Suzanne Kocher

title.none: Colledge, et al, eds, Margaret Porette: The Mirror of Simple Souls (Kocher)

identifier.other: baj9928.0009.005 00.09.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Suzanne Kocher, University of Louisiana at Lafayette,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: College, Edmund, J.C. Marler, Judith Grant, eds. The Mirror of Simple Souls. Notre Dame Texts in Medieval Culture, No. 6. Notre Dame: University Press of Notre Dame, 1999. Pp. lxxxvii, 209. $24.00. ISBN: 0-268-01435-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.09.05

College, Edmund, J.C. Marler, Judith Grant, eds. The Mirror of Simple Souls. Notre Dame Texts in Medieval Culture, No. 6. Notre Dame: University Press of Notre Dame, 1999. Pp. lxxxvii, 209. $24.00. ISBN: 0-268-01435-3.

Reviewed by:

Suzanne Kocher
University of Louisiana at Lafayette

This translation of The Mirror of Simple Souls is long-awaited. More than fifteen years ago, Edmund Colledge and J. C. Marler first cited it as forthcoming (Jan van Ruusbroec, 14). The wait has proven worthwhile, as the translation has much to recommend it: clarity, rigorousness, and constant care to stay close to the French text. Marguerite Porete's Mirouer des simples ames is the oldest surviving mystical work written in French (Orcibal 35), and one of few book-length manuscripts authored by women in French before 1300, not to mention the only such text by a woman executed for heresy (Larrington, 114). In 1984 Peter Dronke called Marguerite Porete "the most neglected of the great writers of the thirteenth century" (Women Writers, 202), and subsequent scholarship has made considerable progress in remedying that neglect. In 1986 Romana Guarnieri and Paul Verdeyen published a scholarly facing-pages edition of the Middle French and Latin texts respectively. This scholarly volume prepared the way for translations of the Mirror into German (1987), French (1984 and 1991), Italian (1994 and 1995), Spanish (1995) and English (1993). Such editions and translations have greatly increased access to the Mirror; this is surely both cause and consequence of the rapidity with which the body of research on Marguerite Porete has grown.

Edmund Colledge has taken part in this work, and also in the previous wave of Porete scholarship. Since the 1950s he has written a dozen articles on medieval Christian writers. Colledge's volume on Mediaeval Netherlands Religious Writing (1965) and translation of the Showings of Julian of Norwich (with James Walsh, 1978) further demonstrate the range of his contributions to the understanding of medieval Christianity. His co-translator J. C. Marler collaborated on three of the articles mentioned above.

The task of rendering Marguerite Porete's work into modern English is complicated by a host of difficulties. Before Porete was burned at the stake in 1310, the Inquisition condemned her book and destroyed copies of it. Nonetheless, some fifteen later manuscript copies survive, in witness to the popularity of the medieval text. Fourteen of these are translations into Latin, Italian, or English; the single French text dates to after 1450 (Guarnieri, Movimento, 503). Hence, as Colledge and his collaborators put it, "the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of reconstructing from the surviving manuscripts what Margaret may have written" (lxxxiii). The translators choose to work from the French manuscript, filling its lacunae with material from several Latin copies. Corrupt passages and obscure references remain, however, not to mention the challenge of conveying the text's literary fusion of prose and poetry. The translators succeed admirably despite the difficulties of their task.

The new translation's best moments are in its prose passages, which reflect Porete's intricate formulations and lyrical phrasing. Colledge and his collaborators remain attentive to theological connotation, carefully rendering phrases such as "enjoyment of God" ("divine fruiction," 10) and "brought to nothing" ("anienti[e][s]," 14 passim). The translators' skilful prose even conveys rhythmic and musical qualities of the Middle French, for example in Chapter 59. Less successful, perhaps, are the passages formatted as poetry, whose English renderings favor rhyme at the expense of syntax (e.g., "nothing would I ask of Love/ Lest my unkindness he reprove," 151).

The volume's visual format is clear, readable, and usefully organized. Bold print sets off the names of chapters and of the dialogue's characters. Notes to the introduction and translation are conveniently placed at the bottom of the page; the foreword has endnotes. Few typographical errors distract the eye. A minor inconvenience for specialists is the lack of indication of where the French manuscript's folios begin and end in relation to the translation. Just over half of this volume makes up the translation of the Mirror. The rest consists of a foreword, introduction, appendices, bibliography, general index and scriptural index.

