Marguerite Porete c. 1250-1310
(Also Poiret, Porret, and Marguerite de Hainaut) French spiritual writer.
Forgotten for centuries, Porete was the author of a single, innovative work of mystical literature titled Le miroir des simples âmes anéanties et qui seulement demourent en vouloir et desir d'amour (c. 1296-1306; The Mirror of Simple Souls). Scholars believe that Porete was a beguine, a devout and educated woman who attended to the spiritual needs of her medieval community without formally taking the religious vows of a nun. While the beguine movement flourished among the laity of northwestern Europe between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, many of its more outspoken adherents, including Porete, provoked the wrath of church inquisitors charged with eradicating heterodox spiritual teaching in the fourteenth century. Condemned as a heretic by the Paris Inquisition for refusing to recant the ideas contained in her book, Porete was excommunicated, imprisoned, and finally executed. Long since forgotten, Porete was first identified by Romana Guarnieri in 1946 as the author of The Mirror of Simple Souls, which has since been recognized as a major work of French spiritual literature.
The details of Porete's birth are not known, although scholars surmise that she was likely born in the region of Hainaut (an area that today is part of northeastern France) sometime in approximately the middle of the thirteenth century. Her status as a beguine is largely unquestioned and documentary evidence suggests that Porete probably belonged to the beguinage at Valenciennes. It is there that she appears to have composed The Mirror of Simple Souls sometime between 1296 and 1306. Upon its completion, the work was condemned as blasphemous by Guy de Colmieu, Bishop of Cambrai, who ordered it publicly burned in Valenciennes under his ecclesiastical authority. Possession or circulation of the book was likewise punishable by excommunication. Undaunted by this interdiction, Porete continued to preach from and disseminate copies of The Mirror of Simple Souls in a clear affront to church authority. Persecuted by Phillipe de Marigny, the succeeding Bishop at Cambrai, and later by William Humbert, Inquisitor of Haute Lorraine, Porete was jailed in Paris for a year and a half. When first brought to trial, she adamantly refused to recant her alleged heresy, and while imprisoned did not speak in acknowledgement of her jailors and accusers despite their threats of a death sentence. A dual trial in 1310 conducted by Guillaume de Paris and accompanied by twenty-one theologians from the Sorbonne resulted in the recantation of Guiard de Cressonessart, a beghard (male beguine) who had previously supported Porete and her book. Porete remained steadfast at the hearing while several key articles of her work were condemned as heretical. Sentenced to death on the last day of May 1310, Porete was executed the following morning—burned at the stake in the Place de Grève before a mass of spectators who had gathered for the event.
The oldest known version of the The Mirror of Simple Souls is a Latin manuscript reputedly dating prior to 1310 and preserved at the Vatican but not routinely made available to researchers. Three Old French manuscripts have also survived. Of these, scholars have access to only one. Considerably newer than the Vatican text, this version was composed between approximately 1450 and 1530 and is stored in Chantilly, France. Many more Latin and Italian manuscript versions of The Mirror of Simple Souls from the fifteenth century are extant. The number of these manuscripts attests to the work's popularity in the later medieval period despite its officially heretical content. Among these is a fifteenth-century Middle English version (one of three surviving copies in this language), which is part of a larger manuscript held at the British Library. The first modern English translation of The Mirror of Simple Souls, based on this source, was made by Clara Kirchberger in 1927 and predates the work's attribution to Porete. The standard modern version in English was collaboratively produced by Edmund Colledge, J. C. Marler, and Judith Grant in 1999.
