Beguines and Beghards
The Beguines // and the Beghards // were Christian lay religious orders that were active in Northern Europe, particularly in the Low Countries in the 13th–16th centuries. Their members lived in semi-monastic communities but did not take formal religious vows. That is, although they promised not to marry "as long as they lived as Beguines," to quote one of the early Rules, they were free to leave at any time. Beguines were part of a larger spiritual revival movement of the thirteenth century that stressed imitation of Christ's life through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion.
The term "beguine" (Latin: beguinas; Dutch: begijn) is of uncertain origin and may have been pejorative. Scholars no longer credit the theory expounded in the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition (1911) that the name derived from Lambert le Bègue, a priest of Liège.  Other theories, such as derivation from the name of St. Begga and from a purported, reconstructed Old Saxon word *beggen, "to beg" or "to pray", have also been discredited. The origin of the movement's name will continue to be as uncertain as dates for the beginning of the movement itself.
At the start of the 12th century, some women in the Low Countries lived alone and devoted themselves to prayer and good works without taking vows. At first there were only a few of them, but in the course of the century, their numbers increased. Due to the structure of urban demographics and marriage patterns in the Low Countries, in the Middle Ages there were more women than men. These women lived in towns, where they attended to the poor. During the 13th century, some of them bought homes that neighbored each other, and finally formal living spaces for many women formed a community called a beguinage. Beguinages tended to be located near town centers and were often close to the rivers that provided water for their work in the cloth industry.
Beguines were not nuns; they did not take vows, they could return to the world and wed if they chose and did not renounce their property. In many cases, the term "Beguine" referred to a woman who wore humble garb and stood apart as living a religious life above and beyond the ordinary practice of ordinary laypeople. It has been disputed that Marie of Oignies is perhaps the earliest beguine.
While some women joined communities of like-minded lay religious women, adopting the label “beguine” by virtue of entering a beguinage, many women lived alone or with one or two other like-minded women. Beguines engaged in a range of occupations to support themselves. Women in the Low Countries tended to work in the cities' lucrative wool industry. Parisian beguines were important contributors to the city's burgeoning silk industry.
Beguinages were not convents. There was no overarching structure such as a mother-house. Each beguinage adopted its own rule. The Bishop of Liège created a rule for beguines in his diocese. However, every community was complete in itself and fixed its own order of living. Later, many adopted the rule of the Third Order of Saint Francis. These communities were varied in terms of the social status of their members; some of them only admitted ladies of high degree; others were reserved exclusively for persons in humble circumstances; others still welcomed women of every condition and these were the most densely peopled. Several, like the great béguinage of Ghent, numbered their inhabitants by thousands. The Beguinage of Paris, founded sometime before 1264, housed as many as 400 women. Douceline of Digne (c. 1215-74) founded the Beguine movement in Marseille; her hagiography, which was composed by a member of her community, sheds light on the movement in general.
This semi-monastic institution was adapted to its age and spread rapidly throughout the land. Some beguines became known as "holy women" (mulieres sanctae), and their devotions influenced religious life within the region. Beguine religious life was part of the mysticism of that age. There was a béguinage at Mechelen as early as 1207, at Brussels in 1245, at Leuven before 1232, at Antwerp in 1234 and at Bruges in 1244. By the close of the century, most communes in the Low Countries had a béguinage; several of the great cities had two or more.
As the 13th century progressed, some beguines came under criticism as a result of their ambiguous social and legal status. As a conscious choice to live in the world but in a way that effectively surpassed (at least in piety) or stood out from most laypeople, beguines attracted disapprobation as much as admiration. In some regions, the term beguine itself denoted an ostentatiously, even obnoxiously religious woman; an image that quickly led to accusations of hypocrisy (consider the beguine known as “Constrained Abstinence” in the Roman de la Rose). Some professed religious, moreover, were offended by the cooptation of “religious” status without the commitment to a rule, while the laity resented the implicit disapproval of marriage and other markers of secular life. An even more pressingly practical problem was the women’s legal standing… where did and should such women stand in relation to ecclesiastical and lay authorities? Beguines seemed to enjoy the best of both worlds: holding onto their property and living in the world as laypeople while claiming the privileges and protections of the professed religious.
On the other hand, admirers such as the secular cleric Robert de Sorbon (d. 1274) noted that beguines exhibited far more devotion to God than even the cloistered, since they voluntarily pursued a religious life without vows and walls, surrounded by the world’s temptations.
