1211: James of Vitry left Paris for the town of Oignies, where he met and developed a close spiritual friendship with the devout laywoman Mary of Oignies (1177–1213).
1213: Mary of Oignies died.
1215: The Fourth Lateran Council took place.
1216 (July): James of Vitry requested and received permission from Pope Honorius III for the mulieres religiosae (religious women) in the diocese of Liège, the kingdom of France, and the German Empire to live in common and pursue lives of chastity and prayer.
1216 (Autumn): James of Vitry completed the Life of Mary of Oignies, which served as a model for communities of religious women in the region.
1233: Pope Gregory IX issued Gloriam virginalem, which extended papal protection to “continent virgins” in Germany and later in the diocese of Cambrai. The court beguinage of Cambrai was founded shortly thereafter.
1234: The Saint Elizabeth beguinage in Ghent was founded; the court beguinage of Louvain was founded the same year.
1239: The Saint Elizabeth beguinage in Valenciennes was founded.
1240: James of Vitry died.
Ca. 1260: The Saint Catherine beguinage in Paris was founded.
1274: Second Council of Lyons renewed the Fourth Lateran Council’s prohibition on the creation of new religious orders.
1310: Marguerite Porete was tried and executed.
1311: The Council of Vienne, where ecclesiastical officials condemned the beguine status, took place. Pope Clement V subsequently issued two anti-beguine decrees (Cum de quibusdam and Ad nostrum)
1314: Pope Clement V died.
1317: The anti-beguine Vienne Decrees, Cum de quibusdam and Ad nostrum, were finalized and promulgated by Pope John XXII.
1320: Pope John XXII issued Cum de mulieribus, aiming to clarify the intended targets of the Vienne Decrees
1328: Episcopal investigations into the beguinages of northern France and Low Countries ended with a full exoneration of these institutions.
1370s–1390s: Localized, sporadic investigations into beguines in German cities led to avoidance of the term “beguine” in some locales. Devout laywomen’s communities nevertheless continued to thrive under different labels and affiliations.
1405: The Beguines were expelled from the city of Basel.
1545–1563: The Council of Trent took place.
1566: Pope Pius V issued Circa pastoralis, demanding that all religious women of whatever affiliation observe strict enclosure.
1566: The Dutch revolt began, unleashing a wave of iconoclasm that damaged or destroyed beguinages throughout the Netherlands.
1585: There was a restoration of Spanish, Catholic rule in the southern provinces of the Netherlands, leading to the restoration of the regions’ beguinages.
1794: The annexation of the Low Countries by the French Republic took place, leading to the confiscation of the beguinages’ possessions.
1831: The Kingdom of Belgium was established, and there was a subsequent revival of interest in beguinages as symbols of Belgian heritage.
1998: Thirteen court beguinages were placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
2013: The last beguine, Marcella Pattyn, died at the age of ninety-two.
The Beguines had no identifiable founder or point of origin and never constituted a recognized religious order. In the early thirteenth century, beguine communities appeared, organically and seemingly simultaneously, in different parts of northern Europe, especially the Low Countries, a regionencompassing parts of modern-day northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands (Simons 2001). [Image at right] One of the earliest appearances of the term “beguine,” found in the sermons of the medieval cleric James of Vitry (c. 1160/1170–1240), shows that the term originated as one of many insults hurled at women who, turning away from the worldly path of marriage, dedicated themselves to lives of chastity and prayer. Scholars believe that the term derives from the root “begg,” which means “to murmur,” suggesting that the label was initially used to mock someone of ostentatious, perhaps even annoying, piety (Simons 2014). A beguine, then, was a woman exhibiting a piety that surpassed what was expected of ordinary laypeople. It was an identity that depended in many ways on public recognition as much as self-identification.
Medieval clerics who sought to describe and promote what they regarded as an extraordinary outpouring of spiritual expression among women consciously avoided the term beguine, because of its negative connotations, preferring the unambiguously favorable descriptor mulieres religiosae (religious women). Over time, however, medieval observers, and even the women themselves, embraced “beguine” as a label signifying a choice (conveyed via clothing and observable behavior) to live a life of chastity and service in the world outside of a religious order, whether individually or in groups of likeminded women. By the middle of the thirteenth century, gatherings of devout laywomen, with the help, or pressure, of local secular and ecclesiastical authorities, began to present their communities as formal institutions, leading to the foundation of hundreds of beguine houses or beguinages, many of which survive today as cultural heritage sites (McDonnell 1954; Simons 2001).
