Huanan Lu, “Marguerite Porete et l’enquête de 1323 sur le béguinage Sainte-Élisabeth de Valenciennes,” Revue du Nord 3, no. 440 (2021): 451–85.
Summarised in English by Joseph George Akl.
There have long been hypotheses on Marguerite Porete’s origins. Called a beguina de Hannonia in the inquisitional records, Marguerite is often held by historians, without prior evidence, to have had contacts with the beguinage of Sainte-Élisabeth in Valenciennes. It is in Valenciennes where Marguerite first appears when her book is burned in the autumn of 1305 or 1306 by Gui de Collemezzo, bishop of Cambrai. This article uses a fourteenth-century inquisition held at Sainte-Élisabeth to substantiate the claim that Marguerite Porete was indeed once member of this community.
The Inquisitions of Beguinal Life
The Clementine Decrees (Cum de quibusdam mulieribus and Ad nostrum), published formally by John XXII in 1317, condemned the beguinal life (status beguinarum) and call for the suppression of this lifestyle, but not where these women lived “honestly in their convents” (honeste in suis conversantes hospitiis). It appears that the investigations that resulted from these bulls were less intense in northern Europe, particularly in the southern Low Countries, than in the north-east of the Empire. Moreover, contrary to the individual nature of the German inquisitions, northern European investigations focused on entire beguinal communities. To clarify the bulls, in 1320, John XXII began sending the bull Cum de mulieribus to various bishops, in which he requested that they undertake investigations of the beguines in their jurisdictions without troubling the good beguines. In this letter he also specified that honest beguines were to be protected from harassment.
The inquisitorial records of Cambrai are more complete than those of the surrounding bishoprics. Pierre de Lévis-Mirepoix, bishop of Cambrai, received the bull Cum de mulieribus on December 30th, 1320, however he did not undertake any investigation until 1323. On the 28th of July of that year, he appointed the Premonstratensian Godefroy II de Bavay, abbot of Vicoigne as the sole investigator. Godefroy then began his investigatio on the 4th of August 1323 and then, the beguines are officially pronounced to be orthodox.
The Beguinage of Sainte-Élisabeth of Valenciennes
The beguinage was founded in 1239 and had grown steadily throughout the thirteenth century to become its own parish in 1254 with a hospital, church, convent, houses, mill, and a school. Unlike what has been claimed by Walter Simons, it does not seem that the beguines of Sainte-Élisabeth were in decline following the Clementine Decrees; They continued to call themselves “beguines” and had an increasing amount of communication with other religious and lay institutions in the city during this period. Furthermore, the count of Hainaut’s family continued to protect the community and the countess, Jeanne de Valois, reconfirmed the donation of a house to the community made by a previous countess in 1269.
The Inquisitional Records
All our information concerning the investigatio of 1323 is provided to us through one document, numbered as 40 H 552/1336, and held in the Archives départementales du Nord in Lille. The document lists all the actors and witnesses in the investigation and demonstrates the protection from which the beguinage benefitted. Moreover, all of these are local. Amongst the many named are the countess Jeanne de Valois and her two daughters, six Dominicans, four Franciscans, and the priests of the beguinage. The choice of Godefroy, the abbot of Vicoigne, as the sole prosecutor or inquisitor, is also of note as he was already the protector of the beguines of Valenciennes. This willingness to protect the beguines of Sainte-Élisabeth comes through in the rapidity of the process — he begins the investigation only a week after being told to do so by the bishop –, and through the manner in which he investigates. No individual examinations are held; instead the process seems to be more of a public meeting, in the presence of important figures, to reaffirm the orthodoxy of the beguinage. After speaking with the Dominicans and Franciscans who asserted the community’s obedience, humility, and chastity, Godefroy spoke with tres honestas mulieres (perhaps the sovereign and two mistresses of the community), duodecim alias mulieres of good reputation and then another alias viginti chosen by the former twelve. It is noteworthy that all the beguines were present at the investigatio even if not called upon.