In English the full title of Porete's Le miroir des simples âmes anéanties et qui seulement demourent en vouloir et desir d'amour means “the mirror of simple souls who are annihilated and remain only in will and desire of love.” Comprised of dramatic dialogues, lyrical prose, and rhymed verse, The Mirror of Simple Souls is a vernacular treatise in 122 chapters that takes the general form of an allegorical debate between Reason (Raison) and Love (Amour). Within the text, Porete specifically feminizes her representation of love as Dame Amour who, in addition to speaking with Reason, converses with l'ame enfranchie (the enfranchised or annihilated soul) and other allegorical figures. The only prominent male speaker in the text is Loingprès (“FarNear”), a character inspired by the romance tradition of the courtly lover whose desires are completely focused on his passion for the soul. Porete's main concerns in The Mirror of Simple Souls are divine love and the nature of the soul's ecstatic union with God. In the early portions of the work, Porete presents a romantic love fable featuring a young princess and her desire for Alexander the Great. Porete demonstrates how the maiden's love for the distant Alexander corresponds to the soul's longing for consolation and union with God in this paradigmatic story. In the remainder of the work, Porete frequently employs the familiar medieval symbolism of the mirror, traditionally used as a symbol for superficiality, narcissism, or vanity. Transforming conventional interpretations, Porete instead treats the mirror as a symbol of self-knowledge clarified in the soul's final encounter with divinity. Replete with the logical paradoxes and enraptured passion typically encountered in feminine narratives of mystical union, The Mirror of Simple Souls nevertheless leads to a distinctly unique formulation. Tracing the soul's journey as it passes through six metaphorical states of being, Porete describes a seventh and final stage in which the soul is subsumed into the vast nothingness of divine union, a nihilistic mysticism that ultimately strives toward “knowing nothing” and “willing nothing.” Indeed, nothingness (le nient) is a central element of Porete's writing. Operating as a metaphor for the inchoate and limitless potentiality that corresponds with the soul's annihilation, nothingness provides the source of personal liberation through the full abandonment of the self in God's love.
Deemed heretical by French inquisitors shortly after its first appearance sometime around the turn of the fourteenth century, Porete's The Mirror of Simple Souls prompted not only its author's execution in 1310 but also an official condemnation by the Council of Vienne and a 1312 papal bull signed by Pope Clement that unequivocally decried it as blasphemous. Such strong denunciation, while far from unprecedented, represents one of the pivotal moments of inquisitional activity in northern Europe. Among the key issues that attracted attention to Porete's work was her idea that after its annihilation though divine love, the soul was freed from the necessities of praying, reading Scripture, hearing holy sermons, attending Mass, receiving the Eucharist, and performing good works. Likewise, the annihilated soul was protected from the dangers of sin by Christ's love in Porete's formulation. References to the Catholic Church as the “Holy Church the Little,” an institution governed by reason, ritual, and dogma, and to the community of freed souls as the “Holy Church the Great” properly inspired by divine love, additionally did little to please church dogmatists. Finally, a relatively straightforward critique of learned theologians as individuals whose knowledge was based upon inferior rational study, rather than mystical comprehension of God, in the pages of The Mirror of Simple Souls forced church inquisitors to action. In the latter centuries of the medieval period, the work was preserved by monastic copyists and translators who judiciously removed Porete's name from the document. Its anonymity persisted through a lengthy period of relative neglect until the scholarly intervention of Romana Guarnieri in the middle of the twentieth century. In the contemporary period, The Mirror of Simple Souls, like many other works by medieval women writers, has enjoyed a resurgence of interest and popularity. Among the areas of critical attention focused on Porete and her work, modern scholars have eagerly demonstrated the metaphorical nature of Porete's arguments and statements in the The Mirror of Simple Souls, suggesting that its contents can be aligned with orthodox teaching when taken figuratively and that, indeed, this is what Porete likely intended. The failure of her inquisitors, critics have asserted, lay in their inability to grasp the fundamentally mystical, that is, nonliteral, qualities of Porete's writing and in their inappropriate application of the very tools of reason that she demonstrated were inadequate to the task of comprehending the soul's salvation. According to many contemporary critics, The Mirror of Simple Souls also features a tacit critique of the patriarchal social order that dominated medieval Europe. Contradicting the church's hierarchical cosmology, which marginalized women by assigning them passive roles in society, Porete's treatise subverts and even usurps the patriarchal discourse of male dominance by transferring spiritual power directly to women, commentators have argued. The treatise has also been studied in relation to contemporaneous writings by other beguine mystics, including those of Mechthild of Magdeburg and Hadewijch of Antwerp, while its influence on the spiritual writings of Jan Ruusbroec and affinities with the mysticism of Meister Eckhart have been evaluated. Additionally, its relationship to courtly romance literature of the period, particularly Guillaume de Lorriss's early thirteenth-century dream allegory Le roman de la rose has been investigated in order to provide a deeper understanding of the literary, theological, and spiritual currents that inform Porete's highly individual contribution to the tradition of medieval mysticism.
