Marguerite Porete was a 14th century French mystic who authored a book entitled “The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls and Those Who Only Remain in Will and Desire of Love”. This book was condemned by the French Inquisition as being heretical. Marguerite Porete was asked to recant. When she refused to respond to her inquisitors, she was condemned to death. On 1 June 1310 she was burned at the stake in Paris.
Her Life and Trial
Porete’s life is recorded only in accounts of her trial for heresy, at which she was condemned to be burnt at the stake. Her biography is probably biased and certainly incomplete. She was said to come from Hainaut in northern France, though this is uncertain. Her high level of education means she is likely to have had upper-class origins. She is associated with the Beguine movement, and was therefore able to travel fairly freely.
Marguerite appears to have written the first version of her book in the 1290s. Sometime between 1296 and 1306 it was deemed heretical, and the Bishop of Cambrai condemned it to be publicly burned in her presence at Valenciennes. One of the taboos Porete had broken was writing the book in Old French rather than in Latin and she was ordered not to circulate her ideas or the book again. Nevertheless she continued to do so and in 1308 was arrested by the local Inquisitor (the Dominican William of Paris, also known as William of Humbert) on grounds of heresy, in spite of claims in the book that she had consulted three church authorities about her writings, including the highly respected Master of Theology Godfrey of Fontaines, and gained their approval. Marguerite refused to speak to William of Paris or any of her inquisitors during her imprisonment and trial. In 1310 a commission of twenty-one theologians investigated a series of fifteen propositions drawn from the book (only three of which are securely identifiable today), judging them heretical. Three Bishops passed final judgement upon her.
Porete had been arrested with a Beghard, Guiard de Cressonessart, who was also put on trial for heresy. Guiard declared himself to be Porete’s defender. After being held in prison in Paris for a year and a half, their trial began. Guiard, under tremendous pressure, eventually confessed and was found guilty. Porete, on the other hand, refused to recant her ideas, withdraw her book or cooperate with the authorities, refusing to take the oath required by the Inquisitor to proceed with the trial. Guiard, because he confessed, was imprisoned. Porete, because she did not, was found guilty and burnt at the stake as a relapsed heretic. The Inquisitor spoke of her as a ‘pseudo-mulier’ (‘fake woman’) and described the Mirror as ‘filled with errors and heresies’. The record of the trial was appended to the chronicle begun by William of Nangis; despite the negative view taken towards Marguerite by Nangis, the chronicle reports that the crowd was moved to tears by the calmness of how she faced her end. After her death extracts from the book were cited in the bull Ad Nostrum, issued by the Council of Vienne in 1311, to condemn the Free Spirit movement as heretical.
The Mirror of Simple Souls
The title of Porete’s book refers to the simple soul which is united with God and has no will other than God’s own. Some of the language, as well as the format of a dialogue between characters such as Love, Virtue and the Soul, reflects a familiarity with the style of courtly love which was popular at the time, and attests to Porete’s high level of education and sophistication.
Although much of her book resembles a rational, Boethian argument between several parties it is actually subverting those expectations. Writing in beautifully elegant, flowing poetic prose and occasionally poetry, Marguerite ultimately says that the Soul must give up Reason, whose logical, conventional grasp of reality cannot fully comprehend God and the presence of Divine Love. The “Annihilated Soul” is one that has given up everything but God through Love. For Porete, when the Soul is truly full of God’s Love it is united with God and thus in a state of union which causes it to transcend the contradictions of this world. In such a beatific state it cannot sin because it is wholly united with God’s Will and thus incapable of acting in such a way – a phenomenon which the standard theology describes as the effect of Divine grace, which suppresses a person’s sinful nature. In fact, one of the main targets of her book is to teach to readers or listeners how to get this simple state though devices, for instance images. It is in this vision of Man being united with God through Love, thus returning to its source, and the presence of God in everything that she connects in thought with the ideas of Eckhart. Porete and Eckhart had acquaintances in common and there is much speculation as to whether they ever met or had access to each other’s work.
In many ways Porete’s vision is the highest expression of the words of John the Evangelist in the New Testament:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love cometh of God. And every one that loveth, is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love. .. [and] he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.” (First Epistle of John 4: 7-16)
Words which Porete herself references in her own writing:
“I am God, says Love, for Love is God and God is Love, and this Soul is God by the condition of Love. I am God by divine nature and this Soul is God by the condition of Love. Thus this precious beloved of mine is taught and guided by me, without herself, for she is transformed into me, and such a perfect one, says Love, takes my nourishment.”
