Marguerite de Navarre is best known today for her brilliant and open-ended story collection The Heptameron, in which a group of men and women tell each other stories exploring love, desire, honour, and religious faith. In this new book, I examine the debates and questions of the Heptameron in the light of Marguerite’s broader work as a Renaissance princess, patron, diplomat, and mystical poet.
Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549) lived through a period of exceptional change, optimism, and trauma. Born the year Columbus landed in the Caribbean, she witnessed the flourishing of learning and arts known as the Renaissance and the schism in the western Catholic church known as the Reformation. Queen of Navarre, and sister to the French king François I, she was at the heart of European religious and political diplomacy. Her life would be interesting enough on its own, but she was also the author of a masterpiece of the French Renaissance: The Heptameron.
The Heptameron is a collection of short stories, told by a group of ten aristocratic men and women, the French answer to Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. Marguerite’s ten storytellers are stranded in a monastery in the Pyrenees by catastrophic floods and agree to tell each other stories to pass the time while they wait for a bridge to be built. Sitting in a beautiful meadow by a river, this is what they do – but they also debate the meanings and implications of the stories they tell in long discussions. The diverse views of the storytellers form a kind of critique of some of the most widespread and contentious ideas of the early sixteenth century: the nature of love; the nature of desire; the nature of men and of women and the relationship between the sexes; the meaning of honour; and the significance of religious faith. Although the storytellers often fail to agree – and often fail to win their opponents round – their debates aren’t hostile or fractious (or at least, not always). Instead, there’s a sense of the importance of talking your way to some kind of understanding – which of course might be temporary, or provisional, or fragile in some way, but that realisation never undermines the value of talking, or of telling stories.
When I started writing the book, I wanted to present The Heptameron in the context of the intellectual, political, and religious questions of the sixteenth century, which meant setting it alongside Marguerite’s other writings – diplomatic letters, mystical poetry, and theatre. I felt this would capture the historical colour and vivacity of the stories and Marguerite’s response to the philosophical and social challenges of her time, allowing readers to appreciate the many facets of her life and work. Although I have been reading, teaching, and thinking about Marguerite de Navarre for many years, most of the writing was done in spring 2021, when the UK was in lockdown in response to the global pandemic Covid-19. So the book was written against a backdrop of homeschool fractions as well as fractious debate over lockdown, vaccines, and social distancing. It also emerges from different anxieties of separation, as with exquisite timing, January 2021 marked the definitive exit of the UK from the European Union. As I re-read Marguerite’s work it seemed to speak to these times and offer a space to think about differences, resentments, and reconciliations. Something about the generous open-endedness of The Heptameron in particular feels resolutely contemporary. But there is a stubborn early modernity to The Heptameron as well, moments when its foreignness makes itself felt. In this Critical Companion, I explore both the historical specificity of Marguerite’s work and its continuing – sometimes arresting – relevance.
Emily Butterworth is Reader in Early Modern French at King’s College London.