Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron

In French Blog Posts by Brock Bourgase

My First Essay for FCS369Y: Allegories and Humour Show how Heroes are Rewarded
Like the wry smile Leornardo da Vinci painted on Mona Lisa, Jean Clouet’s portrait of Marguerite de Navarre, displays her knowledge and wit. She proved a controversial figure during the French Renaissance, a proponent of the abilities of women and religious integrity but also a writer who was quite risqué. Always supporting her words with actions, she provided protection to persecuted authors like François Rabelais and once rode on horseback from Lyons to Madrid in order to negotiate the freedom of her brother François I from Spanish captivity (Oxford “Marguerite d’Angoulême”).

Published posthumously, the seventy-two short stories of The Heptaméron were Marguerite’s final attempt to influence with symbolism and satire. In Pico della Mirandola’s sublunary sphere, akin to the real world, les dévisants Simontault, Nomerfide, and Geburon highlight values such as justice, education, and equality. In the angelic sphere, which is Pico filled with Platonic ideas, allegories to remind readers that they face a judgment for their sins (University of Virginia “Macrocosm vs. Microcosm”).

Throughout the anthology, Marguerite’s sense of humour enriches the book. It is occasionally absurdly hilarious when characters receive their “just desserts” – literally and figuratively – and often irony because of her choice of words. Her education in the royal court exposed her to classical texts which employed similar styles and techniques.

Simontault relates how my lord de la Tireliere and his acquaintance search for a meal at the expense of another and find more than they had bargained for. An apothecary’s apprentice overhears their conversation and discovers their wicked intentions. Wishing to punish the jackanapes for their deception, the apprentice retrieves a frozen lump of dung from the town’s public lavatory. He drops the excrement in front of the scoundrels who sought to swindle the shop and tempts them to pick up what they believe is a sugar loaf. Endeavouring to dine and dash, the noblemen enter a tavern, where heat thaws the fake loaf and produces a mighty stench. A serving-maid accuses the visitors of causing the foul odour and they leave, realizing that an expensive fox-skin coat has been spoiled. The gentlemen realize that they have received their comeuppance thanks to the one who they believed they had duped (Marguerite 161).

Irony abounds when a noble lord, who is named after the French word for a piggy-bank, is so stingy that he could not pay for his own meal. It is not a matter of ability to pay; Tireliere was visiting the town to conduct business and merely wished to take advantage of the lower class. A lawyer cannot be bothered to obey the law. An apothecary’s apprentice, who would normally make people better, decides to trick others and must lower himself by visiting a filthy place to do so. Both the hero and the villains hide the loaf under their sleeves, symbolizing the dishonesty they have undertaken. Dirt and dishonesty are closely linked in this tale.

Crime does not pay as the potential thieves got what they deserve: the stolen dessert is nothing more than someone else’s business and their shameful actions have become known to all in the tavern. In addition, the cost of the ruined coat is far greater than what would have been saved by the free food.

Prejudice is likewise decried, as a townsperson shows himself to be cleverer than an aristocrat and an advocate. Regardless of their standing, the noblemen understand that a commoner possessed the wherewithal to con them. Honour and education are the critical morals of the story which is also an allegorical warning of man’s final judgment.

Comedy also enhances Geburon’s an anecdote of a poor woman who traps members of an upper class, two Grey Friars, on separate islands and exposes their true nature to the town. A metaphor, like comparing the embarrassment the Friars felt about the revelation of their sins to the emotion that Adam felt in the garden when he first became aware that he was naked, adds immense detail to the fable (Marguerite 20).

Humour equalizes the two sexes and different classes (Wynn 56). Marguerite believed strongly in the rights of women and saw herself as a pope to the poor (Oxford “Marguerite d’Angoulême”). Amid the period’s changing attitudes, Marguerite hoped to influence her learned peers and provide them with a good laugh (Wynn 53). Had she simply announced her message in a sermon, it would have been neither as well-received nor as well-publicized as when placed between the lines of an entertaining book.

A noble lady’s fall from grace is narrated by Nomerfide, who says that Lady de Roncex thinks so highly of herself and is so ashamed of her attendant that she feels above La Mothe’s help. Entering a poorly lit privy whilst in a rush, she settles on a soiled seat. Covered in muck, de Roncex calls out and her wench immediately goes to get help, thinking that her lady is about to lose her honour. Instead, de Roncex loses her dignity when the band of citizens arrives to rescue her and sees her current state. All burst into laughter as was a matter that only a few should have been “privy” to becomes widely known. The noblewoman is terribly ashamed yet comes to see the humour of the situation. Irrespective of the earlier embarrassment she felt about La Mothe, the lady is able to appreciate her earnest assistance and sets aside her anger (Marguerite 56).

Aside from the literal account of an ill-fated visit to the privy, the story is an allegory with multiple interpretations. Typological themes include a conscientious and courageous maid whose qualities are eventually recognized. Once Lady de Roncex put her arrogance aside, she realized the actual situation. Covered with grime, de Roncex understands that her higher position is not permanent. Under pressure, La Mothe had acted nobly, despite her lower class. The moral interpretation stresses bravery and treating others justly. The anagogical meaning is that good behaviour is eventually rewarded and individuals should live life to the fullest.

Such body humour was lowbrow but it was also used by other contemporary authors like Rabelais, a writer under Marguerite’s protection. He attributed the death of 280,000 Parisians in a flood to Gargantua’s urination (Rabelais 256-7). The stream is not the River Styx or a Lake of Fire but the message of judgment comes across clearly.