There are multiple reasons women gravitated towards a self-directed religious life. While scholars traditionally attributed the appeal of the beguine option to a lack of space in convents or a lack of marriage options, recent scholarship recognizes that these women were animated by the same spiritual currents that inspired men like St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226). Their desire was to emulate Jesus and his apostles (the vita apostolica, that is, apostolic life) (Böhringer 2014). The context here is key. Over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, socioeconomic inequities became increasingly visible in the growing cities of medieval Europe. At the same time, monastic-driven efforts to reform existing religious orders and monasticize the laity inspired medieval people to demand better religious instruction, particularly in the form of preaching, and to find ways to translate their spiritual aspirations into action in the world (Grundmann 1995). Urban poverty and inequity prompted medieval men and women to embrace charity and service as spiritual ideals, leading to a “charitable revolution” in the thirteenth century as hundreds of hospitals and leprosariums were established all over medieval Europe to offer care to the poor and the sick (Davis 2019). The earliest documented beguine communities were often affiliated with, or grew out of, such institutions (Simons 2001).
The beguine option was flexible, dynamic, and responsive to changing personal circumstances as well as political and social change (Miller 2014; Deane 2016). Beguines took simple, as opposed to solemn, vows of chastity, which allowed women to leave the beguine life at any time to marry. Beguines also did not observe enclosure, since their spiritual calling was socially-oriented. [Image at right] Finally, beguines did not take vows of poverty, although many embraced poverty as an aspect of their spirituality. Beguine communities did not require residents to give up their personal property, which permitted women to use their resources to support themselves and others (De Moor 2014). Control of property also gave women the freedom to leave the community without significant loss of personal investment.These aspects of the beguine life explain its broad, enduring appeal while sometimes leaving the women open to charges of hypocrisy.
The first recognizable community of mulieres religiosae emerged in the early thirteenth century in the diocese of Liège and centered on a charismastic woman known as Mary of Oignies (1177–1213). Mary gained widespread fame thanks to the cleric James of Vitry, who, upon hearing of Mary’s saintly reputation, reportedly left his studies in Paris to settle in Oignies, where he became a regular canon at the local Augustinian priory of St. Nicholas. In James, Mary gained an influential clerical supporter who would go on to petition the papacy on behalf of the mulieres religiosae in the region. James, for his part, credited Mary with providing him spiritual comfort and inspiration and with helping him to become a better preacher (Coakley 2006). Not long after Mary’s death in 1213, James wrote Mary’s vita, dedicating the work to the Bishop Fulk of Toulouse (c.1155-1231), who had come to Liège after being exiled from his diocese by heretics. The vita portrayed Mary, as well as several other women in the diocese, as models of orthodoxy, sacramental devotion, and obedience to the clergy during a time when heretics and other dissidents were calling into question the piety and authority of the Church hierarchy (Elliott 2004) . Mary’s life, recorded in James’s well-circulated vita and commemorated with a liturgical office, seems to have inspired like-minded women in the dicocese of Liège to gather in communities dedicated to work and prayer (Simons 2014).
While James and some of his contemporaries promoted the mulieres religiosae as models of piety, the women’s lack of official privileges, protections, and enclosure prompted concerns about their reputations and physical safety. In response, clerical supporters worked to secure special papal privileges to allow the women to gather together in intentional communities devoted to work and prayer (McDonnell 1954; Dor 1999). In 1216, James of Vitry reported in a letter to his friends that he had succeeded in obtaining verbal authorization from Pope Honorius III for the mulieres religiosae of the diocese of Liège, as well as in France and the Holy Roman Empire, to live in common and encourage one another in their spiritual aspirations. Official recognition came in May 1233, when Pope Gregory IX issued the bull Gloriam virginalem, which offered protections to women he termed virgines continentes (continent virgins) in Germany. Five days later, the pope extended the same protections to the “virgins” of the diocese of Cambrai (Simons 2001). Significantly, Gloriam virginalem emphasized the women’s promise to observe chastity but did not use the term beguine. Moreover, the bull did not offer a clear definition or recognition of the complexity of what would eventually be known as the beguine status, which attracted widows as much as the never-married and did not entail simply a commitment to chastity. Nevertheless, on the basis of Gloriam viginalem, religious and secular authorities in cities throughout northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands issued formal approvals for local gatherings of devout laywomen, in many cases providing official recognition for communities that already existed. Significantly, it was around this time that local authorities began referring to “beguines” in charters and other types of legal documents, demonstrating that the term had become an acceptable vernacular label for devout laywomen. Indeed, although it never lost its negative connotations, by the mid-thirteenth century, the term had become fairly routine in official documentation concerning such communities (Simons 2014).
