ANOTHER LOOK AT THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MARGUERITE
To start this wider historical review to build a context for Marguerite's life, I will begin with this one book and then move through several others before I am done (each title reviewed will be underlined once, at first citation). At the very end I will also have a short discussion of all of the diferent heresies mentioned throughout these historical discussions:
Meister Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher, Edited by Bernard McGinn (Paulist press, New York, 1986).
In McGinn's "Introduction," on page 10, McGin says that a treatise mistakenly thought to have been Eckhart's was "Schwester Katrei" or "Sister Catherine." It has been called "a heretical work belonging to the so-called Brethren of the Free Spirit." On pages 10 and 11 he cites several who have called it so, but then argues that
The traditional picture of the Free Spirit movement has been challenged by Robert E. Lerner in his important book The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages (Berkely: University of California Press, 1972). Here Lerner subjects "Sister Catherine" to a careful analysis that demonstrates that the work contains no antinomianism, and even steers clear of the pasivity or "Quietism" that marks such other Free Spirit texts as Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls, but he admits that the sister's claim of permanent unqualified union with God goes beyond the boundaries of traditional orthodox mysticism.
McGinn then goes on to say that there was much worry over "false mystical teaching" at this time, and mentions several parties who were worried over this issue, including mystics themselves, and cites some of the content of the "Sister Catherine" treatise as attempts to forestall criticism. Among those mystics mentioned who criticized the work of other claimants to mysticism were Jan van Ruusbroec, to whom we will return in another review.
But the main point I wanted to draw from these two pages is that he compares "Sister Catherine" to The Mirror of Simple Souls and finds the former orthodox and the later not. Interesting. I cite my favorite part of the "Sister Catherine" treatise in my first look at Marguerite's history.
McGinn returns to this theme a few pages later, on pages 13 and 14, where, adopting the Catherine treatise's claim of the author being a "daughter" (meaning a disciple) of Eckhart he observes:
The daughter's attitude toward the church and the traditional means of salvation is considerably more orthodox than another text that has been used as evidence of the Free Spirit, Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls. It is the confessor, rather than she, who criticizes the friars for not living up to the example set by St. Dominic and St. Francis, complaints that were quite common in the fourteenth century. At the moment of her establishment in union she is quick to insist,"I have attained by grace what Christ is by nature," a point also stressed by Eckhart. Like Eckhart's followers Suso and Tauler, a strong Christocentric and not merely "Logo centric" emphais is found in the treatise. There is also some attention given to the role of Christ in the Eucharist, a characteristic theme of Beguine piety. Finally, we have already remarked on how the anonymous author, like other early disciples of Eckhart, took pains to condemn as "true heretics" those who have false notions of union and who "engage in sinful behavior . . . because they do not take sin for sin."
To be fair, McGinn then goes on to say the treatise also had its problems, as did the writings of Eckhart himself. Problematic ideas that were also Eckhart's ideas included:
The virtual existence of all things in God, the identity of the highest powers of the soul with the Godhead, the dynamic process of "flowing out" and return, the notion of union without medium, and many others . . .
There were other ideas that are not Eckhart's in the treatise. These are called Neoplatonic by McGinn, and include the ideas that hell is a state of mind and that there is no bodily resurrection. No wonder I love the "Sister Catherine" tract!
Perhaps this is a good time do update the status of Meister Eckhart's orthodoxy or lack thereof. According to the November 2003 content of the homepage of "The Eckhart Society," the popular Dominican teacher was accused of heresy in his own lifetime. After his death some of his works were officially condemned. However, in the 1980's the Dominican Order set in motion an effort to get a modern Pope to commend Eckhart's work to believers. Though that effort is still in process, a notable event occurred in 1985 when Pope John Paul II quoted Eckhart (see for yourself at http://www.op.org/eckhart/meister.htm):
Did not Eckhart teach his disciples: "All that God asks you most pressingly is to go out of yourself - and let God be God in you"? One could think that, in separating himself from creatures, the mystic leaves his brothers, humanity, behind. The same Eckhart affirms that, on the contrary, the mystic is marvelously present to them on the only level where he can tuly reach them, that is in God.
So the current Pope cites Eckhart in a positive way, to teach from him that mystics are to be present to humanity, not withdrawn from it, addressing the "Quetist" controversy of the fourteenth century, apparently the tendency to "Quietism" is still current today. It is a lot easier, I believe, to contemplate alone than to effectively minister to real live persons with shortcomings and problems.
But before we leave Meister Eckhart, let us stay with McGinn to learn of Eckhart's connection with Marguerite Porete's work. This time we will quote from McGinn's The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart, The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing (A Herder and Herder Book, Crossroad, New York, 2001). On pages 9 and 10 of that book McGinn observes about Eckhart's views on the "mystical currents of his time, especially those pioneered by women" that:
His attitudes toward many of the ideas put forth by beguines and others, especially their emhasis on visionary experiences, was designed to serve as what might be called a critical correlation of some of the exaggerations he noted in contemporary mysticism. In addition, some of his later vernacular sermons can be viewed as critiques of the tendencies condemned by the Council of Vienne in 1311 as evidence of the secta libertatis spiritus. But Eckhart learned much from the women mystics, especially from Porete and probably also from Mechthild of Magdeburg, the German beguine whose visionary collection The Flowering Light of the Godhead was compsed with the assistance of her Dominican confessor, Henry of Halle. Furthermore, even when he was in disagreement with these mystics, Eckhart was far from an inquisitor. The purpose of his preaching was not to recriminate and condemn but to invite believers, even those who might be in error, to come to a deeper and more authentic realization of their inner union with God.