The power of the beguine label is evident in the “watershed” moments of beguine history, from its first appearance in the sermons of James of Vitry (the beguine movement’s earliest and perhaps most famous promoter), to its reference in the trial of the doomed mystic Marguerite Porete (who was burned at the stake in Paris on charges of heresy in 1310), to its centrality in the condemnation of lay religious women at the Council of Vienne in 1311-1312.
Sometime during the early to mid-1290s, Marguerite Porete wrote a mystical book known as The Mirror of Simple Souls. Written in Old French, the book describes the annihilation of the soul, specifically its descent into a state of nothingness—of union with God without distinction. While clearly popular throughout the Middle Ages and beyond (perhaps dozens of copies circulated throughout late-medieval western Europe) the book provoked some controversy, likely because of statements such as “a soul annihilated in the love of the creator could, and should, grant to nature all that it desires,” which some took to mean that a soul can become one with God and that when in this state it can ignore moral law, it had no need for the Church and its sacraments, or its code of virtues. It should be pointed out, however, that this was not what Marguerite taught, since she explained that souls in such a state desired only good and would not be able to sin. Nevertheless, the book’s teachings, for some, were too easily misconstrued, particularly by the unlearned.
At issue too was the way Marguerite disseminated her teachings, which was evocative of actions and behaviors some clerics were—at the time—finding increasingly problematic among lay religious women. Indeed, Marguerite was eventually tried by the Dominican inquisitor of France and burned at the stake as a relapsed heretic in 1310. In 1311—the year after Marguerite’s death—ecclesiastical officials made several specific connections between Marguerite’s ideas and deeds and the beguine status in general at the Council of Vienne. One of the council’s decrees, Cum de Quibusdam, claimed that beguines “dispute and preach about the highest Trinity and the divine essence and introduce opinions contrary to the catholic faith concerning the articles of the faith and the sacraments of the church.”
Most of these institutions were suppressed during the Reformation of the 16th century or during the stormy years of revolutions and social unrest of the French Revolution. A few béguinages persisted until the early 20th century in parts of Belgium, including those of Bruges, Lier, Mechelin, Leuven and Ghent, which last numbered nearly a thousand members in 1905.
Marcella Pattyn, the last traditional Beguine, died on 14 April 2013 in Kortrijk at the age of 92. Born in the Belgian Congo in 1920, she was accepted into the Holy Corner of Elizabeth of Hungary at Sint-Amandsberg, Ghent in 1941 and moved to the Béguinage of St Elisabeth at Kortrijk in 1960, where she became one of a community of nine.
The community of Begijnhof, Amsterdam, credited with having considerably influenced the development of what was the city's southern edge in the late Middle Ages, survived the Protestant Reformation staunchly Catholic. Their parish church was confiscated and given over to exiled English Puritans. The last Amsterdam Beguine died in 1971, but the Begijnhof remains one of the city's best-known landmarks.
Writer Jean Hughes Raber, a student of medieval women's movements, posited a second wave of the Beguine movement, which occurred in the 17th century, when it was supported by Archbishop Mathias Hovius. His involvement included helping improve the Great Beguines at Mechelen. Raber says there was no clear end to the Second Movement. She suggests that Catholic lay movements, such as those of Dorothy Day in the United States, the Company of St. Ursula and communities of women initiated by Francisca Hernandez[who?] can be seen as extensions of the Beguines into the 20th century.
Raber suggests the Beguines' response to social and economic forces in the 12th century offer a model that can meet current conditions: economic uncertainty or worse, single women comprising a larger section of the population, loss of wealth in the form of deflated values of housing. She cites a California-based group, the American Beguines, as an example of revival of the Beguine Movement, with notable but not necessarily problematic differences. In the last decades, a new Beguine movement arose in Germany.
Recently, the Beguines of Mercy were founded in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. It is a contemplative third order of educated Catholic women whose roots are in spiritual community. Their affiliations are good works, quiet contemplation and living out their spiritual values.
A widespread religious revival inspired several societies for men which were kindred to the Beguines. Of these, the Beghards were the most numerous and the most important.