The translation's foreword, by Kent Emery, Jr., briefly rehearses some historical and biographical background for Porete's Mirror (viii-ix), then moves into a wide-ranging discussion of matters related to the text. Emery may raise eyebrows at times, as when he states that human beings "need to...inflict violence, marry and procreate" (xiii) or contends that "Most recent studies of the Mirror are reluctant... to offer any analysis of the work's contents" (liv). It also seems odd that Porete's writing, whose central theme is human love for God, should be termed "conceptual and cerebral, rather than affective" (xiv). Unfortunately, too, Emery does not always identify the sources he quotes. Kent Emery is correct to note (xi), as Caroline Bynum observed in 1991, that Porete stands as an exception to general tendencies which scholars in the 1980s associated with medieval Christian women religious writers: eucharistic devotion, visions, and an interest in "embodiment," among others (Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption, 124, a passage that Emery does not cite). Those generalizations have been much discussed and nuanced by medievalists in the 1990s. Scholars interested in matters of gender in Porete's work may be surprised that Emery calls the text's teachings "genderless" (xi). It would seem justifiable for the introduction to mention the ways in which gender is (and is not) represented in the text, given the amount of scholarly attention devoted to the topic in the past fifteen years. However, such discussion is conspicuous in its absence. Neither the bibliography nor the introduction refers to publications on Porete by Barbara Newman, Caroline Walker Bynum, Michael Sells, Elizabeth Petroff, Amy Hollywood, Catherine Muller, Louise Gnadinger, Luisa Muraro, Michela Pereira, Blanca Gari, Georgette Epiney-Burgard and Emilie Zum Brunn, to mention just a few scholars whose books and articles have contributed to re-evaluation of the Mirror. Of course this body of research is so large and varied that it would now be a considerable task to summarize "the history of Mirror-scholarship," as Colledge and Marler hoped in 1984 that their translation's introduction would do (Jan van Ruusbroec 14). Instead the introduction, like the foreword, is most useful for its placement of the Mirror against the background of orthodox Christian writing. Readers may find the 87 pages of introductory material somewhat disorganized, as it moves from Christ's words to the English renaissance and back again.

The annotations to the translation identify over 140 biblical allusions, far more than does any other version of the text, proving definitively that Porete knew the scriptures well. Footnotes to the translation also helpfully supply some of the commentary that late-medieval readers and copyists added to the French and English manuscripts. The most extensive of these comments are the glosses by a fourteenth-century English translator known by his or her initials as M. N.; those glosses appear as an appendix to the translation. Such footnotes conveniently allow readers to correlate the French passages with their corresponding Middle English commentary (previously published by Colledge and Guarnieri in 1968). Additionally, the footnotes give variant readings from manuscripts other than the French one, though they do not always identify the manuscript in which a variant appears. In each short chapter, numbering of annotations begins anew with the number 1, so two footnotes with the same number sometimes appear on the same page. But these are minor reproaches. The footnotes will assist particularly readers interested in medieval theology and scripture studies.

The "select bibliography" comprises 120 items; about a third of these publications specifically discuss Porete's Mirror. The bibliography's greatest usefulness is for surveying the work's orthodox religious context. It has less to offer to an undergraduate student of medieval history, a graduate student writing a paper on Porete's use of allegory, or a scholar seeking recent research on the Mirror. The latest publication date listed in the bibliography is 1991.

The index lists key words and proper names that appear in the introductions and notes, but is not designed to locate passages in Porete's text, since the listing does not include names or terms that appear in the Mirror itself.

Overall the translation resists the tendency to impose readings of the Mirror as heretical or orthodox. However, the foreword, introduction and footnotes repeatedly judge the text's "theological correctness" (xxv) (e.g., xx, lvii, lxxii, lxxxvi, 16 n4). Some readers may agree with the translators' conclusion that Porete's writing is "valuable as evidence...of the dissemination of heresy" (lxxxvi). Others may wish to study the Mirror for a range of different reasons: for instance, as a witness of medieval mysticism, philosophy, women's writing, and 'courtly love' literature; as a remarkable example of medieval Christian lay religiosity, a highly developed personification allegory, a didactic manual, and a script for public performance.

For all of these purposes, readers will appreciate the accessibility of the translation by Colledge and his colleagues. The volume is suitable for use in an undergraduate or graduate course on medieval religion, history, literature, or women's writing. Despite shortcomings in its introduction and apparatus, this translation more accurately than any other brings Porete's Mirror to an English-speaking public.

Works Cited

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Fragmentation and Redemption. New York: Zone, 1991.

Dronke, Peter. Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study from Perpetua (203) to Marguerite Porete (1310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Colledge, Edmund, J. C. Marler, and F.-J. Schweitzer, "Poverty of the Will: Ruusbroec, Eckhart and the Mirror of Simple Souls"; Jan van Ruusbroec: The Sources, Content, and Sequels of His Mysticism, Paul Mommaers and N. de Paepe, eds. (Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 1984, 14-47);

Guarnieri, Romana, "Il Movimento del Libero Spirito: Testi e documenti," Archivio italiano per la storia della pietà 4 (1965): 350-708.

Larrington, Carolyne. Women and Writing in Medieval Europe. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Orcibal, J., "Le Miroir des simples ames et la 'secte' du Libre Esprit," Revue d'histoire des religions 176 (1969): 35-60.