Saturday, November 17, 2012
Beguines - II
Women began to take up a life of prayer and service independently. The movement was an attractive option in the particular historical context. The women lived alone or in small groups, and as more gathered, they formed villages of beguines with loose organization.
The brick and mortar evidence of the movement are these villages, called Beguinage in French or Begijnhof in Dutch, which are more or less extensive villages of small houses where the beguines lived. The homes are surrounded by a wall with an entrance gate. No men were allowed in the Beguinage which was organized and governed by women. Most of the Beguinages had their church, some had several churches. Some also had a school house or a house to take care of the sick, or the elderly, though not a hospital in the modern sense. Rows of houses lined narrow streets of their medieval villages.
The movement began in the 11th century and spread rapidly throughout the Low Countries and eventually reached across northern Europe. Some of the villages had nearly a thousand women living in them.
The women did not profess vows and they had no unifying rule. Instead each Beguinage developed its own style of life and of government. For example, some Beguinages welcomed only women from the higher classes, others were open to women of the lower classes. These local rules were characterized by moderation and pragmatism. The literature from the time indicates that the beguines practiced voluntary poverty in which they avoided riches, but also avoided destitution. Their witness was a striking contrast to the riches of monastic foundations of their day and to the pomp of ecclesiastical lifestyles. The implicit critique of their lifestyle along with eclecticism of some beguines provoked the ire of clerics of the day.
Beguines also developed a characteristic spirituality which I will examine in succeeding posts.