Review: Aline Kiner, La nuit de béguines (2017)

Aline Kiner’s La nuit de béguines, published by Liani Levi in 2017 to both critical and popular acclaim, centers on a controversial group of historical women called beguines. Long a source of fascination for historians, beguines are currently having a moment.[1] Although probably most often associated with Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” “beguine” was a name medieval people gave to women who refused the two available options for their sex—marriage or the cloister—and forged a new path, a third way.

Like nuns, beguines lived lives of chastity and prayer. Unlike nuns, however, beguines gravitated towards active service in the world, often as hospital workers and teachers. Because beguines were never recognized as an official, papally-recognized religious order, they were, in effect, self-appointed “religious” women. They took no formal vows, they did not give up their property, and (perhaps most troublingly) they did not live in convents and they could leave the beguine life at any time to marry. As several male observers complained, beguines seemed to enjoy the best of both worlds: holding onto their property and living in the world independently of male authority while, at the same time, claiming the privileges and protections due to nuns. Since beguines lived in the world like ordinary women, rubbing shoulders with laypeople while seeking close, ostensibly religious, relationships with male clerics, they were accused of using the beguine status to avoid marriage and familial responsibilities and (worse) as a cover for illicit sexual behavior. Leaving aside the possible merits of these accusations, beguines were, as one scholar has phrased it, “women on the loose.”[2] They challenged certain gendered norms in medieval society.  Some were educated and thus able to engage in theological discussions with university masters. Some even wrote about their mystical experiences and ideas. Yet in spite of the unconventionality of the beguine status, for a time beguines were able to carve out an accepted space for themselves in medieval society. Their reputations for piety and their dedication to valued services in the rapidly developing medieval cities (beguines worked in valuable textile trades, hospitals, and schools) earned beguines important supporters and even patrons among society’s powerful elites.

This support, however, was always in danger of dissolving under new pressures and circumstances. Indeed, these pressures and circumstances constitute the backdrop for Aline Kiner’s engrossing novel, which follows the Parisian beguines’ descent into obscurity (the “night of beguines” referenced in the title). A “feminine Name of the Rose,” as one reviewer called it, La nuit des béguines deftly portrays the intricate loyalties and complex relationships of a group of beguines living in turbulent times. Set in medieval Paris between 1310 and 1314, La nuit des béguines takes place just as the tides are turning against the beguines, their city, and the kingdom more broadly. By this time, Paris was the largest city in medieval Europe, its university the most renowned and its rulers fast becoming the most powerful. Yet this power eventually put the king at odds with the papacy, leading to a period that the French historian William Jordan has characterized as a time of “unceasing strife and unending fear.” [3] As a community of women lacking official ecclesiastical status and completely dependent on royal favor, the beguines were particularly vulnerable during this clash between “church and state.”

Up until the early fourteenth century, however, the French kings unequivocally embraced the beguine status as a praiseworthy option for Parisian women who wished to live a religious life in the world. Throughout his reign King Louis IX (canonized in 1297 and thus thereafter Saint Louis), enthusiastically supported new religious communities, including the beguines. Perhaps influenced by his friend, the university cleric Robert of Sorbon (a fervent admirer of the beguine life), Louis founded a house for beguines—a beguinage—sometime in the early 1260s.[4] Louis’s successors continued to support the royal beguinage, associating the institution with their image, cultivated for generations, as “Most Christian Kings.” Yet, circumstances changed during the reign of Louis’s grandson, Philip IV (Philip the Fair, or “le Bel”). Paranoid, vindictive, and fiercely protective of his royal power and image as “Most Christian King,” Philip perceived himself as defender of the faith in his realm and could abide no rivals to his power, whether secular or religious. In fact, political and religious authority, in Philip’s view, went hand in hand. Enemies of the crown were defamed and cast as heretics, bolstering the king’s image as defender of the faith. No one who crossed Philip could escape his propaganda machine, not even Pope Boniface VIII, whom Philip’s men labeled a blasphemer and sodomite, demanding his removal from office. In 1306, Philip ordered the arrest of all of the Jews in his kingdom, confiscating their goods. The very next year, Philip turned to the Knights Templar, accusing the entire order of heresy and seizing its wealth. These mass arrests, expulsions, and trials must have rattled the beguines, whose status depended entirely on the favor of the king.

