Marguerite of Hainault, called "la Porete", was a beguine, or member of a female urban religious order that practiced charity and good works in later medieval cities. Some beguines lived together in communities (called beguinages), while others lived with their families. The former were often considered troublesome by civic and ecclesiastical authorities, as the lack of male authority and direction in the beguinage was seen as potentially dangerous both for the beguines and for the community around them. Although many beguines were involved in charity and social work, some developed intricate mystical philosophies. Marguerite was one of the mystics. Her work, The Mirror of Simple Souls, attracted much attention, both positive and negative. Ultimately she and her text were condemned as heretical, and she was burned at the stake in Paris in 1310. From the following texts recounting her trial and execution, try to discern what was most troubling to the church authorities. Why was she burned?
The following passages have been translated from the Latin by Richard
Barton from Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition in the Middle
Age, 3 vols. (NY: Macmillan, 1922), 2:575-578; and from Corpus
documentorum inquisitionis haereticae pravitatis Neerlandicae, ed.
Paul Fredericq, Hoogeschool van Ghent, Werken van den pratischen leergang
van vaderlandsche geschiedenis, 5 (Ghent: J. Vuylsteke, 1896), 156-160.
A. The Sentencing of Marguerite la Porete
In the name of Christ, amen. In the same year, 1310, in the 8th
indiction, on the Sunday after the Ascension of the Lord [31 May], in the
fifth year of the pontificate of the blessed father, lord Clement V, pope
by divine providence, a large crowd gathered together in the field of La
Greve in Paris. Assisting me were the following men: the reverend
father in Christ the lord Bishop of Paris; masters John de Frogerio (the
Official of Paris), C. de Chenat, John de Dammartin, Xavier de Charmoia,
Stephen de Bercondicuria; the Dominican friars Martin of Abbeville, bachelor
in Theology, and Nicholas de Avessiaco; John Marchandus, provost of Paris;
G. de Choques, and many other specially gathered for this event. After
many processions from the City of Paris had caused a large multitude of
the people to gather, the religious and distinguished brother William of
Paris, of the Dominican Order, who had been deputed through apostolic authority
to be inquisitor into heretical depravity in the kingdom of France, commanded
me, the public notary mentioned within, to record the following sentence
in this way:
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen. It is well known and has been made well known through clear arguments to us, William of Paris, Dominican and inquisitor into heretical depravity by apostolic authority, that you, Marguerite of Hainault called la Porete, are strongly suspected of the stain of heretical depravity. On account of this suspicion we ordered that you be cited to appear in judgment before us. You appeared at this trial and were personally commanded by us canonically and legally and on several occasions to swear an oath concerning the whole, pure, and full truth about what was spoken by you and others concerning those things which are known to fall under the jurisdiction of the office of inquisitor (which has been entrusted to me). Yet you refused to swear [the oath]. Even though you were questioned by us many times and in many places about this, you always remained contumacious and rebellious about these matters; because of your obvious and notorious contumacy and rebellion, and with the prompting of counsel offered on this matter by many wise men, we placed a sentence of greater excommunication on both you, as a rebel and obstinate person, and on [your writings]. Even though this sentence was made known to you, you endured it with a pertinacious soul for almost a year and a half after you were notified; [you persisted in this state] despite the fact that we frequently offered you the sacrament of absolution, which would be granted to you according to church practice as soon as you should humbly request it. Until now, however, you have disdained to seek absolution, and you have thus far wanted neither to swear nor respond to us concerning the aforesaid matters. On account of your refusal to do these things, and according to the holy canons, we hold you - as indeed we ought to hold you - both as convicted and confessed and as one lapsed into heresy; that is, we hold you to be a heretic [the scribe used a feminine ending for heretic here]. Furthermore, while you, Marguerite, remain obstinate in these rebellions, we, wanting to be guided by knowledge, began to exercise against you the inquisition required by the office intrusted to us; we therefore opened a case on the subject of the aforesaid matters, just as the order of life requires. This inquisition and hearing made it clear to us that you had at one point composed a pestiferous book containing heresy and errors; because of its errors, this book had been condemned by the well-remembered Guy, late Bishop of Cambrai, and had been, by his command, publicly and unmistakably burned in your presence. The same bishop had expressly forbidden you, under pain of excommunication, to again compose, possess, or make use of such a book (or another like it). Lord Bishop Guy expressly added and placed his seal on the following order, that if you were to again make use of the aforesaid book, or if you were to turn your mind towards the matters contained in it, either