The Beghards were all laymen and, like the Beguines, they were not bound by vows, the rule of life which they observed was not uniform, and the members of each community were subject only to their own local superiors. They held no private property; the brethren of each cloister had a common purse, dwelt together under one roof and ate at the same board. They were for the most part men of humble origin—weavers, dyers, fullers and so forth—they were closely connected with the city craft-guilds. For example, no man could be admitted to the Beghards' community at Brussels unless he were a member of the Weavers' Company. The Beghards were often men to whom fortune had not been kind—men who had outlived their friends, or whose family ties had been broken by some untoward event and who, by reason of failing health or advancing years, or perhaps on account of some accident, were unable to stand alone. If "the medieval towns of the Netherlands found in the beguinage a solution of their feminine question", the growth of the Beghard communities provided a place for the worn-out working man.
The men had banded together in the first place to build up the inner man. While working out their own salvation, they remained mindful of their neighbors and, thanks to their connection with the craft-guilds, they influenced the religious life. They are credited with shaping the religious opinion of the cities and towns of the Netherlands for more than 200 years, especially for the peasant.
Relation to the Church
Religious authorities believed the Beguines had heretical tendencies and sometimes tried to bring disciplinary measures against them. The Synods of Fritzlar (1259), Mainz (1261) and Eichstätt (1282) brought measures against them and they were forbidden as "having no approbation" by the Synod of Béziers (1299). They were condemned by the Council of Vienne (1312), but this sentence was mitigated by Pope John XXII (1321), who permitted the Beguines to resume their mode of life after reform.
The Beghards were more obstinate; during the 14th century, they were repeatedly condemned by the Holy See, the bishops (notably in Germany) and the Inquisition. The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges that men of faith and piety were found among the Beghards. In their behalf, Pope Gregory XI (1374–77) and Pope Boniface IX (1394) addressed Bulls to the bishops of Germany and the Netherlands. The doctrine of Quietism is believed to resemble the stance of these community members.
Before the close of the Middle Ages, Beghard communities were in decline. Their numbers diminished with the waning of the textile trade and, when that industry died, gradually dwindled away. The highest number of such medieval foundations in Flanders and Wallonia was 94, but in 1734 they had been reduced to just 34 and in 1856 to 20.
- In his multi-volume novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767), Laurence Sterne has his character Corporal Trim describe a Beguine.
- In Charlotte Brontë's 1853 novel Villette, Beguines and a béguinage are mentioned in Chapter 17, "La Terrasse".
- Françoise Mallet-Joris's first novel was Le rempart des Béguines (1952) (published in 2006 in a new English translation as The Illusionist). The title is the name of the street where Tamara, a courtesan, lives apart from the bourgeois society of Gers, a fictional Flemish town.
- In Umberto Eco's 1980 novel The Name of the Rose (1983 in English), the Beghards are frequently mentioned among the heretical movements which the Inquisition is persecuting.
- Bernard Cornwell in his 2003 novel Heretic has a character, Genevieve, who is a condemned Beguine heretic rescued by the main character, Thomas of Hookton.
- Karen Maitland in her 2009 novel The Owl Killers portrays a group of Beguines in the fictional early 14th-century English village of Ulewic.
- Ken Follett in his 2012 novel World Without End mentions the life of Beguines in the Netherlands.
- Begijnhof, Amsterdam
- Begijnhof (Breda)
- Begijnhof, Utrecht
- Brethren of the Common Life
- Christian anarchism
- Christian mysticism
- Christina von Stommeln
- Heresy of the Free Spirit
- Marguerite Porete
- Mechthild of Magdeburg
- Nicholas of Basel
- Sister Catherine Treatise
- Labels and Libels Naming Beguines in Northern Medieval Europe
- Smith, Rachel J. D. (2019). Excessive Saints: Gender, Narrative, and Theological Invention in Thomas of Cantimpré's Mystical Hagiographies. New York: Columbia UP. p. 39. ISBN 9780231188609.
- Phillips, Walter Alison (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 652. . In Chisholm, Hugh.
- Simons, Walter (2001). Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-1853-4.
- Walker Bynum, Caroline (1988). Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. University of California Press. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-520-90878-9.
- See for instance, Algemene Winkler Prins (1956) (in Dutch) which remarks that no link has been found between Beguines and the Albigensian heresy. An example of an encyclopedia that does not refer at all to a possible link with the Cathars is the "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Beguines, Beghards". www.newadvent.org.
- Simons, Walter (2001). Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 7–12. ISBN 0-8122-3604-1.
