Jacques de Vitry and The Spirituality of the Mulieres Sanctae1

Monica Sandor

Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies

Toronto, Ontario


In Jacques de Vitry (1160/1170–1240), the French canon regular, preacher, historian and eventually bishop and cardinal, a multitude of orthodox popular religious movements of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries found a zealous friend and admirer, patron and defender. The beguines, who at best met with toleration but more often than not with deep suspicion and persecution, might not have survived at all or might not have flourished to the extent they did had it not been for a certain amount of support and encouragement at the outset from important churchmen. Above all, it was Jacques de Vitry who first saw the value of the movement from the beginning. He subsequently helped establish its credibility among a Curia faced with numerous heterodox groups and therefore suspicious of any lay religious movement. However, men of the stature of Robert Grosseteste had the highest praise for the beguines’ apostolic life,2 and Robert de Sorbon went so far as to speculate that the beguines would fare better on the day of judgement than many theologians.3

Jacques may have been predisposed to a sympathetic view of the beguines through his contact with the twelfth-century Augustinian canons whose ideals, in many ways, foreshadowed those of the mendicant friars. Caroline Walker Bynum has shown that although canons retained a cloistered and contemplative life, they perceived and described their vocation in terms of pastoral work along the lines of the apostolic model of preaching and teaching.4 It is therefore not surprising that canons regular in the Low Countries were among the first to take on the spiritual guidance of the beguines until they were supplemented or replaced by the Cistercians and then the mendicant friars.5

In his standard work Beguines and Beghards in Medieval Culture, Ernest W. McDonnell6 has discussed the connection between Jacques and the beguines: his intercession on their behalf and his writings in support of them, including his vita of Marie d’Oignies,7 parts of his Historia Occidentalis,8 and several extant letters.9 Jacques’ fame, however, largely rests upon his reputation as an effective preacher who was among the first to make widespread use of exempla.10 Six collections of his model sermons survive which were composed, at the request of his confrères in Liège, towards the end of his life when he lived in retirement as cardinal of Tusculum. Although these sermons are found in more than twenty manuscripts—mainly in France and the Low Countries—hitherto only very few of them have been available in printed editions.11 Of these sermons, the sermones vulgares or sermones ad status will serve as the source for the ecclesiastical observations. Much could be revealed about the impact of the ideals of the beguines upon the laity if we were able to trace the influence of these religious women upon Jacques’ pastoral work. Furthermore, our understanding of Jacques as a preacher would be deepened if we could discover which aspects of beguine life he felt he could recommend to all Christians and which ones required modification before they could be proposed for popular consumption. For if we are to believe Jacques’ own claim in his vita of Marie d’Oignies and the biographical remarks about him made by Thomas of Cantimpré,12 Jacques’ subsequent career owed much to the early influence of Marie d’Oignies and the other mulieres sanctae of Brabant who have generally been considered the first beguines. The aim of this paper, then, will be to examine the relationship of Jacques de Vitry to the mulieres sanctae and to trace the themes in the spirituality expressed in his sermons which reflect the influence of their piety as described in his vita of Marie.

It appears that already in his student days, Jacques was attracted by the reputation of the holy women of Liège. Prior to his ordination in 1210, he left the schools of Paris to visit the Low Countries. According to Thomas of Cantimpré, a Dominican who had known Jacques personally and who recorded in his supplement to Jacques’ vita various details of Jacques’ own life and relationship to Marie, it was on her advice that the young student chose to enter the Augustinian priory of St Nicholas at Oignies.13 At the request of Marie and of the canons, it is said that he returned to Paris to complete his studies and receive holy orders. What is certain is that in 1211, Jacques transferred to the diocese of Liège as a newly ordained priest and celebrated his first Mass in the church of St. Nicholas in Marie’s presence. As a young canon in that priory, he undertook active ministry and preaching and was closely associated with the holy women in the area, although it is not always clear in what capacity.