Le miroir des simples âmes anéanties et qui seulement demourent en vouloir et desir d'amour (prose, dialogues, and poetry) c. 1296-1306
The Mirror of Simple Souls, by an Unknown French Mystic of the Thirteenth Century (translated by Clara Kirchberger) 1927
A Mirror for Simple Souls: By a French Mystic of the Thirteenth Century (translated by Charles Crawford) 1981
The Mirror of Simple Souls (translated by Ellen L. Babinsky) 1993
The Mirror of Simple Souls (translated by Edmund Colledge, J. C. Marler, and Judith Grant) 1999
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SOURCE: Dronke, Peter. “Lyrical Poetry in the Work of Marguerite Porete.” In Literary and Historical Perspectives of the Middle Ages: Proceedings of the 1981 SEMA Meeting, edited by Patricia W. Cummings, Patrick W. Conner, and Charles W. Connell, pp. 1-19. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 1982.
[In the following essay, Dronke examines the lyrical, mystical, and erotic expressions of divine love in Porete's The Mirror of Simple Souls and situates the work in its historical context.]
Hildegard of Bingen, as distinctive in her medical and cosmological writing as in her mystic visions and poems and drama, died in 1179. The hundred and twenty years that followed her death saw an astounding proliferation of writings by religious women, Latin and vernacular, prose and verse. Some of the high imaginative achievements of this period—the lyrics of Hadewijch of Antwerp, or Mechthild of Magdeburg's Flowing Light of Godhead, with its haunting transitions from prose to rhyming free verse, from inner dialogues to dramatically shaped scenes—have received expert and sensitive treatment in recent decades. The woman to whose imaginative testament I wish to turn today, Marguerite Porete, has remained largely unknown. She is the most neglected of the great writers of the thirteenth century. She wrote her book of poetic prose, dialogue and lyric about 1285-95. The full title that she gave it...
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SOURCE: Bryant, Gwendolyn. “The French Heretic Beguine: Marguerite Porete.” In Medieval Women Writers, edited by Katharina M. Wilson, pp. 204-26. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984.
[In the following essay, Bryant summarizes Porete's life and examines the official denunciation of The Mirror of Simple Souls as a heretical work in the early fourteenth century.]
Sometime between 1296 and 1306, in Valenciennes, Guy II, bishop of Cambrai, condemned the Mirror of Simple Souls as heretical and ordered it publicly burned in the presence of its author, Marguerite Porete. On June 1, 1310, Marguerite herself was burned in what Henry Charles Lea calls “the first formal auto-da-fé of which we have cognizance at Paris.”1 These two burnings mark the chronological limits of what we know of Marguerite's life, for aside from the inquisitorial account of her trial and allusions to it in fourteenth-century chronicles, no documents survive. Nevertheless, scholars agree that she came from Hainaut (a region south of Flanders and Brabant, today part of France and Belgium), since she is referred to as Margarita de Hannonia.
Marguerite escaped punishment in her first tangle with the ecclesiastical authorities; although forbidden on pain of excommunication to disseminate her ideas further, she boldly persisted, even sending her book to prominent Churchmen, some of whom...