The king’s personal confessor, the Dominican friar William of Paris, was (not coincidentally) also the Inquisitor of France, an unprecedented combination of powers that reflects the nature of the French king’s piety. It was William who initiated, and bungled, the investigation into alleged heresy by the Knights Templar, earning him a very public and humiliating papal rebuke. William’s need to restore his reputation found its target in a beguine named Marguerite Porete, who wrote and circulated a book known to Anglophone readers as the Mirror of Simple Souls.[5] It was for this book that Marguerite ultimately went to the stake, making her the only medieval author—male or female—to die for a book. This event, which took place in the middle of the city on the Place de Grève (the present site of the Hôtel de Ville), is a pivotal moment in Kiner’s novel, which focuses not on Marguerite herself but rather the drama set in motion by her death. Indeed, the years during which La nuit des béguines takes place (1310-1314) saw the execution of the beguine Marguerite Porete, the similar fate of the Knights Templar, the condemnation of the beguine status and the Templar Order, and the launching of what one scholar has called a “hundred year war” against beguines.[6] Marguerite Porete and the Knights Templar have, of course, been the subjects of dozens of historical works but, incredibly, have not yet featured in historical fiction. Indeed, both trials raise a number of unresolved questions and have launched quite a few conspiracy theories (particularly surrounding the Templars). Filling in the gaps, uncertainties, and “what ifs” that history inevitably leaves, La nuit des béguines offers a compelling and historically plausible story set within the context of one of the biggest scandals in medieval history.

La nuit des béguines interweaves this climate of suspicion and persecution into a story that centers on the women whose lives are imperiled by the unwanted scrutiny Marguerite inadvertently drew to their status and community. The novel opens with the arrival of a mysterious young woman, Maheut, cursed with red hair (a diabolical colour), seeks refuge at the Paris beguinage after fleeing a violent, forced marriage. Arriving dishevelled, injured, and seemingly mute, Maheut disrupts the tranquillity of the community, potentially imperilling its reputation. One of the older beguines, Ysabel, who works in the community’s hospital and tends to its gardens, nevertheless takes Maheut in and nurses her back to health. Maheut’s disconcerting appearance and behaviour, however, soon prompts Ysabel to ask Ade, a widowed beguine protective of her solitude, to allow the fugitive to live with her in her private quarters. Over the next few days, Ysabel learns more about the Maheut’s horrifying reasons for fleeing her marriage, reasons that could potentially endanger Maheut and her beguine protectors. The situation worsens as a Franciscan friar, the enigmatic Humbert, arrives in Paris with a mission that eventually intertwines the fates of the imprisoned beguine Marguerite Porete, the fugitive Maheut, and a book known as The Mirror of Simple Souls. Soon, Ysabel and her fellow beguines—particularly Ade and the spirited silk merchant Jeanne du Faut—are drawn into a pact involving the condemned book and the fugitive Maheut.

Beguinages could serve as safe havens for women and Kiner’s book, which draws on recent scholarship, particularly my 2014 monograph The Beguines of Medieval Paris, brilliantly explores the varied motivations that brought together women of diverse circumstances, ages, and backgrounds. Surrounded by walls, the beguinage was a kind of city within a city, a “City of Ladies” as beguine historian Walter Simons has called it.[7] Within the walls of the beguinage, there existed a variety of residential and communal spaces.  Depending upon their individual means or personal preferences, beguines could live either in private homes, sometimes with one or two companions, or in the communal dormitory, which housed dozens of women. The beguinage also had its own chapel, as well as a hospital and, eventually, a school for girls. The walls surrounding the beguinage separated its female inhabitants from the city in order to protect the women from threats to their bodies and reputations. Still, the beguinage was remarkably porous. The beguinage and its chapel drew royal patrons, bourgeois supporters, and clerical visitors. Its residents were likewise drawn out of the enclosure to nurture spiritual friendships with clerical advisors, carry out property negotiations with family members and business associates, and fulfill spiritual and social obligations. Within the relative seclusion of the beguinage chapel or private room, beguines were able to engage in solitary contemplation, but the porosity of the beguinage meant that they were free to nurture horizontal and vertical networks that included family, friends, and work associates.

Kiner utilizes these historical details to great effect, focusing in particular on the women’s interpersonal relationships. Indeed, the backstories for the main characters, which Kiner reveals as the plot develops, accurately convey the varied circumstances and motivations that drew medieval women to the beguine life. Twice married and widowed, Ysabel’s story illustrates the tranquility of the enclosure as well as its possibilities for personal independence and self-actualization. The beautiful, well-born Ade sought solitude in the beguinage after the death of her husband, who was killed in the Battle of Courtrai. In spite or pressure to remarry, Ade withdrew to the beguinage, which offered an escape from the demands of male relatives, who frequently used their daughters and sisters to secure political alliances. Ade’s efforts to channel her grief into spiritual ascension is movingly and convincingly rendered in Kiner’s work.

