When they Begin the Beguine – of radical religion in the 13th century
In 1310, a little old lady was tied into place at the stake and the faggots at her feet were lit. Did she pray? Lock her eyes on the infinite blue of the June sky above? Whatever the case, Marguerite Porete went up in flames, as silent and obdurate in her moment of death as she’d been during the eighteen months she’d been a prisoner of the Inquisition. Her crime? She spread heretic teachings – she had even written a book about her beliefs, titled Les mirouer des simples ames anienties, or “The mirror of the simple souls”.
Interestingly enough, the book was written in vernacular. Even more interestingly, the book professes that man (and woman) can find their way to God by opening their hearts to the power of Divine Love and turning a deaf ear to Reason. I suppose this is a correct description of what faith is all about, but to voice opinions questioning the need of an intermediary in the shape of the Holy Church was a dangerous thing to do in the 13th century.
We know very little about Marguerite’s early life, beyond the fact that as she knew how to read and write, she must have had a privileged childhood. Actually, we know very little about Marguerite’s life full stop – not until she fell under the beady eye of the Inquisition does she become visible to us. Not, I am sad to say, all that unusual: after all, not only was Marguerite a relatively unimportant person in times when chronicles were mostly written about kings and queens, the odd saint and valiant knight, but she was also a woman.
I came upon Marguerite by chance. I was reading up on the history of the Flemish counties back in the very early 14th century, when I ran into a lot of references to the Beguines. Vaguely, I recalled having read an article some years ago about the last of the Beguines having died, and as I remembered it, the woman in question seemed to be some sort of nun. But were the Beguines nuns?
The Beguines were most certainly not nuns. The Beguines were early forms of female collective living, with pious women of all ages and professions coming together to pray and study the divinity of God. Contemplating through the darker hours of the day, spending hours in prayer, the Beguines also held down day jobs – as midwives or healers or seamstresses or lacemakers or cooks – thereby earning their living. They offered schooling to the children of the poor, they ran sick-houses for the ill and elderly, and they lived in sisterhood, promising to live in celibacy while they remained with the Beguines.
Being a Beguine was not a life-long vocation. Women came and went, and one could argue the various Beguine communities acted as halfway houses for women who, for whatever reason, had lost their footing in life and needed to get back on track. Inspired by the ambition to live as per the Vita Apostolica, that is to say in accordance with the words and life of Christ, the Beguines filled a gap in a society where social welfare was entirely unknown. And they also encouraged their members to think for themselves when it came to matters of faith, relying on the heart to guide them in the right direction, the so called Love Mysticism.
Major no-no as per the established church. Women should not ponder such questions – nor should they live in unsupervised communities. Initially, however, the church was mildly positive to the Beguines, seeing as these women had an ambition to do good. The Beguines were inspired by that mild saint St Francis of Assisi, and had they been allowed to join the Franciscan orders, maybe the Beguines would never had seen the light of day. But St Francis, for all his other qualities, had no time for women. While initially his order did welcome nuns, by 1218 he’d had enough, refusing outright to have anything more to do with women. “God had freed us from wives, and now the devil has given us sisters,” he is supposed to have said (and there went my esteem for St Francis down the drain…). To be fair, St Francis was merely a product of his times, in which it was an undisputable fact that women were weak vessels, much tempted by carnal sin, and even worse, women were temptresses, more than skilled in luring men to commit said carnal sins with them.
So instead, the Beguines founded Béguinages, they taught and practised charity – and they invested a lot of time on discussing the nature of God and faith. One of their foremost thinkers was Marguerite Porete, even if she seems to have had a falling out with her former sisters at one point, seeing as she writes rather disparagingly about Beguines in her texts. After leaving the Béguinage, Marguerite spent her life on the roads.
Her book is an allegory, a discussion between Love, Reason and the Soul. Proximity to God, she claims, can only be found in loving him so absolutely one ceases to exist, absorbed into Him. Proximity to God is to experience the ultimate form of passion – God is often referred to as her Lover – and the language Marguerite uses to describe her feelings for God borders on the erotic. This in itself was a problem for the church, but even worse was that Marguerite adhered to the “quietist” beliefs, according to which neither priests nor bishops, church or pope, were necessary for a person to commune with God.
In 1306, the Church decided to teach this irritating lady a lesson. Her book was formally condemned as being heretic and the bishop of Cambrai threw the book to burn in a ceremony that took place at Valenciennes. Well, ceremony might be stretching it; after all, it was a book-burning, plain and simple. At the same time, it was announced that anyone who read this book or owned it would be excommunicated.
Marguerite had been forced to attend the book-burning, but she chose to ignore this warning and continued teaching the way to God as she saw it. Women were not allowed to preach – no matter what beliefs she professed – so already here Marguerite was thumbing her nose at the bishop and the church. When she also sent copies of her book to various people, the church had had enough. She was arrested and placed in the tender care of the Inquisition.
If the church had thought to intimidate her, it didn’t work. An impressive array of scholars were brought in to substantiate the church’s case against her – far more than could be considered necessary when facing one very lonely woman. No matter what questions she was asked (or how… I quake when considering just how persuasive her interrogators may have been) Marguerite remained obdurate, refusing to recant. Which is why she was led out to the stake that day in June of 1310. People wept at her execution – one frail woman, and a good woman at that, being burnt to death was a difficult thing to watch. Even more so when she died in silent dignity, despite the atrocious pain.
Ultimately, killing Marguerite did not help. Her words and beliefs were still available to whoever got hold of her book, and The Mirror of Simple Souls became a clandestine bestseller, a text to be discussed in the privacy of your home with people you trusted. Over time, this book was added to all the other subversive religious literature banned by the Church, and ultimately all these suppressed beliefs exploded in the Reformation. But when that happened, people no longer remembered Marguerite, and her book was supposed to have been written by a man – of course.And what happened to all those Béguinages? Obviously the powerful Church couldn’t tolerate all these unorganised communities, chock-full of outspoken women. In 1311, Pope Clement V accused the Beguines of spreading heresy. Over the coming century, the previous flourishing communities were destroyed or absorbed into more conventional monastic orders. Not all, however: in the Low Countries popular opinion was very much for the Beguines, and while they disappeared almost everywhere else, in present day Belgium and the Netherlands they still lived on. The Amsterdam Béguinage even survived the Reformation, being allowed to remain staunchly Catholic – well, until the English Puritans fleeing from England needed somewhere to stay, when the poor Beguines were brutally evicted. And still they persevered…
The last Dutch Beguine died in 1971, and in 2013 the last Beguine anywhere, Marcella Pattyn, passed on to the afterlife, at the ripe old age of 92. By then, she had been very alone for quite some time.
Today, many of us find it difficult to comprehend what women found so attractive about the idea of being a beguine. Back then, this was a third alternative to the more standard fare of being a wife or a nun – and many women saw it as an opportunity to achieve some element of independence. Of course, for those more outspoken among the beguines, this life came at a risk – as exemplified by Marguerite, one of the more controversial Christian mystics, and one of the most vociferous proponents of the belief that the way to God went through prayer and love, not via the suffocating structures of the Holy Church.