Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Monday, June 1, 2015

Marguerite Porete: Mystic, Writer, Martyr

Marguerite Porete (executed 1 June 1310)


About Marguerite Porete, theologian and historian Bernard McGinn writes, "No medieval woman mystic challenged her contemporaries--and still challenges us--more than the northern French beguine Marguerite Porete," whose "bold and uncompromising spirituality led to her execution as a heretic on June 1, 1310."

From a late-fifteenth or early-sixteenth manuscript copy
of The Mirror for Simple Souls
We know about the end of Porete's life because records of the heresy trial that condemned her to death survive, but about her origins there is much less that is certain. Even her name depends on the testimony of those who condemned her--as her sentence was read out by one of her Dominican inquisitors before she was released to the secular authorities to carry out her execution, he named her as Marguerite, "called Porete." She was also said to have been born in Hainaut, in northern France, but none of the surviving evidence gave any indication about her date of birth or her family connections.

Marguerite Porete had been imprisoned in Paris for a year and a half. She had refused to speak to her inquisitors, she had refused to recant her beliefs, and she had refused to acknowledge a previous order, issued in 1306, that had required her to withdraw her book, The Mirror of Simple Souls. 

Like two women we have already met in our posts for this year, Marie of Oignies and Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite seems to have been a part of the beguine movement--some beguines lived solitary lives, while others joined together into loosely organized religious communities of women who lived lives of poverty, chastity, and service, but who were not members of formally recognized religious orders. Marguerite refers to herself at one point as "formerly a mendicant creature," so she may have lived outside of any beguine community.

Exactly why Porete's work brought her to the attention of the authorities isn't at all clear--after the 1306 order that her book be burned, she had sent her book to three noted theologians who had verified the orthodoxy of her views in The Mirror of Simple Souls. As she asserts in the prologue to her work, "It has already been read and approved by three men of learning and holiness": a Franciscan friar, a Cistercian monk, and a theologian from the University of Paris. She names them, quotes from their judgments of her work, and adds, "I obtained these approbations for you, readers, for your peace of mind."

But these endorsements were clearly not enough. The way of life practiced by the beguines--their asceticism, their refusal to marry, their independence, their traveling, their insistence on preaching and teaching--had always generated suspicion. Most significantly, whether they chose an itinerant, solitary life or a life among other like-minded women in communities, they had avoided all of the male hierarchical strictures of medieval society. In 1215 and again in 1274, church councils had banned new religious orders for women, and by 1311, the Council of Varenne specifically condemned the beguines and other heresies, its bull Ad nostrum including articles drawn directly from Porete's work.

In her brief essay on Porete, written for The Guardian, theologian Tina Beattie observes that "It is not easy to establish exactly why Porete was condemned as a heretic":
The Mirror of Simple Souls, written in a vivid literary style in Old French, is a dialogue among the allegorical figures of Love, Reason and the Soul. The main challenge it poses to Catholic orthodoxy is in its claim that there is a state of mystical union in which the will completely loses itself in God so that it becomes undifferentiated and one with the divine. . . .
The fact that The Mirror of Simple Souls was written in the vernacular rather than Latin and had a popular following may have created suspicion among religious authorities. When in the 12th century theological education shifted to the universities from monasteries and abbeys (including some which had been presided over by powerful abbesses), Latin became the language of a male theological elite, but female mystics and vernacular theologians such as Porete claimed direct authority from God for their religious experiences and insights. It is easy to see how such claims threatened those who sought to maintain control of church teaching and doctrine by circumscribing the conditions under which a theologian could speak or write authoritatively.
When Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake, her book was burned with her. But, as McGinn notes, The Mirror of Simple Souls survived the conflagration--"no fewer than six versions in four languages with thirteen manuscripts" preserved Porete's words, "making it among the more widely disseminated of the vernacular mystical texts of the Middle Ages."

La Place de Grève, site of Marguerite Porete's execution,
from a map of 1572
While the text survived, Porete's authorship did not--her identity as author was suppressed, and the work circulated anonymously. In fact, Porete's authorship of The Mirror of Simple Souls was only reestablished in 1946 by Romana Guarnieri, a scholar of medieval spirituality (and, I might point out, a woman). Before Guarnieri's identification of the text's author as Marguerite Porete, scholars had assumed the author to be male--and one translator even identified the author as a theologian from the University of Paris!

In ending her essay on Marguerite Porete, Beattie recalls the words of Mechthild of Magdeburg: "No one can burn the truth." Here's the quotation, from The Flowing Light of the Godhead--it sounds remarkably prescient:
I was warned about this book, and people told me that if it were not protected, it could be thrown on the fire. Then I did as I have done since I was a child: whenever I was distressed, then I had to pray. . . . Then God himself at once to my sorrowful soul and held this book in his right hand and said: My love, do not be too distressed, no one may burn the truth.
For a great introduction to Marguerite Porete and her work, you can access Tina Beattie's essay by clicking here. There are several editions of The Mirror for Simple Souls, but I recommend the excellent edition by Ellen Babinsky, a volume in the Classics of Western Spirituality series.

Excellent analysis of The Mirror of Simple Souls is in The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism--1200-1350volume 2 of McGinn's monumental history of western mysticism. For an in-depth volume on Porete, her text, her trial, and condemnation, see Sean L. Field's The Beguine, the Angel, and the Inquisitor: The Trials of Marguerite Porete and Guiard of Cressonessart.