“As a woman of character and faith”

1Si the work of making visible the forgotten women of history and literature began a few decades ago in academic studies, these last years have given impetus to this momentum of rehabilitation also in works accessible to the curious and to the general public1. The biography of Marguerite de Navarre published by Patricia Eichel-Lojkine in 2021 is important in this sense. Admittedly, Marguerite de Navarre is not, for the sixteenth-century writers, the least known writer, far from it; certainly, like Louise Labé or Pernette Du Guillet, she does not suffer from a questioning of her existence as a creator. But devoting a biography as dense, rich and at the same time accessible as that written by P. Eichel-Lojkine is both obvious and necessary. Obviously, because Marguerite de Navarre is undoubtedly one of the great female figures of the XVIe century — and even one of the great figures altogether — because of his literary, political and religious involvement. Necessity, because there was no biography of the queen that intertwined as intelligently as the author does the story of a life and the story of an era.

2The work is structured in eight chapters which follow the chronology, from the birth to the death of Marguerite, themselves divided into subsections which allow you to navigate clearly, to lighten the reading visually – the volume is rather imposing -, to draw, if necessary, what we come to look for starting from the table of contents. The paratext, which represents a quarter of the volume, is substantial and testifies to a concern for the sources which will satisfy a demanding reader, at the same time as it will accompany those who will need landmarks to enter this teeming first half of the XVIe century: glossary, chronological references, list of the main sources cited, bibliography, summaries of the main works of Marguerite de Navarre, index proper names bring richness and precision to a book that attempts and succeeds in the bet of erudition and accessibility.

3On this point, the work appears as a mirror of its subject and of what it gives to see: Marguerite de Navarre is captured in all its complexity and its humanist and human entirety. P. Eichel-Lojkine does not favor one facet over another, but, on the contrary, weaves and interweaves the different threads of a life that is both exceptional and can speak to everyone, and that is where one of the primary strengths of this book. He highlights, for example, the ties that united Marguerite de Navarre to the Reformation and to evangelism, her political role – especially during the negotiation to free her brother François Ier prisoner of Charles‑Quint in Spain —, her role as protector and patron, Heptameron in a synthetic analysis which occupies most of the seventh chapter, but the more personal aspects of Marguerite’s life are never evoked in a simply factual way. On the contrary, they come to nourish the whole of a life which is not made, which cannot be made exclusively of great events on the literary, religious or political scene. This is particularly the case of the grief caused by the death in 1524 of her young niece, Charlotte, barely eight years old: the pages that the biographer devotes to it, returning to this mourning throughout the book, underlines the Marguerite’s great sensitivity, the strong family ties she forged with certain members of her family, but also the influence that this early death played in the development of her poetic work – she provided the inspiration for Marguerite’s first poem, Dialog in the form of night vision and his faith. In this event, which relates to individual and personal history, it is the full importance of literature and spirituality as help that comes to light, and P. Eichel-Lojkine thus shows himself attentive to the links between biographical elements and creative process.

4This interlacing between private life and public life, between intimate concerns and remarkable implications also allows us to highlight the woman who was Marguerite de Navarre. This dimension, which we mentioned in the opening, is displayed in the foreword which recalls that Marguerite de Navarre was “woman of convictions”, “woman of letters”, “woman of networks”, “cultured woman and sensitive to the arts” (p. 10). This approach by genre is quite subtle in the essay, and is not the only bias chosen by the author, who, on the contrary, prefers to multiply them. However, these are the first questions that she sees as fueling new reflections: “the cause of women (women’s conditions and aspirations, mirrored in the writings of a queen); the aristocratic education and instruction of girls; the female gaze on her body and its transformations” (p. 11). And, in fact, these are fruitful avenues that come to feed various issues running through the entire volume. The question of women’s networks and women’s communities, for example, makes it possible to consider intellectual and spiritual complicity with Marie Dentière, Renée de France or Anne de Pisseleu as well as the role played by women in the war against Charles-Quint (the famous “Peace of the Ladies” led by Louise of Savoy, Margaret of Navarre and Margaret of Austria). That of motherhood comes to document being-mother in the XVIe century at the same time as it contributes to giving this biography a dimension of a larger family fresco. Indeed, on the one hand the evocations of Marguerite’s desire for a child, the long wait, pregnancy finally, then the joys and worries of motherhood, and on the other hand, the role of surrogate mother what Marguerite sometimes seems to take from her nieces, but also the relationship she maintains with her own mother, Louise de Savoie, and beyond, with her brother of course, but also her sisters-in-law, her nieces and nephews , everything contributes to making more familiar figures who could appear as disembodied by their titles, their functions and their belonging to a milieu and a century far from those of today’s readers. The use of specific sources, often little known, such as correspondence, allows to feed this approach, at the same time as it enhances these texts belonging to private writings.

5And that is one of the book’s other strengths: its rich documentation. P. Eichel-Lojkine bases his remarks on all kinds of writings, whether by Marguerite de Navarre – correspondence, literary or spiritual works -, by her contemporaries (the many members of her family, religious or literary entourage) or other authors of XVIe century, like Brantôme, witness a posteriori, thanks in particular to what her mother and her grandmother were able to tell her, who were ladies-in-waiting with Marguerite. There are multiple advantages in using this impressive documentation: the life of Marguerite de Navarre becomes more concrete, her voice is heard in various tones and situations; access to ancient texts is facilitated, contextualized by events, resonances, by the interplay of individual history and collective history; the reader is caught up in the whirlwind of this first half of the XVIe century, between political conflicts, appearance of the Reformation and religious unrest, promotion of the French language, life at Court. The excerpts are always chosen with accuracy and balance both in their length and in their content, although we can regret the difficulty of clearly and quickly identifying the sources due to a system of references at the end of the volume, without appeal. of grades. In addition, the choice that was made not to cite critical works – a few essential references do however appear in the bibliography -, while it may seem surprising to some, has the advantage of leaving all the space to the writings of the ‘era. For P. Eichel-Lojkine, it is indeed a matter of giving the XVIe century in all its variety, without stopping either at the literary production of Marguerite de Navarre or at historical documents alone.

6The biography then becomes a historical picture of the Renaissance in which the reader comes across the characters and events that marked this time and Marguerite’s life. The biographer succeeds with great finesse and pedagogy in explaining the most complex situations and concepts (those that agitate the Reformation, for example, even if the passages devoted to it are among the densest for a reader unfamiliar with the issues of that time), to show the stakes of alliance strategies (the different matrimonial projects) while giving to read the mores of an era. On this point, the pages evoking the rites of funerals in the nobility are of very particular anthropological interest, as is the moving evocation of the ceremony of the first marriage where the very young Jeanne d’Albret, daughter of Marguerite, who was then thirteen years old , cannot advance under the weight of her finery. The biographical bias, beyond combining individual trajectory and collective destiny, and because it retraces the life of an illustrious, high-ranking person, himself involved in collective issues, brings a unique perspective to events, that of Margaret. The episode of the Vaudois massacre is exemplary on this point: the drift of a Catholic power at a time of religious tension, it can only touch a woman concerned with justice and open to new ideas. The Queen’s anger and incomprehension, also shared by her Protestant contemporaries — like Théodore de Bèze whose reaction is reported in the essay — also become those of the reader who discovers, or rediscovers, the facts.


7It is therefore an exciting and rich book offered by Patricia Eichel-Lojkine. She achieves a remarkable and difficult synthesis while remaining clear and accessible, in a style that knows how to adopt the right distance from its subject, never falling into hagiography or romance or a cold and factual narrative. An erudite and sensitive biography, in the image of the woman she celebrates.

“As a woman of character and faith”