This inner union with God idea is identical, in my estimation, to the same idea as it is found in his anonymous disciple's treatise "Sister Catherine." On page 147 McGinn explains this idea in language that includes this very pointed statement from Eckhart:
"Between man and God there is not only no distinction, there is no multiplicity either-there is nothing but one." Eckhart was uncompromising in his insistence that union with God was absolute and total identity, without medium of any kind.
On a previous page (page 62 in fact) McGinn observes that although Eckhart echoes some of the language and concepts of Porete's, Eckhart is unlikely to have actually known Margaret. In the opening page (page 1) of the book by Lerner previously referred to, Lerner says that Eckhart arrived in Paris in 1311 (since he was born about 20 years before Margaret, he was about 50 then). This was the year after Marguerite was burned, so the two likely never met.
Acording to Lerner, Eckhart became an "inmate" of the St. Jacques convent, where Berenger of Landora was a fellow "inmate." Berenger was one of the theologians who helped identify heresy in Marguerite's book. So, Lerner's speculation is that Berenger, or one of the others there familiar with Marguerite's work, may have made her book available to Eckhart. Lerner says this is all conjecture, what we know for sure is that approaching twenty years later, after a spirited defense of his work against heresy charges, Eckhart died and his work was posthumously honored with a papal bull listing twenty-eight heretical or suspect articles in his works. That is almost twice as many heresies as were were found in Marguerite's book!
Lerner has much of interest to say beyond his first page, but we are not quite done with McGinn yet. On page 62 he also suggests that Eckart's description of the union of God and soul is the same as Marguerite's, and on page 136 he cites others as suggesting that Eckhart's views on the annihilation of the will were very like Marguerite's. Likewise on page 144 he suggests that the two seemed to have identical views on the "perfection of virtue" meaning being "'free of virtue'." McGinn is quick to point out for both, however, that this did not mean the absence of virtue, but that virtues "are possessed in a higher way."
On several pages, (143 -144, 148, for example) McGinn shows Eckhart's use of the theologial ideas, and even the imagery, from Dionysius, whose writings were also used by Marguerite. This point is made quite pointedly on page 148 where the idea of "living without a why" as a prerequisite of accepting union with God is explained as being Dionysian and Poretean (to coin a new word), hence not invented by Eckhart. Yet Eckhart expanded the idea in detail, and proclaimed it with greater daring:
"God is indistinct," as he once said, "and the soul loves to be indistinguished, that is, to be and to become one with God."
McGinn essentially recapitulates these points of contact between Eckhart and Marguerite's work on page 181, where he makes sevral interesting observations:
For the context and intention of Eckhart's mystical preaching, we cannot afford to neglect the role of the Dominican nuns, pious beguines, and the literature produced by the impressive female theologians who graced the thirteenth century, such as Beatrice of Nazareth, Hadewijch, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and above all, Marguerite Porete. Even more than in the case of his relation to contemporary Dominican thinkers, however, this aspect of the search for Eckhart's sources is frought with difficulty. The Meister never directly quoted a woman, nor could he have been expected to. Careful research has proven, however, that Eckhart had read (or had read to him) Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls. Not only a number of shared themes (e.g., freedom from the virtues, living without a why, annihilation of the created will, indistinct union, etc.), but even the verbal expression of these dangerous teachings in Pr. 52 and elsewhere, indicate that this silent source had a real impact on Eckhart. [Note: Pr. 52 is a reference to one of Eckhart's treatises.]
This citation and observation brings in the way that the women mystics of Marguerite's time were seen by the Church, which was with caution and suspicion. This theme is discussed quite thoroughly in two books I also perused. The first is Maps of Flesh and Light, The Religious Experience of Medieval Women Mystics, Edited by Ulrike Wiethaus (Syracuse University Press, 1993), and the second is Women and Mystical Experience in the Middle Ages by Frances Beer (The Boydell press, 1992).
I read a lot more in these two books than I am going to discuss here, since I do want to remain somewhat focused on Marguerite. In the Wiethaus book, I found of particular interest the chapter by Jo Ann McNamara called "The Rhetoric of Orthodoxy, Clerical Authority and Female Innovation in the Struggle with Heresy." That chapter merely mentions Marguerite in an interesting context on pages 11 and 12 (a context I discuss at great length elsewhere on this website):
Women depended on the approval of the male clergy for survival, both physically and historically. Mechthild of Magdeburg complained to God that the same men who tried to have her books burned would gladly have paid honor to a priest given the same revelations. Marguerite de Porete actually was burned at the stake while her book, mistakenly attributed to a man, was approved as orthodox and widely circulated for several centuries. Women, publicly admired for their holiness, were often "exposed" as frauds or hertics. In 1180, a young girl was burned in Reims because her steadfast dedication to purity enabled her frustrated seducer to accuse her of the Cathar heresy. These punishments were unfortunate enough for the individuals involved but, because of the preconceptions supporting the gender system, the conviction of one woman inevitably reflected on all women.
