The Gospel According To Margaret -- By: Winfried Corduan

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 35:4 (Dec 1992)
Article: The Gospel According To Margaret
Author: Winfried Corduan

The Gospel According To Margaret

Winfried Corduan*

In 1310, before an emotional crowd in Paris, Margaret Porette was burned at the stake. She had been charged with and convicted of being a relapsed heretic. Specifically she had authored a book that, according to high ecclesiastical authorities, had been determined to be full of errors and false teaching. Even though the book was burned she disseminated it further. Her execution drew many spectators, possibly including Meister Eckhart, who had yet to reach the peak of his popularity. There is good reason to believe that the book in question was The Mirror of Simple Souls.1

The point of this article is to call attention to the contribution made by Margaret Porette. Of necessity this task involves primarily addressing the question of the orthodoxy of the Mirror. I am going to make the following case: Margaret’s views were such that by the standards of the day it is not surprising that the inquisition would find her guilty. But beyond those strictures Margaret made a lasting contribution to Christian spirituality that eventually may have been one factor in the coming of the Reformation. To that extent, calling attention to her thought is also to commend her thought to Christendom at large.

I. Essential Background

When it comes to identifying her biographical facts, Margaret fares no better than most medieval figures. In addition to the various spellings of

* Winfried Corduan is professor of philosophy and religion at Taylor University, Upland, IN 46989.

her name, the case has been made that she is also to be identified with a “Maria of Valenciennes.”2

Picture Margaret in a long gray cowl with her head covered by a similarly drab veil—the customary habit of the Beguines. This loose, quasi-monastic organization of women toward the end of the middle ages never ceased to test the Church’s ability to maintain her flock pure and under control. The Beguines typically lived in communal houses under unofficial vows of poverty and chastity, but not usually of obedience. At its best they constituted a voluntary sisterhood displaying all of the virtues of a religious order at a time when the officially sanctioned religious orders were of highly uneven spiritual temper. The male counterpart to the Beguines were the Beghards. The Church’s relationship to these alternative groups was ambivalent. Neither outright suppression nor annexation proved successful in trying to control their existence, practice or beliefs.

Margaret acquired her reputat...

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