Porete’s vision of the Soul in ecstatic union with God, moving in a state of perpetual joy and peace, is a repetition of the Catholic doctrine of the Beatific Vision, albeit experienced in this life and not in the next. Where Porete ran into trouble with some authorities was in her description of the Soul in this state being above the worldy dialectic of conventional morality and the teachings and control of the earthly church. Porete argues that the Soul in such a sublime state is above the demands of ordinary virtue, not because virtue is not needed but because in its state of union with God virtue becomes automatic. As God can do no evil and cannot sin, the exalted/Annihilated soul, in perfect union with Him, no longer is capable of evil or sin. Although this concept is found in the catechism, certain Church authorities nevertheless claimed that it smacked of amorality.
Interestingly, two hundred years later St John of the Cross expressed an almost identical view of the nature of the Soul’s union with God in his The Ascent Of Mount Carmel i.e. that once united with God the Soul’s will becomes that of God’s, but was not denounced as a heretic. Although the Mirror is now embraced as an important piece of Christian mysticism it is unlikely Porete will ever enjoy the renown or acceptance John now receives from the Catholic Church.
There is much speculation as to why Porete became such a target and why so much effort was made to put her on trial (the number of consultants gathered to draw up the case against her was unprecedented). Growing hostility to the Beguine movement among Franciscans and Dominicans, the political machinations of the French king Philip the Fair, who was also busy suppressing the Knights Templar, ecclesiastical fear at the spread of the anti-hierarchical Free Spirit Heresy have all been suggested, as has the popularity of Porete’s book which gave her a profile other writers did not have.
There were numerous female mystics during the Middle Ages period who all (by definition) claimed direct mystical contact with God, some working from within the framework of the Church, some not; and yet most — such as Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Birgitta of Sweden, Julian of Norwich, etc. — were not viewed as suspect. Nevertheless the leader of her trial, the Dominican Inquisitor William of Paris gathered together a formidable array of academics and lawyers to assess the case against Porete.
Some also associated her with the Brethren of the Free Spirit movement, a group which was considered heretical because of their antinomian views. The connection between Porete and the Free Spirits is somewhat tenuous, though, as further scholarship has determined that they were less closely related than some Church authorities believed.
Unlike other religious figures such as Meister Eckhart, who were condemned and later rehabilitated by the Roman Catholic Church, it is unlikely that Porete will be so favored. This is partly due to her relative obscurity.
Porete’s status as one of the greatest of Medieval Mystics has grown in recent decades, placing her alongside Mechthild of Magdeburg and Hadewijch as one of the most visionary exponents of the Love Mysticism of Beguine spirituality.
Excerpts from her writing:
“One finds something in the place where it is, and because (God) is everywhere, this Soul finds Him everywhere. Paradise is nothing other than to see God only.”
“This Soul is so well established that if she possessed all the understanding of all the creatures who ever were and who are and who are to come, so it would seem to her as nothing, compared to what she loves, which never was understood, is not now, and never will be.”
“For God is none other than the One of whom one can understand nothing perfectly. God is incomprehensible except by Himself. Thus it is better that the Soul be in the sweet country of understanding-nothing.”
“It is fitting that this Soul be similar to the Godhead, for she is transformed into God, says Love, which is why she has retained her true form, which is granted and given to her without beginning from One alone who has always loved her by His goodness.”
“I have only as much being as (God) is able to be of Himself in me. Whoever serves, he is not free, whoever senses, he has not died, whoever desires, he wills, whoever wills, he begs, whoever begs, he has a lack of divine sufficiency.”
“As long as I will nothing I am alone in Him without myself, completely unencumbered. And if I should will something I am with myself, and I have lost freeness.
Whoever would ask such free Souls, sure and peaceful, if they would want to be in purgatory, they would say no; or if they would want to be certain of salvation in this life, they would say no; or if they want to be in paradise, they would say no.
But then with what would they will it? They no longer possess any will, and if they would desire anything, they would separate themselves from Love.
Such a Soul neither desires nor despises poverty nor tribulation, neither mass nor sermon, neither fast nor prayer, and gives to Nature all that is necessary, without remorse of conscience. But such Nature is so well ordered through the transformation by unity of Love, to whom the will is conjoined, that Nature demands nothing which is prohibited.”
“This life is the handmaid and servant who prepares the place for the arrival and lodging of the great being of the Freeness of Willing Nothing, by which the Soul is in all points satisfied. That is, the Soul is satisfied by this nothingness which gives all things.
The one who gives all, possesses all, and not otherwise. The One in whom she is does His work through her, for the sake of which she is entirely freed by the witness of God Himself who is the worker of this work to the profit of this Soul who no longer has within her any work.
