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The Beguines – medieval upstart mystic feminists

I’m reading a book called Growing Into God, a Beginner’s Guide to Christian Mysticism right now, and I just finished a chapter on Meister Eckhart, the 13th century German theologian (who has the wonderful quote, “if the only prayer you say in your life is thank you, it will be enough”).  In the chapter, the author, John Mabry, talked about how Eckhart supported the Beguines, a sect of women who simply wanted to lead holy lives.  They didn’t want to become nuns.  And they weren’t married so didn’t have a husband supporting them (and telling them what to do).  The Church wasn’t really sure what to do with these women, who fell in this netherworld of spirituality that couldn’t fit into a nice concrete box.  The last Beguine, Marcella Pattyn, died in April 2013, so the Beguine life, which lasted uninterrupted for 800 years, is now considered extinct.

image from The Economist

Image from the Economist

Beguines sprang up simultaneously in the Low Countries in the early 13th century.  The women could join and lead lives of prayer, study, and chastity (though a very few women were married and also joined) and could leave whenever they wished; they were not bound by vows, and could leave if they wanted to get married.  They worked secular jobs (they did not accept alms; if they didn’t have the means through family to support themselves, they worked) usually in the cloth trade, and they lived in homes that were generally clustered around a church.  According to the Economist, “They existed somewhere between the world and the cloister, in a state of autonomy which was highly unusual for medieval women and highly disturbing to medieval men.”

The Beguines experienced more freedom than most medieval women could dream of.  In addition to being able to work and live on their own without being shut away in a convent, they studied and wrote in the vernacular Flemish or French rather than Latin.  Hadewych of Antwerp wrote, “Men try to dissuade me from everything Love bids me do.  They don’t understand it, and I can’t explain it to them. I must live out what I am.”

Beguines were very popular early on.  They were part of the same mystical and simplicity movement that led to St. Francis and St. Augustine.  Also, this was the time of the Crusades, so there were often many more women than available men in a town, and becoming a Beguine gave the women an option that they might not have had otherwise.  But the male clergy attacked them as heretics, and several were burned alive thanks to the Inquisition.  In the Middle Ages, Ghent had thousands of Beguines.  “There are among us women whom we have no idea what to call, ordinary women or nuns, because they live neither in the world nor out of it.” Franciscan Friar Gilbert of Tournai, 1274.

It is worth noting that there is still a community that calls itself the American Beguine Community, which exists online and some of the members live together.  They support themselves through one of their members who is a professor at UC San Francisco, a consulting firm, and an online bookstore.