The annihilation of the soul in the philosophical mysticism and negative theology of the beguine Marguerite Porete (1250–1310)

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Abstract

This article reappraises one of the most difficult concepts in the history of ideas in the Medieval Latin West, from one of the most obscure texts in the extensive index of Medieval philosophy. This problematic concept is annihilatio, presented from the controversial text Mirouer des simples âmes anienties (translated in Latin as Speculum simplicium animarum), written and circulated by the beguine Marguerite Porete (1250–1310), on grounds of which she was found guilty of heresy by the inquisitor of Paris and burned at the stake on June 1, 1310. Marguerite is introduced as a “negative philosopher-theologian” within the intellectual (high-scholastic) context of the 13th century, on the basis of Pseudo-Dionysius’ and John Scotus Eriugena’s recurring negative theologies in her work. Speculum simplicium animarum is henceforth disseminated in terms of the significance of annihilatio, Wesenmystik, a unique philosophical anthropology, and the will as a subject-transforming faculty, prioritised above the intellect, in the text. In the second half of the article these prominent aspects of Speculum simplicium animarum are re-evaluated in terms of the most recent perspectives on the text from the specialised Porete research. These perspectives include the “heresy of the Free Spirit” and the recurrence of Pseudo-Dionysius’ negative theology in the text, a thorough reappraisal of Marguerite’s background as a beguine and the intended female address of the text, the Amherst manuscript (British Library ms Additional 37790) as an example of the transmission and influence of the text, as well as feminist reassessments of Speculum simplicium animarum. However, the study of the work has more to offer than what is currently being afforded in some reductionist readings from feminist contexts. When this beguine is reappraised on the basis of her own presentation, she continues to open up new spaces in the extensive index of Medieval philosophy – and when the discursive eccentricity of the text is shielded by nuanced receptions, Marguerite steps to the fore as one of the most provocative thinkers in the Western history of ideas, effectively transcending her embeddedness in the later Middle Ages.

Keywords: Amherst manuscript; annihilatio; annihilation of the soul; feminist reassessments of Speculum simplicium animarum; discursive madness; John Scotus Eriugena; Marguerite Porete (1250–1310); the productive function of Dionysic frenzy; Pseudo-Dionysius; Speculum simplicium animarum; Wesenmystik; the will prioritised above the intellect

 

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Die eliminering van die siel in die filosofiese mistiek en negatiewe teologie van die begyn Marguerite Porete (1250–1310)

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