09.12.13, Kocher, Allegories of Love

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Sean Field

The Medieval Review 09.12.13

Kocher, Suzanne. Allegories of Love in Marguerite Porete's 'Mirror of Simple Souls' . Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts, 17. Turnhout: Brepols, 2009. Pp. x, 218. ISBN: 978-2-503-51902-9.

Reviewed by:
Sean Field
University of Vermont

Although there has been no shortage of recent work on many aspects of Marguerite Porete's thought, Suzanne Kocher's welcome new addition to Brepols' Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts series is only the second book-length study in English devoted to The Mirror of Simple Souls, [1] and the first from a specialist in medieval French literature.

After a cogent introduction which orients the reader to the Mirror's salient characteristics, the book moves through three levels of analysis: Chapter 1 is historical, chapters 2-4 employ a historically contextualized literary analysis, and chapters 5-6 then move to a more abstract consideration of how meaning is produced in the Mirror. Each of these approaches is illuminating, and together they add up to a satisfying attempt to understand Marguerite Porete on her own literary terms.

Chapter one, which presents Marguerite's life and a survey of the book's manuscript history, sources, and audiences, is worth lingering over. This chapter itself shines on three levels. First is the scattering of small insights and findings that may be new even to specialists: For instance, in referring to the bishop of Cambrai who initially condemned the Mirror, Gui of Colmieu (better Guido of Collemezzo), Kocher alludes to archival evidence for a 1304 episode in which the bishop banished a beguine named Marie du Fait amidst controversy with the cathedral chapter. How tantalizing for any historian who would like to better understand Marguerite's interactions with authority in the diocese of Cambrai, and how suggestive of the contextual evidence yet to be uncovered! Furthermore, Kocher notes that the Franciscan who contributed one of the "approvals" of the Mirror, referred to in the Middle English version as "Ion of Querayn," may have been from Quérénaing, rather than Quaregnon as most modern commentators (including this reviewer) have assumed. The former is much closer to Marguerite's home base of Valenciennes, so this identification helps to establish more firmly her origins and the likely path by which she sought these proofs of her book's orthodoxy. [2] Kocher's discussion of other contemporary occurrences of the name "Porete" is also illuminating. Second, the author is refreshingly prudent in assessing the reasons for Marguerite's execution and their implications for our understanding of agency, misogyny, and inquisitorial power in this period. Kocher is surely right to argue that Marguerite's "behavior, not her writing, determined the way the bishops, inquisitors, and consultants treated her case...it took effort to get burned at the stake in 1310, and our poet made that effort...Presented with a series of opportunities to save her own life, she systematically turned them down." Thus this "is not a simple tale of victimization, about a helpless lady tragically oppressed, for Porete's persistent complicity in her own demise is too troublingly evident to permit that" (quotations condensed from pp. 42-44). Third is the subsection "sources and intertext of the Mirror." Here Kocher builds on work by Peter Dronke, Barbara Newman and others, but goes a great deal farther in showing how dazzlingly the Mirror gleams with reflections of contemporary French lyric poetry. It has never before been so clearly demonstrated that Marguerite wrote with a stream of trouvère lyrics running through her head. She probably knew not only the Roman de la Rose (as Newman has shown) but also the works of Chrétien de Troyes and a host of contemporary poets.

I do have a few quibbles with the author's reading of some evidence in this section. Kocher consistently emphasizes Marguerite's non-textual teaching activities, referring to her as a "preacher" and asserting that she persisted in "reading aloud" from her manuscript after its initial condemnation (for instance p. 21). Certainly the Mirror itself gives strong indications of an intended listening as well as reading audience, but the evidence from the trial documents for Marguerite's own actions is not this clear on whether she was in the habit of reading aloud from her book. Other details: Kocher seems to interpret the word "pluries" in the trial documents as showing that Marguerite had "several copies" of her book (for instance p. 30), whereas it is properly an adverb indicating "several times"; and the author follows Paul Verdeyen in assuming that Latin copies of the Mirror were circulating by 1310, a dubious opinion in my view, and certainly one for which no evidence has ever been adduced. I mention these small details, however, only in the context of the overall strength of Kocher's historical reconstruction.

