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...
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