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The heptameron's 67th tale: marguerite de Navarre's humble heroine confronts the querelle des femmes and catholic tradition.

THE Heptameron 's sixty-seventh tale recounts the harrowing experience of a woman who accompanies her husband on Captain Roberval's exploratory voyage to Canada. Her husband, a "mechant traitre" (458), betrays the captain and is to be put to death, but his life is spared on account of his wife's pleas and faithful service. The couple is abandoned on an island full of "betes sauvages et cruelles" (459), where the husband eventually falls ill and dies from their brutal existence. In contrast, the woman manifests great physical and spiritual strength--her constancy and faith are rewarded as Captain Roberval's crew subsequently discover her and take her back to France where she is publicly honored for her perseverance and devotion. While some critics have categorized the tale as "simple" and "contrived," this particular novella exemplifies Marguerite's ability to convey complex notions in a brief narrative. (1) This paper will argue that Marguerite's nouvelle not only details the account of Mme de Roberval's adventures, but that it is also rich with allusions to the most heated controversies of Renaissance France. Despite the tale's brevity, Marguerite evokes central points of contention in both the Debate about Women and the heated dispute over religious reform.

Knowing that he has earned the reputation of a misogynist, Simontaut introduces the Heptameron's sixty-seventh tale by stating, "Il me semble, a vous ouir parler [...] que les hommes prennent plaisir a ouir mal dire des femmes, et suis sur que vous me tenez de ce nombre-la. Parquoi j'ai grande envie d'en dire bien d'une afin de n'etre pas de tous les autres tenu pour medisant" (458). He begins the narrative by alluding to men's pleasure in disparaging women and by stating that his tale will distance him from the other men who speak poorly of the female sex. Despite his promise to speak favorably of women, Simontaut explicitly recalls the misogynistic representations of women as fragile and weak beings both in the introduction and the conclusion of the story. His mention of the "sexe fragile" (458) in his introduction and his declaration at the tale's conclusion that the virtues God places in women are greater given that "le sujet est plus infirme" (460) need to be examined closely. The negative connotations associated with the term "infirme" serve to recall the ongoing debates in the querelle des femmes over the female body and the Catholic Church's emphasis on woman's purportedly weak physical nature. The fact that the tale begins and ends with emphasis on the anti-female sentiments that were prevalent in Renaissance society, literature, and religion encourages the reader to be particularly mindful of these issues throughout the narrative. Despite Simontaut's insistence on women's moral and physical infirmities, the historically based tale casts doubt on such opinions as it presents a strong female protagonist alongside a weak male character. (2)

In Marguerite's tale the wife is consistently represented as both morally and physically stronger than her spouse on every level. Like her husband, she courageously endured "les perils de la mer" (458). In their harsh surroundings, she labored alongside him in constructing their home and in fighting off and killing wild animals. They subsist on what they can hunt and forage; however her husband was unable to "porter telle nourriture" (459) and consequently became ill. The tale specifies the details of the husband's demise: "[...] a cause des eaux qu'ils buvaient devint si enfle qu'en peu de temps il mourut" (459). The fact that the plural pronoun "ils" is used here unequivocally establishes that the woman was also satisfying her thirst with these very waters. However her physical fortitude clearly exceeded that of her husband since she proved more capable of withstanding the trials of the harsh environment while he rapidly fell ill and perished. She undoubtedly experienced great physical suffering given that Simontaut refers to her "corps emmaigri et demi-mort" (459), but she manifests greater physical resilience than her husband nonetheless. Although Simontaut repeatedly emphasizes the fragility of the so-called weaker sex, the tale casts doubt on this opinion since the facts of the story repeatedly underscore the woman's superior physical vigor.