Chapters two, three, and four consider Marguerite's use of allegories of romantic love, social rank, and economic exchange. Here Kocher is at pains to situate allegorical and metaphorical uses within a historical context, and show how Marguerite builds upon or twists expectations about social life as contemporaries would have experienced it. As the author sums up: "Porete compares her characters with 'real' people in order to express a view of spiritual progress in relatively familiar terms; on the other hand, these metaphors also permit her to model spiritual relationships on non-realistic human ones" (189). To make these points, Kocher begins chapters by giving historical context about expressions of romantic love, perceptions of nobility, and women's access to resources in medieval Hainault. Concerning "gender in the religious allegory of love," Kocher shows that the Mirror configures its metaphors of romantic love with most possible gendered permutations: Female lover and male beloved (princess and Alexander), male-male (God and his amis), female-female (Soul and Love), and, more rarely, male lover and female beloved (human lover and Love). Kocher suggests that the mixed-sex metaphors tend to emphasize distance from God, while same-sex metaphors suggest intimacy. The many female characters tend to take active roles, and although Marguerite's concept of gender is "so fluid that modern readers may be obliged to think of it in new ways," Kocher argues that femininity "constitutes part of the set of metaphors by which Porete describes the humility and abnegation of the Soul" (101-102). Considering metaphors of social rank, Kocher here shows the way Marguerite uses recognizable social categories (vassalage, serfdom) but deploys them in a way that makes rank more permeable (and less militarized) than medieval reality. Interestingly, she departs from previous commentators (Newman, Robinson) to argue that the apparent stress on the "nobility" of the free soul does not give the Mirror a haughty aristocratic tinge, but rather functions as "an acknowledgment of the soul's (and the audience's) potential for transformation" (114). In an unexpected move, Kocher examines Marguerite's famous seven stages (Mirror ch. 118) through the lens of economic exchange. Even as the Mirror spurns wealth, Marguerite expresses theological ideas through metaphors of debts, gifts, and even "earnest money" (erres). Keeping with the focus here on historical contextualization, the author ends these chapters with the repeated assertion that (reading and listening) audiences must have found these multivalent formulations persuasive or at least conceivable.

In the final two chapters, Kocher thinks through the ways in which analogy, comparison, and allegory produce meaning and suggest interpretations, paradoxes, and parallels to the reader in the Mirror. The analysis pulls apart several of Marguerite's parables, showing how dialogue from various characters builds up multiple layers, suggests overlapping meanings, and implicates the audience in a process of comparison and interpretation. Marguerite is aware that her characters play with and sometimes mock a vocabulary of logic to argue paradoxically that the most important spiritual questions cannot be comprehended with reason. To this end, Kocher argues that much of Marguerite's theological language is not (as usually said) apophatic or negative, but "resolutely cataphatic: [Marguerite] sets up positive comparisons with human relationships to describe spiritual progress toward the Divine" (157). This in turn sets a difficult task for the audience, which is constantly directed by the characters to stop demanding rational answers and "imitate the forms of spiritual understanding that the personifications describe and model" (158). Summing up in the final chapter, Kocher at last gets to the question why "choose to write allegory? Why personification, why these comparisons, why this wording?" (165). Allegory in part allowed Marguerite to "hide" behind personifications and allusions, but it generated, and enticed audiences to work through, multiple layers of meanings, which allowed her to communicate comprehensible if multivalent ideas while rejecting reason.

The conclusion hammers home a string of strong points: Marguerite and her Mirror are difficult to valorize within the traditional framework of women's history; her resolutely non-somatic brand of spirituality challenges assumptions in recent decades about the nature of "women's writing" or "women's mysticism" in this period; Marguerite "expresses a medieval concept of the self that is remarkably fluid, a self that crosses and ultimately transcends social categorizations to disappear into God" (190).

This is, in sum, an important study for anyone interested in any aspect of Marguerite Porete's life and work, and a thought-provoking contribution to larger issues around medieval spiritual literature. The only difficulty is one wholly beyond the author's control--the hazardous nature of applying a detailed textual reading to a text which rests on such a late and fragile manuscript tradition. Scholars seem to be just waking up to the reality that the single, very late French manuscript of the Mirror cannot in every detail be the same as the text that Marguerite herself wrote and (probably) rewrote, and may indeed deviate from it in significant ways. As we build on the interpretive insights of books such as this one, it is imperative that we also have a new generation of manuscript studies that controls the Middle English, Latin and even Italian versions of the Mirror in ways that not only allow us to study those evolving textual traditions for their own sake, but establish with greater certainty what Marguerite wished to see reflected in her own Mirror.



1. After Joanne Maguire Robinson, Nobility and Annihilation in Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004). In French see Marie Bertho, Le Miroir des ames simples et anéanties de Marguerite Porete: une vie blessée d'amour (Découvrir, 1993); and in German Irene Leicht, Marguerite Porete--eine fromme Intellektuelle und die Inquisition (Herder, 1999).

2. Professor Walter Simons of Dartmouth College independently made the same observation about the likely identification of "Querayn" in an e-mail to me.

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Author Biography

Sean Field

University of Vermont