The Life of the Beguine

Beguines trace their origins to the 13th century

Independent women, unregulated by patriarchal institutions, fashioning their own communities around work and spiritual practice . . . might the medieval beguines be a kind of prototype for Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza’s ekklesia of women?

Consider what we know about them:

Beguines were lay women who banded together to lead a more devotedly religious life, without entering a cloister. Reasons for choosing the beguine life differed; some women were widows with children, who would have had to abandon their children to enter a cloister; others lacked the money with which to secure a position in a convent; others felt they lacked the temperament for cloistered life. Some women entered the beguine life in an effort to escape undesirable arranged marriages, or abusive marriages — beguines were known to have helped women in these circumstances. Whatever the motivation, the life of a beguine allowed a creative articulation of the contemplative and the active life in a flexible way that suited the lives of lay women.

The beguine movement seems to have been genuinely collective from its inception in the southern Lowlands, around Liège, in approximately 1200. Well-known early beguines (e.g., Yvette de Huy) were not exactly “founders,” as much as leading lights in a movement in which women formed groups, or beguinages, to support their practice of religious life. Many beguinages were small, based in houses or gaining permission to use portions of existing cloisters. Others, known as “court Beguinages,” became very large, housing as many as 1500 women, becoming semi-enclosed same-sex neighborhoods organized around daily mass and service, with their own hospitals and churches. (UNESCO has designated a number of surviving court Beguinages in Belgium as World Heritage sites and the structures now rank as tourist destinations)

Beguines took vows — of chastity, and of obedience to the head of the beguinage — and engaged in religious practices of contemplation and service. They did not take vows of celibacy, and were free to leave the life to marry or remarry. They did not take vows of poverty, and were expected to provide for their own welfare by their own work. Since the beguines never had official ecclesial status, their vows were not recognized by the church in the same way as those of other religious; but this meant a beguine’s career could be as permanent or temporary as she chose. Some beguines left the life to marry; others moved on to even more rigorous religious observance; Yvette de Huy, for instance, ended her life as an anchoress.

Beguines developed a distinctive form of spirituality that centered on the contemplation of divine love, and emphasized a passionate engagement with elements like the eucharist, Christ’s Passion, and the sorrows of the Virgin Mary. As an empathic path, beguines sometimes sought identification with Christ or the Virgin through a sharing of suffering. As an experiential path, beguine writings display a good deal of “bridal mysticism.”

Beguines’ status in the eyes of official Christendom was precarious at best. Their “vernacular theology,” lay writings, appropriations of Scripture into local languages, and teaching activities (which sometimes seemed to amount to actual preaching, an activity reserved for men) were suspect. The name “beguine” itself was a pejorative, associated with the [heretical] Albigensians or with mumbling speech, that is, speech not to be trusted. The doctors of the church labeled beguine theology “irrational” and church leaders accused the beguines of “false piety.” Ecclesiastical authorities tolerated the movement for about 100 years, then turned towards persecution after the prominent beguine Marguerite of Porete, author of The Mirror of Simple Souls, was condemned and executed as a heretic. Decrees from the Council of Vienne, 1311-1312, also targeted the beguines.

In spite of everything, small beguinages persisted well into the 20th century — perhaps attesting to the attractiveness of a way of life that was architected by women, around the realities of women’s lives, and oriented towards the Ultimate Good. That sounds a lot like what might come under the banner of the ekklesia of women after all.

Read More . . .

about the beguines:

by the beguines: