Marguerite de Navarre (first known as Marguerite d'Angoulême) was born at the Chateau of Angoulême on the 11th April 1492 to Charles d’Orléans, Count of Angoulême and Louise de Savoie. The Count died in 1496, and the children's education – Marguerite and her younger brother François - was taken over by their mother. Marguerite learnt ancient and modern languages, classical philosophy and the Scriptures and the reputation of her intelligence and beauty attracted many suitors. However, for political reasons, when she was 17, she married Charles III, duke of Alençon. Marguerite's brother François became King of France (François 1er) in 1515 continuing the campaigns to conquer northern Italy that had been maintained by his predecessors. Marguerite was often at court – and active politically – in the early 1520s, she became involved in the movement for the reform of the church. She began a correspondence with Guillaume Briçonnet, bishop of Meaux, in 1521 who introduced her to the evangelist movement and the general urge for reform within the Catholic Church.
In 1525, after a series of military campaigns in northern Italy, François was defeated at Pavia in by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and taken prisoner to Madrid. Marguerite's husband Charles had been fighting in the same battle and died from wounds received. Marguerite was sent to Madrid to secure the release of her brother and after some deliberations, she succeeded.
In 1527, Marguerite remarried – this time she chose her match – Henri d’Albret – King of Navarre. She was actually 11 years older than her husband and it appeared that they had little in common; nevertheless, the marriage lasted until her death and also produced two children – their daughter, Jeanne, was later the mother of the future Henry IV.
Marguerite had been writing religious poetry from as early as 1523, but it was only after the death of her son in 1530, and then also her mother a year later that she allowed a poem "Miroir de l'ame pecheresse" (Mirror of the sinful soul) to be published. The work provoked censure of theologists at the Sorbonne due to its expression of religious reform. During the 1530s she wrote plays that were staged at her and François’ court – but towards the end of the decade her influence on her brother waned somewhat because the reformers that Marguerite had previously been allied with gradually fell out of Royal favour. Marguerite returned to her husband's court where she continued to write. This led, after François’ death in 1547 to the publication of two collections - "Les Marguerites de la Marguerite des princesses tres illustre royne de Navarre" (The pearls of the pearl of princesses...) and a sequel "Suyte des Marguerites de la Marguerite des princesses tres illustre royne de Navarre". Both volumes included plays, lyrics and poems. She wrote two final poems "Les prisons" and "Le navire" before starting work on a collection of stories inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron. This remained unfinished at her death but was published ten years later under the title "Heptameron des nouvelles". She died at the Château d'Odos, near to Tarbes, on the 21st December 1549 and was buried in Pau Cathedral.
The Heptameron (from the Greek "hepta" meaning seven) consisted of the 73 completed novellas compiled by the editor Claude Gruget after her death and was published in 1559. (An earlier model does appear but only contained 67 of the tales). It represents, through the diverse and fascinating tales recounted, the conflicts and beliefs of French society at that time.
The Prologue introduces us to 10 characters that will become the fictional storytellers within the story – they are stranded at Cauterets (in the Pyrénées) in the heavy rain season and decide, in order to pass the time, to recount tales to each other.
The stories that follow depict the complexity of human nature, the battle of the sexes, the conflict between good and bad, spiritual and material. It is fairly advanced in its discussions on the view of women – some tales are feminist in nature, some misogynist. The church reforms that Marguerite was so involved in are also mirrored in this work – none of the fictional storytellers advocate a theological belief opposed to that of the evangelical reformers but the tales are often cautionary in nature – talking of decadent priests and monks. Although not didactic or overly moralistic in tone – morals certainly are discussed – different attitudes to sin and virtue, love and sex, pleasure and honour, all reflecting the views of the time.
Given the period of history that this was written in added to the fact that a woman (and a noblewoman at that) is the author, it perhaps seems shocking to the new reader that many of the stories are rather obscene in nature – recounting tales of lust and infidelity. However, this is not particularly unusual for works of the time – and what is more, as Marguerite herself testifies in the prologue – many of the tales were actually founded in fact. Certainly it seems that the storytellers in the Heptameron may be based upon family members and friends, for example the character of Oisille seems to bear much similarity to Marguerites mother.
The Heptameron stands out today as an important piece in the history of French literature and its vast and complex narratives and depth of possible interpretations is still being analysed and discussed by modern day scholars.