November 4, 2020
So much to talk about in today’s story! It may be the most famous story in the Heptameron, a tale of a Flemish princess who wards off an attempted rape by a handsome and well-bred gentleman by biting and scratching his face—she literally fights him off with tooth and nail!
Much like the man in story two, who sneaks into a woman’s bedroom through a hole in the wall, this gentleman climbs into his lady’s room through a trap door in the floor. Wearing a perfumed nightshirt and a fancy nightcap, and handsome as he is, he’s sure she won’t be able to resist him. When he returns to his own room, his face covered with bites and scratches and his nightshirt streaked with blood, he groans, “So much for good looks!”
We may have here the first appearance in literature of what Kate Manne, in Down Girl, calls himpathy, “the excessive sympathy shown toward male perpetrators of sexual violence.” The princess’s lady-in-waiting convinces her to keep the assault a secret, telling her the bold act took courage on the gentleman’s part, and that he must already be feeling mortified. What’s more, she says, if the story gets out, people will assume he had his way with the princess, and, anyway, she had encouraged him by allowing him to enjoy the pleasure of her company in public.
Many have identified the Flemish princess in this story as a stand-in for our author herself. In Rape and Writing in the Heptameron, Patricia Cholakian argues that the whole of the Heptameron is Marguerite de Navarre’s attempt to make public an incident she concealed for many years, and to problematize sexual assault and women’s silence. #MeToo #BalanceTonPorc à la Renaissance??
Comment here and/or on the Facebook group for the 72 Days of Heptameron!
5 thoughts on “Story Four”
“Himpathy” goes back a long ways, at least as far as the Church Fathers (and arguably the pseudo-Pauline epistles like 1 Tim. 1 Pet.). The most striking example is Tertullian (2nd century CE), who says that women’s beauty is “a cause of perdition” for men and “a gateway for the devil.” You see this same line of thinking in late medieval Franciscan sermons, which were wildly popular and influential, as well as in medieval and humanist conduct literature. My take on it is that N4 is one of Marguerite’s responses to this tradition, which we know she was familiar with: she reproduces its advice by putting it in the mouth of the lady-in-waiting, but in such a way as to reveal how unjust it truly is, and how women are trained to internalize a sense of guilt for men’s actions toward them.
True, these ideas come from somewhere, don’t they? Sigh. On the other hand, excusing sexual indiscretions and excusing sexual violence are not the same thing. I’m not sure even Tertullian would call for sympathy for the latter, but maybe I am wrong? I like your read of Marguerite as being critical of the lady-in-waiting’s advice.
Well, I’d be lying if I said the Foucauldian/Althusserian reading was originally mine – Elizabeth Chesney Zegura does it for N4 in Marguerite de Navarre’s Shifting Gaze, and David LaGuardia does it for N10 in The Iconography of Power. For my part, I think we see the same thing with Oisille’s advice to women in N2 and elsewhere.
As for sympathy for rapists, it’s a complicated question. To my knowledge, neither the Church Fathers nor Aquinas absolve men of responsibility for their actions: the whole point of scandal in the theological sense (a stumbling-block or an inducement to sin) is that it’s an occasion, not a cause, because no one can sin except of their own free will. However, it’s assumed that feminine beauty and especially cosmetics or provocative dress will inherently scandalize men by inspiring in them lust and the desire to act on it, and as such, women are warned to avoid provoking this instinct, both out of self-preservation and out of charity toward the infirmity of men. For example, Tertullian says that even if it weren’t offensive to God and charity to flaunt their beauty, women should still hide it “on account of the injuriousness and violence of suitors.” And we do see passages in sermons that try to elicit pity for men who get turned on by women’s dress or manners: Bernardino of Siena criticizes women who “put a thousand crazy ideas into the head of a young man who previously had nothing bad on his mind.”
The princess takes the lady-in-waiting’s advice in the short term; I would say that she initially remains silent more to preserve her reputation than to spare her attacker. Moreover, although the lady-in waiting insists that the princess “should never allude in any way to what has happened”, she refuses to be silenced as her story is ultimately shared through this tale. I also appreciate the reversal of power at the end of the tale. Marguerite describes the fear and silencing of the gentleman saying, “Scared lest anything worse befell him: he dared not breath a word”.
It is especially interesting to compare this story with tale two. Both women are portrayed as virtuous and “strong” for they do everything possible to fight off their attackers, but the outcome is drastically different. It seems that Marguerite invites readers to compare these tales and reflect on the role of class when the lady-in-waiting tells the princess that, “it was not your virtue that saved you. For there have been many women, women who have led a far more austere life than you have, who have been humiliated by men far less worthy of affection than the man we are talking of”…
In this story, I also see Marguerite engaging with and critiquing the courtly love tradition, exposing its potential violence. The gentleman’s blood which stains his shirt recalls the blood of famous knights which stains the bedsheets of their beloved – Lancelot, who cuts his fingers opening the metal bars at the window of the room of Guinevere; Tristan, who bleeds from his thigh when his bandage comes undone as he leaps into the bed of Yseut. These bleeding lovers are the intertext for the would-be courtly lover here, whose blood reveals not his devotion (we are pointedly told he does not offer the princess any reverence on entering her room without permission) but the woman’s refusal and physical opposition. Variations on this macabre theme appear in other tales too, notably tale 10…