Week 11: Margaret of Navarre's Heptameron

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Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 800 words.

A group of five men and five women find themselves trapped at an abbey when the bridge over the river is washed away in a flood. They have some days to wait before the bridge is repaired, and they are worried about becoming bored without any of their usual amusements available at the abbey. They decide to ask the venerable lady Oisille what recommendation she has for their amusement.

"You ask a thing of me, my children," replied the old lady, "which I find very difficult. You want me to invent an amusement which shall dissipate your ennui. I have been in search of such a remedy all my life long, and I have never found but one, which is the reading of Holy Writ. It is in such reading that the mind finds its true and perfect joy, whence proceed the repose and the health of the body. If you ask me what I do to be so cheerful and so healthy at so advanced an age, it is, that as soon as I rise I read the Holy Scriptures. I see and contemplate the will of God, who sent his Son on earth to announce to us that holy word and that good news which promises the pardon of all sins, and the payment of all debts, by the gift he has made us of his love, passion, and merits. This idea affords me such joy, that I take my psalter, and sing with my heart and pronounce with my lips, as humbly as I can, the beautiful canticles with which the Holy Spirit inspired David and other sacred authors. The pleasure I derive from them is so ravishing, that I regard as blessings the evils which befal me every day, because I have in my heart through faith Him who has suffered all these evils for me. Before supper I retire in like manner to feed my soul with reading. In the evening I review all I have done in the day; I ask pardon for my faults; I thank God for his graces, and lie down in his love, fear, and peace, assured against all evils. This, my children, is what has long been my amusement, after having searched well, and found none more solid and more satisfying. It seems to me, then, that if you will give yourselves every morning for an hour to reading, and say your prayers devoutly during mass, you will find in this solitude all the charms which cities could afford. In fact, he who knows God finds all things fair in him, and without him everything ugly and disagreeable. Take my advice, therefore, I entreat you, if you wish to find happiness in life."

"Those who have read the Holy Scriptures," said Hircan, "as I believe we have done, will confess, madam, that what you have said is true. But you must also consider that we are not yet so mortified but that we have need of some amusement and corporeal pastime. When we are at home we have the chase and hawking, which make us forget a thousand bad thoughts; the ladies have their household affairs, their needlework, and sometimes dancing, wherein they find laudable exercise. I propose then, on the part of the men, that you, as the eldest lady, read to us in the morning the history of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the great and wondrous things he has done for us. After dinner until vespers we must choose some pastime which may be agreeable to the body and not prejudicial to the soul. By this means we shall pass the day cheerfully."


Parlamente, seeing that she was appointed mistress of the sports, thus addressed the company: "Were I conscious of possessing as much capacity as the ancients who invented the arts, I would contrive an amusement which should fulfil the obligation you lay upon me; but as I know myself, and am aware that I find it difficult even to recollect the ingenious inventions of others, I shall think myself lucky if I can closely follow those who have already done what you desire. I believe there is not one of you but has read the novels of Boccaccio recently translated into French. [...] If you think proper, we will go from noon till four o'clock into that fine meadow along the Gave river, where the trees form so thick a screen that the sun cannot pierce it, or incommode us with its heat. There, seated at our ease, we will each relate what we have seen or been told by persons worthy of belief. At the same time, if any one can suggest something more agreeable, I am ready to fall in with his ideas."

The whole company declared they could not imagine anything better, and everyone looked forward with impatience for the morrow. As soon as the morning broke they all went to the chamber of Madame Oisille, whom they found already at prayers. She read to them for a good hour, after which they heard mass, and at ten o'clock they went to dinner. Every one then retired to his own chamber, and attended to what he had to do. At noon all were punctually assembled in the meadow, which was so beautiful and agreeable, that it would need a Boccaccio to depict all its charms: enough for us to say that there never was its like.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what kind of reading did Madame Oisille recommend to the men and women?
  • how did Hircan respond to her proposal?
  • how did Parlamente decide that they would spend their afternoons?

Source: The Heptameron by Margaret, Queen of Navarre. Translated by Walter K. Kelly. Website: A Celebration of Women Writers. (Kelly's translated is not dated; it is based on a French edition published in 1853.)

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