Marguerite Porete

Marguerite Porete

Marguerite Porete (?-1310)

Marguerite Porete was a French mystic and the author of “The Mirror of Simple Souls.” It is a Christian Spiritual work concerning divine love. When she refused to remove her book form circulation and recant her views she was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1310. Little is known of her life except through her trial for heresy and it is certainly biased and incomplete. She has been a rather obscure figure until recent years as until 1946 her work had been published anonymously since her death.

Porete was officially warned by the Church that her works were heretical and they were publically burned by the Bishop of Cambrai. She had written her book in Old French as opposed to Latin and was ordered not to circulate her ideas ever again. She was eventually arrested by the local inquisitor. Twenty-one theologians scoured her book for evidence of heresy. In the end three bishops passed final judgment on her. After a year and a half in prison in Paris her trial began. She refused to recant her ideas or cooperate with the authorities. Because she did not recant she was found guilty and burnt at the stake. As she died the crowd is said to have been moved to tears by her calmness.

“The Mirror of Simple Souls,” is an allegorical conversation between Love, Reason, Soul, and Truth. It deals with Porete’s belief that when the soul is full of God’s love it is united with God and in a union which transcends the contradictions of the world. In this state one cannot sin because the soul is united with God’s will and incapable of such. A few quotes:

“O Truth, says this Soul, for god’s sake, do not say

That of myself I might ever say something of Him,

save through Him;

And this is true, do not doubt it,

And if it pleases you to know whose I am,

I will say it through pure courtesy:

Love holds me so completely in her domain,

That I have neither sense, nor will,

Nor reason to do anything,

Except through her, as you know.”

“Theologians and other clerks,

You won’t understand this book,

— However bright your wits —

If you do not meet it humbly,

And in this way, Love and Faith

Make you surmount Reason, for

They are the protectors of Reason’s house. ”

“God has nowhere to put his goodness, if not in me no place to put himself entire, if not in me. And by this means I am the exemplar of salvation, and what is more, I am the salvation itself of every creature, and the glory of God.”

~ Marguerite Porete

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen (circa 1098-1179)

Hildegard of Bingen was a German writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, Benedictine abbess, visionary and polymath (a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. An example of another famous polymath would be Leonardo da Vinci). She wrote theological, botanical, and medicinal texts, as well as letters, liturgical songs, poems, a morality play, also supervising over miniature illuminated manuscripts. Her morality play is the oldest surviving example of its form. In 1136 she was elected a magistra (teacher) by her fellow nuns. In 1150 she founded the monastery of Rupertsberg and in 1165 Eibingen.

It is believed she was born about 1098, but the exact date of her birth is unknown. She was the tenth child of a family of free nobles and was sickly from birth. From a very young age Hildegard experienced visions. Perhaps due to her visions her parents offered her as a tithe to the church. Her enclosure date is cloudy and there is no written record of the next twenty-four years of her life in the convent. She was enclosed with another girl Jutta who also had visions and attracted many visitors. Jutta taught her to read and write, but not how to interpret biblical meaning. The two of them likely prayed, meditated, read scripture and did some type of handwork together. It is also believed it was at this time she learned to play the ten string psaltery. Upon Jutta’s death in 1136 Hildegard was unanimously elected magistra of her community by her fellow nuns. She wanted more independence and requested Abbot Kuno to be able to move the convent to Rupertsberg. This was to be a move towards poverty. She was denied. Hildegard in return went over his head and was granted permission from the archbishop. In 1150 Hildegard and twenty nuns made the move and were granted their own monastery.

At age 43 she received a vision from God to write down all that she had seen. Her first book the “Scivias” (Know the Ways) was the result. In it she described her struggles from within:

“But I, though I saw and heard these things, refused to write for a long time through doubt and bad opinion and the diversity of human words, not with stubbornness but in the exercise of humility, until, laid low by the scourge of God, I fell upon a bed of sickness; then, compelled at last by many illnesses, and by the witness of a certain noble maiden of good conduct [the nun Richardis von Stade] and of that man whom I had secretly sought and found, as mentioned above, I set my hand to the writing. While I was doing it, I sensed, as I mentioned before, the deep profundity of scriptural exposition; and, raising myself from illness by the strength I received, I brought this work to a close – though just barely – in ten years. […] And I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places. And again I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, ‘Cry out therefore, and write thus!”

In addition to her writing she composed sixty-nine musical compositions including the oldest surviving morality play “Ordo Virtutum.” This is one of the largest outputs among all medieval composers. She also wrote over 400 letters to people ranging from Popes, Emperors, abbots, and abbesses. In addition she wrote two volumes on natural medicines and cures, an invented language called, “Lingua ignota,” a gospel commentary, two works of hagiography (writings about holy people such as saints), and finally three volumes of visionary theology : the “Scivias (Know the Ways)”, “Liber vitae meritorum (Book of Life’s Merits)” and “Liber divinorum operum (Book of Divine Works)”. In each of these texts she first describes the vision and then interprets them throughout the Bible. The books were celebrated in the Middle Ages in part because of the approval given by Pope Eugenius III. She also wrote “Physica” and “Causae at Curae”. Well known for her healing ability in these texts she describes the natural world including the cosmos, animals, plants, stones and minerals. She particularly focused on the healing abilities of plants, animals and stones. She also created her own alphabet with abridged words of a form of Latin. It is believed she used this alphabet to increase solidarity among her nuns.