in writing or in speech, you ought to be condemned as a heretic and should be handed over to the secular justice to be judged. Afterward you maintained and made use of all the matters contained in the said book on numerous occasions against the bishop's prohibition, just as is made clear by the examinations carried out before the inquisitor of Lotharingia and before the right reverend father and lord, John, then bishop of Cambrai and now Archbishop of Sens. Moreover, you sent the same book, without mentioning that it had been condemned and without removing the burned [ie., condemned] parts, as if it were good and licit, to the reverend father lord John, bishop of Chalons, and to other persons; these actions were made clear to us by the clear testimonies of sworn witnesses in our presence. We gave careful consideration to all the above matters, and took counsel with many experts concerning the truth of both sides [of the matter]. Finally, keeping sight of God and the Holy Gospels, and with the counsel and assent of the reverend father and lord, Lord G., by the grace of God Bishop of Paris, we condemn you, Marguerite, not only as one fallen into heresy but also as a relapsed heretic, and we relinquish you to the secular justice, asking it to act as mercifully towards you, excepting death and bodily mutation, as the sanctions canonically permit. Inasmuch as your erroneous and heretical book contains heresy and errors, by the judgment of and advice of the masters in theology residing in Paris, we finally condemn you and now want you to be excommunicated and burned. [And] we command - singly and as a group - all those in the district who possess the said book, under the pain of excommunication, to deliver it without fraud to us or to the prior of the Dominicans of Paris, our agent, before the next feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Done at Paris in the field of La Greve, with the aforesaid reverend father the bishop of Paris present, and with the people and clergy of the city solemnly gathered together there, on the Sunday before the Ascension of the Lord, in the year 1310.
B. The Inquisitor Consults Canon Lawyers on the Case of Marguerite la Porete, May 30 1310.
To all those who will inspect the present letters, William called Brother, archdeacon of Laudonie in the church of Saint-Andrew in Scocia, Hugh de Bisuncio canon of Paris, John de Tollenz canon of Saint-Quentin in the Vermandois, Henry de Bitunia canon of Furne, and Peter de Vaux curate of Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois of Paris, all ruling Paris according to canon Law, give greetings in the name of the author of salvation.
You ought to know that the venerable, devout and discrete man, Brother William of Paris, of the Order of Preachers, who was deputed by the authority of the Apostolic See to be inquisitor into heretical depravity within the kingdom of France, communicated to us [the facts of] the case which follows, and consulted with us about it as is described below. The case truly was such: when Marguerite called Porete, who was suspected of heresy, remained disobedient and rebellious, not wanting to respond to questions nor swear an oath before the inquisitor concerning those matters which pertain to the office of inquisitor (which office had been granted legally to William), the same inquisitor nevertheless held an inquiry concerning her and, through the deposition of many witnesses, found that the said Marguerite had composed a certain book containing heresies and errors. Moreover, this book had been solemnly and publicly condemned and burned as such [ie., as heresy and error] by the order of the reverend father, lord Guy, the late bishop of Cambrai; in his pronouncement Bishop Guy had also ordained that if she should again attempt such things as were contained in the book either in writing or in speech, he condemned her and relinquished her to the secular justice for judgment. The same inquisitor [William] also found that she had confessed, first before the inquisitor of Lotharingia and then before the reverend father lord Philip, then bishop of Cambrai, that [even] after her initial condemnation she had retained the said book and other books; he also found that the said Marguerite had sent the said book (containing in its similitude the same errors) after its condemnation to the reverend father lord John, bishop of Chalons by the grace of God. He also found out that she had sent the book not only to the said bishop, but also to many other simple people, to Beghards, and to others of similar status. The consultation resulting from these matters that the aforesaid inquisitor made with us was done in this way: namely, he asked us whether on account of such things the aforesaid Beguine ought to be judged to have relapsed? [this was an important distinction; anyone could fall by mistake or ignorance into heresy, but if, once warned, you returned to that heresy (ie., relapsed), then the authorities could be sure of your evil intentions] We, moreover, responding canonically to the aforesaid consultation as lovers of the Catholic faith and as those professing the truth, decided that the same Beguine [Marguerite] was condemned by the truth of the facts listed above, and that she thus ought to be judged a relapse and as such ought to be handed over to the secular court. As testimony for this matter, we affixed our seal to the present document. Done in the year of the Lord 1310 on the Sunday after the feast of St John [ie., on May 30 1310] before the Latin Gate.
