January 6, 2021
In today’s tale—which Michel Bideaux says is the oldest literary narrative set in what is now Canada (Roberval, la Damoiselle et le Gentilhomme [Paris: Garnier, 2009], 10)—a man on an exploring and colonizing expedition led by Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval in 1542 “betray[s] his master” (we are not told how) and is saved by his wife, who persuades Roberval to spare her husband’s life and, instead, to leave them both “on a little island inhabited only by wild animals.” Taking with them only a Bible (the New Testament) and a gun (an arquebus, or heavy rifle), they survive for a while, reading Scripture, building a shelter, hunting animals, and gathering herbs, but eventually the man sickens and dies. His wife cares for and then buries him, then continues to fight off the wild animals and also read, contemplate, and pray, “her bodily existence no higher than that of the beasts, but her soul in the sphere of the angels.” The crew members on one of Roberval’s ships, returning to France after a failed mission, catch sight of smoke on the island, sail ashore to see what has become of the couple, discover the woman and are astonished by her faithful existence in the wilderness, and bring her back to La Rochelle, a city on France’s Atlantic coast, where she devotes her life to teaching girls to read and write.
Be sure to check out Leanna Bridge Rezvani’s incredible website Teaching Marguerite de Roberval with more information on this story, on Roberval, on early European exploration of Canada, and on other versions of the tale (past and present), as well as lots of great images and resources for teaching, in English and French.
Here’s what the Vieux Port of La Rochelle looks like today.