Beguines and other penitential groups came under scrutiny at the Second Council of Lyons (1274) when ecclesiastical officials, addressing a range of issues, renewed the Fourth Lateran Council’s (1215) prohibition on the creation of new religious orders (More 2018). Of course, the beguines had never claimed the status of a religious order, a point that local officials believed exempted their communities from this legislation. Nevertheless, in a report addressed to Pope Gregory IX in preparation for the Second Council of Lyons, the Franciscan friar and theologian Gilbert of Tournai (1200–1284) complained specifically about beguines, noting that such women evaded important canonical distinctions between “religious and lay,” since they lived as neither nuns or wives. Further, Gilbert expressed concern about the beguines’ self-directed spiritual practices, claiming that the women possessed error-ridden translations of the Scriptures, which he claimed they read in common. Clearly, while the beguines’ supporters lauded the women’s reputations for mutual prayer and exhortation, other medieval clerics expressed concern that such activities could lead to heresy and doctrinal error (Miller 2007).
Despite Gilbert’s critique, beguine convents and beguinages were not forced to dissolve after the Second Council of Lyons, even as the Council ordered other unofficial, penitential groups to disband. Still, the beguine option remained controversial. As a conscious choice to live in the world but in a way that (effectively) surpassed or stood out from most laypeople (at least in piety), beguines attracted disapprobation as much as admiration. Some professed religious were offended by the co-optation of “religious” status without the commitment to a rule, while some members of the laity resented the beguines’ rejection of marriage as well as their exemption from certain taxes. Because beguines were allowed to retain their personal property or leave the beguine life to marry, some observers questioned the sincerity of their vocation, suggesting that women took up the beguine life in order to avoid marriage and familial responsibilities or as a cover for illicit sexual behavior. Moreover, since beguines had developed reputations as “religious women,” they were often accused of spiritual pride and hypocrisy. Critics of the beguines, such as William of St. Amour (1200–1272) and Gilbert of Tournai, frequently warned that these women could bring the laity, with whom they had regular contact, into error (Miller 2014).
In 1311, ecclesiastical officials gathered at a church council in Vienne to consider, among several other issues, questions of heresy and the beguines, ultimately issuing two decrees.” The first decree, known as Cum de quibusdam mulieribus (Concerning Certain Women), which targeted the beguine status specifically, claimed that beguines disputed and preached about the Trinity and the divine essence, leading others astray with their heterodox opinions about the articles of the faith and the sacraments. Because of these alleged activities, the decree declared that the beguine status “ought to be perpetually prohibited and completely abolished.” The second decree, Ad nostrum, listed eight “errors” allegedly espoused by beguines and their male counterparts, called beghards, who according to the decree constituted an “abominable sect.” Specifically, Ad nostrum claimed that the beguines were not only tied to beghards (a dubious claim) but were part of an organized heretical group that believed that the human soul could become so perfected that it no longer had any need for moral law. Like Cum de quibusdam, Ad nostrum condemned the beguine status but specifically targeted women and men in German lands (Makowski 2005).
Pope Clement V’s death in 1314 (p. 1305–1314) delayed the circulation of the Vienne decrees, which were finalized and issued in 1317 by Clement’s successor, Pope John XXII (p. 1316–1334). The Vienne decrees immediately sowed confusion and controversy for secular and ecclesiastical authorities, since it was not at all clear how they applied to the women in their jurisdictions (Makowski 2005; Van Engen 2008; Miller 2014). Arguably, the most controversial of the two decrees was Cum de quibusdam, which read as a blanket condemnation of the beguine status before ending with a curious so-called “escape clause” permitting “faithful women” to live “honestly in their dwellings,” without specifying which women should be regarded as “faithful” or how to distinguish these women from the intended targets of the decree.
Some canon lawyers argued that Cum de quibusdam applied to the residents of beguine convents or beguinages and the “escape clause” applied to women who lived chaste lives privately in their own homes (Makowski 2005). This interpretation effectively contradicted earlier efforts to make residency in a beguine convent or beguinage the distinguishing factor between true beguines and the insincere women who claimed the beguine status without submitting themselves to a recognized community. To complicate matters further, medieval European cities hosted a wide variety of charitable and penitential lay communities, some of which seemed “beguine-like” in their commitment to prayer and active service in the world (Böhringer 2014). Franciscan tertiaries, for example, were devout laywomen attached to the Franciscan Order. Although, like beguines, tertiaries did not take solemn, monastic vows, they followed a papally-approved rule, that of the Third Order of St. Francis, hence tertiaries. Because of similarities in their way of life and dress (both groups wore simple habits), however, tertiaries were frequently conflated or confused with beguines. Indeed, many beguines, believing that they could escape condemnation by following a papally-approved rule, responded to the Vienne condemnations by becoming tertiaries (Simons 2001).
