Authors: Dyan Elliott
2a, 2ae q. 10, art. 3, resp., 32:46–49, and art. 6, resp., 32:56–57; quodlib. 10, q. 7, art. 1 , resp., in
2a 2ae, q. 11, art. 3, resp. and ad 3, 32:88–91. He is quoting from Gratian’s citation of Jerome (C. 24 q. 3 c. 16); cf. 2a
2ae q. 11, art. 4, resp. and ad 1, 32:92–95. Also see Aquinas’s citation of the
in this context for Matt. 13.30 (quodlib. 10, q. 7, art. 1 , resp. ad 2, in
Bartholomeus of Pisa,
Summa de casibus
, fol. 5r. John of Freiburg, citing Hostiensis, notes that if a priest disclosing a confession is unable to prove that he
has learned of a sin through another route, he must be punished (
bk. 3, tit. 34, q. 99, fol. 194v).
In the question “Is fraternal correction a matter of precept?” Aquinas uses as his turning point a citation from Augustine:
“By failing to correct a sinner you become worse than he is” (
2a 2ae, q. 33, art. 2, 34:278–83). Also see “De correctione fraterna,” quaest. disput. un., art. 1 in
, ed. P. Bazzi et al., 8th rev. ed. (Turin and Rome: Maretti, 1949), 2:793–94. Cf. his negative resolution to the quodlibetal
question “Whether someone who knows the sin of his neighbor sins mortally by reporting it immediately to his prelate,” quodlib.
11, q. 10, art. 2 , in
25,1:170–71. For an alternative perspective, see Raymond of Peñafort,
Summa de poenitentiae
1.9.3, pp. 89–90; William of Rennes, ibid. gloss t, ad v.
, p. 90. Also see n. 142, below.
, fol. 96v.
See Raymond of Peñafort,
Summa de poenitentia
1.9.1, p. 80; John of Freiburg,
bk. 1, tit. 9, q. 1, fol. 25v. Also see his discussion of perjury, bk. 1, tit. 9, q. 20 and q. 22, fol. 27v.
Raymond of Peñafort raises the very extreme case of an oath’s being extorted in captivity. Though Raymond grudgingly grants
that one can be released from the oath, the individual does not entirely escape sin (
Summa de poenitentia
1.9.3, pp. 87–88); cf. William of Rennes, ibid., gloss m. ad v.
, p. 88.
Raymond of Peñafort,
Summa de poenitentia
1.9.3, pp. 88–89; cf. John of Freiburg,
bk. 1, tit. 9, q. 31, fol. 28v. William of Rennes posits, however, that if a lord or jealous husband makes his household or
retainers swear in advance that they will tell him of any subsequent offenses perpetrated against his property (including
his wife), this is not binding (
Summa de poenitentia
1.9, gloss r ad v.
, p. 88). Cf. John of Freiburg’s adaptation of the question involving the scenario of the lord making his household swear
bk. 1, tit. 9, q. 31, fols. 28v–29r).
. bk. 4, dist. 21, art. 2, q. 1, resp., 4:566. This exemplum was popularized by James of Vitry (
, no. 302, pp. 126–27). Cf. the bull
regarding the Franciscan order’s ministry of confession, in which Gregory IX describes the individual confessor as “a second
, p. 148).
. bk. 4, dist. 21, pt. 2, art. 2, q. 1, contra ad 1, and resp. ad 1, 4:566. This formula is repeated often in his treatment
of the seal. See, for example, bk. 4, dist. 21, pt. 2, art. 2, q. 2, resp., 4:568; bk. 4, dist. 21, pt. 2, art. 2, q. 3, ad
oppositum 3, and ad contra 3, 4:568, 569.
Ibid. q. 1, resp. ad 1, 4:566.
2a 2ae, q. 70, art. 1, resp. ad 2, 38:130–31.
. bk. 4, dist. 21, q. 3, art. 1, resp. ad 2, 4:1070; cf. ibid., ad 3, sed contra, 4:1069; bk. 4, dist. 21, q. 3, art. 2, resp.,
4:1072; art. 3, ad 3 and resp. ad 3, 4:1073, 1074 (bis);
2a 2ae, q. 70, art. 1, resp. ad 2, 38:130–31.
