pp. 104-49.

[In the essay that follows, Tetel claims that the Heptameron's structure reflects a dramatization of ambiguity.]

“Puis notre bouquet sera plus beau, tant plus il sera remply de différentes choses” (“XLVIII,” 271). There can be no doubt of the wide variety of novellas offered in the Heptameron on the sociological, ethical, and behavioral levels. In this vein, Marguerite emulates Boccaccio and prefigures Balzac; all three create their own version of the human comedy and...

(The entire section is 15918 words.)

Louis E. Auld (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Music as Dramatic Device in the Secular Theater of Marguerite de Navarre,” in Renaissance Drama, new series VII, edited by Joel H. Kaplan, Northwestern University Press, 1976, pp. 193-217.

[In the following essay, Auld claims that the significance of Marguerite de Navarre's plays lies in part with her innovative dramatization of personal beliefs, and her use of music to lend emotional force to the abstract religious ideas she wishes to convey.]

Among the diverse literary production of Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, the seven dramatic poems grouped together as the Théâtre profane bear testimony to the flexibility and range of her spirit.1...

(The entire section is 8173 words.)

Ehsan Ahmed (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Regenerating Feminine Poetic Identity: Marguerite de Navarre's Song of the Peronelle,” in Romanic Review, Vol. 78, No. 2, 1987, pp. 165-76.

[In the essay that follows, Ahmed argues that Marguerite de Navarre rewrote a secular French song as a spiritual quest for unity with God, a quest which is specifically feminine.]

O Mutation délectable (v. 40)

Chanson spirituelle XXX

Marguerite de Navarre's place in the well-known French polemic of the late 1540's between the proponents of the national chanson form and those of the ode borrowed from Antiquity is not an evident one. She is mentioned neither in...

(The entire section is 5554 words.)

Paula Sommers (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Introduction: The Celestial Ladder,” in Celestial Ladders: Readings in Marguerite de Navarre's Poetry of Spiritual Ascent, Librarie Droz, 1989, pp. 9-17.

[In the following essay, Sommers characterizes Marguerite's poetry as a delicate combination of mysticism and the instructional motif of the celestial ladder.]

“The mystic, as we have seen, makes it his life's aim to be transformed into the likeness of Him in whose image he was created. He loves to figure his path as a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, which must be climbed step by step.”

Wiliam Randolph Inge, Christian Mysticism...

(The entire section is 3527 words.)

Patricia Francis Cholakian (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Rape?/Seduction?: Novellas 14, 16 and 18,” in Rape and Writing in the Heptaméron of Marguerite de Navarre, Southern Illinois University Press, 1991, pp. 117-28.

[In the essay that follows, Cholakian examines the complexity of establishing female desire in three of Marguerite's stories that turn on a rape or a seduction.]

Seduce, v.t. 1. to lead astray, as from duty, rectitude, or the like; corrupt. 2. to persuade or induce to have sexual intercourse. 3. to lead or draw away, as from principles, faith, or allegiance: He was seduced by the prospect of gain. 4. to win over; attract; entice: a supermarket seducing...

(The entire section is 6466 words.)

Robert D. Cottrell (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Inmost Cravings: The Logic of Desire in the Heptameron,” in Critical Tales: New Studies of the Heptameron and Early Modern Culture, edited by John D. Lyons and Mary B. McKinley, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993, pp. 3-24.

[In the following essay, Cottrell argues that the Heptameron is guided by spiritual concerns, despite the explicitly worldly themes of the stories.]

“Nous sommes tous encloz en peché.”

—“Novella 26,” Heptameron

“Omnes peccaverunt.”

—Romans 3.23 (Vulgate)


(The entire section is 9418 words.)

Cathleen M. Bauschatz (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “‘Voylà, mes dames …’: Inscribed Women Listeners and Readers in the Heptameron,” in Critical Tales: New Studies of the Heptameron and Early Modern Culture, edited by John D. Lyons and Mary B. McKinley, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993, pp. 104-22.

[In the following essay, Bauschatz contends that the Heptameron is primarily directed at a female audience, and this intention is reflected in a disruption of the traditional narrative structure.]

Many critics of the Heptameron have appeared frustrated or baffled in their attempts to find a coherent and unified message in the book. Rather than reaching any sort of closure,...

