The Priests in the Heptameron
Europe during the Renaissance was still living in an age of faith. Even though it was the beginning of the great humanist awakening that would shape the modern world, it was also the era of cathedrals, of great religious art, and of wars of religion. In short, religion mattered greatly to the lives of the people, and the clergy - the nuns, monks and priests - were both numerous and an integral part of society.
Priests enjoyed an elevated social status. They were the representatives of Christ on earth, as well as educated (at least in comparison to the common folk); they were uniquely empowered to administer the sacraments such as performing marriages, absolving sins, and administering extreme unction to the sick and dying. When the Heptameron was writhen, priests were an ever present and essential component of every important facet of life. They were there at the birth of children, at the celebration of marriage, and at funerals. It is safe to say that nothing important happened without involving a priest.
Even though the Protestant Reformation had weakened the previously monolithic Catholic Church, religion remained extremely important to people. Princess Margaret, the author of the Heptameron, was herself a genuinely devout Catholic.
Yet, if the Heptameron has any claim to accurately describing society at the time, we can conclude that the priests in that day and age were far from holy. In fact, if the Heptameron is to be believed, they were lecherous charlatans, who used their position to chase and seduce married women and bend gullible young girls to their will. There are too many examples and stories in the book to summarize all of them, but this exchange between Hircan and the other story tellers in the third tale of the Third Day, may serve as a typical assessment of the pries's character.
The story tellers have just finished telling the story, supposedly true, of a priest who used his position and social status to insinuate his way into the household of a married man and, under the guise of performing his priestly offices, seduce a young wife.
Hircan comments: "Remember, that the husband was a great fool to bring such a gallant to sup with his fair and virtuous wife." In other words, the husband was a fool because he ought to have known what kind of man the priest was. Why? Apparently because all the priests are the same.
Geburon comments that there used to be a time when people were more gullible. He states: "I have known the time, when in our part of the country there was not a house but had a room set apart for the good fathers; but now they are known so well that they are dreaded more than bandits."
Geburon matter of factly ranks priests as being worse than bandits, and to be feared by the people more than thieves, on account of their predatory practices.
There then follows an interesting exchange between the Heptameron's narrators. Ennasuite feels sorry for the priests, perhaps not minding their attentions. She says that "If every one were as strict as you are, [i.e. in keeping them away from their wives] the poor priests would be worse than excommunicated, in being wholly shut off from the sight of women." In other words, she seems to be condoning the fact that the priests need to have women, and the fact that they are pursuing married women does not evoke any moral qualms for her.
Saffredent however does not feel sorry for them. He says: "Have no such fear on their account, they will never want for women."
Then Simontault adds a moral judgment to the discussion, highlighting the priests' hypocrisy: "... 'tis the very men that have united us to our wives by the marriage tie that wickedly seek to loose it and bring about the breaking of the oath which they have themselves laid upon us."
These unflattering descriptions of the clergy are interesting on many levels. Were priests as lecherous and wicket as they are made out to be; did people really hold this opinion of them? It seems hardly possible given the strong religious feeling that existed at the time.
Even more interesting is the fact that the Heptameron's author would voice such negative views of the priests. In an age when people were still burned at the stake for heresy, it is surprising to see such a candid and critical portrayal of the priesthood.
Whether the picture it paints is true to life or not, the fact that it presents a critical and anti-clerical viewpoint is remarkable.
This is the Heptameron of Marguerite de Navarre
Other Sites: CruikshankArt.com · Dante's Inferno · QuoteMonger.com · Canterbury Tales ·
This site is created by the Heptameron Information Society.
Translate This Webpage:
Site Maps: URL List | XML Site Map | ROR