Take their wonderful edition of Marguerite of Navarre’s Heptameron. Marguerite lived from 1492 to 1549 and for many years presided over a fairly glittering court of intellectuals and artistes, and somewhere in that mélange of quips and quotes arose this book of some 70 stories that contain all the genteel raunchiness of Boccaccio’s Decameron (the court – and this book – loved Boccaccio to distraction, as indeed who does not?) but almost none of its subtle playfulness.
I say ‘somewhere’ because the Heptameron has one of the more tangled textual histories of any post-Dark Ages work – we know Pierre Boaistua put out a first edition in 1558, but we don’t know what manuscripts he was using, nor do we know anything substantial about the genesis of those manuscripts. We can’t even be sure of the book’s attribution; Marguerite, being royal and lovely and strong-willed, makes the most convenient and picturesque focal point, but the whole thing could just as easily have been assembled by Bonaventure des Perriers, her valet de chambre – and extremely cultured man who was in a perfect position to cadge story-contributions from all the noblemen and women in Marguerite’s circle (and from the lady herself). Likewise the names of the various characters in the book are clearly pseudonyms, and so are clearly meant to stand in for real people – but who those real people are, specifically, has kept French scholars busy for centuries.
The goal, at any rate, was to create a “French Decameron,” and so we have a framing device in which five men and five women retire to a mountaintop abbey and tell stories to amuse and instruct each other. The men and women are perfectly well-behaved even though their stories abound with sex, rape, and manipulation – hence the work’s undying appeal: it’s smut for the manor-born crowd.
And the Penguin edition is the only one out there in English – there are scholarly versions from university presses, but as far as a Heptameron you could actually find in a bookstore or used bookshop, it’s this Penguin Classic or nothing. The volume is a translation (a bit stiff in places, and a bit musty in other places) by P.A. Chilton from 1984, based on the edition by Michel Francois, and Chilton himself strikes a winningly humble note in his Introduction:
The most obvious of the problems any translator of the Heptameron faces is the confused condition of numerous passages in his source. Fortunately, when the sense is contradictory or obscure, or where the narrative sequence is awkward, it is possible to make plausible deductions from the surrounding context, as would any French reader of the original. The guiding principle has been to reproduce in English a meaningful Reading of the original, not a mechanical transcription of words on the page.
And after that, we’re off to the races, with story after story of lecherous monks and friars, brutal husbands, and lots of coy wordplay. Readers who perhaps discovered a disinclination for such matter when they were forced to read Boccaccio in high school should be warned – passages like this one occur with clocklike regularity:
“If I may say so, Madame, if the King didn’t have a crown on his head, he wouldn’t have the slightest advantage over me as far as giving pleasure to the ladies is concerned. What is more, I am quite sure that in order to satisfy a refined person such as yourself, he really ought to be wishing he could exchange his constitution for one more like my own!”
The Queen laughed and said, “The King may have a more delicate constitution than your own. Even so, the love which he bears me gives me so much satisfaction that I prefer it to all others.”
And for the rest of us – who love such stuff and can’t get enough of it – well, we owe Mr. Chilton, and Penguin Classics, another small vote of thanks.