Spinning Stories

Telling tales in the Heptameron by ebutterworth
July 30, 2009, 5:24 pm
Filed under: Storytelling, Uncategorized

The Heptaméron is a collection of stories brought together by the King of France’s sister, Marguerite de Navarre, in the first part of the sixteenth century, on the model of Boccaccio’s Italian Decameron (though Marguerite’s version only has seven days of ten stories). The framing narrative sets up the situation in which the stories get told: a group of ten aristocrats, five men and five women, find themselves stranded in a monastery in the Pyrenees following violent storms that have destroyed all the bridges. While they wait for the bridges to be repaired, and in order to stave off their melancholy, they decide to tell each other stories, insisting that they must be true – or at least told by a reliable source.

The stories they tell are polemic: they make the points that the tellers want to make, and it’s usually a point about the relationship between men and women. The frame narrative, and the personalities of the storytellers, mean you can’t forget that stories are told for a purpose, and are told to an audience. Each story is followed by a discussion, where the teller offers their interpretation of the meaning – and the moral – of the story, and the nine other storytellers argue about its impact and meaning for them. Stories are told to teach people lessons, to score points, to prove a theory about what women and men are like… They can be manipulated, exploited, twisted, spun. But they’re also therapeutic: they distract the storytellers from their traumatic experiences, and they offer a kind of communal activity that draws them together and strengthens the bonds between them (even if they don’t always agree). The stories themselves are often about stories, about how rumour spreads and ruins reputations, and about how impossible it is to stop people talking.

Later in the sixteenth century, when the Heptaméron was printed for the first time, its editor added short summaries of the stories that act like a kind of index. For example:

Through the subtlety of a merchant, an old woman is tricked and her daughter’s honour is saved (Story 7)

How the perfect love of a gentleman for a lady, because it was unknown and unrecognised, led to his death, to the great regret of his beloved (Story 9)


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