The last statement reminds me of a definition I read somewhere of terrorism: the public abuse of the few as a warning to all others. The statement in the beginning, about Mechthild's observations of her society, is true enough. The statement regarding Marguerite's book being approved as orthodox because it was mistakenly attributed to a man struck me as totally bogus until I read more on its history in the definitive book on the subject by Lerner (see below).
Frances Beer, in his introduction as well as his main chapters, focuses on and analyzes the writings of Hildegard, Mechthild and Julian. Beer's discussion contains similar observations as given in Jo Ann McNamara's chapter in the Wiethaus book about the role of the clergy in protecting and preserving the women mystics, even joining them in coming to see the mysogyny in the institutions of their places and times. This protection failed in several cases, however, and Marguerite Porete and Joan of Arc are mentioned on page 13 as examples of the ecclesiastical establishment dealing "more harshly," and prescribing imprisonment, interrogation, torture (or at least the threat of torture), and death by fire.
Apparently, however, there was an intermediate case where the ecclesiastical establishment simply worked to erase a woman from history. She is discussed on pages 12 and 13. Bloemardinne of Brussels claimed mystical experience and taught in person and through writings. She was virulently attacked by a contemporary mystic, Jan van Ruysbroeck (spelled Ruusbroec in a previous reference). He wrote tracts against her and in return her followers (she was quite popular locally) wrote poems making fun of him, Ruysbroeck. The establishment, Ruysbroeck included, made a concerted effort to cause her works to disappear, and her only historian, of the same Augustianian order as Ruysbroeck, wrote about her almost a hundred years after her death (of natural causes) in 1335(?) in a most derogratory fashion to prove she was a lecherous Free Spirit who advocated free love. Beers says the facts in this 'history' are suspect, and perhaps . . .:
. . . perhaps she was an inspired teacher and mystic -threatening because of her poer and independence - who was wilfully misread, and subsequently consored, by certain of her contemporaries. Unfortunately it seems that we will never know.
This enigmatic statement led me, of course, to look into the biographies of Ruysbroeck, and see what they had to say about his dealings with Bloemardinne. My source was Ruysbroeck the Admirable by A. Wauter D'Aygalliers (Kennikat Press, Inc. Port Washington, NY, 1969).
D'Aygalliers is a great admirer of Ruysbroeck. In his chapter on Bleomardinne, appropriately entitled "Bloemardinne," he sets the stage in Brussels on pages 75-76:
. . . these were strangely troublous times. Social tendencies, repressions accompanied with bloodshed, and religious outbursts, kept Brussels in a state of continual excitement. The artisans' revolt, brutally starngled in 1306, had left behind in the heart of the conquered a tenacious hatred which took advantage of every opportunity of manifesting itself.
Large numbers of Beghards continually streamed from Germany into Belgium, carrying everywhere the germs of a pantheistic heresy. The people violently sided with these pious tramps who seemed to be the genuine representatives of the Gospel spirit.
No wonder, then, that we find, springing up with renewed vitality, subversive systems, which from the outset may be connected with Marguerite Porrette, whose ideas continued quietly to make headway. Heresy, generally kept in check within the human consciousness, periodically acquires an increase of expression: real outbursts are related to have taken place in 1307 and 1316, and again between 1330 and 1335. It is this latter manifestation that Pomerius alludes in chapter v. of his biography . . . .
So the author puts several things in perspective: religious unrest in Brussels at the time of Marguerite's active ministry. She had lived only a few hours to the southwest by horse and cart, and her teachings were still popular during a second such manifestation of unrest described by a man named Pomerius, who wrote about this calamitous time and its prime moving force, the heretic Bloemardinne who was set in her place by Ruysbroeck.
The author (D'Aygalliers) regrets that Pomerius' book is all we have to shed light on the light of the "prophetess" Bloemardinne. She had a following and some near miraculous stories were told about their being seraphim at her side when she took communion, etc. (Her emphasis on the communion makes it likely she was a Beguine, like Marguerite, but D'Aygalliers does not say this outright, others do).
She has been compared with, even confused with, two other prominent religious women of good reputation, but D'Aygalliers does not buy into any of these historical blind alleys, and makes a good case for Bloemardinne being her own person with her own writings and following. He does agree with the analyses of these historians showing that the doctrines of the three women (two revered, one declared a heretic) are strikingly similar (p. 77). He takes on the historians making these errors of identification in some detail and finally (p. 80) sighs that Pomerius (of the same Augustianin order as Ruysbroeck, but writing 75 years later) is the only source for her life.
