Around 1200 AD in Europe, communities of women often called beguines began to form. These women were not nuns, they were devout and devoted to the tenets of Christianity but did not belong to any church. They were independent communities of women who often created their own industry, trade or other means to produce income. They were self-sufficient and generally concerned with helping the poor, especially women. They lived in convents. This was the origin of that word.
“These women were essentially self-defined, in opposition to the many attempts to control and define them. They lived by themselves or together in so-called beguinages, which could be single houses for as few as a handful of beguines or, as in Brugge, walled-in rows of houses enclosing a central court with a chapel where over a thousand beguines might live—a village of women within a medieval town or city”(2).
I found this a remarkable thing to learn about. Absolutely inspiring and exciting. I had certainly never heard about the beguines. Swan’s book is an exhaustive study of this phenomenon throughout Europe in all its many presentations and representations. Each country had its own flare and character of beguine and even their own names for them. The beguines were all different and excelled at different things. She explores all the aspects with research for support and for the reader to follow further if they so desire. Swan’s theological background enables her to explain things to those of us with less education on that subject, and she also adds in the history to put things into proper context.
The beguines were from every social class and age. They stood out for being self-supporting, independent and “preaching in public and debating with select theologians and biblical scholars”(11).
Feminists in the Middle Ages
Who would have thought that the Middle Ages, often seeming such a dark and unenlightened time for all humans in Europe, would have given rise to such lofty ideals and independence for women.
“These “gray women” —so named for their preferred attire of gray homespun wool with hooded capes—were given the nickname “beguine” in the Low Countries (from the root begg-, meaning to mumble or to speak unclearly), which was originally meant as a mocking term, suggesting these women were hypocritical or deceitfully pious. Powerful medieval men were insulted by the presence of women living independent lifestyles and thus publicly derided them. How absurd were these women to think that they could live without the guidance of a father or husband or cleric? Even teach and preach and handle their own money? Yet for many the term “beguine” soon became a compliment because these women had earned the respect and support of their fellow citizens, and even that of some political and religious leaders”(12).
Swan tells stories of individual beguines like Marie d’Oignies from Brussels, who chose to become a beguine rather than a nun.
“Marie earned a reputation for the efficacious power of her prayer. She was regarded as having the ability to read souls, which meant that she could gaze upon a person and effectively identify the status of their salvation: was the seeker in a state of sin, or guilty of unconfessed sins? Marie’s intent was to heal a person spiritually by calling them to repentance”(24).
The beguines were well known for being highly skilled in spiritual practices, including levitation, ecstatic visions or trance and able to do what we would today call channel or communicate with spirits or the dead. They were also leaders and businesswomen, often developing large communities which welcomed women who were married and did not want to live with their husbands any longer, women who were at risk of being on the streets, of being trafficked or raped.
Swan mentions that life for women was dangerous on their own and the beguines wished to offer them shelter if they needed it. The walled-in communities only allowed men in at certain times of the day and they had to be men that some of the women knew and trusted. It’s really awe-inspiring to read about women creating this for themselves and one another. Many of the communities had a specific trade with which they supported themselves. Women who joined could apprentice in this trade and eventually contribute to the community. The women were also free to leave as they pleased, if they eventually wanted to get married and have children, or just go out on their own.
Often the beguinage would ally itself with a local priest to come into the community and say mass. The women wanted to express their faith as they experienced it. They wanted autonomy.
“Frequently, beguines gathered around a gifted female master teacher called a magistra (someone recognized as a master of theology) who was renowned for her eloquence and spiritual authority. Beguines forcefully embraced the call to holiness as every person’s journey and not just that of professional “holy people,” namely priests, monks, nuns, and others in formal religious life”(13).
Let’s just say: The beguines were feminists and they were nasty. They must have been very courageous to take this stance at this time.
It is intriguing to notice how most women’s movements are about agency: Women finding ways to have agency in a world, in culture after culture, that wishes to deny them that. I never knew these women had made this effort and it had worked for a long time.
It makes me so happy to know that in all situations, cultures and places around the world, we continue to find women who found a way. They are beacons and models for all of us to remember to find ways to blaze trails for whatever human right or social justice issue we are pursuing and fighting for, to not accept what we are told or offered. To use our creativity over and over again.
I am grateful to know that in the Middle Ages in Europe there were communities of women that were advocating for women and the poor. That there were women who were self-supporting, self-sufficient and self-identified putting their energies into creating safe spaces for other women.
Praying people out of purgatory
Beguines excelled at this. By the Middle Ages, the belief in many Christian circles was that one did not go directly to heaven but to a sort of “holding place” after death to be cleansed of their sins before being allowed into heaven. Eventually “the medieval church also taught that people could pray for the souls in purgatory and that their prayers would effectively aid those souls in their transition from purgatory to heaven”(108).
