In the Footsteps of Marguerite Porete

Many books on Christian or non-Christian mystics never mention Marguerite Porete.

Many books on the Inquisition never mention her.

But in both cases there are notable exceptions.

One history of the Inquisition notes that:

. . . There was, in reality, little heresy in northern France, and the Dominicans, to whom the scouring of heretics in the country was entrusted, had not a great deal to do. Their labours, however, received the whole-hearted support of King Louis IX of France, who liberally supplied them with money; their tribunal was well organized, the officers vigilant. The first auto-da-fé recorded to have taken place in Paris occurred in May, 1310, when a woman called Marguerite la Porète was the principal victim. She had written a book, the thesis of which was that the sanctified soul could without sin satisfy all the carvings of the flesh. Her followers would appear to have been the chief prey of French inquisitors in the latter part of the century. [pp. 57-58 of "The Inquisition," Brenda Stalcup, Ed., Greenhaven Press, San Diego, 2001]

The Brethren of the Free Spirit were the fuel for the auto-da-fés of the inquisition later that century. It is their doctrine that is characterized in the paragraph cited above. Was she really a Free Spirit, a leader with followers even? She certainly was accused of being just that. Ecclesiastical scholars, of the University of Paris, found her book to exhibit the traits of a Free Spirit tract. She was formally indicated to be a Beguine, and found guilty of being a relapsed heretic.

Beguines were, apparently, sometimes beguiled by Free Spirit ideas and surreptitiously became believers, and perhaps practitioners, of the acts and activities allowed by the new freedom thus claimed. A good description of this relationship between the Free Spirits and Beguines is found in an article on "Enthusiasm" by Brian R. Wilson which says in part that:

. . . The adapts of the Free Spirit in the Middle Ages claimed perfection because they possessed the Holy Spirit, and this freed them from normal restraints and conventions. . . . They could say with St. Paul -although such movements found little need for justification from scripture- 'Unto the pure, all things are pure.' They held that God was in all their acts, even in those that men called sin, and some of them maintained that it was thus lawful for them, according to the higher law that applied to them, to do things forbidden to others.

The particular conduct that the Brethren of the Free Spirit condoned by reference to their spiritual state was free sexual relations. They maintained that they could not sin by having sexual relations with any person, even including members of their own families. How widely such conduct was engaged in is of course difficult to assess, but in the 14th century the teachings of the Free Spirit were espoused in many parts of Europe, sometimes accompanied by licentious conduct. Some undisciplined companies of roving bands of mendicants known as Beghards espoused the teaching and recruited religious lay-women, including some who became known as 'Beguines', to the doctrine and its mysteries.

The advocates of the doctrine maintained that a man who knew he possessed the Spirit was already in heaven: hell was to be ignorant of one's own divinity. . . . [in "Man, Myth & Magic, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mythology, Religion and the Unknown," Richard Cavendish, Ed., Marshall Cavendish, New York, 198x]

[Aside: The article from which the above citation is taken continues right into modern times, noting the heresy found roots among Christians in many times and places and continues still. I did not realize that there was an element in early American Methodism and Presbyterianism that partook of the Free Spirit legacy in its conviction that humans could be perfected, in the practice of a 'second blessing' that bestowed a higher state of holiness, and in the allowance of a nebulous system of sexual relations called 'spiritual wifery' which in turn inspired such experiments as the Oneida Community and the Shakers with their experiments in controlled promiscuity. He forgets to mention the Mormons as the third group in the same general area, under these same influences, implementing a version of all of the above, one that was quickly organized so as to become workable, and thus endured.]

Picturing Marguerite as a dupe swept off her feet by a mendicant Free Spirit would be wrong. Instead she is thought to be a spiritual leader of the movement! But I don't agree, neither do many scholars now, instead they see here as a peculiarly committed believer in and illustrator of a doctrine that was thought very well of within the Catholic community, even then.

