Tag Archives: Marguerite Porete

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.