Bodily functions are epitomic of filth and human waste which should be cast aside. Death and judgment were weighty issues but Marguerite added levity to the situation with satire (Winn 59). In the face of the upsetting situation, Lady de Roncex is able to cast aside the real rubbish by changing her dress before she left the monastery and forget her emotional detritus by forgiving her wench over the misunderstanding.

Not all stories are negative and many recount steadfast love or instances of bravery. Geburon’s sixteenth tale includes both as a lady tests the fidelity of a lover who has been following her to church by initially feigning illness and staying home for a while, later rebuking his first approach, and eventually ignoring him and his love letters over the course of three years. At long last, she permits the Frenchman to enter her room but arranges a final test, a loud clamour of swords in the hall. She tells her devotee that her brothers have come to kill him and urges him to conceal himself under the bed. When the gentleman goes to confront his attackers and finds only serving-maids banging swords together, the lady observes his gallantry and accepts his love (Marguerite 67).

In the relationship, both man and woman are equal partners. The Frenchman must prove his loyalty and valour without doubt before he gains the lady’s hand. Repeated visits to church are emblematic of his love for the lady. Like any honourable citizen, he possesses a great devotion to his religion but he is also dedicated towards his love. Compared to eternity, three years and many refusals is not a long time; Marguerite wants her readers to share her belief in a heavenly reward for actions on Earth.

During the story’s climax, Marguerite cuts the tension with an absurd moment. As the gentleman opens the door to confront his pursuers, he catches two serving-maids in the act. The reader can easily visualize their look of surprise and guilt and laugh before returning the solemnity of the couple’s commitment to each other.

At the turn of the sixteenth century, Marguerite spent a decade growing up at the Château d’Amboise with her mother, Louise of Savoie, and brother, the future François I (Fabri 104). As she witnessed ships laden with goods from Italy travelling up the Loire River heralding the arrival of the Renaissance in France, she witnessed the influx of new ideas in the French culture. Medieval traditions were replaced and classical works were distributed among the learned circles of which Marguerite was an active member thanks to her tutors and keen reading (Oxford “Plato in the Renaissance”).

Marguerite would have been exposed to Plato, who often wrote allegorically to emphasize his philosophy, retelling parables in The Republic to illustrate the importance of education and justice. One story illustrates how a person entering the real world after a lifetime in a cave is temporary blind, despite the perspective he has gained (Plato 514-521b), and another is the myth of Er’s voyage to the afterlife (Plato 614-621). Humour also enriches the stories, like the banter between the speakers or ridiculous moments like when Thersites, a local buffoon, is reincarnated as an ape (Plato 620c). Marguerite used comparable methods to colour the pages of The Heptameron.

Throughout The Republic, the philosophers debate the merits of just acts compared to unjust ones and eventually conclude that the philosopher king is 729 times happier than the tyrant (Plato 587d). Socrates also recounts the consequences administered by Lachesis during Er’s visit (617d-621a). These Literal and tropological interpretations also present in Marguerite’s tales (Michelucci Symbolism).

Neoclassicism is mentioned by les dévisants but Marguerite remained inspired by her religious beliefs (Bernard 4-5). The Bible, which influenced the nobility, is full of allegory, from the Psalms to the Gospel. Jesus made his point with metaphors and humour, once encouraging people to live their lives to the fullest, telling parable of the dead burying the dead (Flynn 44). Other allegories include man literally reaping what he sows when a forgetful hole-digger falls into his own pit (Ps. 7.15) and the anagogical foretelling of how each will be judged according to their works (Rev. 20.13). These themes where prominent in Marguerite’s life and her other works (Winandy 145).

Values and morals are interpretative: seminal texts written thousands of years ago or during the Middle Ages and Renaissance remain enthusiastically debated today as if published yesterday and The Heptaméron is no different. Whether Marguerite’s principal work is analyzed for literal, topological, tropological, or anagogical interpretations, her staunch beliefs about justice, equality, and education are apparent.

Only rarely will a rogue escape, like Oisille’s muleteer (Marguerite 9) but characters are normally judged for their actions. In each of Pico’s three spheres, one can run but they can never hide. Villains never know who will make them suffer the consequences, a mere apprentice or St-Peter himself. The hero described by Geburon is ultimately rewarded for his patience but others may need to wait for their prize.

Bernard, Robert W. “Platonism: Myth or Reality in the Héptameron.” Sixteenth Century Journal 5.1. (April 1974): 3-14.
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da Vinci, Leonardo. Mona Lisa. 1528. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
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Flynn, Leslie B. Serve Him with Mirth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1960.
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Maguerite, Queen of Navarre. The Heptameron. ed. Stanley Appelbaum. Trans. Arthur Machen. Dover: Mineola, 2006.
Michelucci, Pascal. Lecture. “Symbolism: Signs, Icons, Emblems, Archetypes, Allegories, Metaphors, and Interpration.” Institut de Touraine, Tours, 4 July 2008.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance. Oxford University Press. 5 July 2008
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The Dictionary of the History of Ideas. University of Virginia Library. 6 July 2008
Winandy, André. “Piety and Humanistic Symbolism in the Works of Marguerite d’Angoulême, Queen of Navarre.” Yale French Studies 47 (1972): 145-169.
Winn, Colette H. “Rire et Angoisse dans L’Héptameron” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 41.1-2 (1987): p.51-64.