In August of 1318, Pope John XXII issued the bull Ratio recta, which attempted to provide some guidelines for ecclesiastical authorities charged with the task of distinguishing the “bad” beguines targeted by the Vienne decrees and the “good” beguines exempted in Cum de quibusdam’s so-called escape clause. Nevertheless, Ratio recta, like Cum de quibusdam, left plenty of room for negative and contradictory interpretations. Specifically, the decree urged local authorities not to harass “honest” beguines; however, the pope insisted that this directive in no way indicated that he approved the beguine estate, nor did it seek to contradict earlier rulings condemning the beguine status. Thus, John XXII continued the papacy’s tradition of issuing non-committal statements that only served to emphasize the beguines’ lack of official approbation, effectively leaving the door open for continued harassment of lay religious women, by whatever name they were called (Makowski 2005; Van Engen 2008).
In the years following the publication of the Vienne decrees, bishops with large populations of beguines hesitated to enforce this legislation out of uncertainty as to whether or not the decrees applied to “their” beguines. Meanwhile, in various cities, local authorities invoked the decrees to confiscate the beguinages’ properties or pressure the women to adopt the Third Rule of St. Francis. Finally, in December of 1320, Pope John XXII attempted to provide further clarification regarding the beguine status, addressing Cum de mulieribus to bishops in Tournai, Cambrai, and Paris. Acknowledging that “honest” beguines might dwell together in beguinages or beguine convents, Cum de mulieribus sought to resolve the impasse between bishops and secular authorities by instructing the bishops to investigate the beguine houses in their respective dioceses either themselves or through their representatives to ensure that the women were not engaging in illicit disputations or discussions of doctrine (Van Engen 2008).
Interpretation and enforcement of the Vienne Decrees ultimately came down to local attitudes (of bishops, secular authorities, and clerics, both secular and religious) towards friars, beguines, and tertiaries. Episcopal investigations dragged on until about 1328, leading ultimately to the exoneration of the women living in beguine convents and beguinages in the Low Countries and northern France. The beguinages of the southern Low Countries had long been a part of the social and urban fabric and local authorities were mostly supportive of their survival (Simons 2001). Throughout the fourteenth and into the fifteenth century, court beguinages in cities like Brussels, Ghent, Mechelen, and Liège continued to house hundreds of women who still, quite unabashedly, were known as “beguines.” Indeed, most of Europe’s beguine communities were able to adjust and adapt to local pressures and circumstances, surviving well into the early modern period.
Nevertheless, in some areas the investigations led to a narrowing of options for devout laywomen as local officials leveraged the crisis to regularize beguine communities, thus making them appear more like traditional monastic houses, and prohibit women outside of a beguine convent or beguinage from living as beguines. Many beguinages revised their house rules in ways that limited the beguines’ freedom of movement and strenghthened clerical oversight. The Grand Beguinage of Paris modified its statutes, which reinforced the supervisory role of the local Dominican prior (Miller 2014).The Grand Beguinages of Brussels and Mechelen began requiring residents to take vows of enclosure (More 2018).
Elsewhere, local officials seized on ambiguities in the Vienne decrees to advance or undermine specific factions or causes. In some German cities, the beguine status served as a convenient flashpoint in heated debates about reform, poverty, and the permissibility of lay mendicancy (Deane 2014). While many beguines responded to the Vienne Decrees by calling themselves tertiaries and tightening their affiliation with local Franciscan friars, political forces sometimes erased the relative advantages of one label over the other. In the late fourteenth century, opponents of Franciscan friars in Basel used anti-beguine legislation to attack local tertiaries, prompting the city’s friars to intervene on the tertiaries’ behalf. The friars’ defense emphasized that the tertiaries followed a papally-approved rule and were thus quite different from the unaffiliated beguine communities. Such efforts left Basel’s remaining beguine communities defenseless and vulnerable, since the friars’ defense rested on identifying these groups as the legitimate targets of the Vienne Decrees. By 1405, the beguines had been driven out of Basel permanently (Bailey 2003).
