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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.

The Daughters and Sisters of Odelind – a Network of Non-Cloistered Religious Women

By Letha Böhringer

Religious women who were not cloistered were called beguines in the north of the German-speaking countries, and sisters or Seelfrauen in the south of this region. These women were found in almost every town and even in the countryside. One of their characteristics was that they did not establish overarching institutions or joint leadership, neither on a local nor on a supra-local level.

Two Beguines. Church St Agnes of the Beguinage, Sint-Truiden (Belgium), detail of a fresco. Picture taken by Letha Böhringer

However, there is an exception to every rule. It has been known for quite a while that the sisters of an independent community in Schweidnitz (in medieval Silesia, today Świdnica in Poland) formed a network with convents at Breslau/Wrocław, Erfurt and Leipzig; the sisters moved between the houses, and they seem to have supported each other by transferring money in case of need. The Schweidnitz sisters were interrogated by a committee of inquisitors in 1332, and the inquisition protocol reveals many aspects of the community’s inner life and the attitude of the sisters. One detail, though, remained obscure: the sisters refer to themselves as the daughters of Udyllindis. They had no explanation of who she was; she does not seem to have been the foundress of the convent, but rather an inspirational charismatic figure.

Preparing a new edition of the inquisition protocol, the editors contacted me in order to check the prosopographic material of my database which contains more than 2100 names of beguines living in Cologne between 1223 and ca. 1400.

Cologne. Kölnisches Stadtmuseum, Koelhoffsche Chronik (1499), fol.140.

Cologne housed a great number of beguines and convents during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and its citizens produced a huge amount of written record. In addition to testaments and charters, the citizens kept so-called Schreinsbücher (official record books kept in cabinets, i.e. Schreine) which resemble modern land registers. Apart from transactions concerning real estate, they also contained donations to and foundations of beguine convents.

Example of a Schreinsbuch. Website of the École des Chartes.

My database documents thousands of such entries and evidence from charters and other sources. After publishing about a dozen articles from this material, I am currently writing a monograph on the beguines of Cologne supported by a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. The grant also provides for assistance from the Cologne Center for eHumanities, especially the help of a post-graduate specialist, Jan Bigalke, who modulates the database to make it open access on the internet.

My data provides key material for the identification of the Schweidnitz figure of Udyllindis. In 1291, a woman who called herself Odelindis from Pyritz (in the medieval duchy of Pomerania, today Pyrzyce in Poland), founded her own convent in Cologne which she headed as the Magistra. This convent was the first of about a dozen communities which were quickly singled out by their contemporaries as different from earlier beguinages: these beguines were called swesteren/swestrisse/ swestriones in the German vernacular, and they exercised strict poverty in their convents. Therefore, they were also called willige Arme, the “voluntary poor”. As third time’s the charm, another trace of Udyllindis/Odelindis was found via a research network which I co-founded (Agfem). Preparing her thesis on the beguines of Eastern Swabia, Barbara Baumeister discovered a similar name in charters of around 1350: a community of poor sisters called themselves the sisters of Udelhild.

Not only the obvious similarity of the names, which are not very common ones, but also characteristic features of the convents point to common origins. We know of quite a few women who travelled great distances in order to join one of these convents. The houses in Cologne and Augsburg were acquired from their own money, without patrons or benefactors. All the women organized themselves as associations based on an oath (Schwurverband) called unio in Latin or Einung in German. The novices pledged allegiance to the ideals of strict poverty and obedience. The sisters were well respected by their neighbors and received donations. We do not know why, suddenly, they were persecuted in Schweidnitz and, it seems, their house was dissolved; there was obviously some internal strife which might have instigated the inquisition. The convent in Cologne eventually became a member of the Cellite order, and the Augsburg sisters became Dominican sisters around 1700, whose monastery exists to this day.

The discovery of Odelind’s network of voluntary poor sisters gives insight on how a “movement” was formed and spread over great distances. Her congregation is a phenomenon never described before: independent women travelling the trade routes from city to city, forming convents according to their own rules and ideals, from their own money, distanced from local clergy and authorities, and respected by their contemporaries. They constitute an intriguing group and show what women in the later Middle Ages were capable of self-governance and independence, and could have the determination to live lives according to their own desires and designs.

 

Forthcoming:

Letha Böhringer, “The Swesteren of Piritz and of Cologne and their European Context,” in The Beguines of Medieval Świdnica: the Interrogation of the ‘Daughters of Odelindis’ in 1332, ed. by Tomasz Gałuszka and Paveł Kras (Heresy and Inquisition in the Middle Ages). York, 2023.

In German:  Letha Böhringer, “Die Schwestern und Töchter der Odelind von Pyritz. Ein überregionales Netzwerk von Beginen im Reich wird sichtbar,” in Mitteilungen des Instituts für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung (2023).

Barbara Baumeister, “Schwestern der Udelhild. Eine geistliche Gemeinschaft in Augsburg mit europäischen Verbindungen,” Zeitschrift des historischen Vereins für Schwaben 151 (2023).