Born in Hainaut around 1250, this mystic of great intellectual formation wrote in 1290 “Le miroir des âmes simples et anéanties et qui seulement demeurent en vouloir et désir d’Amour“ (The mirror of souls simple and annihilated and who only remain in want and desire for Love). This text circulates rapidly among the contemplatives in France. The Mirror is condemned the first time between 1300 and 1306 by Gui de Colmieu, bishop of Cambrai, it is burned in the public square of Valenciennes and forbidden to read under pain of excommunication. The next bishop, Philippe de Marigny, made her life even more difficult: he sued her for a second trial and then turned her over to the Inquisition Court. Always hunted by hierarchies, Marguerite is imprisoned for more than a year (the time allowed for reflection by the Inquisition). She does not dodge the conflict and remains consistent until death. Marguerite refuses to swear an oath of “truth” before the Inquisition, considering that she can not give her guarantee to an unfair institution. She also refuses to receive sacramental absolution for faults that she considers not to have committed. Marguerite is burned in Paris at the Place de Greve – today Place de l’Hotel de Ville – on June 1, 1310, after a spectacular trial with 21 other theologians gathered under the direction of Guillaume de Paris. This same Guillaume is the confessor of Philip the Fair, monarch despot who also crushed the Knights Templar. A huge crowd and the highest civil and ecclesiastical authorities attend her martyrdom. The common people are deeply shaken by the nobility of this woman who goes to the stake “by honesty of love”.
The mirror of the simple souls was the reason of its condemnation by a troop of worried theologians who only based themselves on some sentences (15 “male sonantes” propositions) extracted from their context and considered as heretical. The book is conceived as a dialogue between Love and Reason, the latter being always in default. The original text in the Piccard language is lost; the extant text in a vernacular French version of the XV century was used for translations into English, Italian and Latin.
Luc Richir quotes: “Marguerite’s genius was to apply the spirit of Provencal eroticism to the realm of spirituality. Successful transfer when the relation between soul and God rests on “pure love” and not on the obedience to virtues. God is Love and Love is God, is it written in the Mirror. Love desires nothing but the effacement, the annihilation of the will of the soul in favour of the divine will. The theme is not original. What is more, it is the path followed towards the infinite will: the “wanting nothing”. (Luc Richir, supplement to La Vie, March 4, 2004)
For centuries, we have believed this work lost. It is the historian Romana Guarnieri who finds it in 1946 in a fund of the Vatican Library and publishes it for the first time in 1962 with her critical comments. Father Paul Verdeyen published in Latin this treatise by taking over the translation made by the Inquisition and the Corpus Christianorum into Flemish.
“I rest in peace completely, alone, reduced to nothing, all to the courtesy of the only goodness of God, without a single will to make me move, whatever its richness. The accomplishment of my work is always wanting nothing. For as long as I do not want anything, I am alone in him, without me, and all liberated; while wanting something, I am with me, and so I lose my freedom. And if I do not want anything, if I have lost all my will, I miss nothing: free is my conduct, and I want nothing from anyone. When I want nothing, and have lost everything out of my will, then I miss nothing; free is my maintenance. I do not want anything from anyone ” (Mirror of the simple souls)
The historian Lemmens points out the divergences that exist between specialists on the figure of Marguerite, who, probably a beguines, was nonetheless an atypical beguine. It is proved by the text of the Mirror where she writes:
“Friend, what will say the beguines and the people of religion
when will they hear the excellence of our divine song?
The beguines say that I am mistaken, and priests, clerics and preachers,
Augustinians, Carmelitanes and the Friars Minor
for what I write about the state of ennobled Love” (chapter 122, 88-89)
Was she an isolated, wandering beguine, or did she live in the beguinage of Valenciennes at the Service of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital? We know that she worked in Valenciennes, in Lorraine and in the bishopric of Reims and even in Paris. Her book was even introduced to the London Charterhouse by the following of the Queen. Sometimes considered belonging to the Brothers and Sisters of Free Spirit; it seems however that she was never part of it (Lemmens, p. 112).
Simone Weil in her Cahiers quotes some extras from the Mirror, without yet knowing who the author was, as for a long time one thought to be a man.
Dufrasne Dieudonné, Donne moderne del Medioevo, Jacabook, 2009
Leloup Jean-Yves, Les dits de la femme qui brûle, éd. Almora, 2018
Lemmens Joseph, Une révolution du monachisme en Belgique, XIIIe-XVIIe siècles, Le cri histoire, Bruxelles, 2009, (chpitre IV : les Béguines et les Beguins)
Panciera Silvana, Marguerite Porete, un’eretica da santificare, in Appunti di viaggio, n.129, novembre-dicembre 2013
Porete Marguerite, Lo specchio delle anime semplici, traduzione di Giovanna Fozzer e contributi di Romana Guarnieri e Marco Vannini, Ed. San Paolo, 1994
Richir Luc, Marguerite Porete. Une âme au travail de l’Un , Ed.OUSIA, Bruxelles, 2002