Marguerite de Navarre
Article abstract: Both as a writer herself and as patroness of reformers and poets, Marguerite helped her brother, the king of France, introduce the new humanism into French culture. Her courts, first at Alençon and later in Navarre, were centers where educated women and men could discuss religion, literature, and politics. Marguerite single-handedly invented the salon, as it came to be known in the seventeenth century. She was the first society woman of learning—what the eighteenth century would call a “bluestocking.”
Marguerite of Angoulême—so called in order to distinguish her from her grand-niece, Marguerite of Valois, who also married a king of Navarre—was the first child of the ambitious and dominating Louise of Savoy. Marguerite was two years older than her brother François (later king of France). Their mother reared the children to become queen and king, insisting that they both master the “new learning” (essentially classical literature, the Bible, and Latin). Tall and fiercely intelligent, Marguerite charmed by her wit rather than her beauty. Until she became a queen in her own right by virtue of her second marriage in 1527, her early life revolved around that of her Valois brother, the glorious King François I (ruled 1515-1547). She would later recollect their childhood and adolescence under the guise of a roman à clef, or a story whose characters are known only to readers who have the “key.”
In 1509, with her fifteen-year-old brother already betrothed to the ten-year-old princess of France, Marguerite was married by the scheming Louise to the duke of Alençon, a simple nobleman with a pious and unworldly mother. Marguerite took her books with her to Normandy and proceeded to set up at Alençon one of the earliest salons, or learned courts, in imitation of the society in which her mother had reared her and François. Her husband the duke left Marguerite to her cultivated guests, preferring his horses and hounds to the new learning. Illiterate himself, he was embarrassed to visit the royal court with a wife who knew how to talk about Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio. There began Marguerite’s patronage of Clément Marot and other poets, and there she met the great humanist scholar Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples.
Lefèvre was the French counterpart of Desiderius Erasmus, the famous Dutch humanist, and the teachings of both scholars attracted the strong-minded noblewoman, who was still in her twenties. In this context, one must recall that Martin Luther did not begin the Reformation. The movement to reform the church (which was still the Christian church, with no distinction of Protestant or Catholic) had been underway for a generation by the time Luther nailed his angry “theses” to the church door in 1517. Among the various reform movements that ensued, Catholic reformers outnumbered Protestant by at least three to one. Like Erasmus, Lefèvre wanted to strip the institutional trappings from religious experience so that the believer might communicate more directly with Christ. In particular, these men hoped to “make everyone his or her own theologian,” as Erasmus wrote in his preface to the New Testament, which he edited in its original Greek. Educated Christians could pray to God and think for themselves, without the help of priests or doctors of theology. These humanists expressed their hostility to theologians by insisting that the teachings of the great pagan moralists—including Socrates, Plato, and Cicero—were closer to the spirit of biblical Christianity than were the doctrines debated at the Sorbonne in Paris. Erasmus even prayed to “Saint Socrates.”
To Marguerite, living with an ignorant husband and his puritanical mother, the humanist teaching came like the dawn of a new epoch. After ten years of marriage, she still had no children, and, knowing herself the intellectual and social equal of any aristocrat in France, she embraced Lefèvre’s cause as her life work. He put her in touch with the bishop of Meaux (near Paris), and with her letters in 1521 she began her thoughtful writing on religion and the Scriptures. Without ever condoning Luther’s radicalism, Marguerite lent her protection to a number of Catholic reformers and even to Luther’s follower, John Calvin. This earned for Marguerite the hatred of the doctors at the Sorbonne, who were determined to root out “Lutheran heretics” and burn them at the stake. When the Sorbonne’s activists overstepped their authority and condemned one of Marguerite’s religious tracts, her brother the king was furious and banished their ringleader from the country.
Protecting and nourishing the new ideas and encouraging her brother to do likewise were perhaps Marguerite’s greatest historical accomplishments. In 1534, following the Affair of the Placards (when overnight all of Paris was plastered with signs denouncing the church’s main dogmas, such as the presence of Christ in the host), François was...
(The entire section is 2055 words.)