John of Freiburg,
bk. 3, tit. 34, q. 91, q. 92, q. 94, fol. 194r. Cf. Antoninus of Florence,
c. 26, c. 27, fols. 35r–v, 36r–v; Carletti,
confessio ultimo VIII
no. 4, fol. 116r.
John of Freiburg,
bk. 3, tit. 34, q. 92, fol. 194r.
Panormitanus, Commentaria ad X.38.12, no. 7, fol. 254v.
, Ramunda Testaniera, 1:458, 461.
Ibid., Beatrix de Ecclesia, 1:234.
This was said by a number of priests, testifying against Arnaldus Textoris (ibid., 2:196, 197–98, 200).
Women as Proof of Orthodoxy
The Beguines: A Sponsored Emergence
In truth, every confession occasions a revelation that cannot exist without the revelation of one and the perception of another.
(Antoninus of Florence,
You said to me that you were filled with wonder bycertain women who wept more for a single venial in than the men of your
land wept over a thousandmortal sins.
(James of Vitry,
The Life of Mary of Oignies
AS FAR AS CLERICS LIKE James of Vitry were concerned, the holy lay-women of the Low Countries who came to be known as Beguines
were just what was needed for the church’s promotional requirements. Of course, this view was not shared by all. That the
very development of the Beguine movement was attended by currents of negativity is clearly attested by James of Vitry’s prologue
to the life Mary of Oignies—who was one of the earliest and certainly the most famous of the Beguines.
Over the course of the fourteenth century the situation would worsen: indeed, all manner of female religious life would gradually
fall prey to attacks at the hands of diverse orthodox forces. And yet this well-known eventuality should not eclipse the fact
that the dramatic emergence of female spirituality in the first half of the thirteenth century was part of a clerically sponsored
program. This sponsorship was apparent at the highest level. Although better known for his patronage of Francis of Assisi
(d. 1226), Gregory IX—the very pope under whom the inquisition took shape—also abetted the efforts of the pious women’s more
immediate supporters. Indeed, both the early Beguine movement and the cult of Elisabeth of Hungary were, as we shall see,
fostered by Gregory.
The Beguine movement is often described as arising spontaneously in the Low Countries.
Whether or not this is actually the case, the active sponsorship of certain holy women associated with the Beguine movement
by clerics such as James of Vitry was an extension of the antiheretical campaign associated with Lateran IV. In the writings
of these men, female piety comes to exemplify devotion to the sacraments, particularly confession and the eucharist, and further
demonstrates the proper devotion due to the clergy.Women, as quintessential laypersons barred from ordination and locked in
an enduring position of deferential subordination, were particularly suited for modeling the proper attitude to the clergy.
A clear nexus may be discerned in the various strands of female sacramentalism. Female attachment to the sacrament of penance
presumably existed in a kind of symbiosis with eucharistic piety—an association that can be read as a part of a united program
insofar as Canon 21 of Lateran IV was increasingly understood to mandate confession as a precondition for the reception of
Particularly striking, moreover, is the way that female piety was realized within the confessional relationship. Lateran IV
had ostensibly constituted every Christian layperson in a stable and personal relationship with a specific confessor. The
full extent of the relational aspect of the sacrament is especially apparent in the pronouncements of Antoninus of Florence
cited above: confession demands one speaking and one apprehending. 6 Indeed, so deeply ingrained were the roles of speaker
and auditor that a frequent quodlibetal question posed was whether a confession was valid if it was written rather than spoken.
The relational quality of the sacrament of penance leaves an indelible mark on the lives of holy women in the High and later
Middle Ages. Not only is confession represented as the frequent venue for the discussion of a woman’s spirituality, including
the disclosure of revelations, but the confessor himself becomes chief witness to his individual penitent’s piety, which will
frequently lead him to undertake the writing of a saintly woman’s vita and the promotion of her posthumous cult.
Women’s confessional exemplarity extends far beyond the mere instances of confession and absolution or even personal devotion
to an individual confessor. As we will see with respect to the Beguine mystics in particular, much of the intensity of their
spiritual lives is linked to their penitential service for individuals in purgatory. Indeed, the holy women’s poignant visions
of the dead or extensive suffrages on behalf of the denizens of purgatory associate the act of confessing with the theological
infrastructure by which it is sustained.
