Marguerite de Navarre was an author and patron of humanists and reformers. She was described by romance scholar Samuel Putnam as the “first modern woman”.
Marguerite was born in 1492, the daughter (and first child) of the Count of Angoulême and Louise, the daughter of the Duke of Savoy. Her father was the heir presumptive of France, assuming a number of other heirs died without issue, and four years later, when her father died, her younger brother Francis became, in turn, heir presumptive to the French throne. Marguerite’s mother, who was only 19 when her husband died, was responsible for the education of her two children. Louise was very well educated, and made sure both her children were educated too. Marguerite was educated with the aim of making her a patron of the Arts, the Maecenas to the learned ones of her brother’s Kingdom.
When she was 17, she was married off to Charles IV of Alençon, who was illiterate, and largely regarded as a dolt. That marriage lasted until she was widowed at 33. Her second marriage followed soon after, to the King of Navarre, with whom she had two children, a girl who lived to adulthood, and a boy who died in infancy. Six years after her first marriage, in 1515, her brother Francis became King of France, Francis I. She joined him at Court and was a major presence at court, a patron of the Arts, and increasingly interested in religion. She and her brother persuaded Leonardo da Vinci to move to France in 1515, and he died at their chateau, in Amboise, in 1519. When her brother King Francis I lost a war with Spain in 1525, and was captured, she went to Madrid to negotiate his release, and a Treaty with Spain.
Her biggest influence, eventually, was spiritual. In 1521, she began to correspondance with Guillaume Briçonnet, bishop of Meaux, who introduced her to the evangelist movement. She corresponded with many humanists and reformers throughout Europe. Erasmus wrote to her, saying,
“For a long time I have cherished all the many excellent gifts that God bestowed upon you; prudence worthy of a philosopher; chastity; moderation; piety; an invincible strength of soul, and a marvelous contempt for all the vanities of this world. Who could keep from admiring, in a great king’s sister, such qualities as these, so rare even among the priests and monks?”
She wrote two great works. The first was the Heptameron, a collection of short stories about life, love, fidelity and romance. It was based on the structure of the Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio. In Critical Tales: New Studies of the Heptameron and Early Modern Culture, edited by John D. Lyons and Mary B. McKinley, the authors noted:
The stories and discussions of the Heptameron depict confrontations based on, among other elements, gender. Contradictory suppositions about women emerge repeatedly from the stories and discussions as the devisants or fictional storytellers–five men and five women–delineate attitudes both feminist and misogynist. At the same time, similarly conflicting notions about men emerge to be debated. Whether echoing the late medievalquerelle des femmes, the contemporary querelle des amyes, the evolving currents of Neoplatonism and Petrarchism, or the attitudes toward sexual roles put forth in Reformation polemics, deeply felt beliefs about gender inform and animate the Heptameron.
While the Heptameron was well received, her more influential work was Miroir de l’âme pécheresse, or the Mirror of the Sinful Soul, which espoused evangelical ideas and combined them with a more personal relationship with God. Some speculated that it had been inspired by her grief on the death of her infant son. The French Evangelical movement did not go as far as the German Protestants, rather it focused on reforming the church’s many excesses, and translating the Bible into the Vernacular. Throughout her life, while her level of public campaigning for the Evangelical movement waxed and waned, Marguerite was a firm supporter of the French evangelical movement.She protected those who were accused of heresy, helping some to escape France into her own more separate territory of Navarre.One of the most famous of those rescued was John Calvin. As a result, her reputation after her death was a little suspect, with many Catholics arguing that she too, had been a heretic.
There are some interesting English history links with Marguerite de Navarre also. She may well have known Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII’s second wife, who had been lady-in-waiting to her brother Francis’ Queen, Claud). It is very likely that some of Anne Boleyn’s protestant views were formed at the French Court where Marguerite de Navarre was a strong influence. Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I), at the age of 12, translated Marguerite’s most famous poem into English as a present for her stepmother Katherine Parr. And Jane Seymour (Henry VIII’s third wife)’s nieces wrote an emconium, or tributary poem, to Marguerite de Navarre after she died, which their tutor published. It was the first published work by English women, and was translated into a number of languages by other poets.
As an interesting aside, I came across Marguerite while watching the Tudors series, which has been notable for how much I have learned about English history, not from the series itself, but because each time Mr Penguin and I watch an episode we are compelled to look up what really happened. She was portrayed in that series as merely one of a succession of Henry VIII’s mistresses, which has no foundation in fact whatsoever.
In reality, Marguerite de Navarre played a major part in shaping the intellectual life of her part of the world, and helped religious tolerance to flourish in the French court, at least in her own lifetime.