Lerner, writing later than D'Aygalliers, on his pages 191-192, says that archival work in Brussels has now definitively identified Bloemardinne as Heylwig, a daughter of the noble family Bloemaert, who taught such similar things as Marguerite did that there is speculation they may have known each other. That the one was burned and the other taught openly sitting in a silver chair may be more reflective of their different stations in life, patrician versus peasant, than differences in their teachings. He is suspicious of the actual heresy in Bloemardinne's teachings since Pomerius claims that he is able to detect such heresy based on his "personal experience," but if it were not for his own learned background he would not have seen the heresy, since her writings "have such an aspect of truth and piety that no one could perceive in them any seed of heresy unless he receives help or special gifts from Him who teaches all truths."
Ruysbroeck, according to Lerner on page 193, said the same thing about false mystics (he never mentions Bloemardinne by name): "some are so subtle that they can only be detected with the aid of divine enlightenment." In other words it takes theological training, experience, and even new revelation to spot the heresy in this supposedly primary example of a Free Spirit!
It is interesting that D'Aygalliers says Bloemardinne represented an offshoot from the Free Spirit heresy (p. 80). In his polemics against her writings, Ruysbroeck never mentions Bloemardinne's name, not because he so vehemently disagreed with her, but for the same reason it would have been improper for Eckhart to name women whose books he read and whose ideas he adopted and adapted with admiration. But he does mention by name the free spirits (of the Free Spirit heresy).
On page 80, D'Aygalliers describes the times of Ruysbroeck and Bloemardinne:
In Brussels Ruysbroeck found himself at the very heart of the spiritual uprising that took place in Belgium during the whole of the fourteenth century. While still young, he witnessed religious disturbances, cause in the latter half of the reign of Jean II (1294-1312) by the masses being permeated with pantheistic ideas and by the more or less open opposition to the ecclesiastical authorities on the part of the Beghards, the Lollards and the beguines.
D'Aygalliers goes on to describe this uprising's most terrible and terrifying symptoms, bloody and cruel persecution of Jews whom the people blamed for all their troubles. He suggests that Ruysbroeck made the obvious connection between this horrific expression if brutality and the religious individualism of the Free Spirit-like heresies which did not call for any inner control or restraint in life. He continues to explain, on page 81, what observing this terrifying spectacle had to do with his virulent attacks on Bloemardinne:
. . . when he found Bloemardinne making numerous proselytes . . ., Ruysbroeck spoke strongly against the heresy . . . . He attacked Bloemardinne and unmasked her writings . . . without troubling, adds the biographer, about the numerous enemies he made for himself by this opposition. It is likely that the polemic was fierce and ardently prosecuted on both sides. Songs were made up about Ruysbroeck and ridicule was poured n him in the streets of brussels. Unfortunately the documents relating to this controversy have utterly vanished: both the pamphlets of Bloemardinne and the refutations of Ruysbroeck. This has led to the supposition that Ruysbroeck destroyed both alike. The substance of his replies, however, has passed completely into his polemical writings. There we can find a true account of these jousts in which the spirit of tradition and discipline was matched against individualism and moral anarchy.
Do we detect some partisanship on the part of D'Aygalliers here? I think so. He goes on to explain that the success of these heretics lay in part in their writing and teaching in the vernacular. To fight this, Ruysbroeck had to also write his refutations in the vernacular. To be convincing to the common people, he also had to be careful to not be just negative, not to present only a refutation, but to explain true mysticism and its characteristics postively so people could see the heresy in what was being taught them, and have absis for choosing good rather than error. The next few pages give examples of Ruysbroeck's positive teachings against the heresy of the Free Spirit, and on page 86 he has this citation from Ruysbroeck directly addressing the core of Free Spirit belief:
Some there are who think they have reached the highest point in the contemplative life and so despise all interior discipline. Nevertheless, had they passed a single moment in true contemplation, they would have understood that the very angels and saints are eternally engaged in love and desire, in actions of grace and parise, in will and knowledge. God himself is ever at work; without effort no one can attain to a state of beatitude. From neglect of all htis comes every departure from freedom of spirit.
This whole argument about the danger of a heretic being in direct proportion to how well they can reach the masses reminds me of the judgement allegedly passed on Marguerite's book by the theology profeesor at the University of Paris: the book reflects truths, but in the hands of the common (uneducated, undisciplined) people it will give them the (heretical) idea they can achieve perfection in this life and thus no longer have need for either the Church or its sacraments.
D'Aygalliers explains on page 87 that after this episode Ruysbroeck assumed a more contemplative life and spent his remaining years questioning God in the mystical silence and writing down "the whisperings of that mysterios voice." This assumtion of the contemplative life . . ."was soon to lead him to the heights where human speech and clamour die away."
D'Aygalliers now moves on to the chapters of Ruysbroeck's great contributions stemming from this later, contemplative period of his life. And I turned instaed to the Robert E. Lerner book, cited at the beginning, entitled The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle-Ages.
