- Honor and Gender in the Heptaméron of Marguerite de Navarre
If marguerite de navarre's heptaméron is a book about love, it isn't of the happy kind. In the aristocratic milieu of its storytellers, a woman's honor is prized, but it is radically vulnerable. It's no wonder then that parfait amityé, for all its Neoplatonic idealism, seems a dangerous game. As often as the tales speak of love, they also examine the honor that it so frequently endangers: the Queen of Navarre creates what might be read as a conduct book for women navigating the treacherous waters of male desire with an eye to conscience and reputation. She does not teach resignation, nor passive acceptance, nor silence for its own sake. Instead, through a sustained critique of the brutality and excess that often undergird early modern aristocratic masculinity, she saves the best of honor for her brave and virtuous women. My goal in this article is twofold: first, to lay out how men's and women's honor interact in Marguerite de Navarre's text, and second, to argue that, rather than emphasize gender-based difference, the Heptaméron instead showcases assertive, even martial forms of self-defense and justification by honorable women who model traditionally masculine modes of aristocratic-heroic virtue. Among these, parrhēsia, frank speech in the face of risk, plays a central role in defending an active, assertive women's honor with tools traditionally available only to men.
Many critics writing on questions of gender in the Heptaméron have stressed the differences between men's and women's honor.1 The text itself makes this distinction more than once. In Nouvelle 26, the virtuous, married lady courted by the young Seigneur d'Avannes mentions on her deathbed that "l'honneur des hommes et des femmes n'est pas semblable."2 The devisante Parlamente, often read as a stand-in for Marguerite de Navarre herself, supports this view in the discussion that follows the tale. However, in addition to differences between men's and women's honor as the Heptaméron defines them, there are also fundamental similarities—crucial overlaps in structure and principle that blur distinctions not only between masculine and feminine visions of honor, but between men and women themselves.
Honor and violence
The Heptaméron rather conventionally defines women's honor as synonymous with chastity, while shaping men's honor as aggression and hardiesse. [End Page 87] As Parlamente tells her male companions in the discussion of Nouvelle 26, "vostre honneur [gist] à tuer les hommes en guerre" (390), and in the discussion of Nouvelle 43, she distinguishes men:
desquelz la fureur et la concupiscence augmente leur honneur; car ung homme qui se venge de son enemy et le tue pour ung desmentir en est estimé plus gentil compagnon; aussy est-il quant il en ayme une douzaine avecq sa femme. Mais l'honneur des femmes a autre fondement: c'est doulceur, patience et chasteté.(508–9)
Parlamente's stark contrasts criticize the ethical laxity of standards of masculine honor, and the excess and disproportionality they allow. In this citation, men's honor is indistinguishable from the capacity for violence on the one hand, and sexual desire on the other.
The association of men's honor with violence is an old one, with deep roots in aristocratic ideals of masculinity. Although characters from across the social classes guard their chastity, specific references to honor rarely apply to those who are not highborn. Instead, the Queen of Navarre primarily uses her own world of aristocratic actors to examine the problem of honor. Among them, honor and the capacity for violence are virtually synonymous. Nowhere is this link clearer than in Nouvelle 10 about the warlike Amadour, who loves the higher-born, virtuous Floride. After years of a seemingly chaste love, Amadour tries to pressure her into a sexual relationship and attempts to assault her when she refuses. Ultimately, Amadour dies of self-inflicted wounds on the battlefield, and Floride, who escapes his clutches, enters a convent. As Amadour is a younger son, his social advancement relies on his reputation, which is gained entirely on the battlefield. The...