Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Blessed Marie of Oignies

Marie of Oignies (1 May 1240)


First, a word about why Marie of Oignies is the topic of today's post. Most of what we know about this remarkable religious woman comes to us from a biography written by the theologian Jacques de Vitry--whose death occurred on 1 May 1240. And so today, on the anniversary of Jacques de Vitry's death, I'm writing about Marie of Oignies.

To write about Marie of Oignies on the anniversary of Jacque de Vitry's death is fitting, I think, because despite her undoubted influence on many religious women who followed, we don't have any information about Marie's family, or about her life, or about her religious experiences, except the details and interpretations that come to us through Jacques de Vitry. And his biographical work, Vita Mariae Oignacensis, was not written for the many laywomen who found inspiration in her life or who would seek to follow her model. In fact, I've preserved its Latin title here because the work was directed to (and written for) educated religious men so that they could use the details of her life in their own teaching.  

A bust representing Marie of Oignies
And so, according to Jacques de Vitry's account of her life, Marie was probably born in 1176 or 1177, the daughter of a wealthy family from Nivelles, Belgium. Although she rejected the luxuries of life that her parents provided her and desired a life of poverty, expressing her wish to become a nun, her parents arranged for her marriage when she was fourteen (if she was born in 1176/77, that would date her marriage to 1190/91). 

But, at least according to Jacques de Vitry's version of Marie's life, the new bride managed to persuade her new husband to take vows of chastity and poverty with her, and the two moved to a leper hospital in Willambroux, where they devoted themselves to lives of service, used their own money to support the work of the hospital, and earned the criticism of their respective families.

By 1207, Marie de Oignies left her husband and Willambroux, with his approval and consent, for a cell at the Augustinian priory of St. Nicholas at Oignies. There, although not having taken the vows of a nun belonging to any religious order, she lived a life of prayer and poverty. Nevertheless, despite her withdrawal from the world, she earned a reputation in the world for her powers of healing and her extraordinary visionary experiences. 

Perhaps drawn by Marie's reputation, Jacques de Vitry became a canon at the priory in 1209. He was ordained in 1210, probably as a result of Marie's influence, and, more important, became her confessor. He remained with her until her death in 1213, and he composed his Life of Marie Oignies two years later. 

Jacques de Vitry's account of Marie of Oignies was part of a larger project, his Liber de mulieribus Leodiensibus, (Book of the Women of Li├Ęge), which Annette Esser describes as "a propaganda effort to gain official ecclesiastical recognition for . . . the Flemish Beguines."*

Marie's religious dedication, as described by Jacques de Vitry, is witnessed by two key elements: her extreme asceticism (her early death is almost certainly due to her extended periods of self-starvation) and her extraordinary visionary experiences. In her discussion of Marie of Oignies, Esser notes four key visions: "the vision of fiery excess," which occurs right after Marie's marriage; her vision of the life of Christ, which is accompanied by what Jacques de Vitry describes as a "flood of tears"; her "ecstatic vision" of "self-stigmatization," a vision that results in her using a knife to cut out a chunk of her own flesh; and her "vision of hands from purgatory," the result of fasting and endless work, in which she sees and experiences the suffering of souls in Purgatory.

Marie's life--and, in particular, her visionary experiences and her extremes of self-deprivation--would offer inspiration to and become a model for many women who did not have the social status, wealth, or education that would allow them to take up a religious life in a convent.

The interior courtyard of the abbey of St. Nicholas, Oignies,
where relics of Marie of Oignies are preserved

Marie of Oignies died in 1213 and was beatified by the Catholic Church, her feast day celebrated on 23 June. Some sources list 23 June as the day of her death, but I can find no documentation for that information.

There are several affordable paperback editions of the Life of Marie de Oignies. For an introduction to a range of medieval women mystics, I recommend Elizabeth Petroff's Medieval Women's Visionary Literature and her Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism. Annette Esser's essay on Marie of Oignies is in Women Christian Mystics Speak to Our Time, ed. David Brian Perrin.

In her extreme fasting, Marie of Oignies precedes Catherine of Siena, whom we discussed two days ago, by more than a century. Two works I suggested there, Rudolph Bell's 1985 Holy Anorexia and Caroline Walker Bynum's 1988 classicHoly Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, are equally relevant here.

*Although there is a great deal of uncertainty about the origins of the word beguine, this lay religious movement became very important through the sixteenth century, especially, though not exclusively, in northern Europe. Beguines were not members of an established religious order (like the Benedictines or Franciscans, for example), but, following the model of a woman like Marie of Oignies, they lived individual or communal lives in imitation of Christ's, lives of poverty, chastity, self-denial, and service to the poor and the ill. (It is sometimes said the Marie of Oignies is the first beguine. In her 1986 women's history classic, A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life, Margaret Wade Labarge calls Marie of Oignies "the mother of the beguine movement." )