Sequential Patterning in the Decameron and the Heptaméron

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The title, Heptaméron, was given posthumously to the collection of 72 tales Marguerite de Navarre was able to complete before her death in 1549. She had been aiming for a hundred, to produce a French counterpart to Boccaccio’s Decameron, which was translated by her private secretary, Antoine Le Maçon, in 1545, a translation she commissioned, and which was doubtless available to her in manuscript before that date; she had been familiar with the Decameron since childhood through an earlier translation in her father’s library.1 She inserts a word of praise for it in her Prologue, having one of her storytellers point out to the others that they have all read “les Cent Nouvelles de Jean Boccace nouvellement traduites de l’italien en français,” which King François I, the Dauphin, the Dauphine, and Marguerite herself spoke of so highly that if Boccaccio, wherever he is now, could hear them, he would come back to life. None of her tales duplicate any of her predecessor’s, but like him she provides a framing context of ten storytellers, all gathered in one place, cut off from the world. Although Boccaccio presents us with seven women and three men who have taken refuge from the plague, while Marguerite presents us with five men and five women who wait in a Pyrenees chateau for a bridge destroyed by a storm to be rebuilt, and although Marguerite’s storytellers, unlike Boccaccio’s, decide that all of their tales must be based on real events, these minor differences cannot obscure the striking similarities between the Decameron and the Heptaméron. Perhaps, however, the most striking, if not the most immediately apparent, similarity is the fact that both collections make use of hidden and sometimes intriguingly self-referential sequential echoes in their successive tales. These echoes not only provide coherence to their respective works, but also demonstrate that Marguerite’s method, like Boccaccio’s, derives at least in part from the kind of poetic patterning to be found in Dante, in Virgil, and in the more vaunted works of Western literature. While, for a variety of reasons, the Heptaméron’s subtle sequential patterning has not received its due, and while it would be impossible for me to explicate it satisfactorily without a full-scale examination, here I would like to suggest some of the patterning, for without some sense of the book’s sequential echoes we can hardly appreciate the art of the Marguerite de Navarre.

To begin, I would offer an example of this echoing in the Decameron. In the Decameron‘s Tale 1 (from the First Day), the thoroughly wicked Ciappelletto convinces the friar hearing his deathbed confession that he had lived the very model of a Christian life. After his death, the fame of his supposed saintliness spreads, abetted by the friars who have an interest in housing his tomb in their monastery. He becomes an object of popular veneration and “it is claimed that through him God has wrought many miracles.”2 In Tale 2, Abraham, a Jew, visits Rome, where he finds among the Pope, his Cardinals, and other clergy “niuna santità, niuna divozione” [“no saintliness, no veneration”]. Yet for that very reason he decides that Christianity must be superior to all other religions, for it continues to thrive despite such wickedness in high places. Consequently, he decides to convert.

Thus, in both stories, God is said to accomplish his purpose despite the unworthiness of his human instruments. This similarity is quite clear to Neifile, Tale 2’s narrator. She points out before beginning that Panfilo in telling Tale 1 showed:

that God’s loving-kindness is unaffected by our errors. . . and I in mine propose to demonstrate to you how this same loving-kindness, by patiently enduring the shortcomings of those who in word and deed ought to be its living witness and yet behave in a precisely contrary fashion, gives us the proof of its unerring rightness.

Yet the two stories mirror each other in other ways of which Neifile is unaware:

First, in Tale 2, Abraham complained that he could find “niuna santità, niuna divozione” in Rome, but those two qualities can be found in the immediately preceding story–in “la fame della sua santità e divozione a lui”, or “The fame of his (Ciappelletto’s) saintliness, and of the veneration in which he was held.” In fact, it is the only other story in the Decameron in which those two words can be found together in the same sentence.3

Secondly, in what will prove to be a frequent feature of the Decameron’s echoing sequence, Tale 2 not only parallels but is in some respect the opposite of its immediate predecessor. In Tale 1, both the people and the friars believe the saintliness and the veneration to be real, yet neither is; for although the veneration is sincerely intended, it cannot be true veneration if its object is a fake. But in Tale 2 the situation is the opposite in that no one—neither Abraham nor his Christian friend (who, knowing the true state of affairs in Rome, despaired of converting him once he learned the Jew intended to travel there)—believes that the saintliness or the veneration in Rome is real.

