Week 11: Margaret of Navarre's Heptameron

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DAY 4 STORY 33: The Virgin with Child, cont.

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

So far, the story seems quite amusing, but when the referendary and almoner go back and make their positive report about the saintly girl, things start to turn very serious. The conversation that the storytellers have at the end of the story addresses precisely this contrast between the happy-go-lucky world of fools, and the wretched fate that awaits hypocrites and true con artists.

The refendary and the almoner went away quite confounded, not being able to believe that any one would lie after such an oath, and they made their report to the count, whom they tried to bring to entertain the same belief as themselves.

But he being a wise man, after much thought, made them repeat the very words of the oath; and having well weighed them, he said, "She told you that never man touched her any more than her brother. I am persuaded that it was her brother who got her with child, and that she seeks to conceal his incest by prevarication. We, who believe that Jesus Christ is come, must not expect another. Return then to the place, and put the priest in prison; I am sure he will confess the truth."

They executed their orders, but unwillingly, and not without remonstrating against the necessity of putting such a scandal upon a good man. The priest was no sooner committed to prison than he confessed his crime, and owned that he had instructed his sister to speak as she had done, in order to conceal the intercourse between them, and this not only to baffle inquiry by so slight a device, but also to secure to themselves universal esteem and veneration by this false statement. Being asked how he could carry his wickedness to such an excess as to make his sister swear upon Our Lord's body, he replied, that his audacity had not reached that length, and that he had used an ordinary wafer, which was neither consecrated nor blessed.

All this having been reported to the Count d'Angoulême, he sent the affair before the courts of justice. Execution was delayed until the sister was delivered of a fine boy. After her delivery the brother and sister were burned, to the great astonishment of all the people, who had beheld a monster so horrible under such a garb of holiness, and so detestable a crime under the appearances of a life so laudable and regenerate.

The good Count d'Angoulême's faith, ladies, was proof against outward signs and miracles. He knew that we have but one Saviour, who when he said consummatum est [it is finished] showed thereby that we are not to expect a successor for our salvation.

"Truly," said Oisille, "that was a monstrous piece of effrontery covered with unparalleled hypocrisy. It is the height of impiety to cover so enormous a crime with the mantle of God and religion."

"I have heard," said Hircan, "that those who commit acts of cruelty and tyranny under pretence of having the king's commission, are doubly punished, the reason being that they make the king's name a cover for their injustice. Likewise, it is seen, that although hypocrites prosper for some time under the cloak of godliness, God no sooner unmasks them, than they appear such as they are; and then their nakedness, their filth, and their infamy are the more horrible the more august and sacred was the wrapper with which they concealed them.

"There is nothing more agreeable," said Nomerfide, "than to speak frankly and as the heart feels. [...] I remark that fools live longer than the wise, unless some one kills them; for which I know but one reason, namely, that fools do not dissemble their passions. If they are angry they strike; if they are merry they laugh; but those who deem themselves wise hide their defects with so much care that their hearts are all poisoned with them."

"I believe that is true," said Geburon, "and that hypocrisy, whether as regards God, men, or nature, is the cause of all the evil that befals us."

"It would be a fine thing," said Parlamente, "if faith so filled our hearts with Him who is all virtue and all joy, that we should show them to every one without disguise."

"That will be when there is no longer any flesh on our bones," observed Hircan.

"Yet," remarked Oisille, "the spirit of God, which is mightier than death, can change our hearts without changing our bodies."

"You speak, madam," said Saffredent, "of a gift which God hardly makes to men."

"He does make it," rejoined Oisille, "to those who have faith. But as this is a matter above the comprehension of flesh, let us see to whom Simontault gives his voice."

"To Nomerfide," he said. "As she has a merry heart, I don't think her words will be sad."

"Since you have a mind to laugh," said Nomerfide, "I must serve you after your own way, and give you matter for laughter. I wish to show you that fear and ignorance are equally mischievous, and that one often sins only for want of knowing things. With this view I will relate to you what happened to two poor Cordeliers of Niort, who, for not understanding the language of a butcher, had like to die of fright."

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

  • why was the count suspicious of the conclusion that the girl's pregnancy really was a miracle?
  • how had the brother worded the oath so that his sister was able to swear, while still concealing the truth?
  • what finally happened to the sister and to the brother?

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