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  • Honor Revenges in Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron
  • Cynthia Skenazi

From achilles' wrath at Agamemnon in the opening of the Iliad on, honor has been an essential component of the social life of Western elites. As with any form of conduct or code, this concept cannot be isolated from its historical and cultural context. Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron provides a lens to learn different views on this key notion from a fraction of members of the French court.1 As critics have noted, the novellas, along with the discussions they generate among the ten narrators, offer a series of case studies in which the readers are invited to rethink the "gendered virtues of masculine combativeness and female chastity, silence, and obedience."2 Little attention, however, has been given to the importance of honor in the Heptaméron's representations of masculinity and femininity. This article focuses on stories about male and female honor revenges in the upper ranks. It argues that honor became a more flexible concept in sixteenth-century France, which served as a basis for new modes of self-evaluation and social interactions for both genders.

The question "what is honor?" elicits a wide range of answers depending on multiple parameters such as a person's gender and age, profession and social position, the location and circumstances under consideration, and so on. In Marguerite's time more specifically, this notion was part of a network of related concepts as evidenced by its definition in Randle Cotgrave's Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611): "Honneur: renowne; reputation, credit, praise, glorie, fame, great account, high reckoning, much estimation; worship, reverence; dignitie, promotion."3 Defining each of these terms is no easy task for their meanings overlap and shift. One central aspect, however, has remained unchanged throughout the long history of honor in the Western world: the utterly public nature of this notion. An individual's feeling of his worth is of no use unless his qualities are publicly approved by people whose opinion one takes into account. In Latin, honor meant the publicly acknowledged superiority of those of high status or moral excellence. For twentieth-century anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers, who conducted research on Mediterranean societies in which honor was still an essential social concept, honor is "the value of a person in his own eyes, but also in the eyes of his society. It is his estimation of his own worth, his claim to pride, but it is also the acknowledgment of that claim, his excellence recognized by society, [End Page 75] his right to pride."4 In Marguerite's France, honor as a matter of outward reputation played a special role in the social existence and self-fashioning of male and female members of the elite.

By elite, I mean the more privileged members of society exercising the greatest authority or enjoying the highest standing. The majority of them belonged to the aristocracy, and those who did not were nevertheless treated with a comparable deference. Despite differences in culture, power, wealth, and status, elite members were able to recognize one another if not as equals, at least as members of a particular community united by ideals of conduct and values which, in their different regional variations, bore a certain resemblance to one another. Under the umbrella of honor, French gentlemen of Marguerite's time were concerned with various facets of their private and public life such as their family's reputation, the attainment of office and associated influence, the performance of military duty—all of which denoted both gentle status and the possession of full, mature masculinity. Among the recurring 'ingredients' were birth and lineage, prowess on the battlefield, a particular lifestyle, virtue, learning and education, piety and godliness, loyalty, truthfulness, and keeping one's promises. Sexual purity, chastity, and modesty were female honor's primary constituents. Changes in the ranking of these components corresponded to parallel changes in members of the elite's values; yet without honor, social existence became virtually impossible. Although the importance of this notion was taken for granted, its interpretation was an object of discussions, tensions, and ambivalences among upper rank members.

Male honor revenges

The Heptam...


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pp. 75-86
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