I have already cited the first page of Lerner's book, suggesting that Eckhart learned of Marguerite's book in Paris the year after her death. On page 2 lerner observes that although in some instances Eckhart should be judged the greater heretic of the two, the new majority opinion is that Eckhart was orthodox and Marguerite was not. Lerner calls this a strange discrepancy. And says it becomes "even stranger when two more facts are introduced." Some one in the fifteenth century wrote that they thought the true author of the book in Marguerite's name was actually Ruysbroeck, and this led to its wide dissemination and acceptance. Before it was tracked down as a condemned book everywhere, it had already been translated and published in English by a Benedictine order called the Downside Benedicties with offical seals indicating Church approval properly affixed! Lerner notes that there were many in the Middle Ages, obviously, who thought the book orthodox.
There was also a noted mystic and disciple of Ruysbroeck, who wrote under the latter's supervision that Eckhart was the founder of the Free Spirit heresy. Lerner suggests that understanding this phenomenon of the writings of a burnt heretic being thought orthodox, and the writings of a great theologian (as he is now generally perceived) inspiring heresy requires study of the Free Spirit heresy.
And all of that was packed into the first two pages of lerner's book!
Lerner next shows the polemic attacks usually accuse free spirits of megalomania and obscene rites. Lerner takes several pages to establish that the Medieval imagination tarred all who were not orthodox with being the minions of Satan, and thus painted them with the standard moral defincies ascribale to those who worship or are otherwise under the influence of the Arch-Fiend. Lerner describes the Middle Ages as "a golden period of exaggeration and fabriacation." (Page 4)
By the time Lerner gets to pages 8 and 9 he has critically evaluated and debunked several histories of the centuries and heresies of interest to a study of the Free Spirit movement. He admits to having pursued the subject now to the point where he is convinced the "Free Spirits were motivated by pious desires for a truly apostolic life and communion with divinity" . . . and gets to the point of denying there ever was a sect, an organized body, of Free Spirits. He says his search for such an organization "semed like a continual shearing away at a shaggy dog that tuned out to be nothing but shag." Now he definitely had my attention!
The rest of Lerner's book makes the case for this point of view, and he argues it convincingly. But it is not my intent to enter into a long harangue on why the heresy of the Free Spirit was never a coherent movement, but a diffuse popular belief based on basically good motives and serious mystical insight. I am interested in the context in which Marguerite lived and worked and had her being. Lerner has a lot to say about Marguerite.
On page 68 Lerner observes that
The first beguine known to have been executed since the time of Robert de Bougre met her end in the Paris of Philip the Fair and we are fortunate in having an impressive amount of evidence concerning her case.
The reference to Robert de Bougre is a reference to an inquisitor from a hundred years before, whom D'Aygalliers said (p. 79) "covered Flanders and Cambrai with stakes and funeral piles." D'Aygalliers said on that same page that the well-respected Hadewijh dared suggest that de Bougre had propelled a beguine into a perfection of her love, through his brutal murder of her. Reminds me of my witch-burning story, a story of spiritual triumph coming from physical defeat. That story is also on this web site (click here to go there).
Lerner, on pages 70 and 71, sets the stage for and then tells Marguerite's story. A few years before Marguerite, another beguine with a reputation for prophecies of worth had been imprisoned by the same Capetian authorities for allegedly plotting to kill King Philip IV's brother. She was eventually released. Then comes Marguerite into custody. . . (pp. 71-72):
Another beguine . . . but who did not escape Capetian displeasure with her life, was Marguerite Porete, one of the most important figures in the history of the heresy of the Free Spirit. Marguerite was a woman from Hainaut who referred to herself as a "mendiant creature" and who was called a beguine by so many independent sources that the designation may be taken as certain. Nothing is known of her exact place of birth or early life, but we do know that sometime between 1296 and January 1306 she wrote a book which was condemned and burned in her presence at Valenciennes by the Bishop of Cambrai, Guy II, who warned her not to disseminate her ideas or writings any further under pain of being relaxed to the secular arm. [Meaning torture and death.]
The admonition, however, was to no avail. Between 1306 and 1308 Marguerite was brought before the new Bishop of Cambrai, Philip of Marigny, and the Inquisitor of Lorraine whose jurisdiction extended over Hainaut and the Cambrésis. This time she was accused of having sent her book to Bishop John of Chalons-sur-Marne and of propagating it among simple people and beghards. Instead of acting further themselves her judges apparently sent her to paris where we know she was taken into custody by the Dominican Inquisitor, William Humberts, late in the year 1308. There marguerite refused to answer any quations or even to take the vows necessary for her examination and languished in prison for almost a year and a half while brother William was at any rate fully occupied with the case of the Templars. But in 1310 the Inquisitor, for want of direct testimony, extracted a list of articles from marguerite's book and presented them for examination to twenty-one theological regents of the University of Paris. On April 11 these examiners unanimously declared the articles heretical. Therafter events moved more swiftly: on May 30 Marguerite was judged "relapsed" by a commission of canon lawyers on the questionable assumption that she had already abjured her errors at Valenciennes and was handed over to the provost of Paris who executed her the day after at a solemn ceremony in the Place de Grève. The same fate was shared by a converted Jew who was supposed to have replapsed and to have spat in a fit of contempt on an image of the virgin.
