Marguerite de Navarre Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.