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Touting my own horn on Heresy

Medieval Europe

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Edited: Jan 28, 2008, 11:57am Top

(ahem. That ought to have been "TOOTING" my own horn....)

My book on the Beguin heretics of Languedoc in the 14th century, So Great a Light, So Great a Smoke has just been published by Cornell University Press (2008). Beguins, not Cathars -- two very different groups, though active in essentially the same area.

I usually introduce the topic of my research to fans of the Middle Ages this way. Remember the first 150 or so difficult pages of The Name of the Rose? All the politics about poverty in the Franciscan Order? My book is about the lay followers of the radical supporters of Franciscan poverty who were pursued by the inquisitors of southern France (including Bernard Gui!) in the years between 1318 and 1330. I've tried to be less difficult than Eco on the same subject, however! (though, alas, I was unable to get Sean Connery to make an appearance...

The book follows the stories of 9 men and women who were part of the underground resistance movement of the Beguins. Some sought martyrdom, some were burned at the stake less willingly, some escaped, and some of them chose to survive by abjuring their heresy. And I even caught one bribing inquisitors!

The title, by the way, comes from something a particularly eloquent Beguine (Jacma Sobirana) said to the inquisitor of Carcassonne. She was being asked about four Franciscan friars who were burned at the stake in Marseille in 1318 (they also appear on the cover of my book in a 15th-century illumination), and she responded: "My heart began to marvel at how so great a light as the great light that they revealed could be transformed so quickly into so great a smoke."

Jan 28, 2008, 8:47pm Top


Congratulations on getting it done and out there.

Jan 29, 2008, 1:08am Top

I just saw that book title come through work and thought it looked interesting, and made a mental note to either pick it up later or pass the info on to some friends. And now here is the real, live author in the Medieval Europe group!

One thing that did strike me when I saw the book was a sense of confusion ... I thought that "beguines" were also found elsewhere, in the Low Countries, for instance. A book I have on women and religion in medieval Italy also mentions Beguines, as I recall.

Is there such a thing as a "real" Beguin, or is "beguin" more of a generic term that can apply to various people (and both genders) in various times and places? Please pardon what is probably a dumb question.

Edited: Jan 29, 2008, 1:31am Top

I've been looking forward to this. Thanks for the reminder!

And, of course, congratulations!

Jan 29, 2008, 10:41am Top

You're promoting your book! Spam! Spam! (just kidding)

Congrats on the book. It sounds very interesting. Was it an outgrowth of your PhD?

Jan 29, 2008, 10:46am Top

(though, alas, I was unable to get Sean Connery to make an appearance...

Oh, no! What a shame. There goes the Oscar . . .

Jan 29, 2008, 11:32am Top

Thanks, everyone! To answer a couple of questions -- yes, this is an "outgrowth" of my PhD. Certainly, a PhD is like a growth, which I have not yet managed to excise, and this book has grown off it! It is a very different work, however -- for the book, I decided to follow individuals instead of thinking about resistance in categories ("martyrdom," "exile," "tactics" etc). I think it makes for a better read.

And yes, the word "Beguine" is a problematic one! First of all, we don't really know where it came from, and it had many different meanings in the Middle Ages. In northern Europe, it came to mean a woman who lived a religious life outside of a monastery, often in a non-cloistered place called a "beguinage" (as in Bruges). Walter Simons has written a wonderful book on these beguines called Cities of Ladies. In the north, men who lived similar lives were called "beghards" (beghardus) (hence, Ernest McDonnells book Beguines and Beghards in Medieval Culture, which no one appears to own a copy of on LibraryThing, not even me).

But in the south of Europe, and especially the south of France, the word had different connotations. First of all, it was used for both men and women (beguinus/beguina), and was generally used to indicate members of the Franciscan Third Order. But most important is that by the turn of the 14th century, it came to mean those laypeople who were followers of the *Spiritual* Franciscans -- meaning those who were advocates for a more radical Franciscan poverty, and who particularly followed a Franciscan theologian named Petrus Johannis Olivi in his apocalyptic predictions. David Burr has a fantastic book on the Spirituals, The Spiritual Franciscans, that I recommend very highly (he's a wonderful writer, in addition to being an outstanding historian). Don't know why the touchstone isn't working here!

(just to confuse matters further, there was one group in the south of France that followed the northern model: Douceline of Digne and her Ladies of Roubaud --- see The Life of Saint Douceline, a Beguine of Provence edited and translated by Kathleen Garay and Madeleine Jeay.

My book follows the apocalyptic Beguins, both men and women, as they were pursued by the inquisitors of Languedoc, primarily between 1316 and 1330, and as they formed their underground resistance movement. I'm not the very first person to write about them -- David Burr has also been working on them for some time, and Raoul Manselli wrote a book about them back in 1959, Spirituali e beghini in Provenza (most easily accessible as translated into French, Spirituels et Beguins du Midi, though mine is probably the only copy on here!). Burr is more interested in theology than in resistance, however, and I've also used documents more prosaic than the inquisitorial depositions that both he and Manselli are based on to ground all these wacky individuals in the context of their cities and town.

Possibly the most interesting of all the beguins is a woman named Na Prous Boneta, who was burned in 1328 not only as a heretic, but also as a heresiarch (she is one of the two individuals I follow in my chapter "Heretics, Heresiarchs and Leaders"). Both Burr and I have written about her in other venues, and she makes a brief (and generally disparaging) appearance in a number of books about medieval heresy. Barbara Newman's From Virile Woman to WomanChrist is a bit nicer than the norm! Na Prous' deposition was originally published in Essays in Medieval Life and Thought, and her sentence was published waaaaay back when by Henry Charles Lea in Inquisition in the Middle Ages. Obviously, my "screen name" comes from her...

Edited: Mar 1, 2008, 9:47am Top

This is so awesome. It's an aside to my doctoral work and a fascinating one. I'm working on literature surrounding the gospels in West-Saxon in England and religious and religious orders are part of my background. Thanks for all the suggestions. (MORE books to read ;-) ;-( No time, no time.)

If I might add a little bit of wordplay with no offense attached-- your last name goes nicely with your topic. ;-) and I like your screen name.

(The Old English joke goes -- Cotton should have known better than to store his books in a building called the Ashburnam House!!)

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