This thesis presents a new assessment of the identity and historical significance of Marguerite Porete, burned for heresy in Paris in 1310, and reconnects her to a vigorous, lay, discourse community that threatened the authority of the later medieval church. The thesis argues that a bilateral annihilation of Porete as an historical subject has been brought about by medieval and modern representations, and that this has served to obscure the presence of a subaltern religious discourse in the period. The historiography of Porete has followed distinctive stages of development that reflect, and are affected by, concurrent advances in the study of medieval female religious participation. This interplay has led to the development of a particularly influential hermeneutics that serves to exclude Porete from her contemporaries. Analysis of documentation issuing from Porete’s condemnation has similarly been influenced by hermeneutic issues that manipulate the ways in which Porete is perceived as an identity. This thesis challenges dominant representations of Porete in the scholarship and argues that Porete’s identity and discourse reflect a particularly vigorous, fluid and cross-discoursed lay engagement with religiosity that has roots in the precocious socio-religious environment of the Southern Low Countries.
Central to the aims of this thesis is the question “how did Porete ‘fit’ the religious landscape of her period?” A seeming obstacle to this pursuit are claims from within the scholarship that Porete did not ‘fit’ at all, but was, rather, as an aberration amidst other female mystics of the period. Clear links, however, have suggested a wider discourse community and some have identified her, in conjunction with those that condemned her in Paris, as a beguine. Yet this affiliation is refuted by Porete within her book and the term, as an indicator of identity, is highly problematic. This thesis explores the historiographical issues that cloud Porete’s case and offers a reassessment of the possibilities her reconnection to the major religious currents of her day presents. It will be argued that her condemnation represents a major historical development wherein the boundaries of institutionally accepted discourse were hardened at the very moment when the possibilities for religious discourse were at their peak. Porete will thus be reassessed as a major figure in an alternative religious discourse that represents the excluded voice of lay engagement in the later Middle Ages.