This is the most fact-filled, most complete of the accounts I have read and are causing me to rewrite some of my historical fiction and historical fantasy concerning Marguerite's life and movements.
Speaking of Marguerite's movements, Lerner makes it clear that she had sent her manuscript to three Church authorities, who all approved the book. A Franciscan, a Cistercian, and a "secular theologian" in Paris were identified by name by Lerner (p. 72) as having approved the book. The first two were rather obscure individuals, but the third was "one of the most important scholastic philosophers at Paris." He had official assignments to do with Marguerite's part of the country. He was canon of Liege and Tournai, and had a claim on the Bishopric of Tournai that he relinquished "when his election was contested."
Lerner next traces the document's fate after Marguerite's demise and follows some of the translations and their pedigrees. On page 75 he answers the question that may have ocurred to you at some point above: why did the Paris theological regents condemn what the Downside Benedictines approved? Lerner's simple answer is this: the benedictines judged the whole book, the Paris theologians were given extracts from the book prepared by the Inquisitor. Given their lack of context, in and of themselves the short phrases submitted to them had to be judged heretical. Lerner gives two examples, one involves a statement carefully worked up to in the book that declares that the annihilated soul is no longer governed by the virtues. In and of itself it suggests, however, that someone who has achieved such a state (undefined in this extract) no longer needs to be concerned with virtues. The Inquisitor knew what he was doing, and knew the answer that would come back in response to his list of phrases out of any context.
On pages 76 and 77 Lerner gives some insight into the people pulling the strings behind this drama that ends for us with Marguerite's death. The Bishop who sent her to Paris became the Archbishop of Sens who called the Council of 1310 against the Templars and "was the brother of Philip the Fair's notorious first minister, Enguerrand of marigny-'the man who knew all the King's secrets.'" Then Lerner asks why the side-step to kill this beguine when they were in the process of killing off the entire templar order? Surely that was absorbing most all their energy?
Lerner gives two answers. One is that there are passages in her book that suggest that Kings can be seen as serfs if one's eyes are fully functional. That could be offensive to a King. The other, and more likely reason, according to Lerner, is that the King needed to show himself a defender of orthodoxy while he was wiping out a popular order, the Templars. The King had already been in trouble with the Pope over arresting a Bishop for making a similar statement undermining public awe for the King, and needed to right himself in the eyes of the Church by zealously prosecuting a heretic.
Lerner next launches into the fear of heretics that led to the Council of Vienne of 1312 in which beghards and beguines in Germany were condemned as Free Spirits. In other places beguines were allowed to continue if the local clergy oversaw them with rigor. In what is now Belgium there were assurances of such oversight sent to the Pope, though there were many who were opposed to continuing this lay order.
Even though it is beyond Marguerite's time, the discussion Lerner offers of the Condemnation of Vienne in 1311 makes much reference to The Mirror of Simple Souls. Lerner suggests on his pages 82 and 83 that the list of teachings ascribed to the Free Spirits were a rewriting of the list of objectionable-out of context-passages the Inquistor prepared for the theologians in Paris. This adds fuel to the fire for Lerner, who suspects that it is this list that was used to create the illusion of a coherent sect that believed in each of these articles. In fact, Lerner suggests, the list was taken from Marguerite's book, and even then "all these statements were taken out of context and do not represent fairly Marguerite's views. Hence the Downside Benedictines, reading the whole work, approving it.
Lerner has a whole chapter (9) on "The Literature of the Free Spirit" and it is dominated by Marguerite's book. He describes the book from many different aspects in terms of volume and style and references (p. 201), and then turns to its content (pp. 202-208). We do not want to recapitulate her teachings here, but I do want to share Lerner's concluding remark about Marguerite, her teachings, and why she died at the stake (p. 208):
Provisionally it may be said that The Mirror describes a completer union between the soul and God this side of paradise than would have been accepted by most orthodox mysticsand it talks of a state of complete passivity that goes beyond and then ignores the spiritual ministartions of the Church. But it postulates grace rather than nature as the motive force propelling the soul toward God and it avoids the antinomian or libertine conclusions traditionally associated with the heresy of the Free Spirit. Marguerite was probably a heretic, but had she been submissive and content to enter a cloister like Mechthild of Magdeburg, with whom she is compared, she probably would have attracted little notice. Her active life, her pertinacity, and the political situation surrounding her arrest certainly contributed to her death.
Given these historical insights it is now possible to imagine her life more fully.
GUIDE TO THE HERESIES MENTIONED IN THESE HISTORICAL DESCRIPTIONS
Marguerite Porete was known to have spread the teachings of her 'Mirror of Simple Souls' or 'Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls' by personally teaching its concepts in several prominent towns of her day and region. Did she meet with like-minded persons in their homes, in their Beguinages, away from official eyes and ears? Or did she stand on a platform in a public square? I suspect it was mostly the former, but I also suspect she did some of the public exhortation in the market square that was a common practice during those times.