She writes in ways that illustrate and amplify the mystical philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite who lived around 500 A.D. His treatises were presented as if from the hand of the person by this name mentioned in Acts 17:34, and thus the writings were

. . . accepted as both apostolic and orthodox, and assumed nearly canonical status and authority in Eastern and Western Christendom. [in article "Dionysius the Areopagite" by Donald Duclow in "The Encyclopedia of Religion," Volume 4, Mircea Eliade, Ed., Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1986]

Duclow makes clear that this apostolic status was questioned, and in the late 19th century it was decisively shown to have dependencies on 5th century writings by philosophers such as Proclus. So if our Marguerite studied these writings with reverence and belief in the early 14th century, she was doing something very orthodox.

Dionysian writings include treatises on Divine Names, the Celestial Hierarchy, and Mystical Theology. In these works, Dionysius lays the groundwork and structure upon and within which much of Medieval Christian mystical revelation can be understood. Duclow traces the affirmative and the negative theology in the Dionysian writings, and it is only the mystical experience of unity that reconciles the paradox presented by those two aspects of his theological construct. I will take several statements from Duclow out of context to make points relevant to understanding Marguerite:

. . . In itself the divine nature is beyond being . . ., yet God becomes manifest in all being as its cause. God is both utterly transcendent and present in all things. This paradox underlies Dionysius' affirmative and negative theology. Affirmative theology . . . traces the causal procession from God's unity, through the divine ideas, or forms, to celestial hierarchy and thence to the sensible world; . . . . Conversely, negative theology retraces the procession of beings in a return that moves from the sensible world, through the intelligences and forms, and to divine unity. . . .

. . . Dionysius . . . denies that God can be named adequately even in negative terms. . . . In itself the divine nature remains . . . beyond all knowledge and speech. . . . For Dionysius, mystical theology is an austere, intellectual ascent to union with God, and because divinity is essentially unknowable, this union occurs in the cloud and darkness of unknowing. This assimilation to God also completes the task of hierarchy. It is the perfection that the intellect seeks in symbols, sacraments, and intelligible divine names. Yet mystical theology accomplishes this ecstatically, by going out from intellect and hierarchy to their hidden source in the divine nature itself. In this way mystical theology completes the return to the God "beyond being."

I believe this Dionysian view of the limits of the intellect and its reasoning power, and the need to move those aside to learn of the divine, is what Marguerite was writing about in this excerpt from her book The Mirror of Simple Souls [as found on page 39 of "Radical Christian Writings, A Reader, Andrew Bradstock and Christopher Rowland, Eds., Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2002)]:

Theologians and other clerks,

You won't understand this book

-however bright your wits--

if you do not meet it humbly,

and in this way Love and Faith

make you surmount Reason:

they are the mistresses of Reason's house.

Reason herself proclaims to us

in the thirteenth chapter

of this book, unashamed,

that Love and Faith make her live:

she never frees herself from them -

they have sovereignty over her,

and she must do obeisance.

So bring low your sciences

Which are founded by Reason,

And put all your trust

In the science conferred by Love,

That are lit up by Faith -

And then you'll understand this book,

which by Love makes the soul live.

Needles to say this is a reason for me to sit up and take notice of Marguerite: she knew way back in 1306 what I came to appreciate in the mid-1990's, that intellect is not who we are, it is our tool. It is very important, but it is a tool we use to be effective in the world. But it is not, as Marguerite says here, a reliable guide to understanding transcendent realities, in fact it will vehemently deny their very existence! (Of course, this is mixing my own ideas with Marguerite's, which presumptuously assumes they are the same at their cores.)

In my opinion, one of the better accounts of what is known of Marguerite Porete's life and death is in pages 224 through 227 of "A History of Their Own, Women in Europe From Prehistory to the Present," Volume 1, Bonnie S. Anderson and Judith P. Zinsser, perennial Library, Harper and Rowe, New York, 1989. It is from that account that I am making up my itinerary of places to visit so that I can, to a very limited extent, walk in Marguerite's shoes.

