- The Beguine, the Angel, and the Inquisitor: The Trials of Marguerite Porete and Guiard of Cressonessart by Sean Field
Marguerite Porete stands out from the other beguine mystics of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in that she was the first to be put to death for writing a book. That book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, expounds upon a process of spiritual [End Page 264] annihilation as the soul moves into deeper communion with God. Although she was ordered by the bishop of Cambrai to stop writing and speaking about her ideas because her first work was found to be heretically suspect, Marguerite defiantly composed a second book on the topic, for which she was eventually arrested, tried by the Dominican inquisitor William of Paris, found guilty of being a relapsed heretic, and burned (along with copies of her book) on June 1, 1310. In The Beguine, the Angel, and the Inquisitor: The Trials of Marguerite Porete and Guiard of Cressonessart, Sean Field seeks to reconstruct the narrative of Marguerite’s life, that of her beghard defender, Guiard of Cressonessart, and the context and conduct of their heresy trials. Field’s main sources for this study are the six surviving documents relating to Marguerite’s trial preserved in the Archives nationales de France, which include the judgment of her work by theologians from the University of Paris, Guiard’s confession, decisions by canon lawyers regarding both Guiard and Marguerite, an affirmation of her ability to be tried as a relapsed heretic, and their final sentencing. Field has made an extensive study of these documents in person, critiquing Paul Verdeyen’s 1986 Latin edition, and helpfully provides a full English translation in an appendix. The author is also co-editor of a forthcoming volume of collected essays on Marguerite Porete, and The Beguine, the Angel, and the Inquisitor in some ways functions as a prequel or companion to that work.
The book’s introduction first lays out the religious, intellectual, and political context of Marguerite’s condemnation and trial. Field situates Marguerite within the larger context of thirteenth-century beguine mysticism, increased interest in the apocalyptic works of Joachim of Fiore, and Philip IV’s attacks on the papacy and the Templars as a means of power consolidation. For readers not familiar with The Mirror of Simple Souls or inquisitorial procedure, he helpfully provides a brief overview of both. The author also corrects several basic factual errors that have been perpetuated in the scholarship over the last century, such as variant dates for Marguerite’s trial and execution. In part, these errors stem from faulty readings or translations of the trial documents. The first chapter concerns the early lives of Marguerite and Guiard. For both, the surviving evidence is incredibly scant and barely extends beyond the residual trial documents. Marguerite came from Valenciennes, a town just south of the modern Franco-Belgian border, and given the tone of the Mirror and her apparent education, she was likely from a bourgeois or aristocratic background. Field questions whether Marguerite was actually a self-professed beguine or was simply labeled as such by contemporary sources as she appeared to match the stereotype. About Guiard of Cressonessart even less is known, and this section is mostly building on the previous work of Robert Lerner. Guiard was a beg-hard who had taken minor orders. In his trial, he claimed to have had a transformative experience four years previous in the lower chapel of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris where his role as “Angel of Philadelphia” was revealed to him. After Marguerite was arrested, Guiard began to speak out on her behalf, which in turn led to his own arrest.
In chapter 2, Field reconstructs the events leading up to Marguerite’s trial for heresy in 1310. As very little evidence of Marguerite’s life survives, here and for most of the rest of the book, Field seeks to “fill in the blanks” of Marguerite’s [End Page 265] narrative by describing the lives of...