Most rewarding, perhaps, is Kiner’s portrayal of Jeanne du Faut, a fascinating silk merchant on whom I uncovered an unusual amount of information during my archival research on the beguines of Paris. The scattered documentation—tax rolls, property records, and testaments—on Jeanne revealed that she had tried living in the beguinage as a younger woman (Kiner portrays Jeanne as a widow) but at some point found its rules and curfews too limiting. In this, Jeanne was probably not alone. Jeanne’s specific reasons for leaving the beguinage perhaps had something to do with her personal ambitions. After she left the community, Jeanne set up what would become a highly successful silk shop in the center of Paris’s luxury textile district (the rue Troussevache, now called the Rue de La Reynie, located not far from Les Halles).Yet she continued to identify as a beguine, since the beguine life was not limited to residency in a beguinage. As fiscal and testamentary documentation reveal, Jeanne found companionship and spiritual fulfillment—along with economic success—outside of the beguinage, cultivating relationships with silk workers, many of whom also identified as beguines.

These historical details inspired Kiner’s portrait of Jeanne de Faut as a vivacious, entrepreneurial, and fiercely independent center of a convivial household of working women. Here, Kiner is not offering anachronistic portrayals of medieval women. On the contrary, she is sticking quite close to the historical record, which shows that Parisian beguines really did own their own workshops and developed intimate, possibly even sexual, relationships with other women. Throughout history, women have found creative ways to come together in intentional communities, to live lives of service and engagement in the world in spite of patriarchal constraints.  Late thirteenth and early fourteenth- century Paris was just such a time. Illuminating the lives of these ordinary women pursuing an extraordinary alternative to the binary choices of medieval life (marriage or cloister), Kiner’s book immerses the reader in the world that was truly unique but—by 1310—already in decline.

The book’s plot, fueled by the women’s complex personalities, is set in motion by the fate of one of the most fascinating historical figures in history, a beguine known as Marguerite Porete. Marguerite’s story, to be sure, has all of the drama and intrigue of fiction. Lost to history up until only a few decades ago, Marguerite Porete only came to scholarly attention when an Italian archivist, Romana Guarnieri, made the connection between the fragmentary trial record of a beguine burned at the stake in 1310 and The Mirror of Simple Souls, which scholars had long assumed to have been written by a male cleric. Guarnieri noticed the similarity between the two extracts from the book cited in the trial and the Mirror itself, establishing that the book had not only been written by a woman but that the author had been condemned, and executed, as a heretic.

The Mirror of Simple Souls, which Marguerite wrote sometime in the mid-1290s in the Old French vernacular, describes the annihilation of the soul, specifically its descent into a state of nothingness—of union with God without distinction. Most of what we know about Marguerite Porete comes from this book, which contains almost no direct information about its author. Her trial record, which exists in a single manuscript, provides few details since Marguerite refused to cooperate with the inquisitor. Based on these fragmentary records, it is evident that Marguerite was a beguine from the county of Hainaut, a region that straddles northern France and modern-day Belgium. While clearly popular in its day (perhaps dozens of copies circulated throughout late-medieval western Europe) The Mirror provoked controversy in the early fourteenth century for several reasons. First, the book was in French (rather than Latin, the preferred language of learning) and therefore accessible to an increasingly literate medieval society. Second, the book contained statements such as “a soul annihilated in the love of the creator could, and should, grant to nature all that it desires,” which some took to mean that a soul can become one with God and that when in this state it can ignore moral law. In other words, it had no need for the Church and its sacraments, or its code of virtues. Local ecclesiastical authorities feared that the book’s teachings were too easily misconstrued, particularly by the unlearned and theologically unsophisticated. At issue too was the way Marguerite disseminated her teachings, which was evocative of actions and behaviors some clerics were—at the time—finding increasingly problematic among beguines more generally.

Based on The Mirror itself, it is clear that Marguerite was educated and enjoyed access to resources, such as parchment, writing supplies, and perhaps even a scribe. She also had important clerical supporters, including three men who wrote cautious endorsements of The Mirror. Among these three supporters was the esteemed Sorbonne cleric Godfrey of Fontaines.[8] In my own work on Parisian beguines, I have argued that it was not unusual for university scholars to show interest in the writings and teachings of beguines. Sorbonne students frequently preached and attended sermons at the beguinage and even recorded sermons preached by the mistress of the Paris beguinage herself, a stunning rejection of medieval prohibitions against female preaching.[9] Indeed, while more famous (in modern historiography) theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, composed disputations clearly opposed to female preaching, in their interactions “on the ground,” Sorbonne clerics encouraged women to take on active pastoral roles as auxiliaries to the clergy.

