Guilty Sisters: Marguerite De Navarre, Elizabeth of England, and the Miroir De L'ame Pecheresse

By Snyder, Susan | Renaissance Quarterly, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview
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Guilty Sisters: Marguerite De Navarre, Elizabeth of England, and the Miroir De L'ame Pecheresse


Snyder, Susan, Renaissance Quarterly


Le miroir de l'ame pecheresse, a volume of devotional verse named for its principal poem, was published in Alencon in 1531 and in Paris two years later. The Paris edition identifies its author as "Marguerite de France, Soeur Vnicque du Roy," and later as "Royne de Navarre."(1) Some eleven years later, the daughter of Henry VIII translated the Miroir as a gift for her latest stepmother, Queen Katherine Parr. The poem has thus a doubly unusual status. In an age when literature was overwhelmingly male in its origins, the agencies of genesis and transmission for this work were female. And in an age when most writers came from the middle class, the agents of its production and reproduction were of high birth, members of royal families. Marguerite's title of "queen of Navarre" carried with it a fairly limited sovereignty, such power as there was residing with her husband Henri de Navarre, with the kingdom itself being largely under Spanish rule. And though Elizabeth would eventually reign as queen in her own right, no one in 1544 expected such an outcome. Henry VIII still ruled, and his son Edward was being carefully groomed to succeed him. The salient fact about both Marguerite and Elizabeth was that they were royal sisters: Marguerite being the sister of the present king of France, Francois I, and Elizabeth of the future king of England, Edward, prince of Wales. The circumstance may be only coincidental, but it provides an interesting vantage point from which to examine both the poem and its translation.

As the primary inventor of the Miroir, Marguerite is the main focus for this inquiry. Intelligent and talented, she had been educated along with her brother and in adulthood promoted both the Renaissance and the Reformation in France. Best known for her collection of nouvelles, the Heptameron, she also wrote plays and poems on both secular and spiritual themes, and possibly a treatise in letters defending the worth and superiority of women.

The attribution in this last case, though not the others, is far from certain. The treatise may instead have been the work of her great-niece, another Marguerite de Valois and de Navarre, known usually as la reine Margot. The letters are no longer extant, and we know of them only through a secondhand account by Pierre de l'Escale in his 1612 Defense des femmes. As L'Escale sums up the argument, woman is God's masterpiece, the climax of his work in creating the universe and its inhabitants. Being more intelligent than men and therefore more capable of ruling justly, women originally held dominion; only later were they ousted by men.(2) This latter notion might have had considerable personal resonance for either of the Marguerites, since both saw their brothers become kings of France but never ruled themselves.

In any case, the Marguerite who concerns us here, as the firstborn child in a branch of the Orleans line, occupied the center of parental-dynastic attention, but only until Francois came along two years later to displace her: displace her not only as the new baby but as the desired boy, the potential heir to the French throne which under Salic law she could never be. The children's father died soon afterward, and there followed for Marguerite, as for her mother Louise de Savoie, a lifetime of total concentration on Francois, first as heir and eventually as king. Yet somewhere under her unwavering sisterly devotion, Marguerite's original radical displacement must still have rankled.

The poem at issue, "The Mirror of the Sinful Soul," is an outpouring (over 1400 lines) of self-accusation and self-abasement, recalling Paul and Augustine in its theological stance.(3) Marguerite sympathized with the evangelical movement in France and by her patronage sheltered many of its members. The Reformist orientation is apparent in the poem's Pauline-Augustinian bent, as in the prominence of biblical allusions.(4) The speaker of the poetic monologue presents herself as a wretched sinner, who has so violated and betrayed her relationship with God that she is totally unworthy of his grace.

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