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The Mirror of Simple Souls: Marguerite Porete’s Voice and Use of Gender

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Let your women keep silence in the churches:

for it is not permitted unto them to speak.

-I Corinthians 14:34

It is a good thing that women religious writers, especially Marguerite Porete, did not listen to this scripture and spoke up in church. While all women mystics are quite different from each other, they all share the common idea of the conviction, that there was a reality, a profound meaning, behind or beyond or within the world of appearances. For mystics, their relationship and intimacy with God is the most important thing in their lives, so much, that they can not help themselves but make sure that their ideas, theology, and experiences are written down for all to read. Especially for women, who had no rights, usually little to no education, and had two simple roles in life: cloistered nun or wife, women who wrote mystical texts were feminists in their own right, paving a light for all women who had the power to believe they could write something just as profound as men.

Marguerite Porete’s complex and sometimes daunting Mirror of Simple Souls is a mystical text that far exceeds the philosophical content of her predecessors. Much is unclear about Marguerite’s life and text, yet, it is clear that the Mirror makes a striking departure from traditional church doctrine. The churches relied on a hierarchical chain of command and sanctity for its authority. In contrast, Marguerite challenges the traditional Christian conception of “fallen nature” by asserting the nobility and freedom of the “simple souls.” She teaches that each soul possesses a core identity that determines its place in the spiritual hierarchy and its potential for annihilation of individual wills or desires in order to will exclusively the divine will. She is explicitly rejecting the tradition of affective spirituality by attacking the very basis of the church and instead teaches that the soul’s need for the union of God through annihilation (Robinson xi-xii).

The ambiguity of the text begins with the ambivalence in the title, The Mirror of Simple Souls. The “Mirror” can be a smooth surface that reflects the images of objects, but can also suggest self-reflection and self-knowledge. However, mirrors can also be the illusion of reality, and represent vanity and self-love, commonly from the myth of Narcissus, who unknowingly fell in love with his own reflection (Hollywood, 87). However, it is probably more likely that Marguerite’s use of the word “mirror” is to teach the process by which the soul is clarified (as images in mirrors are), “therefore becoming a mirror without blemish or obscurity” (88). Max Huot de Longchamp says in an introduction to a French edition of Mirror for Simple Souls, says, “the mirror returns its own image to the one who looks at herself there . . .the mirror evokes the knowledge of self, with the idea of purification, of an assimilation to a perfect ideal” (16). Rather than illusion and superficiality of the self, Marguerite transforms this term into a symbol of honesty and depth of the true self, during the annihilation in order to become one with God. Through the freedom of the annihilated, simple soul, it becomes transparent, and prevents it from even having its own reflection through the mirror.

Marguerite writes not what she knows by observation (clearly, she has never actually seen this dialogue between these allegorical characters), or experience, or even by reason itself, but of what she knows by hope. She tries to write into being the community she hopes for and the God she hopes for. With this hope, Marguerite is able to find the knowledge she is looking for. As the opening poem of the Mirror, knowledge is based solely on reason, no matter how brilliant, “cannot apprehend what is true, and certainly not the truth of her book” (Paulsell 71). But when reason is driven by love and faith, and knowledge by hope, then invention can create a new reality.

Throughout Mirror, the readers are able to catch reflections not only of the interior life of the soul, but through inversion, of the kind of church and society in which “simple souls” can flourish. Marguerite’s intention is to show, as in a mirror, the spiritual truth that she wishes to teach, a rational truth, which, if perceived, will, by itself, render the soul “simple” (Brunn 151). Marguerite sees her simple souls as having a teaching mission toward the Little Church ruled by reason rather than love. The Mirror reflects a contemporary ecclesiastical world that was itself an inversion of women’s experience and values. In an extended dialogue between Love, the Soul, Reason, and a series of other allegorical figures, Marguerite portrays a state of freedom and annihilation to which, she argues, all noble souls should aspire. According to Love, the more the soul recognizes its own nothingness, the more it possesses God. Stripped of all “creatureliness”, including reason, will, and desire, the soul becomes nothing: “And this nothingness of which we speak, gives her the All, and no one can possess it in any other way” (81.156). The soul then “lives without a why” as God does and becomes the place within which God works in the world. The fall into nothingness, renders the soul so fully united with God that no distinction can be made between them (Sells 129).

