Marguerite de Navarre: Mother of the Renaissance

Marguerite de Navarre: Mother of the Renaissance

Marguerite de Navarre: Mother of the Renaissance

Marguerite de Navarre: Mother of the Renaissance


Sister to the king of France, queen of Navarre, gifted writer, religious reformer, and patron of the arts -- in her many roles, Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549) was one of the most important figures of the French Renaissance. In this, the first major biography in English, Patricia F. Cholakian and Rouben C. Cholakian draw on her writings to provide a vivid portrait of Marguerite's public and private life. Freeing her from the shadow of her brother François I, they recognize her immense influence on French politics and culture, and they challenge conventional views of her family relationships.

The authors highlight Marguerite's considerable role in advancing the cause of religious reform in France-her support of vernacular translations of sacred works, her denunciation of ecclesiastical corruption, her founding of orphanages and hospitals, and her defense and protection of persecuted reformists. Had this plucky and spirited woman not been sister to the king, she would most likely have ended up at the stake. Though she remained a devout catholic, her theological poem Miroir de l'¢me pécheresse, a mystical summa of evangelical doctrine that was viciously attacked by conservatives, remains to this day an important part of the Protestant corpus.

Marguerite, along with her brother the king, was a key architect and animator of the refined entertainments that became the hallmark of the French court. Always eager to encourage new ideas, she supported many of the illustrious writers and thinkers of her time. Moreover, uniquely for a queen, she was herself a prolific poet, dramatist, and prose writer and published a two-volume anthology of her works. In reassessing Marguerite's enormous oeuvre, the authors reveal the range and quality of her work beyond her famous collection of tales, posthumously called the Heptaméron.

The Cholakians' groundbreaking reading of the rich body of her work, which uncovers autobiographical elements previously unrecognized by most scholars, and their study of her surviving correspondence portray a life that fully justifies Marguerite's sobriquet, "Mother of the Renaissance."


The biographer's task is always a formidable one, for any human being is ultimately unknowable, no matter how many facts one gathers about her. But when one is reconstructing the life of a woman who lived in a time—five hundred years ago—and a milieu—the French royal court—so different and so far removed in every way from twenty-first century America, then it becomes nearly overwhelming. Official records document the comings and goings of a woman like Marguerite de Navarre, who lived in history's limelight, but it is extremely difficult to get any sense from these of what she was really like, what she thought and felt, or how she lived her day-to-day existence. To do that it is necessary to find primary sources, which are usually very rare. in Marguerite's case, however, we are privileged, for her writings—her poems, plays, and the collection of novellas known as the Heptaméron—are a gold mine of information. Yet, strangely, they have not really been explored for their biographical implications. Our aim here is to do just that, to supplement what can be learned about the official and public Marguerite of archival sources with what can be gleaned from her writings. For we firmly believe that just as her life undoubtedly shaped what she wrote, what she wrote offers some insight into who she was.

As we are well aware, such an enterprise is not without peril, for it must rely heavily on conjecture. the most literal-minded critics will reject many of our conclusions, aligning themselves with Marguerite's first serious modern biographer, Pierre Jourda, who refused to acknowledge the veracity of any text not supported by incontrovertible historical evidence; to them we can only reply that it has always been common practice for writers to camouflage personal experience with fictitious details. Others, although they do not argue that the autobiographical must coincide in all respects with the historical, may disagree with our deductions; in reply to them, we promise that we will provide as much documentation as possible to support our conclusions, and that we will always endeavor to make it clear when we are dealing with fact and when we are advancing our own hypotheses.

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