It’s important to note that these women were esteemed by the communities they lived in as spiritually gifted, able to intercede with God on their own without permission from the church, clergy or men. This is radical for the time.
“Beguines, as we have seen, were understood to have extraordinary spiritual powers. People believed that having a beguine intercede before God on their behalf was an assurance that their petition was heard by God—and perhaps in no instance more than for “those poor souls in purgatory.” And beguines believed that they did indeed exercise the authority to release countless souls from purgatory. Many of the stories included in the vitae of beguines grapple with the fate of the deceased in purgatory (or hell)”(109).
They were considered extra good at this because of the power of their prayers. Swan describes Marie d’Oignies having a vision of multiple hands and discovering they were the hands of the people in purgatory asking to be released. She began a practice of praying for them and urged others to as well.
“Beguines so passionately “interacted” with purgatory that it was reported that some of them could cross from this world into the next, intercede before God on behalf of a tormented soul, and win their release into paradise”(114).
Many beguines preached against the popularity of what became known as “Indulgences” (buying or earning one’s way into heaven) warning that “God’s love could not be bought with money or earned with good deeds”(116).
Intriguing is the description of family members coming to a beguine to have them check in on a loved one who had died and how the beguine would go into an ecstatic vision to communicate with the dead one, then “‘pour out’ prayers”(117) for them to be released into heaven.
Beguines as women writers
Swan, who is herself a Benedictine Sister, first heard of the beguines while on a trip to Brugge, Belgium where the tour guide, upon showing them a walled village called Beguine Community of the Vineyard, founded in 1242, dismissed the beguines as “pious old ladies”(1). This annoyed her, so she began to look into them. I am so glad that she did.
“In my first round of graduate school I began encountering the writings of medieval women—Angela of Foligno, Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Genoa, and others. These women were mystics and reformers, poets and preachers, servants of the poor, founders of movements, and leaders in their own right . . . women who gave voice to their own experience of the Divine, women with whom I could relate. In recent years, I have come to discover that many of these medieval women were in fact known as beguines”(8).
Beguines were also writers, scribes and publishers. Well known mystical texts of the beguines are written by Mechthild of Magdeburg: The Flowing Light of the Godhead; Beatrijs of Nazareth: The Seven Manners of Loving; and Marguerite Porete: The Mirror of Simple Souls.
Many beguines struggled with the idea of a punishing God promoted by clergy. They believed God is love and preached this. Marguerite Porete who adhered to this belief, was burned at the stake in 1310 for her famous work, The Mirror of Simple Souls, which was determined to be heretical.
“She was condemned both for suggesting that the church and its sacraments may not be necessary for salvation and for defying church authorities. …Theologians preparing their cases for the condemnation of all beguines, along with certain emerging spiritual movements … took a keen interest in Marguerite’s case—as justification for why their orthodox position should prevail”(156).
Marguerite’s text and beliefs sound almost modern:
“In The Mirror of Simple Souls, Marguerite Porete attempts to express her understanding of the soul’s relationship with the Divine, especially the nature of the soul’s freedom and its potential perfectibility. She understands a person’s soul as having the capacity to draw so close to God—even here on earth and in this life—that literally nothing stands between the soul and God: not reason, virtue, good works, or even the sacraments. Marguerite is not condemning any of the above things, but is saying that we can sufficiently mature in our relationship to God so that we can leave behind the need for these things”(157).
In spite of these threats and actual persecutions, beguines lived on into the 18th century. Then the French Revolution happened and, according to Swan, secularization is what did the beguines in eventually. Perhaps after the revolution women that would have been beguines were able to establish lives of their own outside of devotion and prayer. Maybe that moment of creativity and context in finding agency and independence within the context of religion and religious beliefs of the populace was no longer relevant. Women went on to find others ways to express themselves and find independence, which brought a whole new round of battles.
It is reported that the last beguine died in 2013. Swan reports that there may be many women in Europe calling themselves beguines until this day.
“Even if the very last “traditional” beguine died in 2013, these women, over many centuries, have left us a great legacy: the court beguines that are still standing as well as superb mystical literature, artwork, illuminated books, and significant contributions to theology. The beguines also left us a more hidden legacy of healing ministry and passionate preaching. But possibly the most important legacy of the beguines is their bold vision for the possibilities of community: intentional communities committed to working for and with the marginalized and carried by a love for beauty and creation”(179).
Laura Swan and the beguines are Nasty Women Activists and Writers.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2022
Swan, Laura. The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement. New York, BlueBridge 2014.