It must not be thought, however, that Jacques’ personal affection for these mulieres sanctae was restricted only to Marie. Thomas of Cantimpré reports in his vita of Lutgard of Aywieres that Lutgard herself prayed that he might cease to show an “all too human love” for a certain holy woman and resume his preaching duties instead of remaining with her as she languished in her cell.14 He also appears to have preached on several occasions to groups of women: the sermones vulgares contain sermons to widows and celibates and “to virgins and young maidens.”15 But it was Marie who exerted the strongest influence upon the young canon and his fidelity and admiration fills the pages of her vita. While paying tribute in his prologue to the many saintly women he knew, he calls her the outstanding light among the many luminaries, tamquam sol inter stellas.16 Even more important was her influence upon his choice of vocation. Inspired by her, he was seized with a desire to combat heresy (for which purpose the vita was purportedly written), to preach the Crusades and to proclaim the values of the apostolic life to the laity.

Jacques’ repute as a preacher spread rapidly and, as early as 1213—the year of Marie’s death —he was commissioned by the papal legate to preach the Albigensian Crusade in France and Lorraine. The following year he was again commissioned, possibly by Robert de Courçon, to preach a crusade to the Holy Land. His involvement with the East led the canons of St. John of Acre to elect him a member of their chapter and shortly thereafter as their bishop.17 The women of Liège, however, continued to exert their influence upon him despite the many miles which separated them, and several letters he wrote to them still survive, including two to Lutgard of St. Trond and one to the convent of Aywières.18 On his return to Italy, he took advantage of his rank to promote the cause of the beguines at the curia. He presented a copy of the vita of Marie to the same Pope Honorius III who, in 1216, had granted him verbal permission for the beguines to live in semi-religious communities for mutual support and exhortation. The vita was probably read also by Cardinal Hugolino, the future Pope Gregory IX who, in 1223, would issue the bull Gloriam virginalem granting beguine houses quasi-legal recognition.

The crucial element in Jacques’ campaign on behalf of the beguines—an element which can be found in his letters to members of the curia, in Marie’s vita, and in his sermons—is the insistence on the virtue and orthodoxy of the beguine life and on its dissimilarity to any heretical tendencies, whether Catharist or Free Spirit in orientation. In the vita he reports that the Holy Spirit had ensured that these women19 were found firm in faith and active in their works.20 He could not bear to hear ill spoken of them, and called their detractors “shameless men, the enemies of all religion, who maliciously slander the religion of the aforesaid women.”21 Although strenuous in his defense of their integrity, he nevertheless was uneasy about the spontaneous nature of the primitive form of this movement and wanted to see them organised into a cloistered institution. This implicit prejudice can still be found in modern historiography of the beguines. In his description of the fourth and most structured of the four stages of beguine life made classic by L.J.M. Philippen, Ernest MacDonnell echoes the criticisms leveled agains the beguines by many thirteenth-century prelates:

certain Beguines continued to live isolated in the world, scattered about the city. It is they above all who by their mendicancy, vagabondage, doctrinal errors and moral abberation caused the most trouble for the beguinæ clausæ, at times discrediting the whole movement.22

Although undoubtedly some women conformed to this description, Jacques’ own witness to the purity of those who, like Marie, lived in their own homes or in seclusion argues against this wholesale condemnation of the extra-claustral beguine life.

The themes of orthodox lay piety stressed in the vita are a result of its intended use by bishop Foulques of Toulouse in his campaign against the Cathars.23 In a sense, it was to serve as a model exemplum directed towards women, who were deemed most susceptible to religious enthusiasm and heresy, and its end was to prove that a life of apostolic poverty, simplicity, and charity could be pursued within the Church. Since most of Jacques’ sermons have the same goal, the continuity between the themes of the vita and of the extant model sermons should not come as a surprise. For instance, both the vita and the sermones vulgares emphasise those devotional themes conventionally seen as typical of feminine piety: an intensely affective devotion to the humanity of Christ; the desire to imitate him, especially in the details of the Passion; a deep longing for the Eucharist and the experience of various miracles associated with it; the importance of chastity and severe penance, particularly in the form of fasting, works of charity and assistance to the poor; and vicarious suffering in illness and self-mortification to aid the causes of the Church and the souls in purgatory.

An obvious difficulty in comparing the piety of Marie with that of Jacques arises from the fact that most of what we know of Marie comes from the vita by Jacques, her friend and adviser. This is a problem which all modern historians must face when dealing with the lives of mediæval women. Our knowledge is seldom based on direct testimony but rather upon the interpretation of their lives by their male biographers. Since it was usually the men who were lettered and theologically trained, it was they who assumed the task of recording the thoughts and religious experiences of women saints or mystics. One must, however, remember that this problem is only part of the more general question of the relationship of any mystic or visionary to the spiritual director and representative of the hierarchy of the Church.

