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Female Resistance to Male Authority, Part Two

By Mary Arnold

Female Code of Conduct in the Court Life of France

The Heptameron is a collection of seventy stories told by five men and five women, including discussion of the stories. Taken together, these tales depict the lives of women in sixteenth-century France. Like their Eastern counterparts, women were expected to be governed by the men in their lives, either husband or father. The dominant attitude is that "women are made solely for [men's] benefit" (Navarre 119). The men assert that "it becomes [women] so well to be soft and gentle" in their relationships with men (Navarre 187). A lady who withholds her love and favors from a man is deemed 'cruel.' One of the storytellers compares this withholding of love to starvation from lack of food:

Saffredent: Nevertheless, if a lady refuses to give bread to some poor wretch dying of hunger, then she is regarded as a murderess.

Oisille: If your requests were as reasonable as those of the poor begging bread in their hour of need, then a lady would indeed be extremely cruel to refuse them. But the malady you are talking of only kills those, thank God, who would die anyway within the year!

Saffredent: Madame, I cannot think that a man can have any greater need than that which makes him forget all other needs. Indeed, when love is truly great, a lover knows no other bread, knows no other meat, than a glance, a word from his beloved. (Navarre 426)

Like Genji, the men in The Heptameron employ the rhetoric of lovesickness in attempts to gain favors from women. If a woman doesn't love a man who purports to love her, she is accused of inflicting "diabolical torture" that is more painful than "all the torments in Hell" (Navarre 283). Also like Genji, sixteenth-century French men believed their "honour ruined" if they failed in their conquests (Navarre 97). Therefore when a man is faced with a woman who is "too sensible and good to be tricked" and "too well-behaved to be won around by presents and talk," he is "justified" in taking her "by force" (Navarre 219).

The double standard prevalent in sixteenth-century France was promoted by women as being the proper conduct for women. Parlamente (the character who is thought to be Marguerite de Navarre) asserts that:

Women who are dominated by pleasure have no right to call themselves women. They might as well call themselves men, since it is men who regard violence and lust as something honourable. When a man kills an enemy in revenge because he has been crossed by him, his friends think he's all the more gallant. It's the same thing when a man, not content with his wife, loves a dozen other women as well. But the honour of women has a different foundation: for them the basis of honour is gentleness, patience and chastity. (Navarre 397)

It's interesting to note some of the male storytellers refuse to believe "the hearts of men and women [are] any different" (Navarre 254). Since women desire the same things as men, i.e. love and passion, a man is able to destroy "the fortress of the heart where Honour dwells" if he only perseveres long enough to persuade the lady to give "herself up to that which she had never wished to resist" in the first place (Navarre 214).

The male storytellers and the male characters have difficulty believing a woman whom they desire might not desire them also. They ascribe female reluctance to their sense of modesty, not faithfulness to their husbands if she is married or chastity if she is not married. While social standards of female conduct in sixteenth-century France are very similar to those of tenth-century Japan, the female storytellers and women depicted in the stories possess an important difference from their Eastern counterparts: They are more assertive in resisting male dominance, particularly in controlling their own sexuality.

Female Resistance to French Code of Conduct

Although some of the male storytellers advocate rape if the woman refuses all sexual advances, in the majority of the stories told in The Heptameron rape and attempted rape rarely go unpunished, unlike The Tale of Genji. In Story Five after the ferrywoman escapes the two friars' attempted rape, she rounds up a mob from her village to return to the islands and seize the two friars (Navarre 99). All the villagers were "anxious to join in the hunt and have his share of the fun" (Navarre 99). The two friars were tied up and paraded through the village streets "to the shouts and jeers of every man and woman in the place" (Navarre 99).

Some women in the stories are threatened into submission, like the nun in Story Seventy-two who "dare[s] not resist" the monk whom she considers "the most pious man in the place" (Navarre 540). However, the majority of the women actively resist unwanted advances. Unlike the women in The Tale of Genji, most of the female characters will physically fight with their male oppressors. In Story Four, the Princess fends off her attacker by biting and scratching his face horribly (Navarre 92). Also in Story Forty-Six, a wife of a judge kicks a friar down the attic stairs when he refuses to heed her warning not to follow her into the attic (Navarre 406). These are only two of the many instances when women will physically engage in fights with men; in this regard, they are very different from the women in tenth-century Japan.

The women agree it is "reasonable" that husbands should govern their wives but stipulate that husbands should not "abandon them nor treat [them] badly" (Navarre 361). The majority of the wives who are treated badly resist their husbands' ill behavior in some manner. Some women try to change their husbands' behavior, and others seek out means to avenge themselves.

In Story Thirty-seven, a wife embarks upon a campaign to win back her husband's love after he begins cheating on her. When he returns to his wife in the morning, she gives him a bowl of water to wash his hands, saying it is "only decent to wash one's hands when one had been somewhere foul and dirty" (Navarre 359). She hopes to induce her husband to "acknowledge and abhor his wicked ways" (Navarre 359). This ritual continues for a year, but the husband's behavior does not change. The wife then decides more drastic measures are needed; she hunts all over the house until she discovers her husband in a bed with "the ugliest, dirtiest, and foulest chambermaid in the house" (Navarre 359). She sets fire to straw in the room and when the husband fails to wake, the wife shakes him awake. She tells him if he does not change his ways, she doesn't know if she "shall have it in [her] power a second time to save [him] from danger" (Navarre 359). Her husband promises "never again to give her cause to suffer on his account" (Navarre 359).

Other wives in the stories attempt to shame their husbands for their philandering by conspiring with the women their husbands have been pursuing. In Story Eight and Story Fifty-Nine, wives instruct the chambermaids to set up a rendezvous with the husbands. In the first, the wife takes the place of the chambermaid (Navarre 109), and in the second the wife arrives at the rendezvous and catches the husband in the act of seducing the servant (Navarre 467). These two examples reflect a growing resistance to the double standard of sexual conduct. No such resistance to this double standard is seen in The Tale of Genji. In the court of Japan, it is a given that men will have more than one wife and/or concubines.

In the circumstance of cheating husbands, some women decide to avenge themselves by taking lovers also. The wife in Story Fifteen tried "everything in her power to win [her husband] around," but he refused to give up his illicit affairs (Navarre 190). The lady became depressed, and earned the pity of a noble lord who attempts to console her. The King puts this friendship to an end, but she soon discovers another man willing to be her lover. Her husband, finally realizing his wife's beauty and desirability, begins to pay more attention to her; but it is too little, too late. By this time, the wife has "a desire to pay him back for the sorrows that his lack of love had brought her in the past" (Navarre 192).

French women also attempted to seclude themselves from men who had dishonorable designs upon them. In Story Forty-two, a townswoman is pursued by a young prince who believes she would be an easy conquest. The prince sends a messenger to declare his intentions, but the young woman feigns disbelief and insists the messenger must have made it all up without his master's knowledge (Navarre 382). The prince begins to court her by letters, but she refuses to answer. She also avoids attending events in which she might see him. When he arranges a ploy to gain access to her house, he pleads with her to "give [him her] love in return," admonishing her for her "spite" in continuing to refuse him (Navarre 384). However she says she "would rather die" than do anything that would damage her virtue (Navarre 384). She continues to remain chaste, earning the enduring respect of the prince who arranges an honorable marriage for her.

In The Heptameron, one can discern rising levels of consciousness that women should be allowed to choose their own husbands. One example of this resistance to others determining a woman's marital state occurs in Story Forty. In this story, the Comte de Jossebelin refuses to let any man marry his sister. She and a young man who lives in the household fall in love and are secretly married (Navarre 368). Even though the sister is old enough to marry whom she wants and is legally allowed to do so, her brother has the man killed when he becomes knowledgeable of the marriage. The Comte, wary that his sister might "seek revenge or would appeal to the law" has a castle built in the middle of the forest in which he locks her away "forbidding anyone to speak with her" (Navarre 370). After a time, he attempts to "regain her confidence" and even insinuates he will allow her to marry (Navarre 370). But his sister resists all appeasement and, in effect, places a curse upon her brother for his evil actions with the result that he and his six sons "all die[ ] miserably" (Navarre 370). Although the common social custom is still that women should seek guidance and permission in their choice of husbands, there is a growing attitude that women should marry for love and not as a matter of convenience or financial gain.

In The Heptameron, there are many women who resist the customary sexual norms imposed upon them. The majority of these women though usually experience punishment for their transgressions; one of the few exceptions to this occurs in Story Forty-Nine, which also depicts the extremity of female promiscuity. A foreign Count and Countess are visiting the court of King Charles, when the King becomes enamoured of the Countess (Navarre 417). King Charles sends her husband away on business so he can have the Countess "to himself" (Navarre 417). But the wayward Countess is not content with the King only; she 'imprisons' a succession of men in her dressing room for a week at a time, installing another one whenever she releases the one currently hiding there (Navarre 418).

Each of the men knew that the others desired the Countess, but they each believed that he was the only one to "have his wishes granted" and each man "secretly laughed at the others for having failed to win such a prize" (Navarre 418). Eventually however the six men who were the Countess' captives could no longer keep from bragging about their sexual conquests, and so they all learned what the Countess had been doing (Navarre 419). They decide to punish her by accosting the Countess on her way to Mass, all dressed in black and wearing an iron chain around their necks to signify their 'slave' status (Navarre 420).

The Countess realizes she has been found out, but she refuses to let the men succeed to humiliate her; she does not "become angry or change her behaviour in any way" (Navarre 421). The six prisoners of the Countess "were so abashed at this that the shame they had desired to bring down on her fell upon them and remained in their hearts" (Navarre 421). The Countess' evenness of temper conveys to the men the idea her behavior is no more shameful than their own had been. While the female storytellers condemn the Countess' actions harshly while not commenting on the men's behavior, this story and many others exhibits an increasing hostility towards the double standard of male and female sexuality.

If one compares male attitudes towards women in The Tale of Genji and The Heptameron, one will see little difference regarding their views of female inferiority and subjectivity to males. The primary difference exists in how the females themselves comprehend their roles in society. Women in tenth-century Japan are taught to be completely docile and submissive to the male figures in their lives. The only resistance they exert is of the passive kind, i.e. with admonitions, feigning illness, and concealing themselves as much as possible from men. In contrast, the women of sixteenth-century France are much more assertive in defending themselves from physical abuses and ill treatment from men. However the prevailing attitude is still that women should be submissive to their fathers, brothers, and husbands as long as those men do not treat them badly. A woman is only justified in opposing male authority if she is not treated with the kindness and consideration that is due to her.


Navarre, Marguerite de. The Heptameron. Trans. P.A. Chilton. London: Penguin Books, 1984.

Shikibu, Murasaki. The Tale of Genji. Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker. New York: Random House, 1990.

About The Author

Mary Arnold holds a B.A. in literature and history. She is an author on http://www.Writing.Com/ which is a site for Fiction Writing.

Her writing portfolio may be viewed at


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