The Middle Ages saw a blossoming of women and spirituality. Besides Julian of Norwich, there were such women as Mechtild of Magdeburg, St. Bridget of Sweden, and St. Catherine of Siena. Despite that the medieval church was not necessarily accepting of women and their spiritual leadership. Some women, such as Marguerite de Porete, paid for their beliefs with their lives.
Marguerite was a French mystic born in Le Hainault in the diocese of Cambrai. Historians believe Marguerite to have been a Beguine. The Beguines were women-only lay communities who took no vows but dedicated themselves to charity and the study of vernacular languages.
An historical investigation of the Beguines shows that the movement flows from two medieval religious reform movements: (1) monastic mysticism and (2) the vita apostolica, or “apostolic life.” Medieval women were excluded from the priesthood. Importantly these reform movements emphasized prophecy and evangelism. These two elements permitted a theological “space” wherein women had the freedom to develop their spirituality. The beguines flourished in this theological “space.”
These women were prime targets for the Church’s Inquisition for they were seen as outside the Church’s control. Why? Because they took spirituality outside the clerical world and its Latin language, and therefore beyond the power of the ecclesiastical authorities. The Beguines wrote in the everyday vernacular languages of Germany, France, and Holland.
Marguerite de Porete published her spiritual work “The Mirror of Simple Souls” around 1290. In her writings she states that when in the state of contemplative love of God the soul has no need of Masses or prayers or of anything else. Rather like other mystics, she claims an immediate relationship with God which gives her authority:
Listen to an audio excerpt from ‘The Mirrors of Simple Souls’
For Marguerite, the person who had achieved union in love with the Deity was free of Church constraints and part of the higher Church of the spirit. As seen in the previous quotation, Marguerite derided the academics who put dry reason above love. “The Mirror” was condemned by the bishop of Cambrai and burned as heretical in 1300.
Accordingly, Marguerite was summoned before the Inquisition. The theologians conflated her writings with the heresy of the Free Spirit. Those who followed this heresy believed that it is possible for a human being to attain spiritual perfection in the present life, and that once an individual has attained such a state, he or she may then commit any sin with impunity.
Facing the Inquisition, Marguerite refused to acknowledge the Church’s authority over her spiritual path. She would not answer their questions. Extracts of her trial can be found at The Trial of Marguerite de Porete. Eventually, Marguerite was excommunicated and burned at the stake on June 1, 1310.
To illustrate how authorities conflated the Beguine movement with the heresy of the Free Spirit, read the following passage from the Decree from the Council of Vienne -1311-12) on the beguine heresy.
Read the passage from the Decree from the Council of Vienne. The audio for The Mirror of Souls is from: Marguerite Porete. The Mirror of Simple Souls. Trans. Ellen Babinsky. NY: Paulist Press, 1993.
The quotation from the Council of Vienne is found at: http://www.piar.hu/councils/ecum15.htm.
Medieval Church and Its Writings
University of Saint Thomas–Saint Paul, MN
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