Although Jacques acted as Marie’s spiritual adviser, it must not be thought that the lines of influence ran in one direction only. Marie is not presented as the passive contemplative counterpart to Jacques’ active ministry. Both the vita and its supplement indicate that frequently a reversal of stereotypical roles took place. Jacques firmly believed—and this was in no way typical of male writing about women—that she knew his soul and his sins as no one else did, “as if she had read them in a book,”24 and he claimed that it was her insights which made him a successful preacher. He considered that his preaching was a vehicle for Marie’s teaching,25 and Thomas of Cantimpré tells of how she bolstered the canon’s morale when, in his early career, he seemed to lack the necessary confidence for public speaking.26 Furthermore, that Marie was deeply concerned for the affairs of the world and the Church can be seen in her various prophecies about the Albigensian crusade, about Jacques’ preaching career, and about what at that time seemed the unlikely eventuality of his appointment to the bishopric of Acre. As Elizabeth Petroff has noted, visionary women were endowed, in the eyes of many of their contemporaries, with the authority to speak out on such worldly matters.27

Although Jacques’ sermones vulgares may never have been preached exactly in the form in which they were written down, they nevertheless represent some of his preferred themes and what he believed ought to be preached to various groups of Christians. Although written in Latin for the benefit of all clerics, the texts were intended as source material for sermons which would be preached in the vernacular. Not only are they divided according to the social categories of class, religious order, age, and gender, but they also follow the traditional patristic classification of rectores, virgines, continentes, and coniugatos. Such an arrangement was, of course, never rigidly followed, since any audience would probably consist of a mix of several of these groups. It was therefore expected that a preacher would combine appropriate elements from several model sermons to suit the specific audience.

Jacques was conscious of the methodological implications of his task and enunciated two principles according to which his material was to be interpreted: to the preachers he recommended the generous use of the exemplary stories for which he was to become famous, since many are “moved more by outward examples than by authorities or profound precepts.”28 In view of some of the extreme manifestations of holiness or piety as recounted in some of these exempla, as in the vita, he warned the listener that it is not the excess which is recommended; rather the underlying virtuous fervour is to be admired. The works or effects of that virtue cannot be imitated without special grace or privilege.29 Such a cautionary note would seem to apply to certain details of Marie’s life. Not only did she endure drastically prolonged fasts and vigils, but her desire for self-mortification was so extreme that she was driven to cut off pieces of her flesh as an expression of her contempt for the body.30

In his sermons, Jacques himself urged ascetic practices. For groups such as scholars, knights, and crusaders he suggested fasts and vigils as a protection against temptation and in preparation for a holy death, but such recommendations were tempered with a pragmatic moderation. In his sermon to the military orders he cites as foolish a knight who through excessive fasting became too weak to fight for Christ.31 For Jacques, a more sensible way of living a life devoted to God and detached from the world was to practise true apostolic poverty. Although radical poverty was an essential element of the beguine life (as it was for the mendicants), the hierarchy forbade women to beg. Thus in both the vita and the sermons, Jacques stresses the sacrificial nature of the manual labour with which the holy women supported themselves and provided for the poor.32 Jacques’ fervent praise of the life of complete poverty did not, apparently, lead him to dismiss other valid expressions of the vow of poverty.

Jacques’ moderation and common sense can be seen in the advice he gave, on the one hand, to the knights and, on the other, to the black monks. Addressing the former, he tempers the Biblical maxim that the desire for wealth is the cause of iniquity by adding that the monastic vocation did not always provide the answer, for they claim to renounce everything individually, while wishing to retain it all in common.”33 To the black monks themselves, however, he reaffirms the Benedictine principle of monastic life and shows a sensitivity and respect for their traditional conceptions of the religious life: “they are to renounce what is theirs, retaining nothing for themselves.”34 It is only in speaking to the canons regular that he praises the virtue of complete poverty as the true road to sanctity, since he believed that it was they who had achieved the ideal media via between absolute poverty and a more relaxed discipline for those who were weaker by nature.35

For Jacques, as for the beguines, poverty and manual labour were integral parts of the same programme when accompanied by charity. It is noteworthy that in his sermones vulgares, a large proportion of the exempla about heroic acts of charity concern women. In a particularly telling story, the reward granted a noblewoman who had given her cloak to a freezing pauper whom she had seen in church was the satisfaction of her devotion to the Mass. Taking the poor woman aside to give her her cloak, she had been anxious only not to miss any part of the liturgy. Upon her return, she found that the priest had miraculously been unable to proceed in her absence and thus she had not missed as much as a word.36 It seems that the lesson Jacques teaches is that not only is it more important to perform works of charity when the need is great than to attend conscientiously to one’s devotions, but that it is important carefully to follow every word of the liturgy.