The tale also evokes her spiritual and moral fortitude on numerous occasions by recalling the strength she draws from her unswerving devotion to God. The narrative emphasizes that the woman's "ferme espoir" (459) in God was the source of her ability to endure such harsh physical conditions. The material food the couple ingested did little to strengthen them; however the female heroine relied more heavily on her profound faith to endure these trials. While the meat and herbs they found to sustain themselves sickened the husband, the reader is told that his wife fortified herself with spiritual nourishment by reading the New Testament unceasingly (459). The absence of any reference to the husband's spiritual activities contrasts strongly with the representation of the wife's strong faith; it emphasizes that he relied solely on his own human capabilities whereas she sought strength and sustenance in God. Despite the brutal nature of her physical environment, the woman's spiritual life is described as "angelique" (459) for she spent her days reading Scriptures, praying, and in spiritual contemplations. Furthermore, the misery of her environment and her physical discomforts in no way prevent her from having "un esprit joyeux et content" (459). Her satisfaction and joy amid such miserable conditions highlight the strength of her devotion as well as the constancy of her faith. The portrayal of the husband and wife's spiritual devotion contrasts sharply with the stereotypes in the querelle des femmes and Church tradition that portrayed men as the moral guardians of spiritually and emotionally weaker women.

A similar challenge to misogynistic opinions of women and religion arises in the tale's portrayal of the heroine's Scripture reading. Marguerite writes, "Et comme celle qui avait toute consolation en Dieu porta pour sa sauvegarde, nourriture et consolation Le Nouveau Testament, lequel elle lisait incessamment" (459). The explicit reference to the heroine's reading of the New Testament is particularly important since no mention is made of this in other sixteenth-century accounts of her story. (3) Marguerite's reference to the young woman's Biblical reading does more than highlight her heroine's active faith, it also symbolizes the Queen of Navarre's engagement in contemporary debates about the laity's, and more specifically women's, direct access to the Bible.

The attention to the woman's accessibility to the New Testament in Marguerite's tale must be examined in light of the contention over this issue between Reformers and traditional Catholics and also in connection with similar disputes in the querelle des femmes. (4) For instance, Pierre de Ronsard wrote, "les femmes fragiles, interpretent en vain le sens des evangiles" (Lazard, 83). The narrative's emphasis on the heroine's reading of the New Testament must be viewed in connection with similar representations of this notion in the Heptameron. The positive representation of women's autonomy in reading the Bible is portrayed in an equally favorable light in the prologue when Oisille refers to, "un passe-temps qui vous puisse delivrer de vos ennuis, car, ayant cherche ce remede toute ma vie, n'en ai jamais trouve qu'un qui est la lecture des saintes Lettres en laquelle se trouve la vraie et parfaite joie de l'esprit, dont procede le repos et la sante du corps" (45). She then offers details of her independent devotional readings each morning and evening. The favorable portrayals of women reading the Bible are supported even by the consistently misogynistic Hircan who expresses equality on the issue when he refers to, "[...] ceux qui ont lu la Saint Ecriture, comme je crois que nous tous avons fait [..]" (46). The Heptameron's depictions of women having equal opportunity to study Scripture stand in opposition to the misogynist writers in the querelle and Catholic traditionalists who argued against women's direct access to the Bible. This tale not only engages in the controversy over women having the freedom to read the Bible, it also responds to similar disputes about confession.

The idea of penance and absolution was a topic of significant contention for the Reformers. (5) The same subject arose in relation to controversy over gender since women were frequently victims of abuse in the confessional. Marguerite's attention to the topic of clerical abuse in the Heptameron has already been well researched, but the text's references to women serving as confessors merit further scrutiny. The narrative details the husband's final moments, "il mourut, n'ayant service ni consolation que de sa femme, laquelle le servait de medecin et de confesseur en quelque sorte qu'il passa joyeusement de ce desert en la celeste patrie" (459). This sentence underscores that the wife is the sole consolation of her husband. It is important to recall that earlier in the tale the word "consolation" appears twice in one sentence. "Et comme celle qui avait toute consolation en Dieu porta pour sa sauvegarde, nourriture, et consolation le Nouveau Testament" (459). Marguerite's heroine was the "pauvre femme" who sought consolation in God and in the New Testament. While the husband is depicted as a traitorous individual who manifests no interest in God or the Bible, he is nevertheless portrayed as ultimately gaining salvation as a result of his wife's actions and devotion. Michel Bideaux astutely remarks, "[.] il est significatif que tout le discours qui peut lui etre favorable ne le concerne jamais seul: s'il alla "joyeusement" au ciel, ce n'est qu'apres avoir ete conduit puis assiste par sa femme sur le chemin de l'expiation" (55). The fact that Marguerite's heroine is unequivocally described as his confessor and that she fills this role in a highly effective manner must be viewed in connection with the ongoing controversy over confession in the Reform and the Debate about Women. This portrayal of women as confessor would seem to contest statements from writers like Jean de Marconville who declared, "il n'apartient a aucune femme (tant bonne et saincte qu'elle puisse estre) d'avoir l'administration des choses sacrees" (83). The fact that the husband manifested no spiritual inclinations, yet he still passes joyfully to heaven serves to highlight his wife's powerful intervention as mediator in the salvation of her husband.