I do not owe (God) any work since He Himself works in me. If I should place my own [work] there, I destroy His work.
“Such an Annihilated Soul possesses so great understanding within her by the virtue of faith … that a created thing, which passes briefly, cannot dwell in her memory.”
“I love, ten thousand times more, the abundance of goods that remain in Him, than the gifts that I have received, and shall receive from Him in possession. And because I love more that which remains in Him and exists beyond my knowledge, than that which is in Him as well as in my knowledge, that which He knows and that I do not know myself is worth more to me than that which I know of and which is mine, for where that which surpasses me in my love is, there exists that which surpasses me in my treasure. And because I love more that which in Him surpasses me and that I shall never know, that which I love more is mine, by that which surpasses me in my love.”
“This greater part (of absolute divine Love) shows her her nothingness, naked without covering; such nakedness shows her the All Powerful through the goodness of divine righteousness. These showings make her deep, large, supreme, and sure. For they make her always naked, All and Nothing, as long as they hold her in their embrace.”
“The Divine Goodness pours out from [His] bosom one rapturous overflow of the movement of Divine Light. Such movement of Divine Light, which is poured into the Soul by light, shows to the will of the Soul the rightness of what is and the understanding of what is not in order to move the will of the soul from the place where it now is, where it ought not to be, in order to dissolve it where it is not, whence it comes, and where it ought to remain.”
“Love and such Souls are one thing, no longer two things. This Soul is totally dissolved, melted and drawn, joined and united to the most high Trinity. And she cannot will except the divine will through the divine work of the whole Trinity.”
“(The liberated soul) has no emptiness in her which would not be completely filled by Me, which is why she cannot host either care or memory, and so she possesses no semblance of them. And yet … piety and courtesy are not departed from such a Soul, as long as there is time and place.”
“(The liberated soul) loses her name, for she rises in sovereignty. And therefore she loses her name in the One in whom she is melted and dissolved through Himself and in Himself. Thus she would be like a body of water which flows from the sea, which has some name, as one would be able to say Aisne or Seine or another river. And when this water or river returns into the sea, it loses its course and its name with which it flowed in many countries in accomplishing its task. Now it is in the sea where it rests, and thus has lost all labor.
This Soul is imprisoned and held in the country of complete peace, for she is always in full sufficiency, in which she swims and bobs and floats, and she is surrounded by divine peace, without any movement in her interior, and without any exterior work on her part.
These two things would remove this peace from her if they could penetrate to her, but they cannot, for she is in the sovereign state where they cannot pierce or disturb her about anything.”
“This is right, says Love, for her will is ours. She has crossed the Red Sea, her enemies have been drowned in it. Her pleasure is our will, through the purity of the unity of the will of the Deity where we have enclosed her. Her will is ours, for she has fallen from grace into the perfection of the work of the Virtues, and from the Virtues into Love, and from Love into Nothingness, and from Nothingness into clarification by God, who sees Himself with the eyes of His Majesty, who in this point has clarified her with Himself. And she is so dissolved in Him that she sees neither herself nor Him, and thus He sees completely Himself alone, by His divine goodness.”
“He will be of Himself in such goodness which He knew of Himself before she ever was, when He gave her … Free Will, which He cannot take from her without the pleasure of the Soul. Now He possesses [the will] without a why in the same way that He possessed it before she was made a lady by it. There is no one except Him; no one loves except Him, for no one is except Him, and thus He alone loves completely, and sees Himself completely alone, and praises completely alone by His being Himself.”
“This Soul … is at rest without obstructing the outpouring of divine Love. (The liberated soul) no longer seeks God through penitence, nor through any sacrament of Holy Church; not through thoughts, nor through words, nor through works; not through creature here below, nor through creature above; not through justice, nor through mercy, nor through glory of glory; not through divine understanding, nor through divine love, nor through divine praise.”
“(The liberated soul) has nothing to sin with, for without a will no one can sin. Now she is kept from sin if she leaves her will there where it is planted, that is, in the One who has given it to her freely from His goodness.”
“She is dissolved by annihilation into that prior existence where Love has received her.
Such Souls … possess as equally dear, shame as honor, and honor as shame; poverty as wealth, and wealth as poverty; torment from God and his creatures, as comfort from God and His creatures; to be loved as hated, and hated as loved; to be in hell as in paradise, and in paradise as in hell; and in small estate as in great, and great estate as small … They neither will nor not-will anything of these prosperities nor of these adversities.”
“She has fallen into certainty of knowing nothing and into certainty of willing nothing. And this nothingness … gives her the All, and no one can possess it in any other way.”