Nevertheless, this energetic circulation of her ideas and writings eventually brought Marguerite before the local Bishop of Cambrai, Guido of Collemezzo, who condemned The Mirror and ordered the book to be publicly burned. According to the records of her trial, the bishop informed Marguerite that she would be handed over to secular authorities should she attempt to disseminate her ideas, whether in oral or written form. Apparently undeterred, Marguerite continued to circulate her book, coming to the attention of another bishop, who sent her to Paris to answer to the inquisitor of France, William of Paris, in late 1308. In Paris, Marguerite remained under house arrest for 18 months, refusing to cooperate with the Dominican inquisitor. Eventually, William proceeded with the case by putting Marguerite’s book on trial, gathering together nearly the entire faculty of theology to judge the orthodoxy of the book. When these masters unanimously declared the book heretical, they smoothed the way for William to condemn Marguerite to the stake. On May 31st, William declared Marguerite a “relapsed heretic” and handed her over to secular authorities who carried out her sentence. The very next day on June 1, 1310, Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake at the Place de Grève in Paris.

In 1311—the year after Marguerite’s death– at least six of the twenty-one Parisian theologians called upon to judge her book participated in a church council in Vienne where ecclesiastical officials made several specific connections between Marguerite’s ideas and deeds and the beguine status in general. These connections were expressed in two decrees. The first decree, known as Cum de quibusdam mulieribus (Concerning certain women), targeted the beguine status specifically, accusing the beguines of feigning piety, disputing theology, and preaching, the decree ordered that the beguine status be “completely abolished.”  Similarly, the second decree, Ad nostrum, listed eight “errors” allegedly espoused by beguines.

Questions continue to swirl around Marguerite and her book. What inspired her to write The Mirror? Did she think her book would find support among the local bishop and clergymen? What was her relationship with the three learned men who put their reputations on the line to write (however cautious) approvals of her book? Why did Marguerite continue to circulate her book after it was condemned in Cambrai? How did Marguerite’s fellow beguines and clerical supporters respond to her arrest, trial, and execution? These questions inspired me to research the beguines of Paris—in spite of the scattered nature of the documentation—when I began my doctoral research in medieval history almost twenty years ago. While Marguerite herself remains frustratingly inscrutable, the ecclesiastical authorities who condemned her work believed that her ideas and behavior were typical of all beguines. As I pieced together information about individual beguines living and working in the beguinage and the smaller households of beguines scattered throughout the neighborhoods of medieval Paris, I wondered what these women might have said about the arrest, year-long imprisonment, and trial of one of their fellow beguines. I knew some of the women must have witnessed her execution, which took place not far from beguinage. I wanted to know if university clerics and royal authorities, who had supported the beguines for decades at the time of Marguerite’s death, made any connection between this beguine from Valenciennes and the beguines of Paris.

Marguerite’s extraordinary story and tragic fate, as well as the Council of Vienne, haunt the women in La nuit des béguines. While the historian can only interpret the facts as revealed in the available documents, Kiner’s fictional exploration of the men (especially the friar Humbert) and women whose lives are upended by Marguerite’s fate and the subsequent church council that condemned their status is a fascinating example of the relationship between historical reconstruction and imagination. Faithful to the historical context, Kiner brilliantly fills in the spaces between historical fact and the unknown. Scholars now understand that Marguerite was not a solitary figure and Kiner rightly places Marguerite in the midst of influential, religious patrons, making sense of her actions.

Yet Kiner never takes the focus off the women whose lives come to be intertwined with the woman from Valenciennes. In La nuit des béguines, the beguine Agnes is the first to break the news of Marguerite’s condemnation, having privileged access to the inquisitor’s actions via her relative, who was a Dominican at the Paris convent. Here, Kiner conveys the beguines’ many contacts outside the beguinage, as well as the porosity of the community, which allowed information to reach the women quite quickly. Indeed, as Kiner suggests, the beguinage was a hub where information and news flowed and circulated. This feature of the beguine life, however, was also dangerous. Ysabel’s concerns about the increased scrutiny she knew Marguerite’s trial would bring to their lives were well-founded. The beguines’ claims to live a religious life in the world meant that they were under constant scrutiny and the women understood the precariousness of their existence. A high profile execution such as Marguerite’s no doubt shook the beguine residents to their core.