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SOURCE: Cottrell, Robert D. “Marguerite Porete's Heretical Discourse; or, Deviating from the Model.” Modern Language Studies 21, no. 1 (winter 1991): 16-21.
[In the following essay, Cottrell acknowledges that Porete's mystical treatise, The Mirror of Simple Souls, can be reconciled with church doctrine if interpreted figuratively, but argues that the work, in questioning the position of the female self within the patriarchal order, attempts to subvert traditional Christian social hierarchy.]
Around the year 1300, ecclesiastical authorities in the northern French city of Valenciennes condemned as heretical a work entitled Le Mirouer des simples ames anienties et qui seulement demourent en vouloir et desir d'amour and ordered that it be burned publicly in the presence of the author, the Beguine Marguerite Porete.1 For the next several years, the Church sought to compel Porete to renounce her convictions and to disassociate herself from the views she had expressed in Le Mirouer des simples ames. She not only refused to do so, but in fact reaffirmed her views. At the instigation of the archbishop of Paris, she was imprisoned and tried. Throughout the trial, Porete declined to answer any of the questions put to her. She was condemned and burned at the stake in Paris on June 1, 1310. The Church demanded, under threat of excommunication, that all copies of Le Mirouer...
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SOURCE: Sells, Michael A. “Apophasis of Desire and the Burning of Marguerite Porete.” In Mystical Languages of Unsaying, pp. 116-45. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, Sells analyzes several major themes in The Mirror of Simple Souls, including the nature of divine love, the form of mystical union with God, and the annihilation, or ‘reversion,’ of the soul.]
Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake on the first of June, 1310, at the Place de la Grève in Paris. Porete, from Hainaut in northern France, belonged to that class of women known as beguines, whose status was midway between the laity and clergy. The beguines modeled their rule in part on the rules of the recognized monastic orders, but they were free to leave the cloister and marry. Porete followed in the distinguished line of beguine mystical writers that included Mechthild of Magdeburg (d. ca. 1294) and Hadewijch of Antwerp (fl. 1240).
Marguerite had written a book that was condemned and burned in her presence at Valenciennes by Guy II, bishop of Cambrai, in 1306. She was accused of circulating the book after its condemnation and was brought before Guy's successor, Philippe of Marigny, who turned her over to the inquisitor of Haute Lorraine. Finally, she was handed over to the Dominican inquisitor of Paris, Guillaume Humbert.
Marguerite refused to cooperate...
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SOURCE: Lichtmann, Maria. “Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls: Inverted Reflection of Self, Society, and God.” Studia Mystica n.s. 16, no. 1 (1995): 4-29.
[In the following essay, Lichtmann probes the political, social, historical, and theological grounds for Porete's condemnation as a heretic in the early fourteenth century.]
Marguerite Porete, burned at the stake in the early fourteenth century, along with her book, a mystical treatise which nevertheless went on to influence mystics and mystical traditions down the centuries, offers a particularly apt study for the interplay between mysticism, feminism, and society. Marguerite Porete's treatise, The Mirror for Simple Souls, proposed to turn the ecclesiastical hierarchy on its head by inverting the present “Little Church,” ruled by a morality of Reason, and supplanting it with her “Great Church” ruled by an ethic and total vision of Love. The “Great Church” made up of God's true lovers was to rule over the institutional “Little Church” of reason. But Marguerite inverted as well the dualisms of nature and soul, and implicitly of female and male. In all these inversions, uniting nature to soul, female to male, top to bottom, love was her canon, her moral yardstick.
On June 1, 1310, Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake by the Paris inquisitors, four years after a book-burning of her mystical...
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SOURCE: Hollywood, Amy. “The Problem of the Text: Marguerite Porete's The Mirror of Simple Souls.” In The Soul as Virgin Wife: Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart, pp. 87-119. South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995.