Like-minded souls networked and helped each other, then as now. In her trial it is mentioned that she taught in three towns in the Hainaut region: Cambrai, Valenciennes and Tournai. The fact that there is now a national boundary through the region makes no difference to Marguerite's story. Belgium was created many centuries after Marguerite. In Marguerite's time it was all France. In fact, Tournai, many centuries before Marguerite, was once the capital of France. The famous Clovis was one of the French kings in residence there.
Far to the southeast, about 130 miles I would estimate, Marguerite turned up teaching in Chalons-sur-Marne, now known as Chalons-en-Champagne. She presented her book to the Bishop there to obtain his opinion. We don't know what he thought of the book, though we suspect he was not impressed and may have sent a note to the Bishop of Cambrai to tell him to control his heretic.
That Cambrai Bishop, a new one, intercepted and interrogated her and accused her of disobeying his predecesor in office who had commanded her to cease and desist her teaching and had burnt her book in front of her in 1306. He packed her off to Paris in 1308. She was imprisoned on arrival, and killed in 1310 at the approximate age of 30.
She was being accused of teaching the Free Spirit heresy, but it is interesting that what was not mentioned in the sketchy account of her trial is that she met in secret with known adherents of the Free Spirit heresy in these towns. Free Spirits were not a coherent, organized group of like-minded heretics. It was a rather amorphous movement, hence its manifestations were 'treated' wherever found. Had Marguerite consorted with known exemplars of that heresy it would surely have been mentioned in her trial, because it is damning testimony to have been seen associating with known heretics. However, such exemplars were hard to identify. In fact it was highly likely that there never was a Free Spirit organization, simply a Free Spirit current of thought within believers of the time.
She was said to be a Beguine. Beguines were generally living in communities, very small in some areas, ranging from a few women in a single home to small neighborhoods with a series of houses occupied by members. Beguines were lay religious women. They were not a chartered church order. They could come and go, under a vow of celibacy while in residence, but free to leave, and to marry if they so wished.
This is quite unlike the formal orders of nuns. They lived in convents and after a trial period as novices took a lifetime vow of celibacy and dedication. Beguinages were typically endowed by gifts from well to do members, and supported by the hard work of the members. They worked in fields for food staples, and in light home industries such as book-copying or lace-making, for the maintenance of their communities. Some of the Beguine communities engaged in community service activities including providing health care and shelter for women and children.
Beguines came to be resented and mistrusted in the minds of some Church leaders who perhaps simply disliked the idea of women living in community without the benefit of strictly controlled walls of separation. Semi-permanent vows bothered some clerics. And not having the strict (male) supervision characteristic of the regular orders of religious women really bothered many in the Church hierarchy.
To be fair to the heresy-conscious, some Beguines perhaps did become associated with Beghards, and all Beguines were accused of such association, essentially, by a Papal condemnation promulgated in 1311, the year after Marguerite's death. In many areas this condemnation resulted in disbanding of the movement. In the Netherlands the movement was watched closely by local clergy and it survived. In Southern France, where heresy seemed to always thrive, no matter what its flavor, Cathars, Waldensians, Spiritual Franciscans, Brethren of the Free Spirit (Beghards) and Beguines were all being hunted down at the same time. Little wonder it is my favorite part of France!
Beghards were lay religious men, typically mendicants. They drifted and begged, worked and preached, not at all very different from the order of Spiritual Franciscans. They were associated with, sometimes said to be the same thing as, the Brethren of the Free Spirit. They were hunted down for heresy after a time, as were the Spiritual Franciscans: Franciscans who refused to live under the modified, more humane rule of Saint Francis that allowed the order to own property and stopped the practice of begging for daily sustenance.
The Spiritual Franciscans refused to let go of the original rule of St. Francis and were hard to tell from other itinerant beggars who had become very unpopular with the populace over time. Too much of what was once a very good thing. However, the Free Spirit movement has been said to be a popular reinstatement of the rule of Saint Francis, the adoption of the mendicant ideal as the way to holiness.
Originally the wandering bands of happy preachers under Saint Francis were a God-send to the Church: they revitalized the stagnating religion by returning everyday members to awareness of the spiritual side of their religion. In the process they did not endear themselves to the useless and corrupt clergy that were part of the spiritual stagnation problem. Francis forbade his brethren from becoming priests, though that started to change when he approached death, much to his chagrin. His rule was changed too, shortly after his death. After all, it was the Church that granted him his rule, and the Church insisted it always has a right to take away what it gives, or modify it.
Spiritual Franciscans being bundled with Beghards in terms of becoming associated with the Free Spirit heresy is a stretch if they really were living the rule of Saint Francis. Saint Francis was a free spirit in the best sense of the word. The charge that Free Spirits believed that if Love rules you, there is no sin in anything you do out of love, whether sexual or whatever, is most likely a figment of a fearful imagination. Nothing that crude has been uncovered in the records that are credible reflections of what are said to be Free Spirit writings, such as Marguerite's book.
I thought it was interesting, speaking of Spiritual Franciscans, that in 1232 the Countess Johanna of Flanders had a very nice church built in Valenciennes to give to the Franciscans she much admired. It would give them a church and residence, and fix these splendid itinerant preachers in place. Her place. She was no dummy. Neither were they. They turned her down, citing their vow to never own anything, especially not real property!