Here, in abbreviated fashion, is what Anderson and Zinsser have to say about Marguerite and her times. They explain that with respect to the Beguines, during the later 13th and the 14th centuries:

Most townswomen and men acquiesced as churchmen made associations between the women of the pious communities and the most feared heretics of the day: the Beghards, adherents of doctrines identified by the Church as the heresy of the Free Spirit. (The concept of the Free Spirit came from mysticism, the moment of union with God that freed the soul from all concern for the material and left it filled with the deity. Once so filled, followers of the Free Spirit believed themselves unable to sin again and were thus without need of sacraments, priests, and Church.)

Having thus set the stage, Anderson and Zinsser introduce Marguerite as a woman doing all the things the Church feared: she lived outside its regulated orders, and she wrote and preached a doctrine that, on examination, the Church condemned as showing it to be of the Free Spirit persuasion. She preached in Tournai (now in Belgium, then part of France, in fact, the capital of France before Paris was selected for the job), in Valenciennes, Cambrai, and Châlons-sur-Marne (now Châlons-en-Champagne). Her life ended in the fires of the Inquisition in Paris.

Her book was burnt publicly in Valenciennes, and apparently she indicated some degree of renunciation when she was confronted with the accusation of spreading false teachings. It is her then continuing to preach her doctrines that led to her death sentence (a la Joan of Arc a century later) because it made her a relapsed heretic.

She sent her book to the bishop of Châlons-sur-Marne (now -en-Champagne, southeast of Reims) and other theologians. This, to me, shows she was hoping that some other doctor of the Church would see her work as orthodox, as orthodox perhaps as the work of Dionysius with which it has important points in common. If she was a Free Spirit, a heretic in her own heart, and felt her book was heretical, she would not do such a foolish thing as to spread it among the leaders of the Church. I think she was trying to get another professional opinion than that of the Bishop of Cambrai who came and burned her book in front of her at Valenciennes.

In Paris she was jailed for a year and a half, the University of Paris' theologians pored over extracts from her work and declared it heretical in 1310. Then she was tried, found to be a relapsed heretic, and burnt. Anderson and Zinsser make a very brief summary of the book she attempted to defend in her trial. They note the content of the excerpt cited above: not exactly something that her prosecutors would respond favorable to. Then they characterize her mystical theology in these words reminiscent of the Dionysian theology:

. . . Porete outlined the seven steps by which the soul could be led to union with God, to membership in this group of believers, and then to its ultimate goal, the rise into heaven. To achieve this union, Porete saw the soul as a passive agent, needing no rituals or good works, no intermediary, just the ability to surrender to the deity, "Love," as she called it. Once joined in a kind of mystical nihilism, the soul literally had no will, nothing but "the will of God, which cause her to will all that she should will" and thus be incapable of sin.

That is Free Spiritism except for this little wrinkle: if the will is completely surrendered to, and taken over by, God, then there can be no sin because all that is done is in the fulfillment of God's will. But is it ever God's will that one engages in the type of debauchery feared by the Church? Free Spirits would say yes, Marguerite does not say, and I believe she was wise enough to have seen that men easily confuse their own sexual desires with God's will.

Was she a celibate person? I have no opinion, and it is irrelevant. To me, she seems a very wise person, one who knows human nature well, and one who can see through bull whether in a Church's denunciation reflecting God's will or in a Free Spirit Brother's seduction speech claiming compliance with God's will. She does not seem like a likely victim of a holy seducer. As Anderson and Zinsser put it, she was not a woman easily cowed or swayed from what she believed:

. . . In the hands of hostile churchmen, Porete's reasoned piety, her logical, clear language devoid of the usual feminine disclaimers, her emphasis on a "religion of inwardness" suggested a faith without need of theologians and rituals.

There may be some imagining in that statement, since she refused to speak with her captors in Paris. It could be they are describing a pre-Paris confrontation, however.