Over the last two decades, women have been marrying and having children later or—increasingly—not at all. Recent books such as Kate Bolick’s Spinster or Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies reflect on this visible trend towards singleness among women and, along with this, the growing prevalence of female-centered communities. As a surprising defiance of male authority, the beguine option has seen a recent surge in interest for women looking for historical inspiration for their communities. Some religious leaders have even called for a return to the Beguine movement. Indeed, one can now find communities consciously modeled on the medieval beguines all over the United States and Europe. In France, a company called “Vivre en bguinage” (Living in a beguinage) draws on the tradition of the medieval beguinages to provide independent living options for seniors.  In the United States, communities such as the American Beguine Community in San Jose, California, look to the medieval beguines as models for a communal life today. With Kiner’s book, we get a thorough immersion into this fascinating world. Details about daily life, the marketplaces, the silk workshops, the beguinage and its hospital,  medicine and cuisine convey the rich texture of life in medieval Paris and will delight readers familiar with this time period while enchanting those who wish to know more.

[1] Beguines have featured in several recent bestselling books on demographic changes in the United States, specifically the growing number of women who have chosen to delay or forgo marriage altogether, a phenomenon that parallels demographic changes in parts of Medieval Europe during the High Middle Ages. See in particular Rebecca Traister, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (Simon and Schuster, 2016). Kate Bolick’s influential 2011 essay in The Atlantic (also titled “All the Single Ladies”) admiringly discusses the beguinage in Amsterdam (an “iconic medieval bastion of single-sex living”) as a medieval example of a modern trend towards singleness. Several recent novels, too, have included beguines among the main characters. Examples include Karen Maitland’s bestseller, The Owl Killers (Bantam, 2010) and Candace Robb’s A Twisted Vengeance (Pegasus Books, 2017).The Economist published a moving and widely shared obituary of “the last beguine,” Marcella Pattyn in 2013 (https://www.economist.com/obituary/2013/04/27/marcella-pattyn, accessed December, 2019), which they followed up with an substantial discussion of the history of the beguines. See “Who Were the Beguines?” The Economist (May 12, 2013), https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2013/05/12/who-were-the-beguines, accessed December, 2019. The beguine movement has also been the focus of several articles from various news outlets, including The New Yorker and Atlas Obscura. See “The Medieval Movement of Holy Women That Shaped Belgian Cities,” Atlas Obscura, October, 2016 [https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-medieval-movement-of-holy-women-that-shaped-belgian-cities]. Accessed December, 2019. Beguinages in Belgium and the Netherlands continue to be popular tourist destinations: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2017/nov/01/beguines-courtyard-central-amsterdam-courtyard-catholic-order

[2] Anke Passenier, “’Women on the Loose’: Stereotypes of Women in the Story of the Medieval Beguines,” Female Stereotypes in Religious Traditions, eds. Ria Kloppenborg and Wouter J. Hanegraaff (Brill, 1995) 61-88.

[3] William C. Jordan, Unceasing Strife, Unending Fear: Jacques de Thérines and the Freedom of the Church in the Age of the Last Capetians (Princeton University Press, 2005).

[4] The beguinage of Paris was located between what is now the rue Charlemagne to the north, the rue de l’Ave-Maria to the south, and the rue du Fauconnier to the west. On the east side of the beguinage, the walls of Philip Augustus served as part of the enclosure, which is why it remains the best-preserved remnant of the old medieval walls. See Stabler Miller, The Beguines of Medieval Paris, especially chapter one.

[5] For a thorough account of Marguerite’s trial and execution, see Sean Field, The Beguine, the Angel and the Inquisitor: The Trials of Marguerite Porete and Guiard of Cressonessart. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012.

[6] Richard Kieckhefer, Repression of Heresy in Medieval Germany (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979), 19.

[7] Walter Simons, Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001)

[8] For an insightful argument for why Godfrey of Fontaines might have endorsed Marguerite’s book, see Sean Field, “The Master and Marguerite: Godfrey of Fontaines’s Praise of The Mirror of Simple Souls,” Journal of Medieval History 35 (2009): 136-149.

[9] Tanya Stabler Miller, The Beguines of Medieval Paris: Gender, Patronage, and Spiritual Authority (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), especially Chapter Four.

Published by tstabler

Professor of History at Loyola University of Chicago https://luc.academia.edu/TanyaStablerMiller http://luc.edu/history/people/facultyandstaffdirectory/millertanyastabler.shtml Twitter: @StablerTanya

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