Introduction to Day Four
By Michael Meere
Day Four begins quite comically. Parlamente and Hircan are running a bit late to join the assembly because they have been lazy in bed, fulfilling their marital duties. At the end of the day, the storytellers stay up late debating happily yet intensely about the nature of marriage and the roles of wives and husbands. This framing of Day Four sums up the kinds of stories that the storytellers will tell and the discussions that they will have. Despite the humorous opening to Day Four, however, many of the stories broach rather morose and troubling topics, including adultery, incest, domestic abuse, abduction, and murder.
One of the most striking images comes in Story 32, when we watch—through the eyes of the French visitor Bernage—a mysterious German lady with a shorn head drink from the skull of her murdered lover. The lady’s shaved head recalls the previous story in which a Franciscan friar abducts his master’s wife and forces her to cut off her hair. Other vivid tableaus appear throughout the day, such as the burning at the stake in Story 33 of an incestuous priest and his pregnant sister in the village of Cherves. Marguerite’s father, Count Charles of Angoulême, discovers their crime, as he listens judiciously to the sister’s words as she takes communion. We also encounter a lady from Pamplona in Story 35 who falls for her Franciscan friar but who is then beaten by her husband disguised as the friar himself. And we would be remiss not to mention the affair between a servant and the young wife of an elderly president of the Grenoble Parlement in Story 36. To save face, the clever husband does not kill the lover or expose his wife’s adultery, but he does eventually poison his wife with herbs from their garden—without ever being a murder suspect!
Some stories, however, do have happier endings than the ones described so far. In spite of their tribulations, several protagonists reflect “the virtue and long-suffering of ladies in the winning over of their husbands,” such as Madame de Loué (Story 37) and the woman from Tours (Story 38). We also hear the amusing Story 39 about a ghost who is terrorizing the Seigneur de Grignol’s household and who turns out to be a servant who has been disturbing the household in order to have a love affair in peace with another servant. Story 34, though, is certainly the most farcical, and it provides some much-needed comic relief for the storytellers (and us!). In a village named Gript, a couple of Franciscan friars eavesdrop on their host, who is also a butcher, only for the plump friar to end up in a pigsty the next morning, thinking he’s about to be slaughtered.
The final story of Day Four is a continuation of Parlamente’s tale from the previous day (Story 21), providing the backstory of the castle in which Rolandine was kept. Story 40 sets up both a thematic and a symmetrical connection between the two days, highlighting the Heptameron’s complex narrative structure and, along with many of the stories in Day Four, raising questions about the legality of marriage, women’s agency in choosing a husband, and the patriarchal structures at play in determining a woman’s happiness and personal fulfilment.
As usual, the storytellers discuss the meaning of each story, yet they rarely agree on how to interpret them. Even the silly story of the two friars leads to a serious, philosophical argument on the nature of laughter, faith, reason, and the passions (emotions). In general, though, questions about fidelity, adultery, and marital obligations dominate the discussions, while other important themes such as hypocrisy and superstition also emerge.
In the end, as we ourselves eavesdrop on the storytellers, not only are we invited to listen carefully—unlike the two ridiculous friars in Gript—but we are also encouraged to imitate (if we can) the good judgment of Marguerite’s father during his visit to Cherves. May we all be so wise as we continue to read, enjoy, and reflect on these stories!