Her faith was her own, independent of the trappings and employees of the Church. Similarly I would venture that her faith also didn't need the permission or guidance of some mendicant Free Spirit brother claiming authority of any sort. In my imagination I see her in town squares proclaiming an astonishing freedom to be available to her hearers: fear and guilt were used to control them, she was setting them free from both through union with God, living in a state of Love that casts out fear.

An excerpt from her book that is available on the Internet gives me assurance that her bent was not towards the excesses of the Free Spirits. On the web page http://www.tl.infi.net/~ddisse/porete.html (Accessed 9/30/2003) is this quite from chapter 13 of a translation in "The Mirror of Simple Souls, Marguerite Porete" by Edmund Colledge, J.C. Marler and Judith Grant, University of Notre Dame Press, 1999]:

. . . And therefore the Soul set Free has no will at all to will or not to will, except only to will the will o God, and to submit in peace to the divine command.

But as the same page goes on to illustrate with further citations, it is not the churchmen who are the voice of God's will, they are under the control of reason and do not know love, yet they will still be saved in paradise because that is Love's (God's) will. Love is apparently not the judgmental thing we make it out to be.

Her sentence was pronounced 31 May 1310, with the theologians handing her over to the civil authority then with a recommendation for a quick death, meaning a death not delayed by torture. Her book was to be burned on the same pyre.

The very next day she was publicly burned on the place de Greve, which was then a field in front of the Hotel de Ville (city hall). Now it is a paved square.

Her inquisitors/accusers did their reading of her work in the church of Saint Mathurin, in the 5th district of Paris, at number 7, Cluny street. There is now an alcove marking the spot. At that time it was the headquarters for the University of Paris.

A very kind and thoughtful author, Ursula King, actually included Marguerite Porete among her collection of stories of "Christian Mystics, Their Lives and Legacies throughout the Ages," [HiddenSpring, X, 2001?]. I found this courageous since she is typically not mentioned except in books on heresy. King notes on page 102 that as Marguerite was killed, the crowd "took her side." A chronicler's account of this day is available in English on the web site giving primary document translations at http://www.uncg.edu/~rebarton/margporete.htm. The chronicler says:

She displayed many signs of penitence, both noble and pious, in her death. For this reason the faces of many of those who witnessed it were affectionately moved to compassion for her; indeed the eyes of many were filled with tears.

King goes on to observe that Marguerite's book became popular and enjoyed great success after her death especially among the residents of women's convents. The inquisition tried to suppress it but failed. In fact, King explains, the book received praise from a high-ranking noble woman a century after it was condemned:

A hundred years after its condemnation, the Mirror of Simple Souls found a famous supporter in the person of Marguerite of Navarre, the only sister of Francis I, who was friendly with the nuns at the Madeleine Convent of Orleans, where the original version of the Mirror, in old French, was kept. Later in her life, Marguerite of Navarre mentions the Mirror in her own writing as one of the books "which follow unconditionally the intention of the Sacred Bible." She says about Marguerite Porete, its author: "Oh, how attentive this woman was to receive that love which burned in her own heart and those to which she spoke! Well she knew by her subtle spirit the true friend whom she named Noble."

King describes Porete's work, in style and content, and makes the point that

Marguerite's work is not based on visions, like Hildegard's or Mechthild's [other mystics discussed in her book as well as on this web site] but it is presented as an inner dialogue of the soul who, after the practice of asceticism and her obedience to the commandments, completely and utterly abandons herself to the will of God and has no more will of her own. Central is the theme of liberation, of abandonment and "annihilation" of the soul, who stands in complete "nakedness" before God. Such "simple, annihilated souls" only "dwell in the will and desire of love," as the full title of her book proclaims. And God is this love that meets all desires and gives all joys. Abandoning herself, the soul has no more will and desire except that of God. She has lost her individual identity like a river that has emptied itself into the sea.

Marguerite Porete's The Mirror of Simple Souls is not one of my favorites. Really. Hers is a carefully written story, not reflecting an ecstatic state of being, as King noted. But her core beliefs I find very agreeable to my intuitive side, setting my intellect aside to keep it sounding as asinine as Reason sounds in its complaints to Love in Marguerite's book.