JAMES OF VITRY, THOMAS OF CANTIMPRÉ , AND THE BEGUINE MILIEU:
NEW CONFESSORS FOR NEW CONFESSOR SAINTS
For there must be also heresies: that they
also, who are approved [
] should be manifested among you.
(1 Cor. 11.19)
The natural starting point for any discussion of female sanctity in the High Middle Ages is James of Vitry’s landmark life
of Mary of Oignies—the first life of a female mystic that became a model for most subsequent spiritual biographies.
First learning about Mary when he was in Paris completing his studies in theology, James was drawn to Li[egrave]ge by her
reputation for sanctity, where he soon became her confessor and ultimate interpreter to the world. Written shortly after her
death in 1213, the vita was widely disseminated in the wake of Lateran IV.
Mary’s life has rightly been dubbed by AndréVauchez an “antiheretical manifesto.”
The work was dedicated to the exiled bishop Fulk of Toulouse, who had been routed from his see by Cathar heretics. He came
north to preach the Crusade against his heretical flock, alongside men like James, and returned at the head of an army.
Thus the prologue to the life of Mary upholds the holy women of Li[egrave]ge as a powerful antidote to heretical infidelity.
Indeed, the very selection of women as holy paradigms bristles with a clear antiheretical impetus. From the perspective of
the dualist Cathars, women, by virtue of their association with childbearing and the flesh, were seen as a lower form of incarnation.
A pregnant woman was seen as a particular harbinger of evil and was accordingly even barred from the Cathar sacrament of
The fact that Mary was married at all, and that the institution itself was treated by James as a holy one, insulated the sacrament
from heretical slander.
Vauchez further emphasizes how Mary, having lived a number of years in a spiritual marriage with her husband, exemplified
an intramarital chastity that outstripped even the impressive sexual abstinence of the Perfect—the Cathar clergy.
Likewise, her rigorous fasting and apostolic poverty served as an orthodox counter to the much admired asceticism of heretics.
Scholars such as CarolineWalker Bynum have similarly noted the polemical import of the Beguines’ eucharistic devotion.
The prologue to the life of Mary describes entire communities of swooning women, whose longing for the host was so great that
“unless their souls were frequently invigorated by the delights of this meal, they obtained no consolation or rest but utterly
wasted away in languor. Let the heretic infidels be ashamed who receive the delights of this food neither in the heart nor
Indeed, the apparent synchronization of the early Beguine movement with the rise of Catharism is a perfect enactment of Paul’s
grim sense of the necessity of heresy in manifesting those who have been proven.
The Beguinal relationship with the sacrament of penance was no less avid than their eucharistic devotion. The prologue reports
that Fulk was astonished at the way many Beguines would weep more for a single venial sin than the men of his own country
would have wept for a thousand mortal sins.
Mary exemplified this heightened sense of her own sinfulness, despite James of Vitry’s conviction that she had never committed
a mortal sin.
If sometimes it seemed to her that she had committed a little venial sin, she showed herself to the priest with such sorrow
of heart, with such timidity and shame and with such contrition that she was often forced to shout like a woman giving birth
from her intense anxiety of heart. Although she guarded herself against small and venial sins, she frequently could not discover
for a fortnight even one disordered thought in her heart. Since it is a habit of good minds to recognize a sin where there
is none, she frequently flew to the feet of priests and made her confession, all the while accusing herself and we could barely
restrain [ourselves] from smiling when she remembered something she had idly said in her youth.
Every vespers, Mary would carefully search her day’s activities to ascertain that they had been properly regulated, before
proceeding to make a fearful confession. According to James, the various clerics in the community could themselves discover
no real faults in Mary’s behavior: “in this alone we sometimes reprimanded her, seeking consolation for our own sloth, because
she would confess these small sins we mentioned above more frequently than we would have wished.”
Mary’s confessional practices far outstripped the bare requirements of Lateran IV, anticipating the recommendation for daily
confession that would be advanced by authorities like Raymond of PeÑafort.
