A Burnable Book and a Pseudo-Woman: the case of Marguerite, called Porete


On 31 May 1310, a medieval author and a medieval book were sentenced to be burnt. The title of Bruce Holsinger’s 2014 novel might have been the judgment of a fourteenth-century inquisitor: not a political prophecy but a treatise that outraged the church, for William of Paris Le Mirouer des simples ames was indeed the burnable book. The execution of its author, Marguerite, called Porete, represents a dubious first for the inquisitors of medieval Christendom: she is the only female Christian mystic to be burned for heresy. For the book, this was not first time in the flames: it had been burned before in Valenciennes, as little as four or as many as fourteen years earlier, at the insistence of the bishop of Cambrai. However, it was perhaps the last time it would be identified with its author for over six hundred years.

Marguerite’s Mirror of Simple Souls is written as a dialogue between Love, Reason and Soul. It asserts that in a spiritual union with God, the self and individual will, and ultimately the soul itself, are all annihilated; as such, the pursuit of virtue, adherence to the practices of the church and the participation in the sacraments are no longer necessary in order for God to act through the annihilated soul. Not only does the annihilated Soul possess no will, such a Soul is saved by faith without works and cannot be taught. Marguerite’s trial came in a period in which Philip IV of France had defended the faith by means that included discrediting and threatening to execute the pope, expelling the entire Jewish population of France and accusing the order of the Knights Templar collectively of heresy (culminating in the infamous coordinated arrest on Friday 13 October, 1307). In a political climate in which royal power was so thoroughly intertwined with the pursuit of spiritual purity, it is hardly surprising Marguerite’s text met with intense suspicion.

Yet, though the bishop of Cambrai condemned her book, Marguerite thereafter sought advice from other churchmen in the Low Countries and received encouragement from such a luminous ecclesiastical figure as Godfrey of Fontaines, formerly regent master of theology at the University of Paris. It is not clear at what point she was obliged to move from Hainault, but records indicate that she was in Paris from around October 1308 until April 1310, during which time she was questioned by William of Paris – the king’s confessor – and excerpts of her book were presented to a panel of twenty-one theologians for assessment of its potentially heretical content. At least one of these was Godfrey’s student. They found her a relapsed heretic, and Marguerite and her book were sentenced together. The execution is chronicled by the Continuer of William of Nangis, who relates how she showed “noble and devout” signs of penitence which wrung the hearts of onlookers, but does not indicate what these may have been. He also describes Marguerite as “a certain pseudo-woman [pseudomulier] of Hainault”.

What does it mean to call Marguerite a pseudo or false woman? On the one hand, she is considered to be false in her beliefs. But if, on the other, she is considered to be like a woman, but not a woman, why is this? Certainly among medieval women, even female mystics, she is fairly unusual. Unlike Margery Kempe, for example, Marguerite had no known confessor, and her text appears to be the product of her hand, with no scribe or amanuensis. Nor can she be identified with a family, but only with the beguines: Marguerite Porete is unlikely to be her ‘full’ name, but rather two different names (she is ‘called Porete’, possibly a nickname from Old French poret, meaning leek or something of little value).

Is Marguerite’s supposedly un-womanish quality perhaps reflected in her text? The twenty-one masters of theology who examined excerpts read a text that had been translated into Latin for the purpose. They were not told the author of the original text, nor that she was a woman, and it is unclear if they were aware it had been translated from French. Would the echo chamber of the University preclude the possibility of a female author for this text that deals in apophasis and expansive, difficult abstractions? The Mirror of Simple Souls is far from simple. God, says the Soul, is unspeakable, and even if a Soul were endowed with all the understanding of the Trinity, it would be nothing against what she loves. Even this is “a small point to hear (…) compared to the greatest, of which no one speaks. But I want to speak of it and I don’t know what to say about it” (Babinsky, trans., 11: 91).

This is a frequent dilemma for the mystic, one that compels and conditions their expression. More than something unspoken, the unspeakable carries a powerful cultural, ethical and/or doctrinal prohibition, from the unspeakable sin (which was often heresy), to the ineffable divine. Why is this a concept that is important for women’s literary studies? Women writers, of course, often appear to ‘speak’ less often than men in the literary canon, especially the literary canon of the Middle Ages, but this is not the same as being unspeakable. Yet, in the case of Marguerite, the transmission of her text exposes and is made possible by a reflex of this extra prohibition.

To her inquisitors’ frustration, throughout her imprisonment and trial, Marguerite followed the principles of her writings and remained silent. The posthumous reputation of her text is marked by another silence. Though her ideas were co-opted by later writers, her authority was concealed – Marguerite Porete was an un-writeable and perhaps unspeakable name. From the surviving French copy and Latin translations (including those made for the inquisition), the Mirror found its way into collections all over Europe, being translated into Middle English and Italian from the Latin, and back into Latin from the Middle English. (The Middle English is preserved in BL MS Add. 37790, along with Julian of Norwich’s short text). Meister Eckhart, who lodged with Marguerite’s inquisitor, may well have been influenced by her text (though he did not acknowledge the debt) and his own vernacular writings were later condemned as part of the “Free Spirit Heresy”. His own student Henry Suso was also accused of heresy for defending these writings. Despite the inquisition ordering all copies be burned in 1310, on pain of excommunication, Marguerite’s text continued to circulate under pseudonyms and anonymity, and although an Italian translation was once thought to be the work of Margaret of Hungary, the text in its anonymity was often attributed to a male author. (Such assumptions are preserved even in the most recent reprints of the 1927 edition of the Middle English version). It was not until 1946 that Romana Guarnieri identified the un-writeable Marguerite as the author of the burnable book.  

The adventures of Marguerite’s book represent an apt and early test case for Virginia Woolf’s famous hypothesis that “Anon … was often a woman”, a challenge to the assumption that a great text with no author must be male-authored. In 1984, Peter Dronke called Marguerite ‘the most neglected of the great writers of the thirteenth century’. Marguerite studies have continued to grow in the thirty years since, but there is still much to be discovered about the influence of her writings and the posthumous career of a writer whose name it was heresy to record, and whose book was so often attributed to hypothetical male authors – pseudo-women, indeed.