Introduction to Day Six
By Dora E. Polachek
As we begin day six of our journey, we already have a good sense of the Heptameron’s trajectory. The overarching roadmap that is laid out in the initial prologue has made clear the often-uneasy coexistence of two paths—the sacred and the profane—whose stories have opposite effects on our ten storytellers. The mini-prologues to each of the eight days of storytelling all begin with Oisille’s reading of Holy Scriptures. Given Marguerite’s privileging of God’s words, it should not surprise us that the storytellers exhibit a united and unequivocal response of joy and contentment as they listen, enthralled. All take so much pleasure in hearing Oisille’s reading that they linger over it, the lingering becoming progressively longer each day. In the prologue to day six the storytellers lose track of time as they derive nourishment from Oisille’s choice of Saint John’s Epistle which, we are told, is filled only with love. Day seven’s prologue takes the effect of God’s word a step further, noting that the superior, soul-satisfying stories from Scriptures make the storytellers almost forget the other path that they have agreed to take. That venture, of course, involves pursuing the secular road by recounting “true” stories that they have witnessed in their privileged positions in the court or that have been told to them by someone trustworthy enough to be believed. As we have seen throughout our readings, these tales rarely elicit a unanimous response. Instead, each narrative results in a splitting apart of the story in question, with each storyteller offering up his or her own take on what meaning should be derived from what they have just heard. Instead of the joy and contentment that Scriptures elicit, we have instead a kind of intellectual sparring, with the storytellers often taunting, refuting, and even mocking another’s interpretation. If Saint John’s Epistle is filled exclusively with love, one could say that the storytellers’ tales also deal with love, albeit perverted forms of it: love of revenge and public humiliation, love of money, love of status, love of personal gain. Above all, day six foregrounds the love of the desired power that one thinks can be gotten by deceiving others.
If all this sounds a bit too grim, let’s remember that Marguerite can make us laugh in spite of the serious questions she raises, and often because of the way she structures these variations on the theme of love in all its nefarious manifestations. If you enjoyed the scatological humor of novella 11 (remember Madame de Roncex’s outhouse experience in the Franciscan monastery?), have a look at novella 52, where a lawyer’s love of getting something for nothing fills him with glee when he surreptitiously steals and hides in his coat what he thinks is a sugar loaf that an apothecary boy has dropped. In this story of the trickster tricked, the lawyer discovers, only too late, that instead of a sugar loaf, he is in possession of a carefully wrapped frozen turd that begins to melt at a most inauspicious public moment—the apothecary boy’s way of exacting revenge on the lawyer for previously sustained insults. Righting past wrongs takes center stage again in novella 58, where a respected and clever woman in the court succeeds in making a public laughingstock of a suitor who has wronged her. Marriage and its challenges also figure prominently in day six, in situations ranging from the comic to the tragic. How a wife circumvents the financial strictures that a husband attempts to impose upon her while he is alive or after his death are the focal points of novellas 59 and 55. While the clever strategies that each of these women mobilizes will probably make you laugh, the opening and closing tales of day six may leave you horrified. Novella 51’s Duke of Urbino deceives his wife into believing he will not kill the young go-between who has facilitated communication between his son and the woman whom the Duke refuses to allow his son to marry. The son’s beloved is good and noble but not noble enough for the Duke. The Duke’s love of money and status foils the marriage, causes his wife to be the unwitting facilitator of the hanging of the young go-between, and in the process brings shame not only to his wife but to his name. Whereas the Duke’s unhappy wife remains in the marriage, in the case of the final tale of day six (novella 60), the wife abandons her husband and escapes with the church cantor. To prevent the Church courts from forcing her to return to her husband, she goes so far as to feign illness, receive final rites, and enlist the cantor’s aid in having her placed in a coffin and taken to the cemetery to be buried alive, and then surreptitiously disinterred.
What are we to make of these stories? What lessons can we learn from them? In providing a rapid overview of some of the stories of day six, I purposely did not explore the multitude of interpretations that the storytellers offer. In Marguerite’s universe, God’s word remains sacrosanct. But as Hircan puts it in the opening prologue, when it comes to the secular tales, everybody is equal. If one story can generate as many as ten different interpretations, an eleventh can also be part of our game as participatory readers. If you haven’t done so for previous stories, here is a fun strategy for entering day six: before reading what each storyteller has to say about a story, give voice to your own take-away. Marguerite’s storytellers pass the time as they wait for the rebuilding of the flood-damaged bridges that will bring them back to their normal life. As we continue to wait for our pandemic-stricken lives to return to a semblance of nearly normal—and it may take a while—what better way to pass some of our time than by bringing our own perspectives to tales that continue to engender discussion more than 450 years after their publication? Above all, savor and enjoy!