…where the leaves on the tree are so thick that the hot sun cannot penetrate the shade and the cool beneath. There we can sit and rest, and each of us will tell a story…
The travelers in Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron, first published in 1558, have journeyed to the Cauterets spa high in the Pyrenees mountains in search of healing and health, “some to drink the waters, some to bathe in them, and some to be treated with mud.” As they prepare to depart, however, torrential rains wash away the bridge they must cross to return safely home. Nature, it seems, requires a change in plans.
Having lost companions to the floodwaters, a sundry group of nobles, five women and five men, gathers at the Abbey of Notre Dame de Sarrance, an isolated but beautiful site, where they await the rebuilding of the bridge. Amid peril and grief, they soon learn, is also boredom. “Unless we have some amusing and virtuous way of occupying ourselves, we run the risk of falling sick,” observes one, as another adds, “What is worse, we’ll all become miserable and disagreeable—and that’s an incurable disease.”
Drawing inspiration from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, composed between 1348 and 1353 during the sweeping plague known as the Black Death, the stranded nobles decide to spend their afternoons in a meadow “so beautiful and fair that it would take a Boccaccio to describe it as it really was,” and each agrees to tell a story a day, so that after ten days, they will have composed a hundred stories, a French Decameron. Marguerite de Navarre died before completing the work, so her collection of seventy-two tales was posthumously titled the Heptameron in honor of seven full days of story-telling.
These lively tales—by turns tragic, hilarious, bawdy, spiritual, and surprising—debate the flaws and merits of men and women, expose hypocrisy, exalt devotion, and illustrate the human capacity for selfishness and cruelty, and for generosity and good. As for the storytellers, they can never quite agree on the meanings of the tales they hear and tell.
From November 1, 2020, through January 11, 2021, the Marguerite de Navarre Society/La Société Marguerite de Navarre sponsored the 72 Days of Heptameron story-a-day reading project, inspired appropriately by the 100 Days of Decameron project organized by Anna Barker for the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature in spring 2020. Discussion of Marguerite de Navarre’s stories took place on the pages of this website and on the 72 Days of Heptameron Facebook Group. This website exists now as a partial archive of the project and as a resource for teaching and reading. Enjoy!
See here for some background on Marguerite de Navarre and a short introduction to the Prologue to the Heptameron.
The Penguin Classics English-language translation of the Heptameron (translation by Paul A. Chilton and quoted above) is widely available. Free editions of earlier translations can be found online:
- George Saintsbury’s English-language translation (1894), with engravings designed by Sigmund Freudenberg: Volume 1 Volume 2 Volume 3 Volume 4 Volume 5
- Saintsbury’s English translation is also available as a free audiobook
- Walter K. Kelley’s English-language translation (1853)
(Introduction by Carrie F. Klaus)