Recently, unpacking the boxes containing my late husband’s vast and wide ranging library, I came across a book I hadn’t thought about since my days as a student of Medieval Studies in UCD – namely the Heptameron of Marguerite of Navarre. We didn’t read this in college although it was often referred to. I suspect it was not read because its contents were too racy for the 1970s syllabus.
Margaruite of Navarre was born in 1492 – her mother, Louise, was fifteen years old, and had been married at the age of eleven to Charles, Count of Angeleme. Marguerite herself married twice, the second to time to Henry of Navarre. Her brother became king of France. In short, she moved in the best circles. But the most interesting thing about her is that she was a writer, of poetry and fiction.
The Heptameron belongs to the same genre as Boccaccio’s Decameron, which inspired it, or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It is a collection of stories told by a a group of people who are forced together for a period, and try to amuse themselves. Marguerite’s people are stuck because of severe flooding in the Pyrenees, where they are on holiday in September at a spa, Cauterets (near Lourdes.) The rivers swell, a bridge breaks, and they can’t get home until it is repaired. Someone suggests that they could pass the time in reading the Bible. One of the men thinks he could put in the time happily having sex with his wife, Parlamente. But she points out they need group entertainment, and, although of course nothing would be more fun than scripture reading, suggests that they tell stories. She stipulates that these stories must be true.
So, no orgies, but the stories are mainly about love and sex. Adultery is a common theme. By way of compensation for the contents the narrators adopt a high moral tone, disapproving of the shenanigans they describe. And, although several of the storytellers are women, their tales are generally highly misogynistic.
One story reminded me of the current controversy about the radio comments suggesting that women can be partly to blame for rape.
Novel 62, on the Seventh Day, is about a beautiful woman who is married to an older man. One of their neighbours falls in love with her. He woos her over some years but she is uninterested and rejects him. So , wild with desire, he decides to take her by force. His chance comes when the husband goes away for a few weeks. When the ladies in waiting are off guard, he breaks into the princess’s room. She is asleep. He gets into her bed, in his hurry neglecting to take off his boots and spurs. When she wakes up she is terrified. But he warns her if she screams he will tell her husband and everyone else that she invited him to her bed, so she had better shut up. To this she agrees – apparently her word will be no match for his. He has his pleasure with her. He hears the maids approaching the room and jumps out of bed. But one of his spurs catches in the quilt and pulls it off. He gets away, but the woman is revealed, stark naked, as the maids come into the room.
The story is offered as a comic tale, curiously enough, and like all the stories in the collection it is followed by a spirited discussion among the listeners, a sort of après-match debate. Some are on the woman’s side and see her as an innocent victim. But the more pious insist that in succumbing to the man who jumped into her bed and raped her she was to blame. Saying ‘no’ wasn’t enough. ‘Think you that a woman can give quittance of her virtue and let it go, when she as two or three times refused? If this were so, many a slut would be esteemed an honest woman,’ says Parlamente – the mistress of ceremonies, the chief presenter of the Heptameron, one might say.
September, floods, disruption of travel plans, and blaming the woman? Plus ca change...