Prologue

About the Author: Marguerite de Navarre

by Nora Martin Peterson

Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549) was the sister of French king François I, and she played a tremendously important role in French culture and politics, often serving as diplomat, ambassador, interlocutor, and advocate for her brother and his court. Though she remained Catholic throughout her lifetime, she was a strong supporter of the Reformers at Meaux and was critical of corruption in the Catholic Church—a viewpoint that readers find repeated in the novellas and the frame narrative of the Heptameron. In addition to the Heptameron, which was unfinished at her death and was published posthumously in 1558 for the first time, she also wrote poetry and theatre. She is considered to be one of the most important writers of the Renaissance.

Introduction to the Prologue

by Nora Martin Peterson

After a massive flood of biblical proportion, a small group of travelers originally hoping to be healed in the spa waters of Cauterets finds refuge at the Abbey of Our Lady at Sarrance in southwestern France.

The travelers do not all arrive at the same time or via the same route. Oisille, “a widow, with much experience of life,” takes the long footpath over the mountains, a path so treacherous that most of her servants and horses do not survive. Dagoucin and Saffredent watch as a group of outlaws attacks two young couples. The former two intervene and manage to save the ladies and one of the husbands (Parlamente, Longarine—now a widow, and Hircan). Nomerfide and Ennasuite join this group after escaping an attack by wild bears. Geburon, a member of Hircan’s party, also narrowly escapes an attack by outlaws. And Simontaut narrowly survives a dangerous river crossing, though readers might not be impressed by his decision to “[group] his servants round him to break the force of the current” (none of them survive). Thus, beginning with the second paragraph of the Prologue, readers are plunged into chaos, violence, and despair, which is resolved only when they find their way to Sarrance.

The tone of the Prologue rediscovers a sense of calm once they are all settled together, but when the frame characters realize that they are stranded until the bridge across the swollen river Gave is rebuilt, they gather together to find a way to pass the time (much like Boccaccio’s brigata of storytellers in the Decameron, who are waiting out the outbreak of Plague). Oisille, the group’s spiritual guide, suggests that there is only one true pastime worthy of enjoyment: the reading of Scriptures. Hircan, her polar opposite in almost every possible way and one of the most outspoken and often misogynist characters, recommends reading Scriptures in the morning but engaging in amorous physical activity in the afternoon.

But Parlamente finds a way to compromise between the two extremes. She hears that Boccaccio’s Decameron has recently been translated into French for a certain Marguerite de Navarre and suggests that they work on compiling a French version to present to the court upon their return. By adding herself into the Prologue, Marguerite makes it clear that she is both author and participant, and she sets up a complex narrative structure in which she can openly come and go as a character in the text, which she does on multiple occasions. 

Each of the storytellers, or devisants, has a role to play, and while historians have attributed them to historical figures, often associating the character of Parlamente with Marguerite herself, they take on a life of their own in the structure of the Prologue. If Hircan, Oisille, and Parlamente are perhaps the most developed, the other seven are still equal players, representing different shades of the dominant viewpoints of the sixteenth century.

Indeed, the Prologue takes care to set up multiple contradictions and apparent oppositions: the pitting of five men against five women, healing vs. violent waters, spiritual vs. worldly pleasures, and the complex interaction between written and oral traditions. These contradictions will carry forward into the frame discussions of the novellas, where the devisants rarely agree on anything. Their conversations are often messy, usually hard to follow, and often left unresolved.

Before they begin their storytelling venture, they agree to take turns and listen to each other’s opinions, because, as Hircan states, “where games are concerned, we are all equal.” The emphasis on equality, and the acknowledgement of different viewpoints, is one of the guiding principles of the frame narrative. Almost amazingly, they continue to get along, to take pleasure in each other’s stories, and to engage deeply with some of the most important issues of their day: questions of justice, religious corruption, sexual assault, the role of women in society, and how to define power. Their ability to have open disagreement and still take pleasure in one another’s company is a big part of what speaks to this reader today: the devisants operate with the implicit acknowledgement that people with vastly different beliefs can still listen to one another with respect, and can come together over their differences. Because of the equality laid out during the Prologue, tensions are allowed to remain unresolved without diminishing the power of the project. And because there is such a wide range of material to work with—so many contradictions, and shades of nuance—the reader is invited to become an equal player in the discussion.

And so, dear reader: welcome to the conversation.

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