Thirdly, there is a self-referential aspect to this state of affairs. The very things—“santità” and “divozione”—that are pointedly absent from both stories on the narrative level are together present on the linguistic level only in these two stories in the entire Decameron. It is as if Boccaccio were intentionally calling attention to the echo, and to the paradoxical opposition between events in the stories and the words in which they are told.

A constant feature of these stories is that the narrators will call our attention to a parallel between the story they tell and the one just told, yet will show no particular awareness of other, equally present parallels. Like the Decameron, the Heptaméron features abundant commentary, in between the stories, by the storytellers, who often compare the stories in terms of what they are about in a fairly obvious sense; however, the storytellers never allude to what the attentive reader can discover in the way of both situational and linguistic parallels.

For instance, in Tale 1 of the Heptaméron, a husband hires an assassin to murder his wife’s lover. Only after his rival is safely dead does he dare to strike a blow himself. Announcing that he has avenged her honor, he takes his dagger and stabs ten or twelve times the belly of the man whom, “vivant, il n’eût osé assaillir,” or “alive, he would have not dared to attack.” Similarly, the intruder in Tale 2 cannot assuage his desire until his victim is practically dead, though it is a different sort of desire, and it is he who kills her. While she is still alive but powerless to put up a defense, as she had done to this point, he “prit par force celle qui n’avait plus de deffence en elle” [took by force her who had no more defense in her]. That she has no more “deffence” recalls the state of the victim in Tale 1, who had received so many sword blows from the hired assassin that “quelque deffence qu’il pût faire” [whatever defense he could make], could not prevent himself from falling to the floor, dead. Both the rival in 1 and the wife in 2 fall victim to multiple blows of a sword; both put up as much “deffence” as they can, and the bodies of both are subjected to the assuaging of a long-standing desire only after they have been rendered powerless to resist.

Before resorting to violence, the man in Tale 2 had tried to seduce the woman, but decided to take by force what he could obtain by neither prayer nor “service.” In Tale 3 a gentleman courting the Queen of Naples tries “de lui faire service” in order to win her but can make no progress until he decides to adopt a different mode of attack, though in no way violent. Knowing that often spite [“le dépit”] can work on a woman better than love, he reveals to her that her husband, the King, is having an affair with his wife. What “service” could not do, the Queen’s desire to avenge that infidelity would. “O, mon Dieu,” she exclaimed, accurately predicting what is about to happen, “faut-il que la vengeance gagne sur moi ce que nul amour n’a pu faire!” [must it be that vengeance wins over me what no love could do!]. In Tale 3, “dépit” and “vengeance” do what “force” achieves in Tale 2, a situational parallel underscored by the verbal parallel between “ce que par nulle prière ni service n’avait pu acquérir” [what by no prayer or service can he acquire] in Tale 2 and “ce que nul amour n’a pu faire” [what no love could do] in Tale 3.

In Tale 4, another woman is consumed with a desire for vengeance, though in the end she will not pursue it, finding discretion a wiser course. The host of the house where she is a guest tries to force himself on her but she fights him off, scratching his face so seriously that he will be unable to show himself to his guests or later at court until his wounds have healed. Like the men in 2 and 3, this one had first tried to talk the woman into sleeping with him, but in his case he fails in his second strategy too. In language echoing both the Queen’s prediction in Tale 3 that a desire for vengeance will achieve what “nul amour n’a su faire” and the phrase from Tale 2, expressing the man’s intention to “avoir par force ce que par nulle prière ni service n’avoit pu acquérir,” in Tale 4 the woman’s lady-in-waiting reminds her that the man whose face she scratched “n’a su, par amour ni par force” [was not able, by love or by force] to achieve his aim.

In Tale 3, the King sees a stag’s head, “une tête de serf“—as Marguerite spelled what elsewhere she spells cerf—mounted on a wall in the home of the man he was cuckolding but who, unbeknownst to the King, was sleeping with the Queen. The King begins to laugh, declaring that this head is appropriately placed there, meaning that the owner of the house wears a cuckold’s horns. The husband subsequently rewrites this sign, literally, placing around the antlered head an inscription in Italian: “I wear the horns, which everyone can see; but someone wears them unknowingly.” The next time the King visits, he asks the cuckolded man to interpret these words. He replies, “If the secret of the king is hidden from the serf, there is no reason the serf should tell his secret to the king,” playing on the two senses of “serf” (stag and serf, or in this case “subject”), naming himself as both. The King begins to suspect that the husband is aware of his affair with the wife but fails to see the applicability of the inscription to himself.

