700 Years Later: Marguerite Porete, Burnt at the Stake, but Unforgotten

Chicago. Once again the opportunity to blog for America puts me in the position of commenting on topics beyond my expertise, but I cannot let pass without mention the 700th anniversary of the death of Marguerite Porete, the medieval Christian mystic who was condemned for heresy and burnt at the stake on June 1, 1310. (This sad anniversary was called my attention by Professor Emily Holmes of Christian Brothers University, during this week’s colloquium on Theologies of Religious Pluralism and Comparative Theology, sponsored by the American Academy of Religion with funding from the Luce Foundation. Professor Holmes noted the anniversary in the course of a presentation she gave, and this morning read to us from Marguerite Porete’s (in)famous book, The Mirror of Simple Souls.)

Marguerite Porete’s treatise — which I have not studied* — involves a dialogue among Lady Love and and Lady Reason and other voices, and explores the advance of the soul along the path of spiritual development, beyond conventional virtues and religious practice, into a life entirely permeated by love and deep within the mystery of God. It seems, at first glance, a subtle and profound exploration of the spiritual life and the unitive path toward God. However, it was found suspect by the Bishop of Cambrai in Valenciennes, and later in Paris she was condemned by a group of theologians on the basis of theses drawn from the Mirror and presented at her trial (where she remained silent, refusing to involve herself in the proceedings against her). Professor Holmes recommends to us that we read the record of the trial in sources available on the web, as here.


What has caught my attention today, on the 700th anniversary of her execution, is not primarily the awful fact of the burning. We know today that such burnings are abominable now, however they may have been justified in the path. We know today, or should know, that force, psychological or physical, is not an appropriate means of response to ideas. We know that today there is no mature alternative to taking seriously the thought of others and arguing with them in a context of mutual respect, and without threats. All of this is obvious.

But what strikes me is that despite her execution, and despite the burning of The Mirror of Simple Souls, the book nonetheless continued to circulate after her death, though without her name on it, and became an influential work in the centuries to follow, rather more often honored as a work of Christian mysticism, subject to praise rather than condemnation. It stood up well next to the works of other medieval mystics such as Mechthild of Magdeburg (c. 1207 – c. 1282/1294) and Hadewijch (13th c.) and prefigured, possibly influencing, later authors such as Meister Eckhart and St John of the Cross. When rediscovered in the 20th century as her work, and translated and published as such, the Mirror has been gaining increasing attention in academic and contemplative circles.

In other words — and although it does not always work this way and in any case does not become an excuse for oppression — the words of Gamaliel cited in the Acts of the Apostles are once more vindicated: “So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these people and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5.38-39)

While we should not throw caution to the wind and approve of everything we read, we may take heart, that what is from God will not in the long run be silenced or forgotten.

*My Readers: You may want to read the Mirror yourself, in an easily available and (I think) good translation. But if you already know more about her than do I, please add your comments!


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8 years 11 months ago
MARGUERITE seems to have had much more conviction than Galileo, who although held up as exemplary and martyred for his academic thesis, succumed to the temptation placed before him. Alas, he recanted, refused to defend his thesis when faced with the possibility of loosing his esteemed position at a Catholic university. Marguerite in her silence defended her thesis to the death.


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