Marguerite Porete Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Textual History

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.