Week 11: Margaret of Navarre's Heptameron

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DAY 1 STORY 5: The Boatwoman and the Monks

Reading time: 6 minutes. Word count: 1200 words.

As the storytelling begins, remember the condition that was set down by the lady Parlamente: " we will each relate what we have seen or been told by persons worthy of belief." So the people are going to tell stories either about things that have happened to them personally, or things that have happened to people whom they know personally. The stories are not supposed to be just made up, or stories taken from books. In this first story, you will read about two Franciscan monks (called "Cordeliers" in French) who were crossing the river on a boat ferried by a boatwoman. These two monks decided that they wanted to have sex with her. This woman, however, manages to outsmart these monks and to rescue herself from their attempted rape. Geburon chooses to tell this story about a virtuous poor woman because the preceding story had been about a virtuous rich woman. He wants to show that a woman's virtue is not simply a product of her social class. In fact, Geburon's heroine will escape from two men, while the princess in the previous story only had to deal with one!

"Do you think it matter for wonder," said Geburon, "that a princess trained to virtue proves too much for one man? What would you say, then, to one woman in low life escaping from two men?"

"Geburon," said Ennasuite, "I call upon you for the fifth novel. If I am not mistaken, you know one about this poor woman which will not be displeasing to the company."

"Be it so, then," said Geburon; "I will tell you a story which I know to be true, having examined into it on the spot. You will see from it that princesses are not the only prudent and the only virtuous of their sex, and that often those who are reputed very amorous and very sly are less so than is supposed.

THERE was in the port of Coulon, near Niort, a boatwoman, who did nothing day and night but convey people from point to point. Two Cordeliers of Niort crossed the river alone with her. As it is one of the widest ferries in France, they took it into their heads to make love to her, for fear she should grow dull by the way. She gave no more ear to them than they deserved; but the good fathers, who were neither fatigued by the labor of the passage, nor chilled by the coldness of the water, nor abashed by the woman's refusal, resolved to force her, or throw her into the river if she was refractory. But she was as good and as shrewd as they were wicked and witless, and said to them, "I am not so ill-natured as you might suppose; only grant me two things I have to beg of you, and you will see I am not more willing to satisfy you than you are to be satisfied." The Cordeliers swore by their good St. Francis there was nothing they would not grant her to have from her what they wanted. "Well, then," said she, "I ask you, in the first place, to promise and vow that living man shall never know from you what passes between us." This they did with great readiness. "The second thing I ask is, that you will have to do with me one by one, for I should be too much ashamed if it was done in presence of you both. Settle between yourselves which is to have me first." The Cordeliers thought that fair enough, and the younger of them yielded precedence to the elder.

Running the boat ashore at a little island, she said to the younger one, "Say your prayers there whilst your comrade and I go to another island. If he is satisfied with me when we come back, we will leave him, and you and I will go away together." The younger friar jumped ashore at once, and the boatwoman rowed away with his companion to another island. When they reached it, she pretended to be making her boat fast, whilst she said to the monk, "See if you can find a convenient spot." The Cordelier, like a booby, stepped out of the boat to do as she told him, and no sooner was he ashore, than setting her foot against a tree, she shot the boat out into the stream, and left the two good fathers in the lurch. "Wait there, my masters," said she, "till God's angel comes to console you, for you will get nothing from me." The duped Cordeliers went down on their knees, and begged her, for Heaven's sake, not to serve them so, but take them to the port, upon their solemn oath they would ask nothing of her. "A pretty fool I should be," she replied, still rowing away, "to put myself into your hands again once I have got out of them."

When she got home to the village, she told her husband what had occurred, and applied to the ministers of justice to come and capture those two wolves from whose fangs she had contrived to escape. The ministers of justice set out for the purpose, well accompanied, for there was no one, great or small, but was bent on taking part in this hunt.

The poor friars, seeing such a multitude coming after them, hid themselves each on his island, as Adam did from the sight of God when he had eaten the apple. Half dead with shame and the fear of punishment, they were caught and led away prisoners, amid the jeers and hootings of men and women.

"These good fathers," said one, "preach chastity to us, and want to foul our wives.

"They dare not touch money," said the husband, "but they are ready enough to handle women's thighs, which are far more dangerous."

"They are sepulchres," said others, "whitened without, but full of rottenness within."

"By their fruits you shall know the nature of these trees."

In short, all the passages of Scripture against hypocrites were cast in the teeth of the poor prisoners. At last the warden [of their monastic chapter] came to the rescue. They were given up to him at his request, upon his assuring the magistrate that he would punish them more severely than secular justice itself could do, and that by way of reparation to the offended parties, they should say as many masses and prayers as might be desired. As he was a worthy man, they were chaptered in such a manner, that they never afterwards passed over the river without crossing themselves, and beseeching God to keep them out of all temptation.

If this boatwoman had the wit to trick two such bad men, what should they do who have seen and read of so many fine examples? If women who know nothing, who scarcely hear two good sermons in a year, and have no time to think of anything but earning their bread, do yet carefully guard their chastity, what ought not others of their sex to do who, having their livelihood secured, have nothing to do but to read the Holy Scriptures, hear sermons, and exercise themselves in all sorts of virtues?

This is the test by which it is known that the heart is truly virtuous, for the more simple and unenlightened the individual, the greater are the works of God's spirit.

Unhappy the lady who does not carefully preserve the treasure which does her so much honor when well kept, and so much dishonor when she keeps it still!

"It strikes me, Geburon," said Longarine, "that it does not need much virtue to refuse a Cordelier. On the contrary, I should rather think it impossible to love such people."

"Those who are not accustomed to have such lovers as you have," replied Geburon, "do not think so contemptuously of Cordeliers. They are well-made, strapping fellows, can talk like angels, and are for the most part importunate as devils.

Accordingly, the grisettes who escape out of their hands may fairly be called virtuous." [...]

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

  • how did the monks meet this woman?
  • how did the woman manage to strand them on the islands in the river?
  • according to Geburon, what is the moral of the story?

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