(The entire section is 8812 words.)

Mary B. McKinley (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Telling Secrets: Sacramental Confession and Narrative Authority in the Heptameron,” in Critical Tales: New Studies of the Heptameron and Early Modern Culture, edited by John D. Lyons and Mary B. McKinley, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993, pp. 146-71.

[In the essay that follows, McKinley elaborates the connection between the institutional requirement of women's speech in confession and the increasing authority of that speech on the part of individual women in the Renaissance.]

Confession is to be made before the eyes of all in an open place, to prevent a rapacious wolf from sneaking into corners and causing unthinkably...

(The entire section is 11387 words.)

Judy Kem (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Sins of the Mother: Adultery, Lineage and Law in the Heptaméron,” in Heroic Virtue, Comic Infidelity: Reassessing Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron, edited by Dora E. Polachek, Hestia Press, 1993, pp. 51-9.

[In the following essay, Kem examines the diverse moral judgments regarding adultery made by the listeners in the Heptameron.]

At the end of “Novella 40” in Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron (1559), the devisants discuss the role that class distinctions play in marriage. Saffredent asks why it is wrong for a simple gentleman to marry a woman of the high nobility to which Dagoucin responds:


(The entire section is 3226 words.)

Patricia Francis Cholakian (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Heroic Infidelity: Novella 15,” in Heroic Virtue, Comic Infidelity: Reassessing Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron, edited by Dora E. Polachek, Hestia Press, 1993, pp. 62-76.

[In the essay that follows, Cholakian traces the tensions within Marguerite de Navarre's authorial voice and identifies a “feminine difference” in her retelling of traditional narratives.]

One of the questions raised by present-day debates about women and literature is that of what constitutes a feminine difference in women's writing. In teasing out an answer to this question in the Heptaméron, I want to use two approaches. The first is what Nancy K. Miller calls...

(The entire section is 5849 words.)

Jeffrey C. Persels (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “‘Qui sommes tous cassez du harnoys’ or, the Heptaméron and Uses of the Male Body,” in Heroic Virtue, Comic Infidelity: Reassessing Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron, edited by Dora E. Polachek, Hestia Press, 1993, pp. 90-102.

[In the following essay, Persels discusses Marguerite's challenge to the image of the aggressive and exaggeratedly virile male body.]

The Heptaméron offers discursive portraits of five men who represent the few possible variations on the theme of noble Early Modern masculinity, from the apparently uncompromising, ostentatious virility of Hircan to the ultimately misleading, Neo-Platonic “feminism” of...

(The entire section is 5021 words.)

Carla Freccero (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Practicing Queer Philology with Marguerite de Navarre: Nationalism and the Castigation of Desire,” in Queering the Renaissance, edited by Jonathan Goldberg, Duke University Press, 1994, pp. 107-23.

[In the essay that follows, Freccero discusses the significance of a passing reference to Lucretia in the context of the Heptameron's depictions of marriage, desire and law.]

Every encounter with a representation of the rape of Lucretia is an encounter with a literary topos of Western civilization. And, as topos, the meaning of this rape is constructed as universal, transcending historical conditions: in every age and...

(The entire section is 7023 words.)

Timothy Hampton (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “On the Border: Geography, Gender and Narrative Form in the Heptaméron,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 4, December, 1996, pp. 517-44.

[In the following essay, Hampton reads the Heptameron as a reflection of the shifting political and ideological ground of the Renaissance.]

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.



The Heptaméron (1559) takes place on disputed territory. Marguerite de Navarre's prologue to her collection of framed tales focuses on the adventures of a group of aristocrats who have come to take the waters at Cauterets, in...

(The entire section is 11579 words.)

Further Reading


Winn, Colette H. “Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549).” In French Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book, edited by Eva Martin Sartori and Dorothy Wynne Zimmerman, pp. 313-23. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Provides a brief biography and survey of major themes of Marguerite's work, as well as a bibliography of primary and secondary sources.


Baker, M. J. “Didacticism and the Heptaméron: The Misinterpretation of the Tenth Tale as an Exemplum.French Review 45, No. 3 (Fall 1971): 84-90.

Challenges the claim that Marguerite de Navarre is...

(The entire section is 598 words.)