Beguines: ‘Fake women’ of the Middle Ages

Now has Divine Light delivered me from captivity,
and joined me by gentility to the divine will of Love,
there where the Trinity gives me the delight of His love.
This gift no human understands, As long as he serves any Virtue whatever,
or any feeling from nature, through practice of reason – Marguerite Porete*

In the year 1308, a Frenchwoman known as Marguerite Porete was arrested and charged with heresy. She remained silent throughout two years of questioning by the king’s confessor William of Paris, and in 1310 she and her book The mirror of simple souls were sentenced to be burnt. Heresy was not an unusual charge – King Philip IV had previously accused the entire order of the Knights Templar of heresy, in addition to expelling the entire Jewish population of France. However Marguerite was the only female Christian mystic to have been executed. In the records relating to the trial and execution, she is described as being a pseudo mulier or ‘fake woman.’
Beguine 1489
Picture of a beguine woman, from Des dodes dantz, printed in Lübeck in 1489. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
This phrase, which does not appear to have been used to describe any other woman, is nevertheless indicative of the way in which the society of medieval Europe, particularly the male-dominated establishments of court, church and nobility, tended to view the Beguines. A movement of lay women which flourished in Northern Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries, the Beguines lived in small communities and sought to serve God in prayer, contemplation and serving the less fortunate. There was a smaller movement for men too, the Beghards. Due to her trial and the work of mystical theology she left behind (although this book remained anonymous until 1946), Marguerite Porete is one of the most well-known members of this group of women, alongside Hadewijch of Brabant, Beatrice of Nazareth and Mechthild of Magdeburg.

Beguines are frequently described in terms of what they are not – neither wives nor nuns, although some were married for part of their lives, and their communities received considered support from neighbouring convents. They made no binding vows, and were free to leave if they wished. At a time when the prescribed roles for women were either marrying or entering a convent, the Beguines forged their own path. Beguines followed no Rule or single leader, like the Benedictines or Augustinians, and each community was more or less autonomous. Many were under the guidance of an educated woman known as a Magistra. This lack of male guidance threatened the established order, and many Beguines were accused of loose living or even prostitution. Some were itinerant preachers and teachers, using the local vernacular language to expound and even translate the scriptures. It is a great pity they did not have the advantage of the printing press to spread their writings further. “Powerful medieval men were insulted by the presence of women living independent lifestyles,” writes historian Laura Swan, “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?” (p. 12).

640px-Beginenhof_innen

Begijnhof innen – Brugge, Belgium. Photo: Elke Wetzig, via Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Life as a Beguine had many advantages for a woman in the 13th century. They had more freedom of movement than cloistered nuns, and those who did not marry avoided the high risk of death in childbirth. Their communal style of living also protected them from rape – not only as an isolated incident but also from the common practice of using rape to force a woman into marriage (Swan p. 53). Their concern for social welfare led them to establish hospitals, especially for lepers, to deliver babies and sit with the dying, and to rescue women from prostitution and offer them a fresh start.

Studying the Beguine movement overturns a lot of the misconceptions we have about the rigidity and stratification of society in the Middle Ages. Beguines created fluid communities which sprang up and then subsided, and the movement as a whole contained a variety of beliefs and practices. One practice that many of them had in common however was a mystical spirituality which can be seen in the writings of the most well-known.

The madness of love

Is a blessed fate;

And if we understood this

We would seek no other:

It brings into unity

What was divided,

And this is the truth:

Bitterness it makes sweet,

It makes the stranger a neighbor,

And what was lowly it raises on high. – Hadewijch of Brabant.

Having heard the popular songs of the troubadours and the literary themes of chivalry and courtly love, Beguine writers took these ideas and used them to describe the soul’s love for and relationship with God. As mystics, they claimed direct connection and communication with God, unmediated by any priest. ‘It is easy to see how such claims threatened those who sought to maintain control of church teaching and doctrine by circumscribing the conditions under which a theologian could speak or write authoritatively’ says historian Tina Beattie. Such women were considered to have left the proper feminine spheres and were therefore ‘fake women.’
Hadewijch gedicht1 HsGent f49r
Manuscript page of Hadewijch’s poetry. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

At this point in history, many women who may have wished to marry could not, simply because there were far fewer men than women. Wars and Crusades had decimated the male population. This was not the main reason that so many women became Beguines – they wanted to avoid marriage and serve God as laywomen. However this phenomenon may have contributed to the disapproval and criticism that they received, as those inside the established orders felt threatened by so many independent women.

In the years preceding World War I, women outnumbered men in Britain by about 1 million. After the war, this figure was doubled, resulting in male fears for female political supremacy (Law, p. 204). Many objections to the suffrage movement were based on disapproval of women quitting their proper sphere of marriage, motherhood and/or domestic service. Additionally, women who took up full time work during the war were expected to stand aside for returning soldiers. A convenient solution for disposing of these surplus women was sending them to the [former] colonies.
Two women in 1920s dresses (7959233804)
Two women in 1920s dresses. State Library of Queensland via Wikimedia Commons.

Although no spiritual movement like the Beguines sprang up during this period, the attitude of viewing unmarried and/or ambitious women as a problem to be solved has persisted throughout history.

Due to a revival of interest and scholarship relating to the Beguine movement, some communities trying to emulate their way of life have emerged, particularly in North America. The Beguines of Mercy in Vancouver and the online community Beguine Again, based in Washington State are two examples of groups who endeavour to lead lives of contemplation and service.

The original Beguine movement, although past its heyday, still existed when the Protestant Reformation erupted in Europe. A local ruler who converted would expect the residents of his jurisdiction to convert also, and any monastics in the region were pressured to marry. Many Beguine communities resisted this pressure, and the women made up their own minds about conversion and marriage. Some even ended up with a combination of Catholics and Protestants under the one roof, and they would simply attend different churches on Sundays! (Swan p. 176) The emphasis of their lives was not doctrine or a creed but personal piety and community service.

Since the documentation and recent research into the Beguines is primarily positive and focuses on their simplicity, piety, and counter-cultural resistance to male-dominated institutions, it is easy to idealise the movement and posit them as a proto-feminist, ground-breaking phenomenon. I’m sure there was as much quarrelling and bitchiness as you will find in any group of women. They would not have been able to think far outside the prevailing mindset of their time, but the evidence of their lives remains inspirational because of the way in which these women sought to determine the course of their own lives, develop their own relationship with God and improve the lives of the poor and suffering in their communities.

*The Mirror of Simple Souls chapter 122

Sources:

Law, Cheryl (1997) Suffrage and power: the women’s movement 1918-1928. London: IB Tauris.

Swan, Laura (2014) The wisdom of the Beguines: the forgotten story of a medieval women’s movement. Katonah, NY: BlueBridge.

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