The Mention of Marghoneta
These beguines were asked if they had ever discoursed on the Holy Trinity or on the divine essence, or if they had promulgated any beliefs contrary to the Catholic faith. They replied that there was once a certain Marghoneta, who had been executed for her beliefs, however, when she was with them, she never had the slightest follower in her beliefs.
Responderunt unanimi et supplici devotione quod non nisi solummodo de quadam que dum vivebat fuit nominata Marghoneta que ob sue culpe demerita deleta dicebatur, justicia exigente, adtamen inter ipsas illa Marghoneta nullam unquam prorsus habuit suarum sectatricem errorum.
This Marghoneta must in fact be Marguerite, which further advances the idea that the inquisition was simply a piece of theatre used to distance the beguinage from Marguerite Porete.
The name Marghoneta is not attested in contemporary sources from the Hainaut. Marguerite, however, is the name of some of the countesses of Hainaut and is very common in the region, with its variants (Margareta in Latin, or Margherite in Middle French which can be written Margrite). Marghoneta, might therefore be a diminutive of Marguerite, reserved for a woman of modest standing, while Marguerite was reserved for the beguines of higher social rank. This hypocorism adds an important element to the discussion of Marguerite’s social background.
While Marguerite’s social background may remain a mystery, what does not is Marguerite’s unwelcomeness in Valenciennes. No trace of her exists in the city archives, meaning she might have had a subaltern presence in the community and was never called upon to witness legal deeds. Furthermore, the beguines during the investigation call her “a certain woman named Marghoneta.” The absence of a family name and the phrasing place distance between the community and Marguerite. The beguines also speak about this unanimously, implying that is a commonly known fact. While we do not know how many beguines present at the investigation in 1323 would have been in the beguinage during Marguerite’s stay at the start of the fourteenth century, it is highly likely that some would have known her, such as Jeanne de Bavay, who lived in the community prior to 1299 and until 1350. Lastly, during Marguerite’s trials, her community is never by her side.
Godefroy’s Double Roles
Godefroy was not only the protector of the beguines in Valenciennes, he was also highly respected by both lay and religious institutions. He was advisor to Willliam I and William II, successive counts of Hainaut, a theologian, student of John of Tongres, represented the count in papal matters, and was called to the council of Vienne. He appears to have been sympathetic to the beguines’ cause.
Very shortly after the publication of the Clementine Decrees, prior to the investigation, the beguines of Sainte-Élisabeth elected new leaders, probably all new save Godefroy and Marie de Saint-Élier, respectively procurator and Grand Mistress. This choice demonstrates firstly that the beguines were shrewdly aware of the problems that could arise due to the decrees and hoped to stay ahead of any issues by choosing new leaders. Secondly, the choice of Godefroy, was foresighted due to his presence at the Council of Vienne.
The bishop of Cambrai also had his reasons to select Godefroy to execute the mission requested by the papacy. Cum de mulieribus speaks to rooting out bad beguines but also to protecting good beguines from any harassment. This proved to be challenging as it was not entirely clear precisely what the pope meant in the bull. The bishop was aware of the delicate situation on his hands as Marguerite’s previous presence could be an issue. He chose Sainte-Élisabeth as the first beguinage to investigate in his bishopric, three months before Brussels or Antwerp. This haste demonstrates his eagerness to settle the issue quickly. Furthermore, his choice of Godefroy as the sole investigator is also telling as in Brussels and Antwerp he relied on multiple officials from various religious institutions. Be it to please the count or the bishop, or out of sympathy for the beguines, Godefroy had no reason not to defend the beguines.
This investigation of Sainte-Élisabeth in 1323 in which over fifty people intervened, including all the beguines, their priests, members of the mendicant orders nearby, the countess and her daughters, provides us with not only a detailed model of a beguinal investigation. It also gives us the first trace of Marguerite Porete at Sainte-Élisabeth of Valenciennes, who was still being called Marghoneta.