Throughout the fourteenth and into the fifteenth century, inquisitors intermittently targeted beguines in German cities, accusing devout laywomen of espousing antinomian beliefs, beliefs that the Vienne decree Ad nostrum attributed, without evidence, to all beguines and beghards (McDonnell 1954; Lerner 1972; Kieckhefer 1979). These incidents were driven by local tensions, particularly conflicts between male clerical factions, which frequently centered on men’s pastoral relationships with lay religious women. In some areas, the women simply dropped the name, calling themselves spiritual sisters (geistliche schwestern) or recluses (klausnerinnen) while still living much as they had before (Deane 2014).
Beguine communities came under renewed scrutiny in the fifteenth century as clerical and secular authorities, shaped by the Observant movement’s emphasis on reform and renewal, again sought to impose monastic discipline on all religious women, regardless of affiliation and canonical status (More 2018). Mostly associated with the mendicant orders, the Observant movement was a broad reform movement driven and shaped by a range of groups and institutions. These calls for religious renewal played out differently all over Europe, depending on the local political context. As in the fourteenth century, some beguine communities adopted Augustinian or Franciscan tertiary rules, while continuing to live and work much as they had before. In Paris, however, the royal beguinage endured famine, war, and the political upheavals of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, only to dissolve under the pressures of the Observant movement. Citing the fact that only two individuals remained in the royal beguinage, the French king Louis XI (r. 1461–1483) decided to transfer the buildings to a group of Franciscan tertiaries in 1471. By 1485, however, the complex housed a community of Observant Poor Clares (Miller 2014).
In the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent (1545–1563), the Catholic Church again focused on issues of discipline in women’s religious communities, particularly enclosure. As in the past, beguine communities resisted enclosure by invoking their non-canonical status. Nevertheless, in 1566, Pope Pius V (p. 1566–1572) issued the bull Circa pastoralis, which insisted that all religious women’s communities, without exception, observe strict enclosure (More 2018). Yet, the social roles devout women played in cities and towns across Europe, particularly in the areas of teaching, hospital work, and charitable service to the poor, continued to have tremendous value. Women called to this work, then, could no longer identify as “religious,” since, post-Trent, such a status required strict enclosure and thus the abandonment of active service in the world. Emphasizing their lay status, women formed pious lay communities such as the Ursulines and the Dévots (Rapley 1990). Thus, while shedding the name “beguine,” these devout laywomen continued to live lives of prayer and service in the world, much as they had before Trent.
Beguines and beguinages remained a feature of urban life in the Low Countries into the early modern period, even as the Protestant Reformation and the Dutch Revolt of the sixteenth century destroyed many of the court beguinages of the region (Moran 2010). In 1585, with the restoration of Spanish, Catholic rule in the Southern provinces (the north remained independent and Protestant), some beguine communities were restored, but under tighter ecclesiastical control. As in the thirteenth century, local clerics during the Counter-Reformation period promoted beguines as models for the laity and auxiliaries in the church’s Counter-Reformation efforts. Bishops also stepped up their visitation efforts, emphasizing tighter discipline, enclosure, and the adoption of stricter rules. The desire to present beguines as an order-like group in appearance if not in canonical reality also led to the creation of a fictive history, complete with an invented founder of the beguines: St. Begga (Moran 2010; More 2018). [Image at right] Born in the early seventh century, Begga was the daughter of Pepin the Elder. Upon the death of her husband, Begga founded a monastery in Andenne, where she died as abbess in 691. While clearly not at all related to beguine history, Begga’s name and saintly status made her an irresistible fictive foundress for an equally fictive “beguine order” in the sixteenth century (More 2018). The creation of a foundress and “order of beguines” promoted the myth that beguine communities in diverse locales (communities with very different histories) had a common institutional identity.
The court beguinages of the southern Low Countries experienced another major decline with the French Republic’s annexation of the region in 1794, at which point the buildings were secularized and taken over by the state. In 1830, with the establishment of the Kingdom of Belgium, nationalist pride sparked renewed interest in beguinages and their history. Seventeen beguinages survived into the twentieth century, including Saint Catherine’s in Breda, Saint Catherine’s in Mechelen, and Saint Elizabeth’s of Ghent. In 1998, thirteen court beguinages were placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. In 2013, the last beguine, Marcella Pattyn, [Image at right] died at the age of ninety-two.
Although sometimes accused of heretical beliefs and doctrinal error, beguines followed Roman Catholic traditions and were particularly known for their sacramental piety (Elliott 2004). Beguines took personal, informal vows of chastity and pursued lives of contemplative prayer and active service in the world. Although women were not allowed to preach, they took it upon themselves to pursue their spiritual callings in other ways, namely care of the poor and the sick, spiritual encouragement or exhortation of their neighbors, and manual labor. Thus, beguines made a public claim with their clothing and behavior to live a life apart (in the sense of living a distinct, even superior religious life) among their fellow Christians (Van Engen 2008).
