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Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549)

Jean Clouet (Attributed) Portrait of Marguerite of Navarre Google Art Project

Boccaccio was not the only Renaissance writer to author a collection of stories using a “frame narrative”: an overarching story that allowed a group of individuals from different walks of life to tell tales to each other. Chaucer used a group of travelers on a pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales. One of the most unexpected and no less famous, was called The Heptaméron. It was written two hundred years later by a woman, and not just any woman, but Marguerite de Navarre.

Tutored from an early age and given a classical education that included Latin, she became the most influential woman in France during her lifetime. She founded the Bourbon line of French kings through her daughter, Jeanne III of Navarre. She was also an accomplished diplomat who engineered the release of her brother, King Francis the First of France, after he was captured in the Battle of Pavia in 1525. She was a patron of the arts, and one of the few nobles who could walk through the city streets without protection, allowing anyone to approach her. She called herself the Prime Minister of the Poor. Notably, Leonardo da Vinci died as her guest. He had moved from Italy to her court where he designed a large chateau for her and her brother, the King, who had provided him with a comfortable stipend.

The Heptaméron is a collection of seventy-two tales that was intended to be 100 but Marguerite passed before she could complete them all. The work was published posthumously and likely just as well. They form a collection of romantic, lustful, and sexual tales dealing with jealousy, infidelity, and love. It has been said that the tales were true accounts (which was the original intention when first conceived by Marguerite and the future Henry II of France), and that the names were changed for reasons of propriety. It is no wonder that The Heptaméron was only translated into English in 1886.

My favorite quote of hers: “God always helps madmen, lovers, and drunkards.”

The work is difficult in parts but well worth the effort. Marguerite was also a poet, and her Miroir de l’âme pécheresse, Mirror of the Sinful Soul, was translated into English by the future Elizabeth I of England in 1548 when she was eleven years old. Elizabeth presented it written out in her own hand to the sixth and last wife of Henry VIII, Katherine Parr, suggesting a link between the two courts when it came to church reform, which might be considered moderate but insistent.

I would also like to add a quote by Oscar Wilde from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, referencing Marguerite:

“I asked her whether, like Marguerite de Navarre, she had their hearts embalmed and hung at her girdle. She told me she didn’t, because none of them had had any hearts at all.”

In my world, she and Elizabeth I were kindred spirits. Both were well educated (Elizabeth knew Greek, Latin and French) and agile enough mentally to navigate the treacherous times they lived in, not only surviving but attaining a stature that few have achieved since.

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