Marguerite plays with the sign of the “serf,” not only in punning it with “serf” as “cerf” and in having the husband write the inscription, but also by making use of it to underscore a parallel between the successful suitor in 3 and the unsuccessful one in 4. The latter had managed to get the woman into a bedroom, into which he had devised a way of entering secretly, by enticing her brother to visit his estate, holding out the promise of good stag hunting—spelled cerfs this time.

In 3, the “tête de serf” [for cerf] stood for the head of the man in whose house it was displayed, as well as for the head of his guest, who was as cuckolded as he but who never knew it. In 4, the householder’s head itself becomes a sign. Having figured out the identity of her attacker, the victim of his attempted assault tells her lady-in-waiting that his head will bear witness to her chastity. “He can be none other than the master of this house, and when morning comes I will arrange with my brother that his head [sa tête] will be witness to my chastity.” A tradition attached to this tale, noted by Renja Salminen, has it that the princess was Marguerite de Navarre, so that the brother was the king, François I, who would indeed have had the power to sever the head of her attacker. This becomes clear in what the princess’s lady-in-waiting says: “Were your brother to exact the justice you request and the poor gentleman come to die, nevertheless the rumor would spread that he will have had his will with you, and most will say that it is very hard for a gentleman to have accomplished such a feat unless the lady had given him the opportunity.” Therefore it would be best to “leave it to love and shame, that will be better able to torment him than you.”

It would have been a severed head that bore witness to her chastity, an inverted parallel to the severed stag’s head that bore witness in the preceding tale to the opposite quality in the householder’s wife (as the King’s mistress), and ultimately to the Queen (as the householder’s). At least the man’s scratched face in Tale 4, if not his entire head, bears witness to the princess’s chastity, for in his shame he dare not show his face for some time.

Like Tale 4, Tale 5 is the story of a woman who successfully defends her “chasteté” against an attempt to take it “par force,” and who repels the attempt in such a way as to inflict “honte” on the perpetrator(s). The woman pilots a ferry boat on which the only passengers are two Franciscan friars who ask her for sexual favors, and “à quoi elle leur fait la réponse qu’elle devait” [to whom she makes the response that she should], recalling the fitting response given the man who made a similar proposition in the preceding tale: “sa réponse fut telle qu’il appartenait à une princesse et vraie femme de bien” [her response was fitting for a princess and a truly good woman]. In Tale 5, the friars decided to “la prendre tous deux par force,” echoing the words in which the would-be rapist in Tale 4 spoke to himself of having done so. “I should not have attempted to prendre par force her chaste body.”

The woman escapes from the friars by pretending to consent, asking only that they keep the matter secret and each take his pleasure one after the other, for she would have “trop de honte” if both of them saw her at the same time. The woman leaves one friar on an island to wait patiently until the other finishes, then conveys the latter to another island, where she tricks him into going to look for a comfortable spot to make love. Once he steps ashore she suddenly pushes off, leaving him marooned. Instead of suffering shame at their hands, she inflicts it on them. The two friars, realizing how she had tricked them, get down on their knees at the water’s edge to beg her not to “leur faire cette honte,” which in fact is what she is doing. This finds a parallel in Tale 4, when the princess, struggling with the man who had come into her bedroom but knowing that her own strength was sufficient to prevent him, all the same “lui voulait faire une honte.” The deep scratches she made on his face would suffice to accomplish that.

Despite their desperate pledge to make no more demands if she will conduct them safely to port, she refuses, instead returning home to tell her husband and bring the law to track them down. The friars hide from view, each on his own island, like Adam when he saw that he was naked before the face of God. “La honte” exposed their sin before their eyes. This shame was, apart from a verbal dressing-down back at the monastery and the penance of saying masses and prayers, the only punishment they would suffer. This comparative lenience offers a parallel to the man in Tale 4, who might have suffered a much worse punishment, might have been beheaded rather than merely scratched.