But my favorite expression of these very same ideas are ones I frequently quote with very little provocation, dictated first through the mouth of Sister Catherine, or Katrei, and then through the Muslim/Sufi mystic Rumi. Katrei dwells on the inability of words and symbols to describe and contain God, while Rumi talks of the river and the sea allegory mentioned by King:

She said: "I had concentrated all the faculties of my soul. When I looked into myself, I saw God in myself and everything God ever created in heaven and on earth....

I have nothing to do with angels or saints or anything that was ever created. More: I have nothing to do with anything that has ever become word.... I am confirmed in naked divinity, in which never image nor form existed....

I am where I was before I was created; where there is only bare God in God. In that place there are no angels or saints or choirs or heaven. Many people tell of eight heavens and nine choirs; where I am that is not.

You should know that all that is put into words and presented to people with images is nothing but a stimulus to God.

Know that in God there is nothing but God. Know that no soul can enter into God unless it first becomes God just as it was before it was created.

"You should know, that whoever contents himself with what can be put into words--God is a word, the kingdom of heaven is also a word--whoever does not want to go further with the faculties of the soul, with knowledge and love, than ever became word, ought rightfully to be called an unbeliever.

What can be put into words is grasped with the lower senses or faculties of the soul, but the higher faculties of the soul are not content with this; they press on, further and further, until they come before the source from which the soul flowed....

"You must understand this thus: The soul is naked and bare of all things that bear names. So it stands, as one, in the One, so that it has a progression in naked divinity.... So you should know that as long as the good person lives in time, his soul has a constant progression in eternity. That is why good people cherish life. [Buber, Martin, "Ecstatic Confessions," (San Francisco, Harper and Row Publishers, l985) Edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr, Translated by Esther Cameron, pp. 155-156.]

[The above quote I took from one of my more popular text pages on this web site, one that goes on page after page after page, and ends with the fiery death of Marguerite Porete as an evil portent of what is to come later: the witch craze. Click here to go there.]

My favorite Rumi quote also fits right in with the inner experience of God that Marguerite and Katrei both write about, using different styles of literary composure. [It is also part of a larger Rumi discussion on this web site, click here to go there.]

A Garden Beyond Paradise [title given by translators]:

Everything you see has its roots in the Unseen world.

The forms may change,

yet the essence remains the same.

Every wondrous sight will vanish,

Every sweet word will fade.

But do not be disheartened,

The Source they come from is eternal -

Growing, branching out, giving new life and new joy.

Why do you weep? -

That Source is within you,

And this whole world

is springing up from it.

The Source is full,

Its waters are ever-flowing;

Do not grieve, drink your fill!

Don't think it will ever run dry -

This is the endless Ocean!

From the moment you came into this world

A ladder was placed in front of you that you might escape.

From earth you became plant,

From plant you became animal.

Afterwards you became a human being,

Endowed with knowledge, intellect, and faith.

Behold the body, born of dust - how perfect it has become!

Why should you fear its end?

When were you ever made less by dying?

When you pass beyond this human form,

No doubt you will become an angel

And soar through the heavens!

But don't stop there.

Even heavenly bodies grow old.

Pass again from the heavenly realm

and plunge into the vast ocean of Consciousness.

Let the drop of water that is in you become a hundred mighty seas.

But do not think that the drop alone

Becomes the Ocean -

the Ocean, too, becomes the drop!


[Jonathan Star and Shahram Shiva, "A Garden Beyond Paradise, The Mystical Poetry of Rumi" (Bantam Books, New York, 1992), pp. 148-149]


So, Marguerite was right at home among these contemporary, but celebrated rather than condemned, mystics. In fact they touch on truth at a level so deep that it could form the basis for an ecumenical understanding across almost all religious boundaries.


Now you know about Marguerite Porete, and why she matters. Even now.


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