Review of Colette Winn’s Edition of Approaches to Teaching Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron

Bob Hudson
Brigham Young University

Colette H. Winn. Approaches to Teaching Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron. New York: MLA, 2007. 247 pp.

To the impressive canon of French authors represented in the MLA series “Approaches to Teaching World Literature” (Balzac, Baudelaire, Beckett, Camus, Flaubert, Mme de Lafayette, Molière, Montaigne, Proust, Rousseau, Stendhal and Voltaire), the work of Marguerite de Navarre is a welcome inclusion.  Progressively emerging from relative obscurity over the past century, Marguerite’s merits as an influential patron, poetess and protector in the Valois court of Renaissance France, now critically reassessed and brought to light, can no longer be ignored.

Looking beyond her supportive role in Renaissance arts and letters, today’s academic consensus recognizes Marguerite’s Heptameron as an essential literary masterpiece, featuring the collection of nouvelles on mandatory reading lists and great works syllabi.  In the interest of helping educators incorporate this complex and ambivalent text into the modern classroom, the MLA has dedicated its 95th volume to unraveling Marguerite’s Heptameron with tips, techniques and ideas gleaned from some of acadæmia’s leading authorities on the matter.

Who better to introduce this pivotal figure of Renaissance Humanism to the echelon of not merely major women writers but of major writers tout court than Colette Winn (author of the highly-acclaimed Writings by Pre-Revolutionary French Women, Routledge, 1999)?   In her preface, Winn retraces the historical steps taken towards the rediscovery and canonization of Marguerite before asking a series of thought-provoking questions—concerning cultural/historical background, available editions, secondary sources, methods, etc.—pertinent to the aims of this volume. In stating the major challenges presented to those wishing to adopt the text, she sets the stage for the exploration of these and other themes to be addressed in this collection of insightful essays.

The volume’s first of two parts, “Materials,” compiled by Winn, brings together three years of professional inquiry along with Winn’s personal experience to examine which are the standard and best annotated editions of the Heptameron(in English translation, modernized French and the original Middle French); and, it discusses which primary, biographical and critical sources are recommended for both the student and the instructor—resulting in a rich bibliography of Renaissance source materials.  What’s more, taking into account technological advancements and the need to “pitch” literature to the contemporary student, Winn concludes her comments with a selection of “Audiovisual Materials,” including music anthologies, films, CD-ROMs, slide collections, genealogical and geographical sources, as well as a score of reviewed on-line websites to introduce the Renaissance, Humanism, the Reformation, the Valois court, etc.  She closes this section in deferring to colleagues Sylvie L. F. Richards and Corinne F. Wilson, with the former quite usefully breaking down new media technologies (searchable texts, maps, electronic reserves, HTML ideas, etc.).  For her part, Wilson offers perhaps the most useful tools in the entire volume as she provides a map of Marguerite’s France (with her journeys highlighted), a list of the Heptameron’s ten devisants (suggesting a possible historical identity and socio-symbolic role for each) and, finally, a day-by-day chart of all 72 nouvelles—which is indispensable when trying to coordinate oneself within Marguerite’s web.

This volume, however, is not only a pedagogical tool; the “Approaches” of its second part contain some 27 valuable essays by experts in Renaissance literature, history, women’s writing, art history, intellectual thought, etc., prefaced by another introductory essay by Winn.  Providing additional survey information aimed to justify the choice of Marguerite in the university classroom, Winn suggests a number of upper-division courses with which the text could be included, as well as a score of other writers with whom Marguerite could be aligned.  This she follows with strategic approaches to the Heptameron and sample assignments to be tested in the classroom, concluding with an introduction of the four divisions into which the individual essays are divided (“Introducing Backgrounds and Contexts,” “Critical Tools for the Classroom,” “Teaching the Heptameron in Relation to Other Works by Marguerite de Navarre” and “Selected Courses and Pedagogical Strategies”).

Each of these 27 concise and informative essays stands alone in presenting a different approach to the text.  Many are addressed to the educator: for example, Patricia Gravatt’s suggested list of films to bring the Renaissance to life (La Reine Margot—which represents the horrors surrounding the marriage of Marguerite’s great-niece, Le Retour de Martin Guerre, etc.), Cathy Yandell’s appeal to Renaissance popular song and Olga Anna Duhl’s dramatic methodology.  Tom Conley of Harvard puts forward a visual approach to the text as he examines decorative arts that may—and sometimes did—accompany Marguerite’s œuvre.  Many essays could be assigned to students as secondary readings to help them contextualize and understand individual nouvelles or the text as a whole.  These include pieces by Renaissance stalwarts Charles G. Nauert, François Rigolot, Jan Miernowski, Nancy M. Frelick and Mary B. McKinley.  By way of personal testimony, I found much success in assigning Nauert’s article on Christian Humanism and Deborah N. Losse’s “Narrating Feminine Consciousness in the Age of Reform” in a course I recently taught on Humanism and Reform in Renaissance France.  My students greatly appreciated both the concision and wealth of information.

The “Approaches to Teaching World Literature” series has made great strides in fulfilling its objectives of providing leadership and direction to the academic community. Colette Winn’s edition in particular is a most useful and appreciated collection to further the cause of bringing to light Marguerite de Navarre’s rich work.  For beginning and veteran professors alike—or even the curious dilettante, this collaborative effort—with its charts, lists, bibliographies and ideas—is an indispensable resource.

#Bob Hudson#Review of Colette Winn's Edition of Approaches to Teaching Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron#Vol. 7 Issue 1 Fall 2008