Clerically authored descriptions of the beguines’ spirituality emphasize their orthodoxy, sacramental piety (particularly their devotion to confession, penance, and communion), and their commitment to chastity and service. Clerics frequently presented the public services of beguines in religious terms, emphasizing prayer, bodily suffering, and obedience to the church hierarchy in their descriptions and defenses of these women (Caciola 2003; Elliott 2004). The beguines’ detractors, particularly in the fourteenth century, however, asserted that beguines held anti-sacerdotal and antinomian views (McDonnell 1954; Lerner 1972). Specifically, the Vienne decree Ad nostrum claimed that beguines, along with their male counterparts, beghards, believed that the soul could attain a state of perfection that obviated any need for the church’s sacraments and moral laws. However, there is no evidence that these ideas or beliefs were typical of beguines, who because of their unofficial status were often used as pawns and scapegoats in local political conflicts and religious controversies (Lerner 1972; Deane 2014; Miller 2014).
The beguines in medieval Europe’s beguinages and convents were known for combining active service with contemplative prayer. Although the statutes of beguine convents and houses, particularly in the later centuries of beguine history, emphasized monastic routines, the beguines’ calling was to active service in the world on behalf of others. Some beguinages required their residents to attend mass daily and observe a monastic routine of prayers and vigils (Simons 2001; Moran 2010; Miller 2014). In some communities, beguines performed readings from the psalms or other texts appropriate to particular feast days. Choirs of beguines, sometimes educated and trained in music at the beguinage’s school, sang chant texts (antiphons and responsories) proper to the divine office. Members of the beguinage choir were also known to perform vigils for patrons or deceased beguines. Beguines taught schoolchildren, cared for the sick, buried the dead, exhorted their fellow Christians to go to Mass and receive the sacraments. Indeed, spiritual and material service to others was a defining feature of the beguine life that in part explains its enduring popularity in medieval cities (Simons 2001; Miller 2014; Deane 2016).
Beguine communities emerged in different forms (small households, convents, or beguinages) relatively simultaneously (Simons 2001). Although beguines across different regions lived similar lives of prayer and service, there was no beguine order and no beguine house or beguinage claimed leadership or even affiliation with other beguine communities. Because beguines needed pastoral care, they developed ties with local pastors, friars, and monks, but few communities developed exclusive relationships with any particular order.
Nevertheless, over time, beguine communities underwent a process of institutionalization, developing features that resembled official monastic houses. Local authorities across northern Europe recognized the spiritual and social benefits of the informal gatherings of devout laywomen emerging in their cities, often providing material support and legal privileges that allowed them to coalesce into permanent institutions. These institutions ranged from small residences attached to hospitals, to small houses of a dozen or more women (often called beguine convents) to larger, walled complexes, called beguinages (or begijnhoven). Architectually, the beguinage was a material manifestation of the complexities of the beguine life, which drew women from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and motivations, serving as havens for the spiritually inspired, refuges for the unmarried, and retirement communities for the elderly (Ziegler 1987; Simons 2001; Moran 2010; Miller 2014) . The court beguinages [Image at right] tended to center around a courtyard and incorporated individual residences for wealthier beguines and communal dormitories for women of more modest means. Beguinage walls and chapels obviated the need for beguines to mingle with the broader laity, assuaging concerns about the women’s safety and reputations. Nevertheless, beguinages were typically located near city gates or main thoroughfares, reflecting the beguines’ socially oriented service. In some regions, the local beguinage constituted a city within a city and housed hundreds of women. Several even secured independent parochial rights (that is, privileges) due a church parish. As recognizably religious women, beguines needed reliable pastoral care and local religious and secular authorities helped smooth the way by negotiating agreements with clergy and mediating conflicts (especially between friars and secular clerics) over parochial rights (Miller 2014). Beguinages typically had their own priests and chaplains to perform Masses, hear confessions, and preach sermons. Thus, beguinages seemed to satisfy the “religious” and contemplative aspect of the beguine life. Indeed, admission criteria, rules, and walls regularized and monasticized what was originally a spontaneous gathering of devout laywomen. Nevertheless, beguines were not nuns. Beguine communities, unlike convents, permitted their residents the freedom of movement necessary to carry out valued social services, which included caring for the sick, the dying, and the dead. Consequently, beguinages were necessarily quite porous, drawing lay patrons and supporters, as well as clerical visitors. Its residents were likewise drawn out of the enclosure to nurture spiritual friendships with clerical advisors, carry out property negotiations with family members and business associates, and fulfill spiritual and social obligations. Thus, beguinages, like their residents, were both visibly distinct and thoroughly embedded in the urban landscape (Simons 2001; Miller 2014).