Her belief was man and woman had complimentary roles and wrote,

“Man and woman are in this way so involved with each other that one of them is the work of the other. Without woman, man could not be called man; without man, woman could not be named woman. Thus woman is the work of man, while man is a sight full of consolation for woman. Neither of them could henceforth live without the other. Man is in this connection an indication of the Godhead while woman is an indication of the humanity of God’s Son”

~ Hildegard of Bingen

Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan (1363-circa 1430)

Christine de Pizan (or Pisan) was a Venetian born late medieval woman poet. She was highly regarded in her own day and during her thirty year career as Europe’s first professional woman writer completing forty-one works. She tirelessly challenged misogyny and the stereotypes of the late medieval period. She was widowed by age twenty-four and much of her motivation for her writing came from her need to earn a living for not only herself but her children. Her early poetry was of the courtly genre and marked by her knowledge of aristocratic custom and fashion of the day involving women and the practice of chivalry. In recent decades her works have once again returned to prominence through the scholarly efforts of those such as Simone de Beauvoir among others. There is some argument among scholars as whether to see her as an early feminist or that her beliefs were not progressive enough.

In 1390 with the death of her husband she was faced with the prospect of being left to support her mother, a niece and her two children. She began writing love ballads which garnered the attention of several patrons within the court who commissioned her to compose texts of their romantic exploits as they were intrigued by the novelty of having a woman writer. It is estimated that between 1393 and 1412 she was quite prolific having composed over three-hundred ballads and shorter poems. In 1401-1402 she engaged in a debate over Jean de Meun’s portrayal of women as nothing much more than seducers in his work “Romance of the Rose.” The result of the debate was more profound for her than the actual conclusions as it established her reputation as a female intellectual in a male dominated realm.

By 1405 she had completed her most successful literary works, “The Book of the City of Ladies,” and “The Treasure of the City of Ladies.” In these two works she argued and showed the importance of women’s past contributions to society and then attempted to illustrate and teach women how to cultivate qualities to counteract the growth of misogyny. She argues that women must recognize and promote their ability to make peace between their husband and his subjects. She believed that slanderous speech destroys the sisterly bond among women, “skill in discourse should be a part of every woman’s moral repertoire.” The works give a fascinating portrait of women in the 1400’s offering advice for women’s lives from the lady in the castle to the servant, peasant and even the prostitute. Through all of this she asserts than woman’s influence is realized when her speech unifies value to chastity, virtue and restraint.

Simone de Beauvoir in 1949 described her as, “the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defense of her sex.” Perhaps this makes her the western world’s first feminist.

A few quotes :

“Just as women’s bodies are softer than men’s, so their understanding is sharper.”

“I say it to thee again, and doubt never the contrary, that if it were the custom to put the little maidens to the school, and they were made to learn the sciences as they do to the men-children, that they should learn as perfectly, and they should be”

“Ah, child and youth, if you knew the bliss which resides in the taste of knowledge, and the evil and ugliness that lies in ignorance, how well you are advised to not complain of the pain and labor of learning.”

“Not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it displeased them that women knew more than they did.”

~ Christine de Pizan

Marie de France: Courtly Love Poet

Marie de France

Marie de France (12th Century)

Very little is actually known of Marie de France as both her given name and where she lived is only known through her manuscripts. She was a medieval poet who probably was born in France and lived in England in the late 12th century. She lived and wrote at an unknown or undisclosed court, but was at least known of in the royal court of King Henry II of England. Some have suggested that she was perhaps a half-sister of Henry II.

She wrote a form of Anglo-Norman French and was proficient in Latin and English as well. She translated “Aesop’s Fables” into Anglo-Norman French from Middle English, and the “Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick” from Latin. She is best known as the writer of “The Lais Of Marie de France” which are still quite widely read and were a great influence on the romance genre (heroic literature) such as Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”

“The Lais of Marie de France” are a series of twelve short (a few hundred lines each) Breton Lais. They are rhymed stanzas of 6-16 lines with 4-8 syllables per line which focus on glorifying the concept of courtly love through the adventure of the main character. The series of lais presents a contrast of the positive and negative actions that can result from love through magical situations, themes and imagery. Romantic themes include lovers in a hostile world, oppressive marriages and dichotomy social conventions, conflicts between love, chivalry and marriage, freedom of desire, love as an escape, and the psychological issues of love manifested in treachery and selfishness. They are also considered to have an ambiguous moral message especially for the time.

“Love is an invisible wound within the body, and, since it has its source in nature, it is a long-lasting ill.”

“Anyone who intends to present a new story must approach the problem in a new way and speak so persuasively that the tale brings pleasure to people.”

“It would be less dangerous for a man to court every lady in an entire land than for a lady to remove a single besotted lover from her skirts, for he will immediately attempt to strike back.”

~ Marie de France