It is difficult, at times, to hear Marguerite’s voice throughout the text. It is, however, to point out that the Mirror is radically different than other mystical texts because it is not autobiographical. It is a combination of poetry, allegorical drama and speculative theology and not an account with a direct experience of God (Hollywood 65) like other mystical texts. So, it is difficult to look for Marguerite’s purpose and voice within the text when it seems as if she might be nowhere to be found. By throwing out the belief that medieval women’s religious writing is always autobiographical, Marguerite is able to embrace the freedom offered by a distant God and the dilemma of trying to express the inexpressible. Believing that writing about God “is rather more like lying than speaking truly” (119.20-21) she writes into being the God, and the community she hopes for. In succeeding in changing the community of “simple souls,” she knows that not everyone should read her book, as she states in her prologue, her book “can only be appreciated by the few who have advanced beyond the early stages of the way of perfection” (20).

However, Amy Hollywood believes that we should not necessarily try to find a voice within Marguerite’s text, saying, “any identification of the Soul with the author must be made with care, and evaluated against the ever-changing narrative landscape of the text” (92). That within true allegory, no human being should be present, and that the persona of the author often in practice is becoming a character within the allegory itself. Because the final outcome of the debate between Love and Reason will affect the Soul, who is not only a passive observer of their interaction but also the initiator of the argument and the final judge of its outcome. The Soul will ultimately be changes and transformed by the debate. Hollywood argues “the other characters, due to the rigidity of their definitions or personifications, must either conquer or be vanquished by the debate” (95). Marguerite gives voice in the text to many human faculties and attributes-Reason, Intellect, the Understanding of Faith and that of Reason, even Love at times is understood as human-only once allowing the will to have its own voice. The will must be “subordinated to the Soul, for its abnegation and self-destruction enact the dialogue’s central mystical movement” (95). Reason is a vital interlocutor of the Soul and Love, asking for those explanations and clarifications needed by human souls who have not “advanced beyond the early stages of the way of perfection” (Porete, 20). The dialogue cannot continue with Love’s input. She is forced to take over Reason’s voice after her death, and eventually Reason merely reappears. The death of the will, however, occurs near the close of the text, for without it, further change and development are impossible (Hollywood 95-96).

The places in the Mirror where the Soul seems most closely identified with the author of the text are those sections in which the Soul speaks about the making of the book. But the book itself deals primarily with the annihilated Soul who begins its journey toward annihilation in God by keeping the commandments, achieving Biblical perfection, and performing good works. This Soul then “passes through the transitional stages of contemplation and the abandonment of good works in order to subordinate the will” (Paulsell 67). Finally, the Soul moves to the highest stages in which the will is dissolved, the soul is in repose, and “God wills in the soul where the soul itself used to will” (Paulsell 67). The Annihilated Soul “no longer knows how to speak of God, because she is annihilated from all her external desires and internal sentiments, from all affection of spirit” (7.27-29). The Annihilated Soul “no longer seeks God through penitence, nor through any sacrament of the Holy Church; nor through thoughts, nor through words, nor through works” (85.20-22). The Annihilated Soul can be more closely identified with the author because she acknowledges that, in writing the text, “she remained, you know, a beggar and encumbered with herself” (96.25-26). As an author, Marguerite can see the impossibility of a soul entirely freed from will, desire, words, and work in this lifetime, however, but by giving her voice through the character of the Soul, she is able to free herself and become annihilated.