When the friars are captured and brought to town, they become objects of derision for their sin against chastity, as the townsfolk make fun of “These fine fathers who preach chastity [chasteté] to us, and then try to take it from our wives.” In a comment on the tale, Geburon, its narrator, praises such poor women as the protagonist for carefully guarding “leur chasteté,” despite not having the leisure to think of anything but earning a living. He explicitly makes a comparison with the high-born woman’s defense of her chastity in the immediately preceding Tale 4, saying that low-born women are as virtuous as princesses.

Nomerfide narrates Tale 6 in order to follow Geburon’s story of a woman who used her cleverness for good with a story of a woman who used it for ill. But beneath this obvious connection lies another of Marguerite’s artful ones. The ferry operator in Tale 5 solved her problem through a process of alternation, keeping one friar out of action while she dealt with the other; similarly, the wife of the Duke of Alençon’s valet solves hers—how to get her lover out of the house when her husband unexpectedly returns—by keeping her one-eyed spouse’s good eye covered while his blind one cannot see her paramour’s exit. She tells him she dreamed he had recovered his sight, and places her hand over his good eye ostensibly to see if her dream has come true. The ferry woman, we recall, had given as her reason for making love to the friars one at a time, one out of sight of the other, her wish to avoid the shame “que tous deux me vissent ensemble” [of the two seeing her together]. Thus, in both tales the impossibility of double vision of one sort or another enables the two women to succeed in avoiding shame. A reader with the ability to see both tales at once, which is yet another sort of double vision, will enjoy an otherwise unavailable depth perception.

Hircan narrates Tale 7 in order to counter Nomerfide’s story of female cunning with an example of the male variety. His tale will show other parallels with hers, though, of which he is doubtless unaware. A merchant and a young woman are engaged in intimate conversation in a garde-robe [closet or dressing-room] when she suddenly hears her mother approach. The mother had previously threatened to put the girl in a convent if she ever saw her again with this man, and was alerted by a chambermaid who had seen him enter the garde-robe. The merchant quick-wittedly finds a way to prevent the mother from seeing the daughter make her escape from the dressing room, thereby providing a parallel to the quick thinking of the woman in 6 who prevented her husband from seeing her lover escape from the bedroom. The merchant rushes out of the garde-robe and advances to meet the mother before she can get to the door. Arms extended, he “l’embrassa”—as the clever wife had embraced her husband as part of her ruse to permit her lover to escape, for it was “en l’embrassant” that she took his head in her hands and covered up his good eye. The merchant throws the thoroughly surprised mother onto a couch and holds her in a passionate embrace. And “durant cela” [during that time], the daughter escapes, as in the preceding tale “En ce temps pendant, qu’il ne voit goutte” [during that time, when he couldn’t see a thing] the wife sent her lover safely away. Even the dream the wife in 6 claimed to have had finds its counterpart in 7. “Rêvez-vous?” [Are you dreaming?], the startled mother asks the merchant, as she tries to make sense of his behavior.

One way to sum up what happens in 7 is to say that a man intends to make love to a certain young woman in a garde-robe but is prevented by a chambrière who reveals his intention to an older woman with whom he winds up making love instead, applying to her the ardor aroused in him by the younger woman. Tale 8 can be told in similar terms. A man intends to make love to a certain young woman in a garde-robe, but here the woman is herself a chambrière. Unlike the young woman in 7, the chambrière does not welcome the man’s advances, yet just like the chambermaid in 7 she too hastens away to reveal his intention to an older woman. Marguerite couches these parallel events in parallel terms: “La chambrière . . . le alla dire à sa maîtresse” [The chambermaid . . .went to tell it to her mistress] and “quelque chambrière . . . le courut dire à la mère” [some chambermaid . . . ran to tell it to the mother]. Because of the chambermaid’s tattling, the man in 7 must make love to the older woman (so that the daughter can escape undetected). Because of the chambermaid’s tattling, the man in 8 will likewise make love to the older woman, but will do so unwittingly, not realizing that the person he is in bed with is not the chambermaid but his own wife. Wanting to catch him red-handed, she had instructed the chambermaid to agree to have a tryst with her husband “en ma garde-robe,” but explained that she will herself take her chambermaid’s place. The husband takes his pleasure, thinking his wife to be the chambermaid, and then makes good on the promise he had made to a friend to share his good fortune. After the husband’s departure, the friend, younger and lustier, takes his place, without the wife noticing any difference save an increase in sexual intensity. The next day she reveals that it was she whom he had made love to and not the chambermaid. The first time, she says, his ardor was such that “je vous ai jugé tant amoureux d’elle qu’il n’était possible de plus” [I judged you to be so amorous toward her that it was not possible to be more so], but the second time he exceeded even that: “By the fureur your love for the chambermaid put you in, I believe you would have mistaken an ugly woman [une chèvre coiffée: literally, a nanny goat wearing a hat, an expression signifying an ugly woman] for a beautiful girl.” Here she unwittingly echoes some of what the narrator in the preceding tale said about the merchant’s redirecting his ardor for the daughter onto her mother: He “l’embrassa le plus fort qu’il luy fut possible; et, avec cette fureur dont il commençait d’entretenir sa fille, jeta la pauvre femme vieille sur une couchette” [kissed her the most passionately possible; and, with this furor with which he began to approached the girl, threw the old woman on a couch].

