The Mirror of Simple Souls

Written by Aline Kiner Susan Emanuel (trans.)
Review by Susie Helme

1310 Paris. Ysabel runs the infirmary in the Royal Beguinage where she was raised, the religious women shut away from the fumes of burning Templars. Now old, she takes in a little beggar, a red-haired girl, Maheut. She does what she can to nurse the girl, but what is the cure for anger? She gives the wild child a gift: an aquamarine. The stone will absorb her anger, Ysabel says.

Franciscan friar Humbert has brought messages from his master Jean de Querayn to Marguerite Porete, imprisoned by the Inquisition. Humbert is looking for the red-headed girl.

Maheut’s red hair—’the colour of the devil’—gets her in trouble. And worse trouble—she’s pregnant. Ysabel foists Maheut on the widow Ade, unwillingly, and the widow and girl do not warm to one another. Maheut’s daughter, Leonor, connects with Ade in a way her mother never did.

Next Maheut is foisted upon silk merchant Jeanne du Faut. Marguerite is burned at the stake. Ade translates Marguerite’s heretical book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, into Latin and in the course of the work comes closer to Humbert, and their indiscretion is witnessed. The vengeful fingers of the Inquisition shatter the peaceful life of the Beguinage.

This rich historical drama is beautiful and unpretentious, a wonderful piece of historical fiction, fluidly capturing the feel of the period. Though it holds interest, the plot is slow, as the pace of life probably was back then. It is told in the present tense, bringing the reader right into the story. Despite the wealth of detail, the voice—14th-century Ysabel, Ade, Maheut, and Humbert—remains authentic, the characters completely sympathetic. It paints a wonderful picture of the world of the beguines, neither lay nor cloistered, ‘neither Martha, nor Mary’.