Beguine convents and beguinages effectively established beguines as a recognizable (if not official) religious community. Indeed, the existence of beguine houses in northern European cities complicated local understandings of what it meant for a woman to identify (or to be labeled) as a beguine (Miller 2007). Beguinages, with their rules, walls, and carefully controlled admission criteria blurred distinctions between beguines and nuns (More 2018). By the mid-thirteenth century, in many cities and towns, local authorities began to regard the beguine convent or beguinage as the only acceptable contexts for devout laywomen, arguing that those who remained unaffiliated with such houses should not be regarded as beguines at all but rather as insincere or insufficiently devout women who used the beguine life as a cover for immoral behavior (McDonnell 1954).
Individual beguine convents and beguinages were typically led by a magistra (mistress), who had broad powers within the community. The magistra typically kept track of the community’s finances, presided over admittance decisions, advised the beguinage’s religious and secular directors on the regulations governing the residents, and provided the women with religious instruction (Simons 2001; Moran 2010 and 2018; Miller 2014). In the Low Countries, the prior of the local Dominican order was often charged with the task of serving as the beguinage’s spiritual director. In Bruges, for example, the prior of the Dominican order aided the mistress of the beguinage in naming the chaplain. In Ghent, the Dominican prior nominated the mistress of the beguinage as well as the chaplains who served the community. In Lille, parish priests appointed the chaplains serving the beguinage. At various points in beguine history, particularly during times of reform or religious conflict, local authorities sought to increase religious and/or secular oversight of beguine communities (McDonnell 1954; Simons 2001; Galloway 1998; Miller 2014.)
Much of what we know about beguines was written not by the women themselves but by clerical observers, some of whom expressed hostility towards lay religiosity, particularly among women. Thus, scholars must rely on male-authored, sometimes hostile and misogynistic, sources. Relatedly, one of the biggest challenges for both medieval observers and modern scholars is the slippery nature of the term “beguine,” which could denote both a set of behaviors as well as membership in a recognized beguine community (Miller 2007; Deane 2008).
In the view of some medieval thinkers, particularly clerics, beguines defied gendered expectations about female spirituality by their adoption of an “active” religious life that was, by its nature, publicly performed. Because they were not recognized as a religious order, beguines enjoyed no official status and thus served as easy targets for clerics critical of the proliferation of religious lifestyles in the thirteenth century. Defenders of the beguine life thus sought to mitigate criticism by obscuring the “irregular” aspects of the status, constructing fictive histories and establishing convent-like houses for the women (such as beguinages). Still, the beguine identity remained available to any woman who wished to adopt it, leading to accusations of insincerity and hypocrisy. Moreover, some religious observers believed that beguines, as unaffiliated religious women, were particularly inclined to adopt and spread heterodox ideas.
Concerns about “irregular” beguines seemed to be validated by the life and work of Marguerite Porete (d. 1310). [Image at right] Sometime during the early to mid-1290s, Marguerite (a woman from the diocese of Cambrai) wrote a mystical book known as The Mirror of Simple Souls. Written in the Old French vernacular, the book describes the annihilation of the soul, specifically its descent into a state of nothingness, or union with God without distinction. Clearly popular in its day, The Mirror provoked controversy in the early fourteenth century for several reasons. First, the book was written in French rather than Latin, the preferred language of learning, and was therefore accessible to an increasingly literate laity. Second, the book contained statements such as “a soul annihilated in the love of the creator could, and should, grant to nature all that it desires,” which some took to mean that a soul can become one with God and that when in this state it had no need for the Church, its sacraments, or its code of virtues. While this was probably not the interpretation Marguerite intended with this statement, local ecclesiastical authorities feared that the book’s teachings were too easily misconstrued, particularly by the unlearned and theologically unsophisticated (Field 2012.)
