The Belgian mystic Marguerite Porete may seem an odd person to include in a book about the Templars. She never went to the Holy Land. She may never have even met a Templar. But their fate affected hers in the most disastrous manner.
Marguerite was one of a group of laypeople known as the Beguines. The movement was strongest in the Low Countries but reached all through Europe. Beguines lived in towns in communal homes, worked outside or begged for alms, and pooled their possessions for the common good. Their beliefs ranged from a completely orthodox desire to live a religious, semimonastic life to deeply mystical, sometimes heretical revelations. Although the movement was condemned at the Council of Vienne,1 it survived into the twentieth century. Some of their homes, or beguinages, have been turned into museums.
Many Beguine mystics were revered locally and accepted by the hierarchy of the Church. Marguerite wasn’t one of these. She wandered about, preaching her belief in the Free Spirit (another heretical movement condemned at the Council of Vienne) and explaining to people that the soul can achieve union with God without the guidance of what she called “the little church.”2
Now, first of all, no one was supposed to preach publicly without permission from the local bishop and women weren’t allowed to preach at all, at least not outside the family. Marguerite not only did so, but she also wrote a book about her mystical experiences,The Mirror of Simple Souls. The book was condemned and burned by the bishop of Valenciennes in 1306. Undaunted, Marguerite submitted the book to three scholars at the University of Paris, each of whom said that the book contained nothing heretical.3
The masters of the university were apparently getting quite a reputation for deciding matters of religion. Philip the Fair went to them several times in his attempts to justify the arrest and trials of the Templars. So Marguerite must have felt secure in their approval as she carried on with her work.
However, in 1308, Philip’s confessor, Guillaume de Paris, who was also the papal inquisitor, happened to get a copy of The Mirror of Simple Souls. At this point he was frustrated by Pope Clement V’s lack of enthusiasm for condemning the Templars. Unlike the masters of the university, Guillaume found several heretical passages in Marguerite’s book. He had her brought to Paris to be questioned.4
Marguerite, who had spoken her mind to all and sundry for years, refused to say anything to the inquisitors. After a year and a half in prison without defending herself, she was condemned on June 9, 1310, and burned at the stake the next day.5
This was less than a month after the archbishop of Sens had ordered the burning of fifty-four Templars. It has been suggested that “because of his acts of intolerance against the Templars, the king of France had angered the Pope.”6Philip may have hoped that Clement was ready to follow the king in all things but he may have worried that the burning had pushed the pope too far.
Therefore, Philip and Guillaume needed an example of a true heretic, someone who had openly derided the authority of the Church. Marguerite was a perfect choice. She was a free spirit in many ways, not attached to a convent or to an important family. And her work could be seen as decidedly unorthodox.
But would she have been burned if the case of the Templars hadn’t been going so badly? I suspect not. It is more likely that her book would have been burned and she would have been shut up somewhere. On the other hand, Marguerite also represented a growing interest among literate laypeople in understanding the faith on their own. This independence threatened the stability of all of society, not just that of the Church. The various reforms in the Church over the previous two hundred years had emphasized personal devotions. Many people were trying to make sense of the beliefs they had been taught. Marguerite was one of the more vocal but she was not as alone as she may have felt.
Evidence of this is that, although all copies of The Mirror of Simple Souls were to be handed in and destroyed, several people kept them. It is a testament to her work that it was translated into English, Italian, and Latin (!). Clearly her mystical experiences touched a wide range of people.7
Did Marguerite fall into a trap set for the Templars or were she and the Templars caught up in a general panic on the part of those in power? Were they accused of heresy because of valid evidence or because that was the charge most likely to be taken seriously, given the mood of the times?
I honestly don’t know. But it is something to think about.
Charles-Joseph Hefele and Dom H. Leclercq, Histoire des Conciles d’après les Documents Originaux Tome VI deuxième partie (Paris, 1915) p. 681. The fifth canon of the council lumps the Beguins in with the heresy of the Free Spirit and condemns both.
Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua (d. 203) to Marguerite Porete (d. 1310) (Cambridge University Press, 1984) p. 217.
Catherine M. Müller, Marguerite Porete et Marguerite d’Oingt, de l’autre côte du miroir (New York: Land, 1999) pp. 14-15.
Ibid., p. 15.
Dronke, p. 217.