November 2, 2020
Today Oisille tells the story of a mule-driver’s wife who is so virtuous that she prefers to die than to give in to the “animal lust” of a man who sneaks into her bed while her husband is away. This brutish servant, says Oisille, “would have understood the language the mules spoke” better than he understands the woman’s appeals to reason and, indeed, is “even more bestial than the animals with whom he had spent much of his life.” He manages to rape her, but only after he has stabbed her with his sword twenty-five (!) times. With this story of the admirable death of a humble woman of unwavering Christian faith who rejoices as her soul leaves her body “to return to its Creator,” Marguerite de Navarre underlines the exemplary nature of her tales: the mule-driver’s wife should inspire the female storytellers to virtue just as her model led the wanton women of her own town to change their ways.
Our storytellers are moved to tears… prompting Oisille to ask Saffredent to tell them a funny tale to dry their eyes!
7 thoughts on “Story Two”
Another horrifying story of unspeakable premeditated violence, with a child servant as a helpless witness…reminiscent of tales in Book III of Castiglione’s Courtier (see Nicole Cazauran’s 2001 edition of the Heptameron). This novella shocks readers by its brutality in face of unflinching bravery, as it points to the lack of safeguards for vulnerable women of modest condition…The collective homage paid to the rape victim is an equally important part of this tale, expressing both grief for loss of innocent life and celebration of exemplarity in the face of abuse of power. To bring us back to the tranquility of the meadow, Marguerite switches to a slightly comic register as she shows Saffredant eager to take his turn at telling stories, afraid to be outdone by eloquent others if he waits for too long…
Although this story is among the most violent of the collection, I must admit that it is one of my favorite tales. When faced with shocking brutality, the mule-driver’s wife does everything in her power to resist her attacker. She runs, she successfully frees herself twice, even when she is brutally stabbed, she responds with “reason” and “words of wisdom”. As she nears death, she gives “thanks to her God”. After the story Oisille astutely remarks that God’s graces are not given to men for their noble birth and for their riches, but according as it pleases Him in His goodness […] Often does He choose that which is low, that He might confound that which the world places high and considers worthy”. While beliefs about women’s physical, moral, and spiritual frailty were widespread in the sixteenth century, Marguerite’s humble heroine casts doubt on the validity of these misogynistic commonplaces. The representation of the mule-driver’s wife also puts classist assumptions into question by emphasizing the moral exemplarity of this humble woman. Finally, the reader will notice a highly unusual phenomenon following the tale; the praiseworthy heroine does not provoke any disagreement amongst the storytellers…
Does N2 really question assumptions about class, or does it take them for granted to make a theological point? The example is meant to be all the more extraordinary because a “poor mule-driver’s wife” is NOT the kind of woman who would necessarily have been expected to resist unto death, unlike noblewomen whose educations inculcated that notion in them: “And we, who are all of good birth, ought to die of shame at the thought that our hearts may be tinged with worldly feelings, when in order to shun those very feelings, even a poor mule-driver’s wife does not fear to face what was a most cruel death” (trans. Chilton, p. 81). You see the same thing in the discussion of the ferrywoman in N5: “It is in the heart of such women as these that one finds pure virtue, for in the hearts of those we regard as inferior in body and mind the spirit of God performs his greatest works” (100). In other words, the fact that common women can be virtuous is proof that virtue comes from God alone, because that wouldn’t be the case otherwise.
Also, it’s true that there isn’t a debate after this tale, but there is one after Nouvelle 4, which is also about a man surprising a woman in bed and trying to force himself on her (albeit unsuccessfully in that instance). That one DOES provoke a debate, with Hircan going so far as to say what he’d have done in that situation: he’d have committed murder and rape to avoid being dishonored by not following through on his plan. I’d say the divergent reactions to N2 and N4 are all about class: the men don’t have anything to say about the servant from N2 because what he does isn’t surprising to them, but N4 is a sticking point because it’s about honor.
Perhaps because not a single one of the male narrators speaks?
The contrast with this situation and that after tale 4, when Hircan condones rape, is surely intended and striking?
What strikes me in this story is how pictorial it is. It certainly corresponds to the author’s aim to make an exemple, or rather an exemplum inspired by the medieval exempla, giving a theological moral. But as exempla were fairly didactic, relying on rhetoric and logical illustration, tale 2 seems to take much more in Christian iconography.
The first difference between tale 2 and exempla comes from its literary nature (exempla are hardly considered as proper literature).
But I think that the main difference lies in the vivid description of the mule’s driver wife in agony. Oisille describes the dying woman, raising her hands to the sky while lying in her spreading blood. This description resembles the icons of dying martyrs, and plays Jesus’ death again – (both their souls are making amends for men’s sins – both are dying surroundered by a group of mourning women).
Tale 2 brings up the question of ekphrasis in Heptaméron and its influence by religious iconography (especially in such pathetic tales).
I found the presence of catholicism in this story very interesting. The prayers the woman does after having been stabbed multiple times depicts the important place God had in people lives. This idea, felt previously in Heptameron, becomes even greater, further in the tale when people describe her as an example of “fair virtue of chastity”. I, however, found surprising how the main focus, at the end of the tale, is on her chastity, and how people should seek it, rather than on the servant having committed a terrible crime. This insinuating that the horrendous episode, shocking for the readers, was common in the medieval era.
I agree that the description of the dying woman is striking. It recalls descriptions of other dying women in Marguerite’s poetry, her mother Louise de Savoie’s death, for example, as Marguerite describes it in “Les Prisons.” lt also recalls the first-person speaker in Marguerite’s last poem, “Miroir de Jésus Christ crucifié,” who describes the experience of mystical ecstasy, moving out of the body and into the spirit, from speech to silence, to dissolution of the self in Jesus Christ. So a mule-driver’s wife’s dies as a mystic just as royal holy women do. And if we think of Marguerite as the first-person speaker in the “Mirror,” the “martyr of chastity” in story 2 is a kind of mirror image or self-portrait.