04.01.29, Garay and Jeay, Life of Saint Douceline

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Walter Simons

The Medieval Review baj9928.0401.029


Garay, Kathleen and Madeleine Jeay, eds. and trans.. The Life of Saint Douceline, a Beguine of Provence. Library of Medieval Women. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001. Pp. viii, 180. ISBN: 0-859-91629-4.

Reviewed by:
Walter Simons
Dartmouth College

This is the first translation into English of an intriguing text that deserves to be better known. Douceline of Digne, born around 1215/16, was the younger sister of Hugh of Digne, the famous Franciscan preacher and proto-spiritual. While she was in her early 20s, Douceline made a vow of virginity in the hands of her brother and established a community of "beguines" on the Roubaud river close to Hyeres, near her brother's Franciscan convent. By about 1250, she had moved the original beguine house within the walls of Hyeres and founded another community in Marseilles, where she died as head of both houses in 1274. The Life of "Saint" Douceline was written around 1300 (more on that date below) in Occitan. It is preserved in a single manuscript, Paris, B.N., fonds francais. no. 13503, which on paleographical grounds can be dated to the [early?] fourteenth century. The Life has received little attention so far from historians but enjoys a certain reputation in Occitan studies thanks to its 1879 edition with a translation in French and copious documentation by canon J. - H. Albanes, a noted church historian and Provencal scholar. (R. Gout brought out a new edition with a few minor corrections and a new French translation in 1927.)

In their Introduction (1-22) Garay and Jeay briefly survey Douceline's life and the broader context of beguine and Franciscan history during the thirteenth century. It is followed by the English translation of the Life, based on the Albanes edition (24-114), and by an Interpretive Essay (115-69). Insofar as my knowledge of Occitan may be trusted, the translation sticks closely to the original and diverges from Albanes's and Gout's French versions in the right places. Garay and Jeay have added a few explanatory notes that will be useful to the beginning student.

Garay and Jeay argue persuasively that Douceline's story is significant not only because of its unique testimony of beguine spirituality in the south of France but also as a case study of the classic paradox in medieval Christian mysticism between the rigorous pursuit of asceticism and the sweetness of the ensuing mystical experience. The Life indeed contains many hagiographical themes that we now associate with beguines and other female religious in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (though some of the themes are of course much older): rejection of marriage at an early age, devotion to a life of service to the poor and the sick, a Christo-centered spirituality marked by extensive asceticism including self-mutilation, and finally paramystical practices, namely revelations, visions, and levitations. Like the better known beguines of northern Europe, Douceline and her sisters dedicated themselves to a life of charity and chastity, without however taking solemn vows or accepting a religious rule that was sanctioned by the Church. Like most beguines of the north, Douceline's congregation embraced a moderate form of religious poverty that did not require every sister to renounce property. The Life credits Douceline with the introduction of the beguine lifestyle in Provence, where "no one had heard of them" (29), and calls her "the first beguine in Provence" (31).

The Life raises a number of intriguing questions, not all of which are explicitly addressed by the editors/translators in their comments. Firstly, one wonders what sort of contact might have existed between the northern beguines and this small congregation in the south of France. The Life indicates that Douceline chose the beguine lifestyle at the instigation of her brother Hugh, who upon his return to Provence after a stay in Paris (presumably in the 1230s) encouraged his sister to pursue the informal religious life rather than joining a regular order. Garay and Jeay, following Albanes and others, suggest that Hugh, newly informed of events in the north while in Paris, told her about the activities of northern beguines (142). This seems a sensible hypothesis, but how Hugh might have gained sufficient knowledge about beguine life to inform Douceline is not evident. I doubt that Hugh actually met any beguines at Paris, since they did not make an appearance in the city until several years after his departure. Alternatively, Hugh may have traveled much further north in those years than we know (to the Low Countries? Now that would be interesting!), or he might have heard about beguines from his friends in high places, like Robert Grosseteste who surely knew of them. Yet I find it also possible that Hugh--and Douceline--read an early beguine vita from the Low Countries. James of Vitry's Life of Mary of Oignies, for instance, written in 1215, circulated fairly widely in Latin and in several vernacular languages, as did a few other early hagiographical texts describing beguine life in the north. In other words, the connection between the northern beguines and Douceline's group may have been text-based rather than personal, which would give us another fine example of the importance of written materials in the spread of new religious initiatives among the laity at this time.

