Saturday, November 17, 2012

Beguines - II

The Beguine movement began with medieval women who devoted themselves to prayer and good works at a time when many men were lost in wars and in the Crusades. This left many single women and widows. Some entered convents, however, each convent had to be under the supervision of men's monasteries, and some men's communities refused to take on these responsibilities. And some women might not have been drawn to the strict cloister; some families might not have been able to afford the doweries required at the time.
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.


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  2. Yes, I'm hoping to explore various aspects of this topic over the coming weeks. It's really a fascinating topic. Thanks for the links and reminders.

  3. You just make me want to know more about the Beguines. Can you recommend a book?

    1. Claire, see my post below. It's a very good introduction to Beguine spirituality.

  4. A lot of what I know I learned in Belgium. There are some sites on the internet. Unfortunately, the information on the movement is somewhat limited for a variety of reasons. Here are a few titles:
    --Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics: Hadewijch of Brabant, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete by Bernard McGinn
    --Marguerite Porete: The Mirror of Simple Souls (Classics of Western Spirituality)
    --Hadewijch: The Complete Works (Also Classics of WS)
    Next week I want to do something on spirituality, and then continue to explore the life and legacy of the movement - also some modern Beguine movements and what it might mean for us today.

  5. Thanks for the input. This is a very interesting movement. I wonder how this might translate into today's world. Imagine! Self autonomy and living the gospel, too! :)

  6. I am leading a pilgrimage and retreat to study the Beguines this September. Please visit my website and contact me if you would like more information: Susan Coppage Evans, D.Min.

  7. Amy, are you familiar with the new book by Laura Swan, OSB? It is really a great intro to this subject: