Introduction to Day Eight
Two Tales and the Prospect of More.
Which Stories and to What End?
By Jonathan A. Reid
With Day Eight, the Heptameron ends abruptly. Nomerfide is on the verge of launching into a tale concerning foolish “religieux.” She bids her auditors “Now please listen to it carefully” (“Or escoutez le bien, s’il vous plaist”). Then not another word. The reader is left hanging, disappointed, eager for more, wondering what would have come next. Marguerite would surely have finished the work had she lived a little longer. She was writing at a feverish pace during the last years of her life. But that is no solace. We are left with burning questions. What “true” tales would the devisants have told in the twenty-eight missing nouvelles? What would have happened on the remaining mornings, when, as announced in the prologue to Day Eight, the devisants would have gathered to hear Oisille’s further “sermons” on the First Epistle of John, “which is full only of love” (“Qui n’est pleine que d’amour”)? In the conclusion to Boccaccio’s Decameron, Panfilo, king of the day, estimates that the band may depart with honor having told amusing stories “to provide for our relaxation … and escape from the sadness, the suffering and the anguish continuously to be found … since this plague first descended” (trans. G. H. McWilliam; London: Penguin, 1995, p. 795). Once the bridge was finished on Day Ten, would Marguerite’s devisants also have parted, having been merely entertained with “amusing” tales? More importantly, what would that missing material have revealed about her tales’ ultimate aim?
Nicole Cazauran and Sylvie Lefèvre, in their magnificent three-volume edition of the Heptameron (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2013), and Gary Ferguson and Mary B. McKinley, in their equally insightful overview of the work in their edited volume A Companion to Marguerite de Navarre (Leiden: Brill, 2013), have all reassured us that though we cannot discern what Marguerite would have put in those remaining days, it does not really matter. Unlike in most of her religious works, Marguerite gives no indication in the Heptameron that she was aiming for closure or some sort of resolution to the devisants’ robust debates about sundry worldly and religious topics. On the contrary, a tidy resolution would have undermined the Heptameron’s open discursive form and Marguerite’s attempt to seduce her readers by implicitly inviting them to join the discourse with their own stories. Even the devisants’ growing devotion – emphasized in Day Eight – would not likely have led to some sort of final kumbaya catharsis. Ferguson and McKinley write:
“We can imagine the devisants leaving, then, the same people they were when they arrived … richer for their experience of exchanging stories and opinions, for having prayed, read the Bible and taken communion together. Perhaps they would leave with new insights and aspirations … But for devisants and implied ideal reader alike, the parting challenge would be that of putting good intentions into practice in daily life.” (365-66)
Still, many of the insights and aspirations which Marguerite was modelling for her audience were clearly religious and designed to answer the challenge of “living in the present in a fallen, imperfect world” in all its contradictions (366).
Though short and truncated, Day Eight’s prologue and two curious stories about death-bed attendants making love provide further evidence about the purpose of Marguerite’s work. A few observations may help to project the unfinished trajectory of the Heptameron and plot Day Eight’s place in it.
Let’s first step back and consider Marguerite’s target audience and choice of tales. As Cazauran and Lefèvre note, the General Prologue indicates that the devisants would have provided Parlamente (Marguerite) with copies of their stories. In turn, she would have assembled and dedicated them to the Dauphine (Catherine de’ Medici), Marguerite of France (Marguerite’s niece), and, possibly, the Dauphin (Henry). In our view, Marguerite probably wrote or modified the Prologue, and perhaps some of the tales, after Henry, who despised her, had become king and Catherine queen in 1547. In any case, her intent to flatter Henry II and the two women most sympathetic to her at his court is clear. Marguerite had championed Catherine during the long period in which she remained childless (Marguerite’s marriage to Charles d’Alençon, too, had been barren) and Henry considered having their marriage annulled. The allusion in the General Prologue to Catherine’s confinement evoked that debt of gratitude as well as the crucial event that had recently secured Catherine’s position at court. In effect, Marguerite was planning to use her writing to curry favor at court just as she had done previously in dedicating La Coche to Francis I’s powerful mistress, Anne de Pisseleu. As with the narrative frame, to that end she likely shaped some details of her work, including, perhaps, her choice of tales, as she sought to play to and off her intended audience’s knowledge and interests.
