Saturday, December 15, 2012

Beguines IV

The image to the left is a satellite image of a Beguinage. It shows a small neighborhood - a small subdivision by today's standards. I drew in the boundaries in blue. The earliest dwellings on this site would have been constructed of wood and straw and are no longer present. The earliest of the current buildings is the Church which dates from the 16th century and still functions as a church today. The current dwellings were build in the 16th century and have been preserved over the centuries since, though some were lost in various wars and battles.All the photos on this site are from Beguinage at Leuven.  They are now rehabbed for university housing for KU Leuven. For more photos, click here.
The life of the beguines was somewhat anomalous for the medieval period. Women were able to come together in communities with a good deal of autonomy from male domination. As a child, a girl was under her father, till she married when she was under her husband. If she chose to enter a monastery, the community was lead by sisters from that community. However, at the time, every women's community had to be under the authority of an external male superior. This was generally the abbot of a men's monastery.
While this sounds quite patronizing by today's standards, there was at least some concern at the time for the men to ensure the protection and support of the women's monastery and to administer the sacraments which could only be done by male priests. Generally the men had more access to education and the politics and commerce of the day were very much a men's world. However, there were also examples of the less admirable side of this arrangement, keeping women in their lower place in church and society.
The beguinage would have been in contrast to this social order. Women sought entrance into the community which was governed by exclusively. After a time in residency, under the closer supervision of an experienced Beguine, she would build her own dwelling, with the help of her family. On her death, this would become the property of the Beguine community. Alternatively, a woman might acquire one of the existing dwellings or a room in such a space. The Beguines elected their own leadership from among their members and had a governing council that met to address issues of the community.
It is not well known why the beguines lasted as long as they did or why or how they resisted incorporation into the recognized forms of religious life at the time. The beguines, both individually and as a group, were condemned as heretics and suppressed by various popes and councils, beginning in 1312 with the Council of Vienna. The cause of concern was generally either because they were centers of mysticism or because of severe ascetical practices. These condemnations were sometimes withdrawn. In any case, the movement flourished up to the protestant reformation. After that time, the movement continued up to our own day; the last Beguines died in the mid to late 20th century.
As the movement was waning, apostolic religious life was getting its start in various parts of Europe. Women's apostolic religious life is very much in the spiritual tradition of the Beguines. Both sought to live a deep spirituality and to serve the social needs of those about them, to feed the poor, heal the sick and educate children. Both sought to do so outside the strict cloistered life that was required of women religious at the time. They sought ways to balance their internal autonomy with the requirements of external pressures by church and society.
As women's religious life is again facing a turning point, due to internal and external pressures, we may find it helpful to turn to our Beguine sisters for inspiration.

1 comment:

  1. I visited a small beguinage in The Hague that is used for housing for impoverished women. Very small connected dwellings around a large central courtyard divided into gardens and drying spaces for laundry hidden by tall shrubbery. Everything was very clean and simple and both these are highly valued by the trustees who accept new residents. The sobering effect of the Reformation was very evident in the architecture and lack of ornamentation--though the place was still beautiful in an austere kind of way.