Most people in the 16th century couldn't even read when this woman ahead of her time was giving everyone a master class on pleasure.
As a rule, when we look back at history, we usually see previous societies as much more conservative than ours. In the past, religion played a huge role on everything from laws and art to normal aspects of everyday life. However, there have always been very, let’s say, innovative minds that go against the established norms and prove that we’re pleasure-driven beings that will always find a way to satisfy our desires and urges. We’ve seen cases of ancient sex manuals that shed light on how sexuality was understood in the past, or even cases of more contemporary texts that go against mainstream views on sex and pleasure, but the one we’re going to discuss today is completely unique in its own way.
For starters, as you saw from the title, we're talking about a royal, the ultimate representation of morality and virtue. Adding to this wonderful equation, she was a woman who liked to discuss subjects that were taboo at the time, and she chose a particularly male-dominated genre to change people's perspectives on female sexuality and pleasure. Who was this outstanding lady we’re talking about? She was Marguerite of Angoulême, better known as Marguerite of Navarre, Queen consort of Navarre. She belonged to one of the most powerful families of the sixteenth century by being the daughter of Louise de Savoy (quite a she-wolf bearer of monarchs), and sister of King Francis I of France. Her mother, who had an extremely acute sense for politics, knew that she had to prepare both of her children as best as she could, and for that reason, Marguerite had a privileged education equal to the one her brother received. During their reigns, both siblings became important cultural patrons, and naturally, she left an important legacy to the world with her poetry. The text we’re going to talk about today is The Heptameron.
Inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron, Marguerite’s text is a compilation of 72 short stories first published by Pierre Boaistuau (a renowned humanist) posthumously in 1558 (nine years after her death) under the name of Histoires des amants fortunés in a highly edited version. Fortunately, the original version survived, and we can now enjoy it just as she envisioned it (well, minus the 28 stories she didn't get to write). The structure and the approach are pretty much the same as in Boccaccio’s classic. A group of people (five women and five men) are stranded in a town after a terrible storm has washed away the main roads. Since they have to wait for the storm to pass, someone suggests sharing a tale every day to entertain the others until they can return home safely.
As it’s established at first, the idea is to entertain themselves, so most of the stories are funny. The interesting thing about this, as I mentioned before, is that back then, comedy was a male-dominated genre. Moreover, this type of comedy she did was known for including scatological and obscene scenes, something women weren’t supposed to be associated with. So, how did a queen, a symbol of grandeur and virtue, get away with a text like this? Ok, maybe we should rephrase the question since she was actually dead when it was published. How was a text like that, written by a monarch, published under her own name and even translated to different languages at a time of alleged strong conservative views? And more importantly, does the book actually give readers a good lesson on sexuality and pleasure, as the title of this article suggests?
Illustration by Norman Lindsay
While the text does have some explicit and even “obscene” content, I believe that the most important lesson we can get from it is actually how to explore our sexuality in a freer way, something that most of us still find hard to achieve, and quite a modern point of view for a sixteenth-century woman. Marguerite’s tales are, above all, about encouraging and empowering women, to teach them how to claim a place for themselves instead of being an extension of another person. However, the greatest part is that she left all of this wisdom with such subtlety that, from its first printing to this day, it has been a classic literary text.
One of the best examples of this perspective is "Tale 49," in which she introduces us to a countess with such a huge sexual appetite that, besides the King, she has sex with six different courtiers. The poor devils, believers of courtly love, thought that they had been chosen by the countess because she wanted something special with them, ignoring the fact that she was sleeping with the others. One of these courtiers, unable to keep the relationship a secret, tells one of the other courtiers about his feelings and experiences with the beautiful countess. The other courtier replied that he'd experienced exactly the same as his fellow courtier. Surprise! Soon, the six of them realized that they had all been used and decided to get revenge. After some horrible ideas about how to make her pay, they all agreed that, ever the gentlemen, they would just expose her publicly to embarrass her in front of everyone.
They appeared before her at a church wearing all black and chains around their necks, and the countess couldn't help but laugh at the ridiculous men. Hurt, but determined to get their revenge, with a flamboyant and poetic speech, they all claimed to be her servants and that, as such, they had tasted the delicacies of her food (naturally referring to the passionate times they spent together). Still, even though she knew that they had discovered her game, she wasn’t going to let them embarrass her like that. This quote from the tale sums up the perspective and point of view of women in the different tales of the book:
“Nevertheless, she quite baffled them, for as she had lost honor and conscience, she did not take to herself the shame they sought to put upon her; but as one who preferred her pleasure to all the honor in the world, she showed them no worse a countenance for what they had done, and carried her head as high as ever, whereat they were so astounded that they felt themselves as much ashamed as they had meant to make her.”
Illustration by Norman Lindsay
This is just one example of how clearly Marguerite de Navarre understood the place women should have in society, not as men's property, but as independent individuals who put their dignity and pleasure before anyone else's, not letting anyone make them feel bad about something that is as natural as eating or breathing. Not only does she argue that our sexuality is ours to enjoy however we see fit, but she also encourages us to do so without worrying about silly prejudices. Now, the book, as I mentioned before, was published in different languages, and it was something that both the educated elite and the working class enjoyed and read avidly. So, how come only very few people got the great lessons in it?
Mainly, because as open and advanced as she was compared to the "illustrious" men at the time, she wasn’t a fool, and she knew that she couldn’t be as candid as she desired, so her messages were concealed under an amazing layer of linguistic subtlety. However, these days, we have no excuse, and the tales can be so easily interpreted under our current moral standards and cultural references that we should start putting them into practice in our daily life. After all, what’s the point of not pursuing ultimate pleasure?
If you want more lessons on sexuality from history, don’t miss these: