Introduction to Day One
by Leanna Bridge Rezvani
Following the dramatic events of the prologue, the “miraculous” arrival of the beleaguered travelers at Notre Dame de Sarrance, and the group’s decision to spend the afternoons spinning tales, the Heptameron’s First Day sets the stage for how the storytellers will pass their time in the days that follow. The morning begins with a Biblical lesson from Oisille, the group’s mother figure and spiritual leader. The fact that a female layperson not only offers religious instruction, but does so within the walls of an abbey is noteworthy. However, the ten nobles do not eschew more orthodox religious practices as they also participate “devoutly” in mass and attend vespers. The afternoon finds the group in a luxuriant meadow where in principle “everybody is equal” during the storytelling endeavor. This emphasis on parity with five women and five men who are granted equal opportunities to recount and respond to narratives is another progressive aspect of this sixteenth-century text. While the setting and governing principles are certainly idyllic, the first ten stories and ensuing debates offer readers a unique window into the contentious nature of love and the harsh realities of life in Renaissance France.
Simontaut, a male storyteller who has been slighted by his beloved, starts the first day by expressing his desire to gather “accounts of foul deeds perpetrated by women on us poor men.”
While some of the men follow his lead by sharing tales of wayward wives and cunning lovers, Geburon’s story of a simple ferrywoman who cleverly escapes from two malicious clerics or Dagoucin’s narrative of a virtuous gentleman avoid a dynamic where men and women are categorically opposed to each other. The female storytellers in the group nevertheless do generally narrate stories that illustrate women’s virtue and strength. Reading this text in the #MeToo era where we have seen the difficulties that women still confront when discussing rape and harassment, one is struck by the fact that four stories on the first day relate instances of sexual assault. In fact, numerous scholars convincingly argue that the fourth tale is based on Marguerite’s own traumatic experience with attempted rape. In these stories of sexual assault, women are not portrayed as passive victims. Men’s threats and violence are met with the admirable strength of the mule-driver’s wife, the resistance of a “triumphant” princess, the wit of a ferrywoman, and a “victorious” Lady Florida. These characters are among the most memorable of the entire collection. Marguerite’s narratives highlight the myriad conflicts and complexities of the relationships between the sexes as do the conversations that follow the tales.
In contrast to Boccaccio’s Decameron, the discussions amongst the storytellers that follow the tales are extensive. There is rarely consensus on how the narratives should be interpreted and these lively debates provide readers with an invaluable portrait of divergent social perspectives in Renaissance France. Their responses range from the philosophical with Oisille’s statement that “chastity in a lover’s heart is a thing more divine than human” to the utterly shocking with Hircan’s remark that a would-be rapist, “should have killed the old one, and when the young one realized that there was no one to help her, he’d have been halfway there!” Much like the storytellers, readers experience a wide range of emotions as the text vacillates between laughter and tears and elicits compassion as well as outrage. Marguerite’s multi-faceted representation of complex issues encourages us to reflect deeply about matters that our central to the human condition. Clearly, the day’s tales of infidelity, murder, violence, passion, and trickery successfully achieve the prologue’s goal of alleviating boredom. At the close of the day, akin to the storytellers who hope to make the second one “as enjoyable as the first,” the reader is also left longing to continue on this remarkable journey through the rich pages of Marguerite’s thought-provoking text.