Secondly there is the relationship between Douceline's small beguine congregation and the later beguins (male and female) of southern France, those adherents of Peter John Olivi, who along with various spiritual Franciscans were often persecuted as heretics from the 1290s onward. Was Douceline, like her brother, a proto-spiritual and therefore a beguin(e) in the sense of the term as it was understood in the south around 1300? Or did she pursue a beguine life solely modeled upon the example of the northern beguines--who also ran into trouble with the Inquisition albeit for wholly different reasons? Much of the answer hinges on our understanding of Hugh, whose Joachimite sympathies cannot be doubted but who remains a rather elusive figure. Garay and Jeay usefully point out, however, that the Life brims with Franciscan themes--more so, I should think, than did northern beguine vitae-- and includes echoes of Joachimite prophetic language.

The precise date of the Life may be of some importance in this matter. Garay and Jeay do not discuss the question in detail, accepting Albanes's opinion that a primitive version was written shortly before 1 September 1297, when it was read for the first time in her congregation on the occasion of her feast, and that the surviving version, duly amplified with subsequent miracles, dates from about 1315. Interested readers, consulting Albanes, may not entirely be convinced by the chanoine's tortuous argument which I shall not repeat here, but that there must have been two versions, one dated from some time after 1289, the other from the second decade of the fourteenth century, can indeed be deduced from internal evidence. This places us well after Douceline's death and firmly within the most turbulent period of beguine history. The Life must therefore be understood as a defensive move aimed at protecting Douceline's congregation and by implication, others among the southern French beguins, stressing their orthodoxy, good standing within the community, and support from royalty--Douceline's connections with Charles of Anjou, count of Provence and king of Sicily are highlighted--, while its Joachimite trends were muted enough so as not to have offended authorities. It is even possible that the first Life was written not in response to an established popular cult but rather as a means for launching it. The Life cites the wrong day of the week for Douceline's death (Garay and Jeay do not note the error), which strongly suggests her liturgical commemoration had only hesitant beginnings, to say the least. Along with the beguines of Hyeres and Marseilles the most immediate beneficiaries of the cult must have been the Franciscans of the latter city, in whose church Douceline was buried and who after 1297 also guarded the remains of the Franciscan saint Louis of Toulouse, Charles of Anjou's grandson (not to be confused with St Louis IX of France, canonized in that same year).

Yet the author of the Life was surely not a Franciscan but a beguine, whom Garay and Jeay, following Albanes, identify as the noble lady Phillipine Porcellet, Douceline's successor as head of the congregation. Again I find Albanes precise identification not entirely conclusive; nevertheless, the Life's author was undoubtedly a beguine member of Douceline's community, which may explain why it was written in Occitan rather than in Latin. Since we do not exactly have a wealth of contemporary vitae definitely written by a woman, the Life for this fact alone is well worth our attention, and the present editors do an excellent job sketching out ways in which the author's gender may have affected her work.

While no good translation of an important medieval source can possibly come too early, Garay and Jeay may be said to have had the bad luck completing their work before a host of new recent publications on beguines of northern and southern Europe considerably expanded our knowledge. This is most obvious in their historical introduction. For instance, L. J. M. Philippen's "four-stage" pattern of beguine organization (first laid out in Dutch in 1918 and popularized by McDonnell's "Beguines and Beghards in Medieval Culture" of 1954), invoked here to place Douceline's foundation "at the second level of development" (6), is now regarded as outdated. The "pattern" is largely a figment of Philippen's imagination that has little to do with the realities of beguine existence in the Low Countries and certainly cannot help us to understand their situation in southern France. It is unfortunate, too, that the editors were unable to use the new work by Louisa Burnham and of course David Burr on the southern beguins and Spirituals. Yet, these are small inconveniences. Garay and Jeay have done us a great service in making this fascinating text accessible for undergraduate (and possibly also for graduate) teaching. If D.S. Brewer may now be persuaded to bring out a paperback edition--a quick check of Amazon.com teaches us the list price for this slim volume is currently a whopping $70.00-- students might actually be able to buy it.

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Walter Simons

Dartmouth College