C. The University of Paris Provides Consultation in the Case of Marguerite
In the name of Christ, Amen. Let it be made known to everyone through the present public instrument [ie., public document], that we, the below-written notaries, had gathered together at St-Mathurin de Paris at the request and command of that religious man, Brother William of Paris, inquisitor into heretical depravity in the kingdom of France by apostolic authority; we were namely, venerable and discrete men Simon the dean, Thomas of Belliaco, William Alexander and John of Ghent, all canons of Paris; Peter of St Denis, Gerard of St Victor, James abbot of Carolocus, Gerard the Carmelite, John of Poilly, Laurence the prior of Vallis Scolarium, Alexander Henry the German, and Gregory of Lucca, all of the Order of Hermits of St Augustine; John of Mont Saint-Eloi, Ralph de Hoitot, and Berengar, all of the Dominican Order; John of Claromarisco, Nicholas of Lyra, and James of Esquillo, all Franciscans; James the Cistercian and Roger of Roseto, masters of Theology. Having gathered us all together in the same place, the same inquisitor asked advice from the masters concerning what was to be done about a certain book which he displayed there and from which many articles had been extracted, put on display, and demonstrated to the masters, in the manner that follows:
The first of these articles was this: "That the annihilated soul gives licence to the virtues and is no more in their servitude, since it does not have use for them, but [rather] the virtues are subject to the will." Item, the fifteenth article was this: "That such a soul [ie., one annihilated in love of God] does not care about the consolations of God nor does it care for His gifts; and it neither ought to care for nor is able to care for [such things], because it is wholly intent upon God; and thus its intention towards God can be impeded."
Having first held deliberation with the other masters listed above, Simon the Dean of Paris, in the name of and with the will, assent and concord of all the above said masters, made a response to the request for consultation that had been directed to them. He stated that it was and is their advice that such a book, in which the said articles are contained, ought to be exterminated as heretical, erroneous, and contemptuous of heresies and errors.
Done in the aforementioned place, in the year of the Lord 1309, on the 11th day of April. [this date actually gives the year 1310, April 11]
D. The chronicler William of Nangis describes the trial and execution of Marguerite Porete, 1310
Around the feast of Pentecost it happened at Paris that a certain pseudo-woman from Hainault, named Marguerite and called "la Porete," produced a certain book in which, according to the judgment of all the theologians who examined it diligently, many errors and heresies were contained; among which errors [were the beliefs], that the soul can be annihilated in love of the Creator without censure of conscience or remorse and that it ought to yield to whatever by nature it strives for and desires. This [belief] manifestly rings forth as heresy. Moreover, she did not want to renounce this little book or the errors that are contained in it, and indeed she even made light of the sentence of excommunication laid on her by the inquisitor of heretical depravity, [who had laid this sentence] because she, although having been lawfully summoned before the bishop, did not want to appear and held out in her hardened malice for a year and more with an obstinate soul. In the end her ideas were exposed in the common field of La Greve through the deliberation of learned men; this was done before the clergy and people who had been gathered specially for this purpose, and she was handed over to the secular court. Firmly receiving her into his power, the provost of Paris had her executed on the next day by fire. She displayed many signs of penitence, both noble and pious, in her death. For this reason the faces of many of those who witnessed it were affectionately moved to compassion for her; indeed, the eyes of many were filled with tears.
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