[In the following excerpt, Hollywood considers the ambiguous status of Porete's The Mirror of Simple Souls as medieval allegory, tracing its representation of the stages of the soul's union with God and comparing the work with Mechthild of Magdeburg's The Flowering Light of the Godhead.]
THE TEXT AS MIRROR AND AS ALLEGORY
The recurring ambiguities of Marguerite Porete's work, The Mirror of Simple and Annihilated Souls and Those Who Remain Only in Will and Desire of Love1 are in evidence already in this long title, for it is not immediately clear whether the genitive article is objective or possessive. In other words, does the text promise to give a reflection or representation of the two kinds of souls named in the title (objective genitive), or is it a mirror or representation of some other entity that has been given to these souls (possessive genitive)? The ambiguity is deepened by the use of the term mirouer itself. While arguing that Porete uses the term only in its technically accepted sense, to designate that her work offers ascetical or mystical teachings and hence to mark its...
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SOURCE: Garay, Kathleen. “‘She Swims and Floats in Joy’: Marguerite Porete, an ‘Heretical’ Mystic of the Later Middle Ages.” Canadian Woman Studies/Les Cahiers de la femme 17, no. 1 (winter 1997): 18-21.
[In the following essay, Garay praises Porete's The Mirror of Simple Souls as an unconventional work that effectively adapts the language of courtly romance to a theological critique of patriarchal authority.]
This Soul, says Love,
swims in a sea of joy, that is, in the sea of delights, flowing and running out of the Divinity. And so she feels no joy, for she is joy itself. She swims and floats in joy, without feeling any joy, for she dwells in Joy and Joy dwells in her.
(Porete Chapter 28, page 109)
The book from which these words are taken, written in the closing years of the thirteenth century by Marguerite Porete, is The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls and Those Who Only Remain in Will and Desire of Love. All that we know about Marguerite Porete is drawn either from this one surviving book or from the account of her trial. She probably came from Valenciennes in Hainault, northwestern France, for the court records tell us that her book was burned in the public square there sometime before 1306. She was a beguine, a member of a loosely structured order of pious lay women which allowed...
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SOURCE: Lichtmann, Maria. “Negative Theology in Marguerite Porete and Jacques Derrida.” Christianity and Literature 47, no. 2 (winter 1998): 213-27.
[In the following essay, Lichtmann maintains that The Mirror of Simple Souls anticipates several postmodern, deconstructionist themes such as “the disappearance of the self,” “the insatiability of desire,” and “the subversion of authority.”]
In his book titled Deconstructing Theology, Mark C. Taylor outlines some themes of a postmodern “theology”:
Deconstruction directs our attention to critical problems which merit serious consideration: the death of God, the disappearance of the self, the erasure of the (A)uthor, the interplay of absence and presence and of silence and speech, the encounter with death, the experience of exile, the insatiability of desire, the inevitability of delay, the burden of totality, the repression of difference, the otherness of the Other, the subversion of authority, the end of the book, the opening of textuality, and the advent of writing.
Such a theology, both a/theistic yet profoundly religious, is reminiscent of the theistic tradition of negative theology in the West since Plato. While Taylor's themes clarify much of the postmodern situation, in particular the work of Jacques Derrida as the chief...
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SOURCE: Marx, Heidi. “Metaphors of Imaging in Meister Eckhart and Marguerite Porete.” Medieval Perspectives 8 (1998): 99-108.
[In the following essay, Marx compares Porete's portrayal of the divine with that of Meister Eckhart, focusing on their use of metaphors associated with mirrors, mirroring, and painting.]
