Tag Archives: dissent

The Other Sister Research Seminar: Dissent

By Meghan Lescault

On October 27, 2023, The Other Sister held a thematic meeting on the topic of dissent among non-cloistered religious women. The following works from the four invited speakers had been circulated prior to the meeting:

  • Justine L. Trombley, “‘Against the Foundation of the Faith’: Theological Refutation in MS Vat. lat. 4953” and “Conclusion,” in A Diabolical Voice: Heresy and Reception of the Latin “Mirror of Simple Souls” in Late Medieval Europe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2023), 93–124 and 170–178.
  • Huanan Lu, “Marguerite Porete et l’enquête de 1323 sur le béguinage Sainte-Élisabeth de Valenciennes,” Revue du Nord 440 (2021): 451–485. The English summary of the article can be found here.
  • Sean L. Field, “Clare of Rimini: A Case Study in the Circulation of Controversial Religious Claims” (work in progress to be published in a volume edited by Delfi Nieto-Isabel and Justine L. Trombley for the Routledge series Religious Dissent and Persecution in the Pre-Modern World).
  • Delfi I. Nieto-Isabel, “Beguines, Free Spirits, and the Inquisitorial Network Conundrum,” Oliviana 7 (2023). The open access article can be found here.

The meeting commenced with the four speakers presenting their research.

Justine Trombley, Lecturer in European History, 1300–1500 at Durham University, discussed the traditional tendency to label women as spiritual and mystical, but not intellectual. In her own work she strove to emphasize that Marguerite Porete was in fact treated as an intellectual, even if anonymously, as theologians, canons, and preachers assumed the Latin Mirror of Simple Souls to be the work of a man and engaged with it on a serious intellectual level in their attacks and condemnations of it. Not only these critics, but also the supporters of the work ascribed an intellectual character to it. Trombley tied the works of all four speakers together, noting the importance of networks as a major theme and their ability to impact, both positively and negatively, the lives of intellectual women. While a figure such as Clare of Rimini could benefit from a strong network, such networks could also attract the negative attention of inquisitors.

Huanan Lu, Assistant Professor of History at Nanjing University, explained that while she was sifting through archival documents for her PhD studies, she came across the inquisitorial record of 1323 of the beguinage of Saint Elizabeth in Valenciennes. This record mentioned a beguine by the name of Marghoneta, whom she was able to identify as Marguerite Porete. Lu discussed the effect of Marguerite’s inquisitorial trial on the beguine communities at the Council of Vienne, including her own community in Valenciennes, which was the first to be investigated in the diocese of Cambrai following the council. She explained that this investigation turned out to be rehabilitative, as everyone involved identified Marguerite as an exceptional figure with no followers in the community. The beguines of Saint Elizabeth were deemed innocent and orthodox, placed under the protection of religious and secular powers, and granted a high degree of autonomy.

Sean L. Field, Professor of History at the University of Vermont, introduced his paper as a result of a larger project of an English translation of and commentary on the vita of Clare of Rimini (Jacques Dalarun, Sean L. Field, and Valerio Cappozzo, A Female Apostle in Medieval Italy: The Life of Clare of Rimini [Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022]). He explained that by being asked by Delfi Nieto-Isabel to think about the flow of controversial ideas in the text, he saw the clear trajectory of Clare’s life from a solitary penitent woman to the leader of an informal community. Moreover, by being asked to think about moments in the text in which Clare is a recipient and dispenser of ideas, he was able to notice the rhetorical machinations by which the author of the text protects her from accusations of heresy. Field noted that Clare is a good example of an understudied figure who could help shed light on important themes related to non-cloistered women.

Delfi Nieto-Isabel, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow, Lecturer in History, and Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, focused on the perennial problem of categorization, which she finds to be particularly relevant to the discussion of late medieval lay religiosity, especially in the case of women. She explained that this struggle goes back to the inquisitors themselves, who attempted to rely on categories for their detection of heresy. When they tried to fit a vast array of expressions of penitential lay religiosity into a small hole of orthodoxy, they inevitably met with failure. Nieto-Isabel noted that modern scholars still easily fall into this same mistake, and she challenged the group to move away from this tendency. Recalling the late medieval religious women who readily identified themselves both as beguines and as members of the Third Order of St. Francis, she asked why we would have a problem acknowledging this double identity if the women themselves embraced it.