Suzanne Aleta Kocher argues, “gender is a classification worth studying [in Mirror of Simple Souls], despite its arbitrariness, because from the middle Ages to the present day, the genders of masculine and feminine are two of the central categories governing social organization and thought” (5). Porete’s book contains self-conscious references to gender, and demonstrates an interest in actively shaping the gender constructions it uses. Kocher also argues that there are two different kinds of allegory within Mirror, “personification allegory, in which human attributes and faculties are represented as characters who speak to one another” (6). These would include Truth, Temptation, Difference, Fear, and more. The most central personified characters are Love, Reason, and the Soul. There is little action other than their dialogue, except for the death of Reason. Second, in its addition to personification allegory, the Mirror uses “other allegorical techniques that fall on the continuum between allegory and metaphor” (6). Porete develops and extends metaphors (nobility, courtly love) to such an extent that they act as allegories within the personification allegory.

By assigning gender to her characters, Marguerite places her characters in positions of authority, or rather, creates authority for them within the world of the text. Women are presented as courtly ladies, “passively accepting the ardent advances of their aristocratic suitor” (Kocher 174). Because the character of Soul undergoes significant changes throughout the book, she, herself, becomes like a courtly lover, taking the center stage in the drama of her journey towards her beloved, God. Even though he is the central to the process, in much of the text, he is more like a destination than a character. Soul is a main character, whose transformations are designed to engage the audience’s sympathy and invite listeners to identify with her (Kocher 14-15). By creating this central female character as an example setter, Marguerite is able to maintain her authority, and teach her readers to achieve the annihilation of the soul. By focusing on love relationships among members of the noble characters in a “metaphorically aristocratic social system that revolves around its monarch, God” (Kocher 151), it represents heaven as a court. Soul and God carry on a relationship that resembles courtly love between a knight and a dame.

Even if it is not necessary to find Marguerite’s voice within the text, her doctrine and theology is relatively radical for her time period. She used her text to her full advantage: using it as a way of freedom to the ultimate annihilation of her desires. Somewhat paradoxically, she was released from her earthly desires because of her text, as she was sentenced to death for heresy. The Mirror itself is the mirror, which reflects the soul reflecting the love of God. The mirror becomes an image of wholeness and seamless simplicity rather than fragmentation and specialization, reflecting the mystic’s experience of integration and transparency. The Soul, the text, the Love, and the Lord, are all mirrors into the soul for Marguerite. McGinn believes that “the mirror, an apparently apt symbol of woman’s narcissism, in Marguerite’s Mirror becomes emblematic of her willingness to lose herself in a most radical otherness” (76).

Works Cited

Brunn, Emilie Zum and Epiney-Burgard, Georgette. Women Mystics in Medieval Europe. Trans., Sheila Hughes. New York: Paragon House, 1989.

Hollywood, Amy. The Soul as Virgin Wife. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995.

Hollywood, Amy. “Who Does She Think She Is? Christian Women’s Mysticism.” Theology Today. V. 60. April 2003. 5-15.

Huot de Longchamp, Max. “Introduction,” Marguerite Porete, Le Miroir des Ames Simples et Aneanties. Paris: Albin Michel, 1984.

Kocher, Suzzane Aleta. Gender and Power in Marguerite Porete’s Mirouer Des Simples Ames. PhD diss., Eugene, Oregon: University of Oregon Press, 1999.

McGinn, Bernard. Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics. New York: Continuum Publishing, 1994.

Paulsell, Stephanie. “Dreaming the King, Writing God: Hope, Desire, and Fiction in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls.” Literature, religion, and East/West comparison: essays in honor of Anthony C. Yu. Ed. Eric Ziolkowski. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005. 63-73.

Porete, Marguerite. A Mirror For Simple Souls. Ed. and Trans. Charles Crawford. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1990.

Robinson, Joanne Maguire. Nobility and Annihilation in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Sells, Michael. Mystical Languages of Unsaying. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

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