Marguerite Porete was a French beguine who did not “behave herself” and thus made history. I mentioned her briefly in a previous post on Beguines for she is one of the more well known figures from that women’s movement. Her life tragically ended by fire as she was burned at the stake in Paris on account of her writings in 1310. She wrote in the vernacular (Old French), the language of the people, differing from church protocol. But Porete’s writing was for the people, not just the spiritual elite. She is best known for her book The Mirror of Simple Souls, first translated from Old French into English in 1993. After reading The Mirror it is hard for me to understand why her beliefs were so offensive to the Church. Her rejection of church hierarchy was threatening to those in power and her mystical language of self-anihilation is hard to grasp. But, was it necessary for her to die on account of her views? Marguerite had several things going against her: she was a woman (a smart woman at that), she was an outspoken woman, and she was a Beguine (a group constantly accused of promiscuity on account of working alongside men – see previous post on Beguines).
She refused to comply to the demand to stop circulating her writings because she believed that she was inspired by God. Fortunately, written accounts of her trial and the trial of her defender Guiard (a beghard) still exist scripted by William of Nogales and William of Plaisians. Both Marguerite and Guiard were imprisoned for a year and half while the officials figured out what to do with them. Twenty-one theologians (a significant amount at the time) gathered together to discuss Marguerite’s teachings and passed judgement on her book even though it had been approved by three doctors of the church before it was condemned. Throughout the trial she remained silent which only instigated those against her more.
So what was The Mirror of Simple Souls about?
The Mirror is a spiritual handbook with the aim to help believers in their spiritual journey. It is structured around seven stages of ascent to union with God and written as a dialogue mostly between three characters: Love, Reason and the Soul. Humility is the ultimate ingredient to understanding the book: “This Soul is a student of Divinity, and she sits in the valley of Humility and on the plain of Truth, and rests on the mountain of Love” (The Mirror, 87). The Soul’s goal is to overcome Reason with Love by giving up the Self which will lead to true freedom in God. She taught that self-annihilation (think Gal. 2:20, “its no longer I who live”) allows for a person to truly love God and others. But Reason cannot comprehend this and exclaims, “Ah, for God’s sake, Love, says Reason, what does this mean, what you have said?” (The Mirror, 85). Remember that she lived at the height of Medieval Scholasticism, an academic movement in European universities that very much valued linear reason in theology. Women were not allowed to study at these universities. Reason also had masculine connotations in Medieval thought: men were rational (and active) whereas women were irrational (and passive). Could her comments, then, that reason must be obliterated have gendered connotations as well? Marguerite believed that the Church at the time was corrupt and did not serve the people as guides. She wanted to help fulfill the people’s spiritual needs and believed that her book could do so. The leaders of the Church felt threatened by her teachings for she ultimately was saying that the people didn’t need the Church or the sacraments or indulgences or a mediator to attain unity with God. All they needed was the practice of unknowing and emptying oneself in order to be filled by God. Her argument at times is hard to understand and even “the masters of Scripture” found it difficult to comprehend. For example she states,
O Holy Church, says the Holy Spirit, do you wish to know what this Soul knows and what she wills? I will tell you, says the Holy Spirit, what she wills. This Soul knows only one thing, that is, she knows nothing. And so she wills only one thing, that is, she wills nothing. This knowing-nothing and this willing-nothing give her everything, says the Holy Spirit, and allow her to find the secret and hidden treasure which is enclosed in the Trinity forever (The Mirror, 121).
She ends her book with poetic and beautiful songs. Fearlessly she lists out all of those who are against her:
O my Lover, what will Beguines say
and religious types,
When they hear the excellence
of your divine song?
Beguines say I err,
priests, clerics, and Preachers,
and the Friars Minor,
Because I wrote about the being
of the one purified by Love.
I do not make Reason safe for them,
who makes them say this to me.
Desire, Will, and Fear
surely take from them the understanding,
The out-flowing, and the union
of the highest Light
Of the ardor
of divine love (The Mirror, 201).
Amy Hollywood beautifully surmises how Marguerite can challenge us today despite being hard to understand and at times foreign:
Marguerite, then, demands a different form of engagement—one in which my most unquestioned presumptions are, in fact, questioned . . . The world is full of others—living others—who challenge me more immediately, and to whose challenge I must respond with a willingness to hear what is different in their beliefs, their words, and their actions, even if those differences call into question the things I most deeply hold and am. The goal is not agreement, consensus, or the discovery of common ground. The goal is to try to hear what I cannot assimilate. And yet the force of the injunction rests, paradoxically, on my own values. Marguerite’s allegiance to Love leads her to annihilate Love. Perhaps my allegiance to critique demands a similar annihilation of rational criticism . . . Am I ready to follow Marguerite, even if not quite in the way she may have intended? (Amy Hollywood, Acute Melancholia, 145).
Porete, Marguerite. The Mirror of Simple Souls. Translated by Ellen L. Babinsky. New York: Paulist Press, 1993.
Hollywood, Amy. Acute Melancholia and Other Essays. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.