As usual, a robust discussion began after the conclusion of these presentations. The theme that clearly dominated the discussion was that of networks. Emma Gabe turned the group’s attention to Trombley’s earlier point about the strong influence that networks could have on whether someone would be deemed heretical or orthodox. Nieto-Isabel elaborated on this point, illustrating the importance of networks by explaining that Na Prous Boneta (a beguine from Languedoc who was burnt at the stake in 1328) was not judged as a beguine by the inquisitors, but as a very specific type of heretic, entirely because of her network and the people in it with whom she was associated. Networks were so important that they could define boundaries and determine the categories into which people were placed. Trombley applied these ideas to Marguerite Porete and The Mirror of Simple Souls, showing how networks could either bring support or ruin depending upon the circumstances. She pointed to the ultimate failure of the networks around Marguerite to provide protection for her. In the case of The Mirror, she noted that its reception depended upon not only who was reading and interpreting it, but also the milieu in which it was being read. For example, its circulation in the Tuscan monastery of the Camaldolese Order seemed to be free from problems, while its circulation in a network in Venice resulted in trouble for those who were reading it. Courtney Barter-Colcord introduced the figure of Guglielma of Milan (d. 1282) into the discussion, remarking upon the fact that unlike Na Prous Boneta, Guglielma was already dead at the time of her inquisition (c. 1300) and that unlike Marguerite, she had a great deal of support, albeit the wrong kind of support as far as the inquisitors were concerned. Barter-Colcord posed the question of whether there were many other cases in which a network was built up around an individual who was no longer present. Nieto-Isabel discussed the persistence of social capital beyond death and tied this question to the idea of martyrdom and sainthood, explaining that in most cases of these, the individual being venerated is not living. She also demonstrated the importance of networks, discussing how Guglielma herself was never deemed suspect in her lifetime but only after her death when her network made dramatic claims about her, whereas Na Prous was considered problematic while alive.

In addition to a more general discussion of networks, closer examination of the networks specific to Marguerite took place. Isabelle Cochelin mentioned Lu’s assertion that Marguerite had no support in her own beguinage. Lu elaborated on this point, explaining that the beguines were largely responsible for their own protection. In response, Nieto-Isabel questioned whether we can truly know the nature of the relationship between Marguerite and the other beguines of Saint Elizabeth before 1310 given their obvious desire to present themselves as orthodox during the inquisition occurring after Marguerite’s execution. Lu responded by appealing to the text of The Mirror itself in which Marguerite claims that the beguines held her views to be wrong, suggesting their rejection of her. She also cited the dearth of archival documents mentioning Marguerite/Marghoneta, perhaps implying by their silence that Marguerite was poor and lacked strong social support. Field took up this particular line of discussion to emphasize the many possible interpretations of these situations for which we have no definite answer. John Arblaster moved from discussion of support for Marguerite in the beguinage to that of support for The Mirror. He noted that the three approbations given to the work by clerics must indicate a geographically wide network. To this point, Nieto-Isabel responded that the circulation of a manuscript requires a network and that Marguerite’s book would have had to be circulated in other networks before reaching those of the ecclesiastical authorities. Trombley elaborated on this, explaining that the rapid early appearance of the Latin translation of The Mirror suggests that Marguerite had introduced her original vernacular text into circulation very early. Field clarified that the words “approbation” and “approval” are not quite right here, because the clerics who commented on The Mirror did not give their full approval to it, but rather tentative praise that could be withdrawn if the work met with trouble, as happened in this case.

The networks of Clare of Rimini also arose as a topic of discussion. Mary Harvey Doyno introduced this topic by asking if there is a relationship between the idea of networks and the fact that Clare’s vita was begun while she was still alive. Field noted that a network that was physically gathered around a dying person, as in the case of Clare, would function differently from a posthumous canonization inquiry. He surmised that the former might have a stronger value in that the individuals around Clare would have to be gathered there of their own accord in a free exchange of ideas. Nieto-Isabel agreed that it is a question of the strength of the network and that the organic accompaniment of Clare in her dying moments would suggest a strength not available to a network built around an individual who had already died.

At the conclusion of this substantial conversation, Nieto-Isabel pointed out that in citing each other in their papers, the speakers had created their own network about networks. While the participants were discussing the importance of medieval networks, they were demonstrating in real time the necessity of a modern network such as The Other Sister.

Marguerite Porete and the 1323 Inquisition at the Beguinage of Sainte-Élisabeth of Valenciennes: An English Summary of an Article by Huanan LU

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.