Based on the book itself, it is clear that Marguerite was educated and enjoyed access to resources, such as parchment, writing supplies, and perhaps even a scribe. She also had important clerical supporters, including three men who wrote cautious endorsements of The Mirror. Nevertheless, the Bishop of Cambrai, Guido of Collemezzo (r. 1296–1306), who seems to have had little patience for theologically daring laywomen, declared Marguerite’s book heretical and ordered it to be burned publicly in Valenciennes, a fact that suggests that this was the town where Marguerite lived at the time. According to the records of her trial, the bishop informed Marguerite that she would be handed over to secular authorities should she attempt to disseminate her ideas, whether in oral or written form. Apparently undeterred, Marguerite continued to circulate her book, coming to the attention of another bishop, who sent her to Paris in late 1308 to answer to the Dominican inquisitor of France, William of Paris (d. 1314). In Paris, Marguerite remained under house arrest for eighteen months, refusing to cooperate with the inquisitor. Eventually, William proceeded with the case by putting Marguerite’s book on trial, gathering together nearly the entire faculty of theology to judge the orthodoxy of the book. When the university masters unanimously declared the book heretical, they cleared the way for William to condemn Marguerite to death. On May 31, William declared Marguerite a “relapsed heretic” and handed her over to secular authorities, who carried out her sentence. The very next day on June 1, 1310, Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake at the Place de Grève in Paris (Field 2012; Van Engen 2013).
Another challenge is how beguines have been portrayed in the scholarly literature. Until quite recently, both scholarly and popular histories tended to portray beguines as either vulnerable, relentlessly persecuted victims of an oppressive, patriarchal church, or subversive proto-feminists refusing to conform to social expectations. In both cases, the emphasis is on their marginality. This historiographical tendency to cast religious women as victims or rebels is rooted in an overreliance on prescriptive sources, such as the decrees of church councils. Indeed, among medievalists, beguines feature most prominently in histories of heresy and religious deviance, fields that necessarily privilege condemnatory church decrees and inquisitorial records (Deane 2008 and 2013). Moreover, the image of beguines as marginal figure accords well with modern assumptions about medieval women. That is to say, the prevailing assumption is that women were either wives or nuns. Therefore, beguines must have been women who failed to marry or enter a convent (thus victims) or who subversively refused both (rebels). Histories of the Roman Catholic Church, moreover, frequently associate the increased visibility and participation of women in the church with failure, crisis, or a “decline” for men, thereby casting beguines as part of an uncontrollable and unwelcome wave of religious enthusiasm that is (eventually and inevitably) contained and directed along more socially acceptable channels (Grundmann 1995; Deane 2008).
Yet, on the local level, beguines found a great deal of support from clerics, urban authorities, and the broader public. Beguines were significant, valued members of their communities. Even as they were frequently swept into debates about religious poverty, enclosure, and clerical authority, beguine communities adjusted and adapted to shifting expectations about female spirituality, often changing their names, modifying house rules, or seeking politically powerful affiliations or patrons in order to continue to live lives of prayer and service. Consequently, it can be difficult for scholars to write about these communities, since the term “beguine” floats in and out of the documentary record (Böhringer 2014).
The history of beguines demonstrates that women have, for longer than historians have perhaps assumed, found creative ways to come together in intentional communities [Image at right] and to live lives of service and engagement in the world in spite of patriarchal constraints. The beguine option was practical, flexible, and dynamic, reflecting the socio-spiritual priorities of medieval people. These communities, while attracting sporadic criticism and even persecution, were deeply embedded in medieval society as powerhouses of prayer, nodes in far-flung spiritual networks, and providers of essential services. Devout laywomen were able to navigate cycles of criticism and political change because of their deep connections to their families, local clergy and civic authorities. The history of these communities are recoverable by examining these local contexts, yielding valuable new insights about women’s experiences “on the ground” that deeply enrich and often challenge the broader master narrative of medieval church history. Beguine history, moreover, illustrates the myriad ways that women’s communities, both as symbols and groupings of living women, were at the center of masculine contests for political power.
Image 1: Jeanne Brichard, mistress of the beguinage of Paris (d. 1312). Gazette des beaux-arts, v. 84.
Image 2: Beguine, from Des dodes dantz, printed in Lübeck in 1489.
Image 3: Beguine on her way to church, Johann Friedrich Schannat, Beguine d’Anvers, sur l’origine et le progrès de son Institut. Paris, Girard, 1731.
Image 4: St. Begga, Joseph Geldolph Ryckel, Vita S. Beggae ducissae Brabantiae, (Leuven, 1631).
Image 5: Marcella Pattyn, the last Beguine, d. 2013.
Image 6: Béguinage of St Elisabeth, Kortrijk.
Image 7: Marguerite Porete, d. 1310.
Image 8: Beguines working in beguinage in Ghent, Belgium, c. 1910.
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