Intrinsic to Mary’s confessional habits were her arduous feats of penance and satisfaction. According to James she “immolated
her body with marvellous penance for the lord . . . and with great love and marvellous delectation, embracing the Cross of
Christ, she was crucified in the flesh.”
Mary’s relative sinlessness did not impede the fervor of her penance: once she brought to mind (
ad memoriam reduceret
) how she had eaten meat and drunk some watered wine to counteract illness. So disgusted was she by this past indulgence that
she “compensated marvellously with a torturing [
] of her flesh,” cutting off a large chunk from her side. James knew of this instance of Mary’s excessive self-mortification
through confession. But the wounds on her cadaver were also apparent to the women who prepared the body for interment.
Mary’s sense of unworthiness, the urgency of her need to confess, and the apparent relief confession brought were linked with
her intense devotion for the priesthood, an indispensable trait at a time of heretical anti-clericalism. In the same section
in which he discusses her confession, James describes how a pious impulse would prompt her to kiss the hands or feet of priests.
But this exemplary devotion was not reserved exclusively for Mary’s confessors: she was also drawn to visiting preachers—so
much so, in fact, that she would clutch at their feet, kiss them even when they were unwilling, and weep when they attempted
If James of Vitry sculpted the confessional practices of the Beguines into an antiheretical polemic, Thomas of Cantimpré,
an ardent admirer of James, developed this polemic into a far-reaching penitential program. And this is in keeping with the
profiles of their respective careers. James had been a famous preacher, whose preaching had, in fact, catalyzed Thomas’s own
But as is suggested by the prominent role James played in preaching the Crusade against the Albigensians and the “infidel”
of the Holy Land, he also had an interest in the wider world of ecclesiastical politics.
Consecrated bishop of Acre in 1216, James would eventually resign this post, returning to Li[egrave]ge as an auxiliary bishop
from 1226 to 1229. But he soon left this position of semiretirement, summoned to Rome by his friend the former Hugolino of
Ostia, who had now ascended the papal throne as Gregory IX. James’s departure for Rome occurred against the protests of his
clerical friends from Li[egrave]ge. According to Thomas of Cantimpré’s testimony, James was even prepared to brook the supernatural
displeasure of his now deceased holy penitent, Mary of Oignies, who had appeared to James in a dream to express her dislike
of the Roman plan.
James was subsequently made cardinal and bishop of Tusculanum (modern-day Frascati), ending his days in Rome.
In contrast, Thomas of Cantimpré’s ambitions do not seem to have extended far beyond his role as preacher and pastor of souls—responsibilities
to which he attempted to recall James in the supplement he wrote to the life of Mary of Oignies.
Thomas’s religious vocation was predetermined before birth, occasioned by a penance imposed on his father. The latter had
been told he could not possibly do the requisite penance in his lifetime, but that he should dedicate any son he might have
to the priesthood so the son could pray on his father’s behalf.
Beginning his religious career in a community of Augustinian Canons at Cantimprébefore joining the Dominicans around 1232,
Thomas rose no higher than the rank of subprior of his community of Louvain. But his experience as a confessor was considerable
and varied. Hearing confessions on behalf of the various bishops of Cambrai for over thirty years, Thomas would be privy not
only to every coloration of the average garden-variety sin but also to a number of reserved sins—sins that were considered
sufficiently unusual or grave that their perpetrators were referred to the higher episcopal tribunal for absolution.
Thomas’s writings were frequently peppered with unusual anecdotes bearing on this experience.
In addition to his supplement to the life of Mary, Thomas wrote three hagiographies of holy women from the Li[egrave]ge area:
the lives of two lay ascetics, Christina of Saint Trond (alias Mirabilis, d. 1224) and Margaret of Ypres (d. 1237), and the
life of the Cistercian nun Lutgard of Aywi[egrave]res (d. 1246). The latter work would especially resonate with Thomas’s heart-strings
since he regarded Lutgard as his spiritual mentor.
Finally, there was Thomas’s work
, which was completed in 1263. 31 Over the course of these works, Thomas presented the holy women of Li[egrave]ge, in conjunction
with his pastoral experience, as vehicles to explore the many different dimensions of the confessional experience in the broadest
sense, spanning this world and the next.