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Cleverness: Woman and Virtue

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    he association of intelligence or cleverness with virtuous or admirable women had begun as early in the querelle as 1558 4, with Marguerite de Navarre’s collection of short stories now called the Heptameron. Many of the stories, such as Story 2, Day 1 (“The Mule-Driver’s Wife”) and Story 2, Day 3 (“Sister Marie and the Prior”) are simple examples of feminine virtue as chastity, but several stories present this virtue in combination with wit. At this point it is still quite early in the querelle, too early for any reshaping of the feminine ideal.

    Accordingly, Mme. de Navarre seems to view intelligence as more of an asset than a virtue, providing a woman with two advantages: the ability to defend her own chastity, and to avenge herself of wrongs done her. Story 5, Day 1 is an example of the first: a poor boatwoman “as virtuous as she was clever” outwits two lecherous friars, leaving them stranded on different small islands in the middle of the river. They entreat her not to thus put them to shame. I should be doubly foolish if, after escaping out of your hands, I were to put myself into them again,” she replies. “Wait now, sirs, till the angel of God comes to console you; for you shall have nought that could please you from me to-day. “5 Her cleverness, which the male narrator-character makes certain to point out as one of her good qualities, allows her to singlehandedly preserve her chastity. This conventional view of feminine virtue is made progressive by the heroine’s intelligence.

    Most virtuous female characters would have either had to rely on the protection of men, or have suffered the fate of the mule-driver’s wife: death rather than disgrace. The boatwoman’s intelligence gives her power. The second advantage of intelligence has a much more shocking example: that of Story 8, Day 1. In this tale, the “upright and virtuous wife” of a man named Bornet learns that her husband and his friend are sharing a plot to sleep with her maid-servant.

    Rather than simply prevent this from happening, the wife substitutes herself for the servant, “not in the manner of a wife, but after the fashion of a frightened maid. This she did so well that her husband suspected nothing. “6 When the friend’s turn comes, he takes her ring as a keepsake, and the ring alerts the husband to the deception. The cuckoldry is considered just recompense for his wrongs, while the (adulterous! ) wife is still considered virtuous enough to give her usband a lofty lecture on marital faithfulness. Here, the wife’s cleverness gives her astonishing power over her husband, and because she uses it to avenge his straying eye, it renders her own actions blameless. Surely, without the supplementary virtue of intelligence, this wife would not have any virtue left at all according to the standards of the time. Intelligence may not yet be enough of a virtue to create a virtuous woman in the world of the Heptameron, but like a virtue it already covers a multitude of sins.

    The fact that these tales and those like them are intermixed with less pro-woman stories of vulgar or stupid women does not render them any less of a defense of women’s virtue and intelligence; rather, it is only a consequence of Mme. de Navarre’s intention to create a wholly realistic environment. In order to depict the diverse group storytellers recounting their various views on “the ill-turns which have been done by Women to Men and by Men to Women,” she had to give both sides equal voice, as would only be natural in a two-sided exchange.

    The presence of the stories praising intelligence in women remains significant and a mark of progress. But although these heroines’ intelligence is undoubtedly a benefit to them and an estimable attribute of their characters, it does not afford them the full dignity of a true virtue. It enables escape by deception and revenge by trickery; it serves as a plot device; it provides humor. It is wit or cleverness, rather than wisdom or genius; and unlike chastity, it is not sacred or worth dying for. Intelligence as a genuine virtue would have to wait for later works of the querelle des femmes.

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    Cleverness: Woman and Virtue. (2018, Apr 12). Retrieved from

    Cleverness: Woman and Virtue

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