The orgins of the Beguines (and their name) is somewhat of a mystery, but there is no doubt that this women’s movement arose in the twelfth to thirteenth century during a time of great division between the laity and clergy. These women started to pop up in Belgium, France, Germany and Northern Italy either individually or in groups within cities and towns. So who were these women? Uniquely, the Beguines did not belong to any group or religious order but instead were lay women who sought to live out their spirituality within soceity. Instead of relying on the religious educational institutions of their time, they depended more on their inner intellect and relationship with the Holy Spirit as sources of authority. The fact that they taught about the devotional reading of scripture, prayer, and mystical experiance, while not existing under a religious order was novel for their time and was perceived as a threat by the established leaders of the church. They differed from monastic orders by not acknowledging a founding figure and by not following prior monastic rule (like the rule of Benedict, or the one by Augustine).
During this time, life for women was broken up into two choices: either they married or chose the strict enclosure of the convent walls. Therefore, it is no wonder that the Beguine lifestyle became increasingly popular for women, for Beguine communities offered another choice which defied the restrictions placed upon them in marriage and in the convent. This alternative lifestyle afforded women a unique combination of freedom and spiritual community. The Beguines were centered on the gospel and lived simple lives of chasity. They were devoted to providing for the poor through manual labor and working in hospitals. Many of the women were literate, teaching others to read and write. They also engaged with the scriptures in the vernacular languages and were devoted to prayer and ascetic practices. In all of these practices they worked side by side with men.
“They had no vows, elected their own leaders, saw their promise of chastisty as temporary while living the Beguine life, understood their spirituality as both contemplative and active and looked primarily to the Holy Spirit and their sisters as guides for their life”(Malone, Women & Christianity, Vol. 2, 2002, pg. 128).
They did not speak outright against the ecclesiastical establishment, but the way they lived spoke loudly against ecclesial norms for women. By the end of the thirteenth century, it is recorded that there were around one hundred and sixty-nine Beguine communities, but by the 1400’s, all Beguines were forced to live in convents.
The Beguine movement decreased after one of their leaders, Marguerite Porete, was burned at the stake as a heretic. After this devastating event, the Beguines began to be repressed and accused of lacking papal approval, thus making them enemies of the church. Some of the Beguine leaders included Mary of Oignies, Marguerite Porete, Mechtild of Magdeburg and Hadewijch of Antwerp.
Why have these brave women been forgotten? Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Languege (3rd edition) does not even mention the Beguines. Justo Gonalez, The Story of Christianity only gives them one brief paragraph, but he does not mention the names or stories of any of the specific leaders (vol 1, p.429). Thankfully, their story is being recovered in current scholarship (see below) and becoming more accessible for those who are interested.
In future entries I plan to hone in on some of the individual lives of the Beguine leaders.
For further reading:
Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion, 1992. And Holy Feast, Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, 1987.