In the earliest draft of the Heptameron, Marguerite’s authorial voice laments that she had too many “hystoires” to choose from (“… j’ay esté en peine de vous racompter la sixiesme, pource que ung nombre infiny de beaulx comptes de toutes différentes sortes me sont venuz au devant, en façon que je ne povois choisir le plus digne de tenir ce lieu, estant en deliberation de n’en dire plus,” Cazauran and Lefèbvre, eds. Heptaméron, 3.1216). Though a difficult, speculative question, it is worth considering which stories she selected to tell, which not, and why; so, too, which tales she might have included to fill the twenty-eight open slots. As a student of Marguerite’s life, I know of dozens of true stories she did not include, which would have fit well thematically in the Heptameron. For instance, in the early 1540s, with clear political intent, she told the English Ambassador with a laugh that Francis I was not sleeping with his second wife, Eleanor, the emperor’s sister, because she was too hot in bed and wanted to be embraced too often! Marguerite could also have told the story of the crafty plan she, her daughter, and their advisors devised and executed to have Jeanne d’Albret’s unwanted marriage to the Duke of Cleves annulled once its political raison d’être ceased. Oh, the stories Marguerite could have told about herself and many leading figures in France and Europe!
Turning to Day Eight, we note that like Day One it starts with a pair of contrasting tales that come from Marguerite’s direct experience and explicitly mention her. This, and further structural parallelisms or redoubling in these four stories, seems to be a deliberate choice and marks the beginning of Day Eight as important. Per Ferguson and McKinley, the paired first two stories of Day One implicitly announce a major leitmotif in the work, the querelle des femmes. In a quasi-parallel, Parlamente (Marguerite) gives Day Eight an explicit theme, the first day to have one. As a reprieve from the many “wise” tales told so far, she decides on the theme of true tales of folly. Those readers attuned to Paul’s words about the “wisdom” of the world and the folly of the cross in First Corinthians and Erasmus’s Praise of Folly would rightly have their ears pricked in anticipation that the tales of Day Eight would have more serious subtext.
Other parallels in the first two stories of Days One and Eight signal features of that religious subtext. If, as Cazauran and Lefèvre have argued based on internal evidence, Day Seven fell on Thursday (see Scott Francis’s excellent Introduction to Day Seven for details) and by extension Days One and Eight fell on Fridays, it seems significant that the first two tales of both Fridays mention objects related to Christ’s passion. In the denouement of tale 72, Marguerite prays devoutly before a crucifix and then in its symbolic presence convinces the foolish nun that she need only confess her sin to God (and not to the pope as the nun intended) to be truly forgiven. The crucifix sets up an intertext with the blood of Christ mentioned in tale 2, the altar in tale 1, and the cross in tale 71 and begins to touch directly on prominent themes in the biblical text of Day Eight, 1 John: God’s love, Christ’s sacrifice, confession to God, the forgiveness of sins, and the unity of the faithful in truth by water, blood, and the Holy Spirit, themes which Marguerite develops at length in her other late works, notably Les Prisons. (For an orientation to Marguerite’s late works, see the enlightening articles by Reiner Leushuis, Cynthia Skenazi, and Olivier Millet in A Companion to Marguerite de Navarre.)
Given this emphasis on 1 John, the missing tales from Day Eight and the following days would likely have included further resonances with the imagery and themes of that framing text. Equally, one would expect these stories to be couched in further worldly tales carefully selected – many from Marguerite’s personal experience – both to amuse her knowing audience at court and to serve her serious worldly and religious ends.
Postscript: In 1551, soon after her death, thirty-two poets, prominent among them the young rising stars Pierre de Ronsard and Jean-Antoine de Baïf, contributed to a literary monument erected to Marguerite (Le Tombeau de Marguerite de Valois, Royne de Navarre). In it, they celebrate Marguerite as a religious poet and paragon. They laud her spirit and per the age-old conceit, they assert she will live ever on in memory and through her published poetic works. Ironically, her unpublished (and “profane”) prose Heptameron would go on to ground and seal her literary fama through the ages. In it, better than in her other works, Marguerite seduces her readers. As Mary McKinley and others have noted, like monks listening to the devisants or the members of the royal court of the prologue, as we read, we inevitably want to join the conversation about the perennial human topics raised by the devisants and contribute our own “real” stories. The unfinished state of Marguerite’s work further piques the desire. So, join the taletelling and interpretation. Laugh if you can, but, above all, look for meaning.