A great deal of recent Eckhart scholarship has been devoted to the question of similarities and differences between his thought and that of a number of his contemporary female mystics, most of them beguines. In particular, a number of articles have focused on the sometimes uncanny similarities between his thought and that of Marguerite Porete as found in her The Mirror of Simple Souls.1 Certain scholars have argued for the strong possibility that Eckhart may have read Porete's work; but whether or not this is the case, I find the endeavor of tracing out philosophical and theological intersections between these two thinkers a fruitful one. Careful study of medieval thought reveals, if nothing else, that the road to doctrine and orthodoxy is littered with many casualties. The triumph of orthodoxy as described by many a medieval historian might lead one to believe that many opponents of church doctrine were never real theological or spiritual contenders, when in fact they very often played active and influential roles in the life of the church or Christian community until the...
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SOURCE: Colledge, Edmund, J. C. Marler, and Judith Grant. “Introductory Interpretive Essay.” In The Mirror of Simple Souls, by Margaret Porete, translated by Edmund Colledge, J. C. Marler, and Judith Grant, pp. xxxv-lxxxvii. South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.
[In the following excerpt, Colledge, Marler, and Grant discuss Porete's The Mirror of Simple Souls within its historical, literary, and critical contexts, also addressing the interpretive questions it raises, its theological arguments, and its influence.]
[The Mirror of Simple Souls's] structure is that of a Boethian dialogue. The principal interlocutor is the Soul, or, sometimes, Love, who speaks for the Soul; and they engage in expounding their doctrine of the supremacy of Love to a variety of personages, among whom Reason appears most often.
At times Love is given her true name, by which the courtly poets call her, “Perfect Love,” Fine amor; and we have written1 that this name signifies “what has none of the baseness of the conduct of peasants …,” quoting Professor Cropp: “Fin amour carefully preserves the notion of what is superlative, perfected. Loyalty, authenticity, refinement are all names which become attached to it.” We are told2 that souls become free “once Love dwells in them”; and, finally, Love says: “I am God, for Love is...
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SOURCE: Newman, Barbara. “The Mirror and the Rose: Marguerite Porete's Encounter with Dieu d'amours.” In The Vernacular Spirit: Essays on Medieval Religious Literature, edited by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Duncan Robertson, and Nancy Bradley Warren, pp. 105-23. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
[In the following essay, Newman evaluates the extent to which Porete's The Mirror of Simple Souls may have been stylistically and thematically influenced by the thirteenth-century Roman de la rose.]
Several years ago I proposed the new term mystique courtoise to categorize an array of vernacular mystical texts from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, especially but not solely those written by beguines.1 The concept of mystique courtoise is meant to distinguish traditional forms of spiritual writing that drew on the lush imagery of the Song of Songs to characterize divine love, as Christian mystics had done ever since Origen, from a newer literary/religious mode that self-consciously inflected this tradition with the vernacular language of fine amour, adapted from secular lyrics and romances.
While the connection between courtly literature and this new mode of mystical writing has long been recognized, most studies to date have confined themselves to the borrowing of widespread motifs, such as boundless longing, amor de lonh, or love from...
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Colledge, Edmund. “The New Latin Mirror of Simple Souls.” Spiritualia Neerlandica 63, nos. 2-4 (1989): 278-87.
Recognizes the scholarly work of Fr. Paul Verdeyen in identifying affinities between Porete and the medieval spiritual writers of the Low Countries and appraises his 1986 Latin translation of The Mirror of Simple Souls.
Courtney, W. L. “The Mirror of Simple Souls.” Fortnightly Review n.s. 89 (January-June 1911): 345-74.
Surveys information regarding the content and composition of The Mirror of Simple Souls prior to scholarly attribution of the work to Porete.
Cré, Marleen. “Women in the Charterhouse? Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love and Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls in British Library, MS Additional 37790.” In Writing Religious Women: Female Spiritual and Textual Practices in Late Medieval England, edited by Denis Renevy and Christiana Whitehead, pp. 43-62. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.
Comparative analysis of the spiritual messages contained in the writings of Porete and Julian of Norwich occasioned by their joint presence in a fifteenth-century manuscript anthology of contemplative works.
Dronke, Peter. “From Hildegard to Marguerite Porete.” In Women Writers of the...
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