Marguerite de Porete

by Rūta Ashworth

Marguerite de Porete is a woman in theology who inspires me. The flourishing of female mysticism during the middle ages in general is a welcome insight to female experiences of God and religion. Christian formal theology is desperately lacking in the female voice and the emergence of mysticism provided a space for women to publicly express their experience of God. However, in many texts the female mystic questions the legitimacy of her visions, and publicly doubts her authority, in order to deflect suspicion. A female mystic overly confident in her visions could be viewed as dangerously empowered or accused of making her experiences up. What inspires me about Marguerite, is that she refused to devalue her work.

Marguerite lived in the 13th century and wrote a mystical text- The Mirror of Simple Soul exploring the annihilation of self in mystical union with God. However, her book was declared heretical. Marguerite was ordered not to circulate the book, or her ideas and copies of her book were burnt by the bishop of Cambrai in the public square of Valenciennes.

Marguerite refused to stop circulating her book, instead she sent it to three different theological authorities for approval, who all agreed her book was technically orthodox. Nevertheless, Marguerite was found guilty as a ‘relapsed heretic’ and burnt at the stake in 1310. I find Marguerite’s commitment particularly impressive. Women’s voices have been continually censored; if a female mystic were to write a religious text it had to fit certain male requirements. Not only did Marguerite refuse to follow these restrictions, but she did all she could to circulate a book she knew was an authentic account of religious experience.

One may dispute if her gender played a factor, perhaps her work was just heretical?

However, Meister Eckhart, a 13th century German theologian had and wrote very similar ideas. Yet Eckhart’s privileged position as a male allowed him to more or less get away with unorthodox writings; Eckhart was not burnt at the stake, Marguerite was. Her inquisitors even labelled her a ‘pseudo-mullier’- a fake woman, women were not supposed to fight for their voice. For me Marguerite represents an extraordinary effort to make her voice heard. Women’s voices have been continually dismissed as not worth taking seriously or repressed as dangerous. Yet Marguerite fought to resist this censorship.

Perhaps we can learn from her to continue making sure women’s voices in theology are not pushed aside.