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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Women & Mysticism

Mirror, Mirror of the Soul

MARGUERITE PORETE ET MARGUERITE D'OIGNT DE L'AUTRE COTE DU MIROIR by Catherine M. Muller. ($47.95, hardcover, xvi, 213 pages; Peter Lang, ISBN: 0820440108)

 The middle ages saw a flowering of spiritual writing among the laity, both men and women.

Marguerite Porette, of whose life we know little, was burnt at the stake at Paris in 1310, condemned for her relapse into heresy. Her crime was the dissemination of her book, The Mirror of Souls, which had been condemned in 1306. It had been written in French, not Latin, and the discussion of the types of topics that Marguerite engaged in were seen as dangerous for popular consumption. It is possible that the great German mystic, Meister Eckhart, was familiar with her work. Marguerite was most likely one of the Beguines, a lay women's religious movement begun in the thirteenth century. At first praised for their innovations in spirituality, they ended up condemned as heretics.

Marguerite d'Oingt also died in 1310. Unlike Marguerite Porete, as Muller tells us, her works received only praise, but, although made public immediately after her death, they were not edited until 1877. She held the office of Prioress of the Charterhouse de Poleteins near Lyon from 1288 until her death.

Muller's book, which she says is a postmodern and feminist reading of the works, looks at the work of both women in the literary and religious context of the time, and concentrates for the most part on the image of the mirror, which appears in the works of both women. Muller argues that the mirror was an apt image for them to use, since it had the idea of reflecting back on the viewer, but also had the idea of allowing one into another dimension. Language, for them, was like a mirror. Following an Augustinian teaching, they held that language was at one and the same time what separated the human race from God, and was the point of contact with God. And so allegory and allegorical readings of Scripture became important elements in their works, which were part of a literary flowering in the thirteenth century that saw the production of a number of mystical works in the vernacular. The two Marguerites are both women speaking to women. They were particularly interested in the allegorical interpretation of Scripture.

After considering the use of the image of the mirror in the Middle Ages, Muller considers the use of allegory, and argues that these works are important investigations into traditional dualities, such as body/spirit, and that they offer a challenge to traditional patriarchy that would have been recognized in the Middle Ages.

Muller offers a literary critique of the works of the two Marguerite's, seeing in them precursors to contemporary post-modernist feminist writers, and reflecting on them in light of the "politics of subjectivity.".

Marguerite Porette's work is available in English in two different editions:

The Mirror of Simple Souls Ed. by Ellen L. Babinsky, (The Classics of Western Spirituality) New York & Mahwah: Paulist, 1993 and The Mirror of Simple Souls Translated from the French with an Introductory Interpretive Essay by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A., J. C. Marler, and Judith Grant, Notre Dame: U. of Notre Dame Press, 1999.

The works of Marguerite D'Oingt were published in English as The Writings of Margaret of Oingt, Medieval Prioress and Mystic (d. 1310). Trans. and ed. by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski (Focus Library of Medieval Women) (Newburyport : Focus, 1990). 

Chapitre premier : L"Ecriture comme Miroir
Chapitre Deuxieme : Une Poetique de la Mise en Abime
Chapitre Troisieme : Au Noyau de la Glose
Chapitre Quatrieme : Le Chant de la Jouissance

PERPETUA’S PASSION: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman by Joyce E. Salisbury ($19.95. paper, 228 pages, notes, bibliography, index, Routledge, ISBN: 0-415-91857-6) HARDCOVER

PERPETUA’S PASSION is a landmark work that not only preserves the timeless story of extraordinary woman, but also tells a haunting story about society, religion, family, and life and death. In 203 A.D. a group of Christians in Carthage, North Africa, were sentenced to the beasts in the arena. One of these, a twenty-two year-old mother, wrote a diary while she was imprisoned and awaiting execution the diary was later completed by an observer who described her death in the arena.

"Her tunic was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs, thinking more of her modesty than of her pain. Next she asked for a pin to fasten her untidy hair: for it was not rights that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seen to be mourning in her hour of triumph.
"Then she got up. And seeing that Felicity had been crushed to the ground, she went over to her, gave her hand, and lifted her up. Then the two stood side by side." — the account from the spectator who completed Perpetua’s diary

In PERPETUA’S PASSION, a poignant book that is part memoir, part historical socio-religious commentary, Joyce Salisbury examines the martyrdom of Perpetua. Placing the story of this third-century martyrdom of a young woman in the intellectual and social context of her age, Salisbury presents conflicting ideas of religion, family, and gender as she retraces Perpetua’s short life from her youth in a wealthy Roman household; her trial and imprisonment; the visionary dreams she had and recorded in prison; and her brave, yet tragic death in the arena. Salisbury also examines the larger concept of martyrdom and memory as documented through the passionate pages of Perpetua’s diary which has been preserved and read for centuries.

On a much larger scale, Salisbury uses the complete diary to shed new light on why pagans converted to Christianity and offers a unique and detailed study of a extraordinary early text written by a woman. Other issues explored include the impact patriarchal Christianity had on the words and ideas of women and the motives behind Perpetua’s decision to give up her loving family and infant son to voluntarily go to her death in the Roman arena.

VISIONS AND LONGINGS: Medieval Women Mystics edited by Monica Furlong ($14.00, paper, 246 pages, credits, Shambhala, ISBN:1-57062-314-7) This excellent guide to the women mystics of medieval Europe represent the very first feminine voices heard in a world where women were nearly silent. As such, their words are striking and unusual, strange, powerful, and urgent. Monica Furlong presents writings by and about eleven of these Christian mystics who lived and wrote between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. They include: Heloise, the abbess whose letters to her former lover Abelard are a treasure of medieval literature; Hildesgard of Bingen, the Rhineland’s renaissance woman; Clare of Assisi, founder of the community of the Poor Clares; Catherine of Siena, the confidante of popes whose mayor writing consists of a dialogue between herself and God; Margery Kempe, the eccentric mystic housewife; Julian of Norwich, the recluse who spent the greater part of her life reflecting and elaborating upon the visions she received at age thirty—including a striking vision of God as Mother. Furlong’s anthology is notable for its selection of texts. It not only whets our appetite to better know this striking women but to also enhances our appreciation of the range and resilience of medieval mysticism.

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