Story 32

December 2, 2020

Oisille tells the story of a German gentleman who punishes his wife for her infidelity by murdering her lover, hanging his skeleton in her room, and forcing her to drink at mealtimes from his skull. He also cuts her hair and makes her wear only black. A French gentleman named Bernage visits the German and, hearing what has happened and observing the wife’s remorse, urges him to have compassion for her. After thinking it over, the German decides he is right. He takes his wife back, and they have “many fine children.” This happy ending makes its way to France after Charles VIII (king from 1493 to 1498), hearing of the situation and of the woman’s beauty, sends his painter, Jean de Paris (Jean Perréal), to Germany to bring back her portrait.

As with tale 30, Oisille uses this story as an opportunity to condemn human pride, suggesting that women should not overestimate their ability to be faithful to their husbands without God’s help, since “women who trust in their own strength and virtue are in great danger of being tempted” and “there have been many whose pride has led to their downfall in circumstances where humility saved women thought to be less virtuous.” The women listening—Parlamente, Ennasuite, and Longarine—disagree about whether the German man’s punishment of his wife was reasonable, and they bring up the Biblical figure of Mary Magdalene, asking how she can be both honored and called a sinner.

This tale comes from a tradition of stories dating back to at least the twelfth century in which an unfaithful wife is compelled to contemplate her dead lover’s head or skull.

Here is a portrait at the Musée du Louvre in Paris of an unknown woman painted by Perréal around 1493 (RF 1993-20).

2 thoughts on “Story 32

  • At this point i am belatedly joining the group. After reading some background on Marguerite and the prologue i am picking up the threads at story 32. Wonderful images included in the daily summaries,
    Susan Emanuel,

  • This story brings to mind another novella titled “The Tonto Woman” set in the nineteenth century where a white woman enslaved by the Mojave Indians is tattooed on her face, and when she is freed, her husband refuses to take her back and has her live in a shack in the desert by herself, until a Mexican comes along and encourages her to reclaim her position as a wife. The common thread between the two stories has to do with the value placed on the purity of woman in patriarchal societies, an enduring and damaging myth, and also with the presence of mediators who attempt to reconciliate the spouses after a traumatic event. Even when a woman is not at fault, as in The Tonto Woman, she still has to bear the stigma of public shame and be the scapegoat. So, when she is at fault, as in the Heptameron, readers should not be surprised by how incendiary the comments of the devisants are. The fact that Bernage manages to succeed in the reconciliation may indicate, as I have suspected before, that Marguerite is inclined to believe in the virtue of a marriage that is honest and chaste both ways. This would illustrate her Evangelical propensity for forgiveness over punishment, for charity over selfishness, and for acceptance over judgment.

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