Another positive representation of a woman serving as confessor appears in the final tale of the collection. In the seventy-second tale, a group of nuns was present to console a dying man, but the fact that as women, they were unable to serve as confessors necessitated that they request a male cleric come to perform this duty. His subsequent contributions to the situation demonstrate his gross lack of reverence vis-a-vis his privileged role of confessor. Having lost faith in the religious authorities, the young woman insists that only Marguerite de Navarre could intervene to resolve the situation by asserting, "a elle seule je conterai mon affaire" (497). A male confessor had violated her trust and as a result she was only comfortable confiding in a female authority figure. The fact that Marguerite ultimately intervenes in a role almost identical to that of confessor is significant. Within a Church setting, the young woman falls at Marguerite's feet, admits her wrongdoing, and shares her pitiful story. Marguerite then intervenes for justice and reconciliation; her behavior stands in stark contrast to the immoral actions of the male confessor. The Heptameron 's representations of Marguerite de Navarre and her heroine as competent and effective confessors contest Catholic tradition as well as the misogynistic voices in the querelle.

After the woman's loss of her husband, Marguerite writes that God "qui n'abandonne jamais les siens, et qui au desespoir des autres montre sa puissance, ne permit que la vertu qu'il avait mise en cette femme fut ignoree des hommes, mais voulut qu'elle fut connue a sa gloire" (45960). While the use of the word "hommes" here certainly refers to mankind in a general sense, the repeated attention to gender in the tale suggests that it is particularly targeted to the detractors of women in the querelle and the traditionalists in the Catholic Church. The theme of women and their value to God continues to invigorate the discussion that follows the novella. Simontaut initiates the ensuing conversation by referring to God's greater works in women due to their weaknesses. Oisille promptly refutes his claim by asserting, "a dire vrai, toute vertu vient de lui; mais il faut passer condamnation qu'aussi peu favorise l'homme a l'ouvrage de Dieu que la femme, car l'un et l'autre, par son coeur et son vouloir, ne fait rien que planter et Dieu seul donne l'accroissement" (460). She begins her rebuttal by saying "a dire vrai" thereby casting doubt on the truthfulness of Simontaut's declaration. She then insists on the perfect equality of men and women before God. Saffredent responds to Oisille's claim by stating that if she had "bien vu" the Scriptures of Saint Paul, she would know that he does not mention the works of women. His suggestion that she is not well acquainted with Saint Paul's writings lacks credibility since the group of storytellers entrusts her religious authority enough to give them a biblical lesson every day despite the fact that they are situated in an institution of all male religious authorities. Parlamente responds to him stating, "Vous voudriez suivre [...] l'opinion des mauvais hommes qui prennent un passage de l'Ecriture pour eux et laissent celui qui leur est contraire. Si vous avez lu Saint Paul jusqu'au bout, vous trouverez qu'il se recommande aux dames qui ont beaucoup laboure avec lui en l'Evangile" (461). Parlamente questions men's readings of Scripture as she recalls those "mauvais hommes" who take a Bible verse out of context in order to support their claims at the same time that they ignore those verses contradictory to their opinions. (6) While her remark is targeted at Saffredent, it may also extend to the querelle writers and traditional clerics who sought to limit women's spiritual freedoms. Following Parlamente's statement, the women storytellers control the conversation as Longarine, Ennasuite, Parlamente, and then Nomerfide speak. The fact that the references to Saint Paul in Marguerite's text are immediately followed by a succession of female speakers can be viewed as a response to the querelle writers and Catholic authorities who frequently used verses from Saint Paul's writings such as 1 Corinthians 14:34 to preclude women from exercising any spiritual authority. (7)

