By Jennifer N. Brown
Journal of the History of Sexuality, Volume 19, Number 1 (2010)
Introduction: In Jacques de Vitry’s thirteenth-century vita of Marie d’Oignies, the hagiographer, or author of a sacred biography, implicates himself in his knowledge of a priest’s surprising reaction as he grasps the holy woman’s hands in a moment of devotional fervor: “When one of her close friends clasped her hand from an excess of spiritual affection because he was very close to her although in his chaste mind he thought no evil—he felt the first masculine stirrings rising in him.” Although the motive for taking her hand seems innocent enough, the moment his hand comes into contact with hers, he no longer sees the two of them as priest and holy woman, as confessor and penitent, but as man and woman, subject to lust and physical attraction. The chances are very good that the priest in the story is indeed the hagiographer, Jacques de Vitry (ca. 1160–1240). Throughout his vita of the late-twelfth, early-thirteenth-century female mystic, he writes himself in a starring role, often referring to himself in the third person and vaguely as “a certain priest.” The woman, Marie d’Oignies (d. 1213) of the Liège diocese, is widely considered the first beguine in the movement of female lay piety by that name that would soon sweep the Low Countries.
There is also an important difference in Marie’s vita that sets it apart from many of her counterparts’ vitae. Jacques is initially drawn to Oignies by Marie’s reputation and upon his arrival there becomes both her spiritual follower and her confessor. Jacques was closely involved in Marie’s quotidian life, and his text is filled with implicit questions: How does a spiritually inferior man hear the confession of a spiritually superior woman? How does he prohibit her from doing things she is moved by God to do (such as mortify her flesh or beg for alms)? What are the boundaries between his love for her as a spiritual advisor and as a man? Jacques’ vita is an attempt to embrace and address these questions in a confession of his own. He constructs a kind of queer sexuality both for himself and for Marie—an erotics surrounding celibacy, devotion, power, and secrecy. In this article I would like to look at Marie’s ascetic and devotional practices and how Jacques, as both confessor and hagiographer, implicates himself into these practices. I will then examine how Jacques, in turn, complicates this narration by making his audience (of laity, semireligious women, fellow clerics, and the papacy) complicit in his and Marie’s sexuality by using the technologies of confession and learned rhetoric both explicitly and implicitly. I would like to direct the discussion from how spiritual marriage and mysticism are portrayed by both observers and practitioners to how these are manifested in terms of sexuality, not just the gendered body or practice.