Charity also is at the root of Jacques’ sermons to tradesmen and artisans, given the greater importance he gives to honest labour than to poverty for its own sake. Although he condemns the preoccupation of merchants with worldly goods which cater to vanity, the actual instructions he gives the merchants concern the observance of justice and honesty in the selling of merchandise. In a sermon addressed to craftsmen he admonishes them to do more than merely exact a just price: “the practitioners of the mechanical arts ought to aid the poor and sometimes to do something for them free of charge and for God.”37 He does not, however, demand anything beyond their means and prescribes a very moderate form of that charity which others have elected to practise in more radical forms. Many of his sermons affirm the spiritual value of labour as the equivalent to the religious practices of clerics and monks, and he insists that the purity of intention and not the actual labour performed is what pleases God. Undoubtedly this was a reassuring rather than a challenging notion for agricultural and other labourers, and he reminds them that “those who work with the intention of doing the penance enjoined upon them by the highest Priest, do not have less merit than those who sing in church all day long, or who keep vigil from night until daybreak.”38 Surely this is a radical affirmation of the religious merit of ordinary work and of the dignity of the lay state.

Jacques also preached on chastity, that virtue which was, with poverty and charity, one the three essential components of beguine life. As expected, he praises the virginity of women like Marie, but he shares the openness of the beguines to the possibility of sanctity within marriage. In one of his sermones ad virgines et iuvenculas, he emphasises the spiritual interpretation of virginity: “Let therefore the virgin be not only chaste in body, but also in her soul . . . for the chastity of the soul pleases God more than does that of the body, although both are pleasing to him.”39 In the same sermon he mentions that the reason why many women flee their parents’ houses is because they cannot live lives of purity “among worldly and immodest people”.40 Not surprisingly he supports the resolve of these women to make their own decisions and condemns parents who force them into undesired marriages, especially if it is for material gain. He even tells pastors that they do wrong to collaborate in such a union, for on the wedding day it would be more suitable under those circumstances to lead not the bride but her money or cattle into the church.41 When Jacques observes that “it is indeed very difficult for children not to be corrupted by evil parents,”42 one is irresistibly reminded of Marie’s own vision of her mother in hell.43

Finally, Jacques tells of devout widows whose love for Christ mirrors and, in some instances, surpasses their previous love for their husbands.44 Although the negative views of women and marriage are not altogether absent from this thirteenth-century cleric’s writings, his significant positive statements on the subject reveal a profound understanding of lay women’s spirituality. It would appear that Jacques’ admiration for the devout women he encountered was based not so much on the fact that they were able to live according to the male ascetic model, but rather because he saw certain qualities particular to them through which they were able to attain great personal holiness.

References to devotion to the humanity of Christ and to the Eucharist are somewhat less frequently found in the sermons than ethical and practical considerations. Nevertheless Jacques, as any good preacher, instructs his audience to pray regularly (especially for the souls in purgatory) and he stresses that the vocation of monks is to pray for the world and its needs. The emphasis in these sermons is, for pastoral reasons, slightly shifted from inward devotion to faithful performance of one’s duties and commitment to the causes of the Church. Speaking to agricultural workers, Jacques poignantly calls Christ the principalis et summus agricola and says that “to carry the plough on one’s shoulders is to imitate the one who by carrying the cross both sowed and reaped, opening the hearts of men and teaching them.”45 Another way to take up one’s cross and thereby to identify with Christ, he says, is to take up one’s cross by going on crusade to defend the Church. Attendance at Mass and, naturally, listening to sermons, are considered worthy proofs of one’s sincere devotion.