The Heptameron's representation of a heroine who successfully exercises spiritual authority in various capacities can be viewed as Marguerite's contribution to the ongoing debates over gender and religion. This tale presents a physically, morally, and spiritually strong heroine who reads the Bible independently and who successfully acts as a confessor. In her insightful analysis of the tale, Margaret W. Ferguson astutely refers to this tale's "[.] image of female religious self-governance" (232). The narrative concludes by highlighting that the heroine's exemplary faith ultimately earns her an honorable position teaching young women to read and write; her sole desire being to encourage them to love and trust God. The novella's conclusion serves to reinforce the strong connections between women's role in teaching spirituality and the value of women's contributions in an evolving Church. In fact, Mme de Roberval's fascinating story may have had certain parallels with Marguerite de Navarre's own aspirations for her collection of tales. Through the pages of the Heptameron, the Queen of Navarre also sought to teach, to challenge, and to inspire.



Benedict, Philip, and Virginia Reinburg. "Religion and the sacred." Renaissance and Reformation France. Ed. Mack P. Holt. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.

Bideaux, Michel. Roberval, la Damoiselle et le Gentilhomme. Paris: Editions Classiques Garnier, 2009.

Diefendorf, Barbara B. "Gender and the Family." Renaissance and Reformation France. Ed. Mack P. Holt. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.

Ferguson, Margaret W. Dido's Daughters: Literacy, Gender, and Empire in Early Modern England and France. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.

Jeanneret, Michel. "Modular Narrative and the Crisis of Interpretation." Critical Tales: New Studies of the Heptameron and Early Modern Culture. Ed. John D. Lyons and Mary B. McKinley. Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennsylvania P, 1993.

Lazard, Madeleine. Les avenues de Femynie: Les femmes et la Renaissance. Paris: Fayard, 2001.

Marconville, Jean de. De la bonte et mauvaistie des femmes. Ed. Richard A. Carr. Paris: Honore Champion, 2000.

Navarre, Marguerite de. Heptameron. Ed. Simone de Reyff. Paris: Flammarion, 1982.

Stabler, Arthur. The Legend of Marguerite de Roberval. Pullman, WA: Washington State UP, 1972.

(1) Arthur Stabler remarks, "Two other sixteenth-century tellings of the story were to illustrate the way in which additions, contractions, and imaginative detail were incorporated into the rather simple tale set down by Queen Marguerite" (5). He also refers to, "the stark events of the brief account of the Heptameron" (11). The Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online refers to "the skillfully contrived little romance of the Queen of Navarre."

(2) Michel Bideaux insightfully remarks, "S'il loue maintenant 'les vertus que Dieu a mises en elle', c'est pour expliquer aussitot que [...] ces vertus 'se monstrent [d'autant] plus grandes que le sujet est plus infirme'. Une telle inadequation du commentaire au recit permet de disqualifier Simontault comme narrateur et de ne reconnaitre cette fonction qu'a Marguerite de Navarre" (28).

(3) Arthur Stabler asserts, "[t]he New Testament is an exclusively Heptameron detail" (77).

(4) One of the most vibrant topics of debate in the Reform movement was the laity's direct access to the Bible. Michel Jeanneret highlights, "[...] the decisive importance of the direct contact of the faithful with the Bible in the Reformed church" (92). This same topic was frequently evoked in the querelle des femmes as women were often portrayed as lacking the spiritual and intellectual enlightenment to directly interpret Scriptures. Barbara Diefendorf notes, "even if women could read, [...] they were not encouraged to interpret the Bible for themselves" (110).

(5) Philip Benedict and Virginia Reinburg assert, "Penance was a key element in the spiritual jurisdiction the Church claimed over Christians and their salvation" (123).

(6) Parlamente is correct in arguing that Paul does indeed recognize women's contributions in the Church. For instance, 1 Corinthians 7:14 recognizes women's role in the salvation of their husbands. "For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband [.]". Moreover, in Paul's second letter to Timothy, he acknowledges that Timothy's faith has been passed from his grandmother to his mother and then to him. "I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you", 2 Timothy 1:5.

(7) In 1 Corinthians 14:34-5, Paul writes, "[...] women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church". A similar message is found in 1 Timothy 2:11 when Paul writes, "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent".
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Author:Bridge Rezvani, Leanna
Publication:Romance Notes
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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