Week 11: Margaret of Navarre's Heptameron

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Background Reading

This week you have just one page of background reading!

Margaret, Queen of Navarre

Margaret of Navarre, was the only sister of Francis I, who reigned as the king of France from 1515 until 1547. She was born in 1492 and she died in 1549. Margaret was married to Duke Charles of Alençon when she was 17 years old, but Charles died in 1525, leaving Margaret a young widow. Two years later, in 1527, she married Henry of Navarre. Their daughter, Jeanne d'Albret, was the mother of a future king of France, Henry IV.

From the time that her brother assumed the throne in 1515, Margaret was one of the most powerful women in France. After her marriage to Henry, she kept court at Navarre, which is located in what is now northern Spain, near the French border. Margaret was a highly educated woman, and was famous during her life as a promoter of literature. She was a patron of the great French novelist Rabelais and of the poet Ronsard. We also know that she was an admirer of Boccaccio, because in 1545 she commissioned a French translation of the Decameron! (And this was not the first translation of Boccaccio's Decameron into French; there was already a French translation in circulation as early as 1414).

Margaret's Heptameron, the French Decameron

This link between Margaret and the Decameron is important, because it is generally assumed that Margaret was the author of the Heptameron, a collection of French stories that is modeled after Boccaccio's Decameron. The Heptameron was supposed to imitate the structure of Boccaccio's Decameron, with ten different storytellers telling one story each for ten days, for a total of one hundred stories. Unfortunately, the book was not completed, and it ends with the second story of the eighth day. It is conventionally called the "Heptameron", or "Seven-Days," since the last complete day in the book is the seventh day.

Pierre de Brantôme, a famous French memoirist (1539-1614), provides this testimony about Margaret's authorship of the book, based on a story told to him by his own grandmother:

[Margaret] composed most of these novels in her litter as she traveled, for her hours of retirement were employed in affairs of importance. I have heard this account from my grandmother, who always went with her in her litter, as her lady of honor, and held her standish for her; and she wrote them down as quickly and readily, or rather more so, than if they had been dictated to her.

The first printed edition of the Heptameron appeared in 1558, a few years after Margaret's death. In addition to the early printed editions, there are also manuscript copies. The editor of the first printed edition, Pierre Boaistuau, does not name Margaret as the author of the book. One year later, in 1559, another printed edition appeared, this time naming Margaret as the author. The first English translation appeared during the reign of Queen Elizabeth in England, under the title The Queen of Navarre's Tales Containing Verie pleasant Discourses of fortunate lovers. This was only a partial translation, however, containing just 17 tales. A complete English translation did not appear until the middle of the seventeenth century.

Although it seems most likely that Margaret of Navarre was the author of the Heptameron, it is important to understand what it means to say that a book like this has an "author." The Heptameron is a storybook, much like the storybooks you are creating for this class. The author invented the frametale, in which some noble French men and women are trapped when a flood washes out a bridge they needed to cross a river. While they wait for the bridge to be repaired, they tell each other stories. The stories that these characters tell are stories which Margaret had probably heard from her friends in court, and which she then retold in her own words. In this sense, the Heptameron can be considered a collective product: the work of the author, Margaret, who organized the stories into a book, together with her helpers - her friends at the court who entertained one another with these sorts of stories.

Real life and the Heptameron

One major difference between Margaret's Heptameron and Boccaccio's Decameron is that the stories told in the Heptameron are supposed to be true stories. The storyteller was supposed to have first-hand knowledge of the events told in the story, either from having witnessed the events themselves, or having heard the story from someone who was an eyewitness (or who had heard the story from an eye-witness). Of course, like with modern urban legends, this is not a guarantee that the stories are actually, factually true. You will see, however, that the Heptameron's stories do have a more contemporary and "real-life" quality than the stories in Boccaccio. As in Boccaccio, the stories are sometimes comic and sometimes tragic, but they never reach the incredible almost surreal tragedy of stories like "The Heart of Guillaume de Cabestaing" which you read last week.

It also seems likely that the storytellers who are given fictitious names in the Heptameron might be based on actual members of Margaret's royal circle. Literary scholars have tried very hard to detect these hidden identities based on clues that they find in the text. For example, the names given to the storytellers are rather odd, and some scholars have contended that the names are anagrams, which need to be "unscrambled" to reveal the true name. The grand lady Oisille, for example, might be a code name for a French form of the name "Louise," possibly Louise de Savoire, Margaret of Navarre's mother, or perhaps Louise de Daillon, Brantôme's grandmother mentioned above, who was a close friend of Margaret. The name Parlament might stand for Margaret herself: Parlament sounds like "perle amante," or "loving pearl" - resulting in a pun on the name Margaret, which means "pearl" in Latin. Parlament's husband, Hircan, could refer to Henry of Navarre, Margaret's second husband.


The contents of the Heptameron have been controversial. Although religion is taken quite seriously in the book, there are some significant criticisms of the Catholic church and the monastic orders, making the author appear to be, perhaps, a Protestant sympathizer. Margaret of Navarre was herself an advocate of Church reform, although she was not an outright Calvinist. Although France remained a Catholic country, there was a significant Protestant movement there. The French Protestants, called Huguenots, were slaughtered during the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre in 1572; as many as 70,000 people were murdered throughout the country at this time.

In some early printed editions of the book, stories which are highly critical of the Catholic Church were omitted, and more innocuous stories substituted in their place. It was only when scholars began to compare the printed editions to the early manuscripts that they discovered these original stories and were able to restore them to their proper place.

Margaret's legacy

The Heptameron is a collection of stories that has exerted a great influence in French literature. Famous writers such as LaFontaine and Montaigne have sung its praises. Although the Heptameron is far less well-known than Boccaccio's Decameron, it is a marvelous collection of stories - and all the more remarkable for having been written by a woman! Margaret of Navarre was an exceptional woman in her time, evoking the praise of authors and scholars, as in these compliments paid to her by the great Dutch scholar and humanist, Desiderius Erasmus:

For a long time I have cherished all the many excellent gifts that God bestowed upon you; prudence worth of a philosopher; chastity; moderation; piety; an invincible strength of soul, and a marvelous contempt for all the vanities of this world. Who could keep from admiring, in a great King's sister, such qualities as these, so rare even among the priests and monks?

Of course, there have been women storytellers from the dawn of time. Many of the stories that you read in books written by men were stories that were told and retold by women long before the men wrote them down and put them in books. Margaret of Navarre, as a wealthy, powerful, and highly educated woman, was someone who could not only tell stories in her own words, but also put those stories to writing. Her Heptameron is one of the most important literary works produced during the French Renaissance period.

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM