The Heptameron, by Marguerite de Navarre

the Young Gentleman Embracing his Mother
The Young Gentleman embracing his Mother

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Tale xxx.

A young gentleman, of from fourteen to fifteen years of age, thought to lie with one of his mother’s maids, but lay with his mother herself; and she, in consequence thereof, was, nine months afterwards, brought to bed of a daughter, who, twelve or thirteen years later, was wedded by the son; he being ignorant that she was his daughter and sister, and she, that he was her father and brother.1

In the time of King Louis the Twelfth, the Legate at Avignon being then a scion of the house of Amboise, nephew to George, Legate of France, 2 there lived in the land of Languedoc a lady who had an income of more than four thousand ducats a year, and whose name I shall not mention for the love I bear her kinsfolk.

While still very young, she was left a widow with one son; and, both by reason of her regret for her husband and her love for her child, she determined never to marry again. To avoid all opportunity of doing so, she had fellowship only with the devout, for she imagined that opportunity makes the sin, not knowing that sin will devise the opportunity.

This young widow, then, gave herself up wholly to the service of God, and shunned all worldly assemblies so completely that she scrupled to be present at a wedding, or even to listen to the organs playing in a church. When her son was come to the age of seven years, she chose for his schoolmaster a man of holy life, so that he might be trained up in all piety and devotion.

When the son was reaching the age of fourteen or fifteen, Nature, who is a very secret schoolmaster, finding him in good condition and very idle, taught him a different lesson to any he had learned from his tutor. He began to look at and desire such things as he deemed beautiful, and among others a maiden who slept in his mother’s room. No one had any suspicion of this, for he was looked upon as a mere child, and, moreover, in that household nothing save godly talk was ever heard.

This young gallant, however, began secretly soliciting the girl, who complained of it to her mistress. The latter had so much love for her son and so high an opinion of him, that she thought the girl spoke as she did in order to make her hate him; but, being strongly urged by the other, she at last said —

“I shall find out whether it is true, and will punish him if it be as you say. But if, on the other hand, you are bringing an untruthful accusation against him, you shall suffer for it.”

Then, in order to test the matter, she bade the girl make an appointment with her son that he might come and lie with her at midnight, in the bed in which she slept alone, beside the door of his mother’s room.

The maid obeyed her mistress, who, when night came, took the girl’s place, resolved, if the story were true, to punish her son so severely that he would never again lie with a woman without remembering it.

While she was thinking thus wrathfully, her son came and got into the bed, but although she beheld him do so, she could not yet believe that he meditated any unworthy deed. She therefore refrained from speaking to him until he had given her some token of his evil intent, for no trifling matters could persuade her that his desire was actually a criminal one. Her patience, however, was tried so long, and her nature proved so frail that, forgetting her motherhood, her anger became transformed into an abominable delight. And just as water that has been restrained by force rushes onward with the greater vehemence when it is released, so was it with this unhappy lady who had so prided herself on the constraint she had put upon her body. After taking the first step downwards to dishonour, she suddenly found herself at the bottom, and thus that night she became pregnant by him whom she had thought to restrain from acting in similar fashion towards another.

No sooner was the sin accomplished than such remorse of conscience began to torment her as filled the whole of her after-life with repentance. And so keen was it at the first, that she rose from beside her son — who still thought that she was the maid — and entered a closet, where, dwelling upon the goodness of her intention and the wickedness of its execution, she spent the whole night alone in tears and lamentation.

But instead of humbling herself, and recognising the powerlessness of our flesh, without God’s assistance, to work anything but sin, she sought by her own tears and efforts to atone for the past, and by her own prudence to avoid mischief in the future, always ascribing her sin to circumstances and not to wickedness, for which there is no remedy save the grace of God. Accordingly she sought to act so as never again to fall into such wrongdoing; and as though there were but one sin that brought damnation in its train, she put forth all her strength to shun that sin alone.

But the roots of pride, which acts of sin ought rather to destroy, grew stronger and stronger within her, so that in avoiding one evil she wrought many others. Early on the morrow, as soon as it was light, she sent for her son’s preceptor, and said —

“My son is beginning to grow up, it is time to send him from home. I have a kinsman, Captain Monteson, 3 who is beyond the mountains with my lord the Grand-Master of Chaumont, and he will be very glad to admit him into his company. Take him, therefore, without delay, and to spare me the pain of parting do not let him come to bid me farewell.”

So saying, she gave him money for the journey, and that very morning sent the young man away, he being right glad of this, for, after enjoying his sweetheart, he asked nothing better than to set off to the wars.

The lady continued for a great while in deep sadness and melancholy, and, but for the fear of God, had many a time longed that the unhappy fruit of her womb might perish. She feigned sickness, in order that she might wear a cloak and so conceal her condition; and having a bastard brother, in whom she had more trust than in any one else, and upon whom she had conferred many benefits, she sent for him when the time of her confinement was drawing nigh, told him her condition (but without mentioning her son’s part in it), and besought him to help her save her honour. This he did, and, a few days before the time when she expected to be delivered, he begged her to try a change of air and remove to his house, where she would recover her health more quickly than at home. Thither she went with but a very small following, and found there a midwife who had been summoned as for her brother’s wife, and who one night, without recognising her, delivered her of a fine little girl. The gentleman gave the child to a nurse, and caused it to be cared for as his own.

After continuing there for a month, the lady returned in sound health to her own house, where she lived more austerely than ever in fasts and disciplines. But when her son was grown up, he sent to beg his mother’s permission to return home, as there was at that time no war in Italy. She, fearing lest she should fall again into the same misfortune, would not at first allow him, but he urged her so earnestly that at last she could find no reason for refusing him. However, she instructed him that he was not to appear before her until he was married to a woman whom he dearly loved; but to whose fortune he need give no heed, for it would suffice if she were of gentle birth.

Meanwhile her bastard brother, finding that the daughter left in his charge had grown to be a tall maiden of perfect beauty, resolved to place her in some distant household where she would not be known, and by the mother’s advice she was given to Catherine, Queen of Navarre. 4 The maiden thus came to the age of twelve or thirteen years, and was so beautiful and virtuous that the Queen of Navarre had great friendship for her, and much desired to marry her to one of wealth and station. Being poor, however, she found no husband, though she had lovers enough and to spare.

Now it happened one day that the gentleman who was her unknown father came to the house of the Queen of Navarre on his way back from beyond the mountains, and as soon as he had set eyes on his daughter he fell in love with her, and having license from his mother to marry any woman that might please him, he only inquired whether she was of gentle birth, and, hearing that she was, asked her of the Queen in marriage. The Queen willingly consented, for she knew that the gentleman was not only rich and handsome, but worshipful to boot.

When the marriage had been consummated, the gentleman again wrote to his mother, saying that she could no longer close her doors against him, since he was bringing with him as fair a daughter-in-law as she could desire. The lady inquired to whom he had allied himself, and found that it was to none other than their own daughter. Thereupon she fell into such exceeding sorrow that she nearly came by a sudden death, seeing that the more she had striven to hinder her misfortune, the greater had it thereby become.

Not knowing what else to do, she went to the Legate of Avignon, to whom she confessed the enormity of her sin, at the same time asking his counsel as to how she ought to act. The Legate, to satisfy his conscience, sent for several doctors of theology, and laid the matter before them, without, however, mentioning any names; and their advice was that the lady should say nothing to her children, for they, being in ignorance, had committed no sin, but that she herself should continue doing penance all her life without allowing it to become known.

Accordingly, the unhappy lady returned home, where not long afterwards her son and daughter-in-law arrived. And they loved each other so much that never were there husband and wife more loving, nor yet more resembling each other; for she was his daughter, his sister and his wife, while he was her father, her brother and her husband. And this exceeding love between them continued always; and the unhappy and deeply penitent lady could never see them in dalliance together without going apart to weep.


“You see, ladies, what befalls those who think that by their own strength and virtue they may subdue Love and Nature and all the faculties that God has given them. It were better to recognise their own weakness, and instead of running a-tilt against such an adversary, to betake themselves to Him who is their true Friend, saying to Him in the words of the Psalmist, ‘Lord, I am afflicted very much; answer Thou for me.’” 5

“It were impossible,” said Oisille “to hear a stranger story than this. Methinks every man and woman should bend low in the fear of God, seeing that in spite of a good intention so much mischief came to pass.”

“You may be sure,” said Parlamente, “that the first step a man takes in self-reliance, removes him so far from reliance upon God.”

“A man is wise,” said Geburon, “when he knows himself to be his greatest enemy, and holds his own wishes and counsels in suspicion.”

“Albeit the motive might seem to be a good and holy one,” said Longarine, “there were surely none, howsoever worthy in appearance, that should induce a woman to lie beside a man, whatever the kinship between them, for fire and tow may not safely come together.”

“Without question,” said Ennasuite, “she must have been some self-sufficient fool, who, in her friar-like dreaming, deemed herself so saintly as to be incapable of sin, just as many of the Friars would have us believe that we can become, merely by our own efforts, which is an exceeding great error.”

“Is it possible, Longarine,” asked Oisille, “that there are people foolish enough to hold such an opinion?”

“They go further than that,” replied Longarine. “They say that we ought to accustom ourselves to the virtue of chastity; and in order to try their strength they speak with the prettiest women they can find and whom they like best, and by kissing and touching them essay whether their fleshly nature be wholly dead. When they find themselves stirred by such pleasure, they desist, and have recourse to fasts and grievous discipline. Then, when they have so far mortified their flesh that neither speech nor kiss has power to move them, they make trial of the supreme temptation, that, namely, of lying together and embracing without any lustfulness. 6 But for one who has escaped, so many have come to mischief, that the Archbishop of Milan, where this religious practice used to be carried on, 7 was obliged to separate them and place the women in convents and the men in monasteries.”

“Truly,” said Geburon, “it were the extremity of folly to seek to become sinless by one’s own efforts, and at the same time to seek out opportunities for sin.”

“There are some,” said Saffredent, “who do the very opposite, and flee opportunities for sin as carefully as they are able; nevertheless, concupiscence pursues them. Thus the good Saint Jerome, after scourging and hiding himself in the desert, confessed that he could not escape from the fire that consumed his marrow. We ought, therefore, to recommend ourselves to God, for unless He uphold us by His power, we are greatly prone to fall.”

“You do not notice what I do,” said Hircan. “While we were telling our stories, the monks behind the hedge here heard nothing of the vesper-bell; whereas, now that we have begun to speak about God, they have taken themselves off, and are at this moment ringing the second bell.”

“We shall do well to follow them,” said Oisille, “and praise God for enabling us to spend this day in the happiest manner imaginable.”

Hereat they rose and went to the church, where they piously heard vespers; after which they went to supper, discussing the discourses they had heard, and calling to mind divers adventures that had come to pass in their own day, in order to determine which of them were worthy to be recounted. And after spending the whole evening in gladness, they betook themselves to their gentle rest, hoping on the morrow to continue this pastime which was so agreeable to them.

And so was the Third Day brought to an end.


1 This story is based on an ancient popular tradition common to many parts of France, and some particulars of which, with a list of similar tales in various European languages, will be found in the Appendix, [below]. — En.

2 The Papal Legate in France here alluded to is the famous George, Cardinal d’Amboise, favourite minister of Louis XII. His nephew, the Legate at Avignon, is Louis d’Amboise, fourth son of Peter d’Amboise, Lord of Chaumont, and brother of the Grand-Master of Chaumont. Louis d’Amboise became bishop of Albi, and lieutenant-general of the King of France in Burgundy, Languedoc and Roussillon, and played an important part in the public affairs of his time. He died in 1505. — See Gallia Christiana, vol. i. p. 34. — L. and R. J.

3 Monteson was one of the bravest captains of his time; as the comrade of Bayard, he greatly distinguished himself by his intrepidity in Louis XII.’s Italian campaigns. Some particulars concerning him will be found in M. Lacroix’s edition of Les Chroniques de Jean d’Anton. — B. J. Respecting the Grand-Master of Chaumont, also mentioned above, see ante, vol ii., notes to Tale XIV.

4 This is Catherine, daughter of Gaston and sister of Francis Phoebus de Foix. On her brother’s death, in 1483, she became Queen of Navarre, Duchess of Nemours and Countess of Foix and Bigorre, and in the following year espoused John, eldest son of Alan, Sire d’Albret. Catherine at this time was fourteen years old, and her husband, who by the marriage became King of Navarre, was only one year her senior. Their title to the crown was disputed by a dozen pretenders, for several years they exercised but a precarious authority, and eventually, in July 1512, Ferdinand the Catholic despatched the Duke of Alva to besiege Pamplona. On the fourth day of the siege John and Catherine succeeded in escaping from their capital, which, three days later, surrendered. Ferdinand, having sworn to maintain the fueros, was thereupon acknowledged as sovereign. However, it was only in 1516 that the former rulers were expelled from Navarrese territory. “Had I been Don Juan and you Donna Catherine,” said the Queen to her pusillanimous husband, as they crossed the Pyrenees, “we should not have lost our kingdom.” From this time forward the d’Albrets, like their successors the Bourbons, were sovereigns of Navarre in name only, for an attempt made in 1521 to reconquer the kingdom resulted in total failure, and their dominions were thenceforth confined to Beam, Bigorre, and Foix on the French side of the Pyrenees. Queen Catherine died in 1517, aged 47, leaving several children, the eldest of whom was Henry, Queen Margaret’s second husband. — M., B. J., D. and Ed.

5 We have failed to find this sentence in the Psalms. Probably the reference is to Isaiah xxxviii. 14, “O Lord, I am oppressed; undertake for me." — Eu.

6 Robert d’Arbrissel, the founder of the abbey of Fontevrault (see ante, p. 74), was accused of this practice. — See the article Fontevraud in Desoer’s edition of Bayle’s Dictionary, vi. 508, 519. — M.

7 Queen Margaret possibly refers to some incidents which occurred at Milan in the early part of the fourteenth century, when Matteo and Galeazzo Visconti ruled the city. In Signor Tullio Dandolo’s work, Sui xxiii. libri delta Histories Patrice di Giuseppe Ripamonti ragionamento (Milano, 1856, pp. 52-60), will be found the story of a woman of the people, Guglielmina, and her accomplice, Andrea Saramita, who under some religious pretext founded a secret society of females. The debauchery practised by its members being discovered, Saramita was burnt alive, and Guglielmina’s bones were disinterred and thrown into the fire. The Bishop of Milan at this time (1296-1308) was Francesco Fontana. — M.

Appendix D.

Various French, English and Italian authors have written imitations of this tale, concerning which Dunlop writes as follows in his History of Fiction:—

“The plot of Bandello’s thirty-fifth story is the same as that of Horace Walpole’s comedy The Mysterious Mother, and of the Queen of Navarre’s thirtieth tale. The earlier portion will be found also in Masuccio’s twenty-third tale: but the second part, relating to the marriage, occurs only in Bandello’s work and the Heptameron. It is not likely, however, that the French or the Italian novelist borrowed from one another. The tales of Bandello were first published in 1554, and as the Queen of Navarre died in 1549, it is improbable that she ever had an opportunity of seeing them. On the other hand, the work of the Queen was not printed till 1558, nine years after her death, so it is not likely that any part of it was copied by Bandello, whose tales had been edited some years before.”

Walpole, it may be mentioned, denied having had any knowledge either of the Heptameron or of Bandello when he wrote The Mysterious Mother, which was suggested to him, he declared, by a tale he had heard when very young, of a lady who had waited on Archbishop Tillotson with a story similar to that which is told by Queen Margaret’s heroine to the Legate of Avignon. According to Walpole, Tillotson’s advice was identical with that given by the Legate.

Dunlop mentions that a tale of this character is given in Byshop’s Blossoms (vol. xi.); and other authors whose writings contain similar stories are: Giovani Brevio, Rime e Prose vulgari, Roma, 1545 (Novella iv.); Desfontaine’s L’Inceste innocent, histoire véritable, Paris, 1644 5 Tommaso Grappulo, or Grappolino, Il Convito Borghesiano, Londra, 1800 (Novella vii.); Luther, Colloquia Mens alia (article on auricular confession); and Masuccio de Solerac, Novellino, Ginevra, 1765 (Novella xxiii.).

Curiously enough, Bandello declares that the story was related to him by a lady of Navarre (Queen Margaret?) as having occurred in that country, while Julio de Medrano, a Spanish author of the sixteenth century, asserts that it was told to him in the Bourbonnais as being actual fact, and that he positively saw the house where the lady’s son and his wife resided; but on the other hand we find the tale related, in its broad lines, in Amadis de Gaule as being an old-time legend, and in proof of this, it figures in an ancient French poem of the life of St. Gregory, the MS. of which still exists at Tours, and was printed in 1854.

In support of the theory that the tale is based on actual fact, the following passage from Millin’s Antiquités Nationales (vol. iii. f. xxviii. p. 6) is quoted —

“In the middle of the nave of the collégial church of Ecouis, in the cross aisle, was found a white marble slab on which was inscribed this epitaph:—

“Here lies the child, here lies the father,
Here lies the sister, here lies the brother,
Here lie the wife and the husband,
Yet there are but two bodies here.”

“The tradition is that a son of Madame d’Écouis had by his mother, without knowing her or being recognised by her, a daughter named Cecilia, whom he afterwards married in Lorraine, she then being in the service of the Duchess of Bar. Thus Cecilia was at one and the same time her husband’s daughter, sister and wife. They were interred together in the same grave at Écouis in 1512.”

According to Millin, a similar tradition will be found with variations in different parts of France. For instance, at the church of Alincourt, a village between Amiens and Abbeville, there was to be seen in Millin’s time an epitaph running as follows:—

“Here lies the son, here lies the mother,
Here lies the daughter with the father;
Here lies the sister, here lies the brother,
Here lie the wife and the husband;
And there are only three bodies here.”

Gaspard Meturas, it may be added, gives the same epitaph in his Hortus Epitaphiomm Selectorum, issued in 1648, but declares that it is to be found at Clermont in Auvergne — a long way from Amiens — and explains it by saying that the mother engendered her husband by intercourse with her own father; whence it follows that he was at the same time her husband, son and brother. — L. M. and Ed.

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