The eucharistic piety which appears in the sermons is seen most frequently as a sign of reverence for the authority of the priest and the Church. What had been in the vita a devotional emphasis on Communion has here been transformed, for the benefit of a lay audience, into an insistence on the sacerdotal authority which the sacraments in general presuppose and confirm: an especially significant point in Jacques’ campaign against the Cathars. It is worthy of note that approximately two-thirds of all Jacques’ exempla about the reception of the Eucharist concern women. Similar eucharistic stories are found in both the vita and in the Historia Occidentalis. In the former, for instance, we are told of Marie’s ability to identify the unworthiness of the celebrant and to see the image of a beautiful young boy in the host at the elevation.46 In the latter Jacques tells stories of the miraculous appearance of a young boy in the Host, and of an angel or dove ho brings the Host to a young maiden.47 In contrast, the exempla which involve men and the Eucharist are frequently used to illustrate inappropriate behaviour or inadequate devotion to the sacrament. A story told in a sermon to lawyers and judges speaks of a proud lawyer who on his deathbed refused Communion because, in typically legalistic fashion, he deemed those present to be his inferiors and hence unable to judge whether he was worthy to receive it. By thus rejecting both final confession and the Eucharist, says Jacques, the lawyer went to hell.48 It is clear that here the emphasis is not so much on the consolation or grace which Communion might bestow, but on the sin of insubordination to authority and the refusal of that which the Church prescribes as necessary for salvation.

Just as the theme of eucharistic piety does not play a major role in the spirituality of the sermons addressed to the laity, so too does Jacques largely avoid references to the highest reaches of contemplative prayer or mystical union in these sermons, except in those addressed to the most advanced, namely those in religious orders. As a good preacher speaking to all Christians, Jacques emphasises that although mystical experience is not given to all, nevertheless through that humility and self-denial which is possible for everyone, Christ may be known and imitated. In a sermon addressed to cloistered nuns, he reminds them that although Christ showed his suffering and pain to all on the cross, his transfiguration and resurrection were seen by only a few.49 Jacques’ distinction between an emphasis on devotion to the Passion and death of Christ and the contemplation of his divinity indicates that he considered that the former made Christ more accessible to the average Christian and was, therefore, a more suitable instrument of evangelisation for the laity.

Such modifications in Jacques’ sermons of some of the essential themes of beguine spirituality represent the vindication of the idea—promoted by the beguines themselves—that the Gospel message must be communicated in a way which is appropriate to each category of society. If, as they claimed and as Jacques believed, the Christian life could be lived with equal validity in many different ways which were appropriate to the many different groups among the laity, then no single group could claim that it represented the only, or even necessarily the highest, form of service to God. It would be difficult to assess in each instance precisely the way in which Jacques modified the message of the mulieres sanctae to make it applicable to the various groups of believers, since the didactic and polemical intention underlying the sermons is already present in the vita of Marie d’Oignies. Yet it is certain that the dual intent of the sermons—to urge moral and spiritual renewal and to defend the authority of the Church against the challenges of the heretics— were motives shared by the holy women. The spirituality of someone like Marie, who was not only deeply involved in the problems of the Church and the world around her, but also far advanced in the contemplation of God, provided an ideal exemplum of the kind of piety Jacques wished to convey to those who would hear his sermons. Although some of the more extreme ascetic and ecstatic elements of the vita are absent from the sermons, they appear in numerous exempla to confirm the faith of Christians by the miraculous and extraordinary manifestations of God’s favour which can accompany perfectly orthodox behaviour and devotional exercises. Mystical piety was not for Jacques de Vitry merely a privilege of the few or a marginal phenomenon; it was both the sign of divine favour still bestowed on the Church and an example of the virtue and fidelity to the Church which could be imitated by those to whom mystical vision was not granted. The activistic piety of women like Marie made a profound impression on Jacques as a prelate and as a preacher because it did not need to be diluted or transformed in order to be taught to the laity: the moral, spiritual and theological truths a pastor would wish to convey to his audience could be found embodied in the lives of the mulieres sanctae. The message proclaimed both in the vita and in the sermons was that holiness and apostolic fervour were still to be found within the Church, and that the interior voice of the Holy Spirit was in no way at odds with the teaching of the Scriptures and tradition. This, for Jacques de Vitry, was the most effective bulwark against every existing threat to Christendom and the clearest sign that moral decay and corruption would eventually be overcome and the spirit of renewal would ultimately triumph.