- Marguerite de Valois: "La reine Margot."
Highlighting a problem occurring in representing female subjects with public reputations, Antonia Fraser, in Boadicea's Chariot: The Warrior Queens (1988), found that she needed to distinguish between the historical person and the often more compelling legend. Her solution was to use the term Boudicca to refer to the Iceni queen who fought against Rome and Boadicea to refer to the myth. Éliane Viennot, in her biography of Marguerite de Valois — youngest daughter of Henri II and Catherine de' Medici and queen consort of Henry IV — adopts a similar strategy, employing this princess's given name when discussing the person and Margot, Ronsard's invention to allegorize her in a bergerie, to indicate her myth. Although only her brother Charles IX, who died when she was twenty-one, employed the nickname, it lives on, due to Dumas's 1845 melodrama, La Reine Margot, reprised in Patrice Chéreau's film of 1994.
Viennot's book is equal parts person and myth: the second half tracing the ways that allegory, biography, drama, history, and polemic have transformed Marguerite into Margot. It is informed by a way of thinking akin to that of Chantal Thomas, who, in La reine scélérate: Marie-Antoinette dans les pamphlets (1989), demonstrates how tracts written about that queen had, and have, lives of their own, their rhetoric needing study apart from how they might correctly or incorrectly inform about their subject. Viennot provides a provenance of assertions about Marguerite from her lifetime through the present, determining the first occurrence of each and discussing its invention and effect. The result, a revised paperback edition of her earlier study of 1993, with a new "postface" addressing scholarship that has cropped up in its wake, is a great read.
Exemplary thinking greatly informed Renaissance culture. Rather than attempt to understand an individual, portrait subjects (literary or visual) provided their authors with examples to propose for emulation or avoidance. There was little space for a middle ground or allowance for complexity, especially for women. Prescriptive literature singled out chastity as woman's primary virtue, defining her reputation. As carriers of the royal succession, any hint of sexual promiscuity was treasonous for ruling-class women, and implications assaulting honor provided the most powerful means for impugning character. Marguerite's presumed sexual transgressions, therefore, propel the Margot legend. What Viennot brings back into perspective is her own agency in a wider arena. Renaissance culture seemed most comfortable when representations of women did not veer substantially from ideals. Marguerite's situation rendered this impossible.
Primogeniture demanded family subservience to the eldest son. That two of Catherine de' Medici's sons died young shifted the wind, but the queen mother tried to steer a steady course. Princesses marry foreign princes for strategic alliances, often between states in conflict. Implicit is the expectation that they resettle in their husband's kingdom, as Marguerite's older sisters did. In the absence of legitimate male heirs from her brothers, however, Marguerite was to marry the Bourbon heir presumptive to the French throne. This had occurred before with [End Page 1227] dynastic shifts: Marguerite's grandmother, Louis XII's daughter, Claude de France, married the collateral heir, who would become Francis I. New, however, was the fact that Navarre, Marguerite's intended, was Protestant. Birth families expected daughters to mediate between families, and royal women were successful diplomats in both official and unacknowledged ways. They were often left in untenable positions, however, and their loyalty questioned.
Princesses' lives revolved around a succession of male kin: fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons. Marguerite bore no children and, divorced from her husband, who needed an heir, had no son to shore up her position. While under house arrest in the Auvergne, she started asserting her authorial voice, Viennot argues, to reposition herself, using the same weapon — writing — as those acting against her. As editor of Marguerite's Mémoires, and the scholar most conversant with her subject's authorial voice, Viennot questions the legitimacy of various...