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Marguerite of Navarre

Marguerite of Navarre



Upbringing and Early Life.

Marguerite was the sister of King Francis I of France and as a young child she received extensive tutoring in the classics from her mother. She mastered French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, and Spanish and had also read the scriptures widely by the time she married Charles, the Duke of Alençon, in 1509. When her brother ascended the throne in 1515, she moved with him in his court, exercising an influence on his policies. In 1525, French forces lost the battle of Pavia in Italy, and the Spanish army took Francis captive, imprisoning him at Madrid. Marguerite traveled there and negotiated her brother's release in exchange for an enormous ransom payment. In this same year her husband died, and two years later Marguerite married Henri d'Albret, king of Navarre, a small but important territory in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. While Marguerite continued her public role in her brother's court, she had already become active in the campaign for the reform of the church, too. In 1521, Guillaume Briçonnet, a French bishop, introduced Marguerite to evangelical ideas, and the two continued a long and fruitful correspondence. Briçonnet, together with the humanist Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples, had a profound influence on her religious ideas. Although Marguerite remained loyal to Rome, she supported reform movements within the church in France. At the same time the court she kept at various châteaux throughout France and Navarre sheltered a number of authors and religious figures that were suspected of heresy. These included Briçonnet and Lefèvre d'Etaples, who fell under the umbrella of suspicion of heresy at various points in their careers, and the poet Clément Marot. For a time she even harbored John Calvin, the future reformer of Geneva. In touch with powerful men and women throughout Europe, including the reform-minded women Vittoria Colonna and Renée of Ferrara, Marguerite lobbied for religious change for a time, but she gradually isolated herself over time and devoted herself to her writing.


During her life Marguerite wrote an enormous body of works, little of which was printed while she lived. In 1531, she did publish her Mirror of the Sinful Soul, a 5,000-line poem that would eventually be condemned as heretical by the theological faculty of the University of Paris. The Mirror is typical of many of the themes that Marguerite developed in her plays and poetry. The soul is depicted as constantly embattled by worldly temptations but, aided by the grace of Christ, moves toward a final happy resolution in its salvation. A collection of her poems were published two years before her death in a work entitled Pearls from the Pearl of Princesses, and although these works were long judged inferior to other French poetry of the time, they have more recently been re-evaluated. Scholars now find in Marguerite the expression of a deeply tormented conscience, but one that strives to find joy in its relationship with Christ.


The queen's most ambitious project, the Heptameron, was left incomplete at her death. She modeled this collection of tales on Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. The premise behind this work of storytelling is similar to Boccaccio's masterpiece: a flood traps ten noble men and women, and to pass the time they tell stories. After each of these the men and women deliberate upon the moral messages in the fables they have just recounted. Like Boccaccio's masterpiece and the nearly contemporaneous Gargantua and Pantagruel series of François Rabelais, these tales are frequently filled with a great deal of frank sexuality. In comparison with the earlier Decameron, though, Marguerite's use of sex is frequently violent and less playful. The mood of the piece is somber, and the storytellers debate the morality of the tales they tell with a subtle, finely tuned discrimination.


Long dismissed as pornographic, Marguerite's Heptameron has recently been the subject of a number of studies, as scholars have seen in it unusual feminine characters, a complex narrative, and a subtle and ambiguous moral message. While it may never rank among the great monuments of sixteenth-century French literature, as Rabelais' and Montaigne's works do, it is nevertheless a significant achievement and displays Marguerite's depth and breadth of learning. Marguerite's other works, particularly her poetry, have also witnessed resurgence in popularity since the late nineteenth century. At that time a number of her poems were rediscovered and published, and these have re-established her justified reputation as perhaps the best educated woman of the Renaissance and certainly one of its finest writers.


M. Cerati, Marguerite de Navarre (Paris: Sorbier, 1981).

R. D. Cottrell, The Grammar of Silence: A Reading of Marguerite de Navarre's Poetry (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1986).

Marguerite, queen, consort of Henry II, king of Navarre, The Heptameron. Trans. Paul Chilton (New York: Penguin, 1984).

G. Mathieu-Castelani, La conversation conteuse: les nouvelles de Marguerite de Navarre (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1992).

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