So, the association of all three groups, Beguines, Beghards, and Spirtual Franciscans, with the Free Spirits was likely a trumped up charge to create a climate of foreboding, a siege mentality, to further the interests of the ruling parties in the Church. Where the Spiritual Franciscans were concerned the interest of the Church was in settling who was in charge, the Church hierarchy that had changed the charter officially and demanded obedience, or these preaching beggars who thought they were their own masters?
In my "Women's Movement" article (click here to go there) I discuss the Beguines at great length. There I showed from good historical documentation, interpreted and published by reliably objective sources, that where the local clergy took interest in these communities of lay women, and oversaw them, the movement survived the 1311 Papal condemnation. In most of what is now Belgium, including the Hainaut which now lies in both countries, such clerical control was demonstrated. After Marguerite's death, Beguines continued to thrive in the Hainaut, where Marguerite apparently lived long enough to be considered "from" there. I found Beguinages in Tournai and Valenciennes. Not in Cambrai, but perhaps I simply did not know where to look. Marguerite notes that among her critics were the clergy at various levels, obviously, but also Beguines.
In most of France proper, control was lacking and Beguines were suppressed after the official denunciation. Suppression usually meant a forced disbanding, but typically with a choice open to the adherents of the order to switch to becoming part of the less formal orders of nuns recognized and controlled locally. Having women under permanent vows and under stricter control by local male orders of monks, or local clergy, was the motive. Many Beguines became members of such orders and thus became permanent religious women, under vows and behind walls. Some, like the Spiritual Franciscans, rebelled and maintained their lay-controlled organizations and were hunted as heretics.
In the regions where these changes were enforced, there were no longer Beguines living in tolerated community. To be labeled a Beguine in Paris, for example, even before the official condemnation, was to be painted with at least a suspicion of heresy. So the accusation that Marguerite was a Beguine, in her trial documents, was not a neutral observation in Paris, but would have been a neutral observation in Cambrai, Valenciennes or Tournai. In Brugge, which has a most splendid Beguinage [now occupied by another order of religious women, a regular order], local clergy had assured supervision, vouched for Beguine orthodoxy, and the movement survived there until the last true Beguine died in Brugge in the 1960s!
So, near where Marguerite wrote and taught there were Beguines whose mystical writings were dictated to confessors, who published them and sometimes wrote prefaces that went to inordinate lengths to assure the reader of the piety and orthodoxy of the revelator. This was necessary, in large part simply because these were women, after all, not theologians, proclaiming new knowledge from God. In some cases it was also necessary because of the nature of what was revealed. Several orthodox Beguines wrote what in essence was quite similar to what was being published and taught by Marguerite. Revelatory writings very similar to Marguerite's were being studied and praised by the clergy elsewhere. Marguerite's book was examined and judged orthodox by one Augustinian order.
She reportedly claimed, prior to meeting with the Inquisition, that three clerics reviewed her book and approved of it. This is not something that would go over well with local authorities. We know two of these reviewers were rather obscure clerics. The third was a prominent University of Paris professor of theology who thought the book alright for the learned, not for the common people. The book was essentially true, in theological terms, but potentially very dangerous to unsophisticated minds, who would essentially become Free Spirits by inadvertently misreading it.
Of course, in the meantime through my newer readings, I have come to side with Lerner. Lerner says that Free Spirits were neither an organized sect nor the sex-crazed rogues they are made out to be. Instead they were people in the faith who yearned for a spiritual dimension in their lives and rejected much of what was thrust upon them as the rules and landscapes of the Divine and the way the Divine manifested itself in the world. Were they heretics, or were they returning to the original, spiritual intent of a faith that had become idolatrous and thus heretical itself? Is that too harsh? I don't think so. When a Church appears to be seeking property, wealth, and power rather than spiritual at-one-ment with God, I think it can safely be called idolatrous. The Marguerite-flavored heretics believed they were inwardly experiencing the true inner spiritual manifestations of original Christianity. When Lerner calls them heretics, when he calls Marguerite a heretic, he is assuming the viewpoint of the Church, not the viewpoint of those whose inner life directed them to see things differently from the way the Church saw them.
But before you begin to see me as writing an anti-Catholic tract here, take these points under advisement: at the same time that the Church was as idolatrous as described above at one level, it was also as spiritual as described above at another level. What do I mean by that? I mean that if you walked into a Beguinage, an abbey, a cloister, or a selected local priest's home, you were quite likely to walk into a place where believers were both orthodox and spiritually aware and attuned. I keep reminding myself of this. The Church that on the one hand was sending so-called heretics to its death was, on the other hand, producing some of the most powerful mystics the world has known, with phenomenal insights into the nature of the human and the Divine. Even today, with its evident problems, my Catholic informant tells me that her experience in mass is often an experience of one-ness with God that sets her momentarily above all earthly cares and worries. Shades of Marguerite!
Go Back to Page Calling This Page
Go Back to Journey 2003