These sequential repetitions, perhaps invisible on a first reading, continue through the 72 tales and are among the hidden delights of the collection. Sometimes they suggest a self-referential dimension, as in Tale 6, where it would have helped to have two eyes in good working order to see what is really going on. To see the whole picture, the reader too needs binocular vision, one eye on one tale and one on the other.

In this way Marguerite de Navarre imitates her model Boccaccio, though we can hardly know if her imitation was conscious. In the following century, Jean de La Fontaine would continue this tradition, or invent it again, in both his Fables and his Contes, as I suggest elsewhere4, and a similar type of patterning, I have found, even informs Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes and Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal and Spleen de Paris.5 Sequential structures, I argue, also undergird the poetic sequences of Robert Penn Warren and the short story collections of Raymond Carver.6

Montaigne praised the Heptameron as “un gentil livre pour son estoffe” [a noble book for its cloth], which is to say for its fabric, as if he well understood its subtle weaving of elements from one story to the next. The fabric of his Essais is woven of self-referential repetitions in a different way: through symmetry instead of sequence.7 Edwin M. Duval has revealed symmetries in Rabelais8, and Otto Skutsch in Virgil’s Eclogues9. Paul Claes and Matthew S. Santirocco have found both sequential and symmetrical structures in Catullus and Horace.10 Consequently, to neglect this pattern of sequencing in the Heptaméron is not only to overlook much of what makes it a pleasurable and a coherent book, but it is also to misprize the Heptaméron’s achievement, and thus the book’s place within the larger pattern of Western literature.

1 According to Renja Salminen, in the Introduction to her edition of the Heptaméron (Geneva: Droz, 1999): xlii. My quotations will be from this edition, though I will modernize Marguerite’s moyen français, and at times simply translate.

2 English translations are taken from The Decameron, trans. G. H. McWilliam (New York: Penguin, 1995). Italian passages are taken from Boccaccio, Giovanni. Decameron. Ed. Vittore Branca (Torino: Einaudi, 1992). Sometimes I substitute my own translation for the sake of making the parallels clear.

3 Based on the online concordance at the Brown University Decameron Web.

4 Cf. In La Fontaine’s Labyrinth (Charlottesville, Va.: Rookwood Press, 2000) and pages 225-59 of La Fontaine’s Complete Tales in Verse: An Illustrated and Annotated Translation (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2009).

5 The Art of the Persian Letters: Unlocking Montesquieu’s “Secret Chain” (Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 2005), Intratextual Baudelaire: The Sequential Fabric of the Fleurs du mal and Spleen de Paris (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2010.

6 The Braided Dream: Robert Penn Warren’s Late Poetry (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990), Ghostly Parallels: Robert Penn Warren and the Lyric Poetic Sequence (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006), and Reading Raymond Carver (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1992).

7 Order in Disorder: Intratextual Symmetry in Montaigne’s “Essais” (Columbus, Ohio State UniversityPress, 2013).

8 The Design of Rabelais’s Tiers Livre de Pantagruel (Geneva: Droz, 1997), and The Design of Rabelais’s Quart Livre de Pantagruel (Geneva: Droz, 1998).

9 “Symmetry and Sense in the Eclogues,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 73 (1969): 153-69.

10 Claes, Concatentio Catulliana: A New Reading of the Carmina (Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 2002) and Santirocco, Unity and Design in Horace’s Odes (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1986).