- Labels and Libels: Naming Beguines in Northern Medieval Europe (Brepols,2014)
- Tanya Stabler Miller, The Beguines of Medieval Paris: Gender, Patronage, and Spiritual Authority (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014)
- Philippen, L.J.M. (1918). De Begijnhoven. Oorsprong, Geschiedenis, Inrichting. Antwerp: Veritas.
- Tanya Stabler Miller, The Beguines of Medieval Paris: Gender, Patronage, and Spiritual Authority
- De Porcellet, Philippine; Jeay, Madeleine; Garay, Kathleen E. (2001). The Life of Saint Douceline, a Beguine of Provence. Boydell & Brewer. ISBN 978-0859916295.
- John Van Engen, Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life
- Miller, The Beguines of Medieval Paris
- “What’s in a Name? Clerical Tanya Stabler Miller, Representations of Parisian Beguines (1200-1328).” Journal of Medieval History 33, no. 1 (2007): 60-86.
- Field, Sean L. (2012). The Beguine, the Angel, and the Inquisitor: The Trials of Marguerite Porete and Guiard of Cressonessart. University of Notre Dame Pess. ISBN 978-0-268-07973-4.
- Makowski, Elizabeth (2005). A Pernicious Sort of Woman: Quasi-religious Women and Canon Lawyers in the Later Middle Ages. CUA Press. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-8132-1392-7.
- Walter Simons, Cities of Ladies
- "Obituary: Marcella Pattyn". The Economist. 2013-04-27. Retrieved 2013-05-16.
- "Obituary: Marcella Pattyn". Daily Telegraph. 2013-05-16. Retrieved 2013-05-16.
- Carton, Wouter (2014-04-14). "Laatste begijntje ter wereld overleden in Kortrijk". VRT. Archived from the original (Dutch) on 2013-04-18. Retrieved 2014-04-14.
- "Agatha Kaptein" (Dutch). Alle Begijnen van Amsterdam. genealogieonline. Retrieved 2009-01-21.
- Raber, Jean Hughes (22 May 2009). "Simple Lives: A New Beginning for the Beguines?". Commonweal: 10–1. Retrieved 2018-12-30.
- "Bremer Beginenhof Modell | Beginen in Bremen | Das Beginennetzwerk". Beginenhof.de. Archived from the original on 2013-04-19. Retrieved March 7, 2013.
- "Other Organizations". Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver.
- Volume 8, Chapters 20–22. "She was in black down to her toes, with her hair conceal'd under a cambrick border, laid close to her forehead: she was one of those kind of nuns, an' please your honour, of which, your honour knows, there are a good many in Flanders which they let go loose — By thy description, Trim, said my uncle Toby, I dare say she was a young Beguine, of which there are none to be found any where but in the Spanish Netherlands — except at Amsterdam — they differ from nuns in this, that they can quit their cloister if they choose to marry; they visit and take care of the sick by profession…."
- Burnham, Louisa A., So Great a Light, So Great a Smoke. The Beguin Heretics of Languedoc, Cornell University Press, 2008.
- De Cant, Geneviève, MAJÉRUS Pascal & VEROUGSTRAETE Christiane, A World of Independent Women: From the 12th Century to the Present Day: the Flemish Beguinages, Riverside: Hervé van Caloen Foundation, 2003.
- Deane, Jennifer Kolpacoff, “’Beguines’ Reconsidered: Historiographical Problems and New Directions” Monastic Matrix (2008)Simons, Walter, Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565, Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2001.
- McDonnell, Ernest W., The Beguines and Beghards in Medieval Culture: With Special Emphasis on the Belgian Scene, New York: Octagon Books, 1969 (1954 edition online at HathiTrust).
- Miller, Tanya Stabler, The Beguines of Medieval Paris: Gender, Patronage, and Spiritual Authority, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014
- Murk-Jansen, Saskia, Brides in de Desert: The Spirituality of the Beguine, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998
- Neel, Carol, The Origins of the Beguines, Signs, 1989.
- Petroff, Elizabeth Alvilda, Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994
- Philippen, L.J.M., "De Begijnhoven: Oorsprong, Geschiedenis, Inrichting. Antwerp, Belgium: Ch. and H. Courtin, 1918.
- Reichstein, Frank-Michael, Das Beginenwesen in Deutschland, 2. Auflage, Berlin, 2017.
- Simons, Walter, Staining the Speech of Things Divine: The Uses of Literacy in Medieval Beguine Communities, Thérèse De Hemptinne & Maria Eugenia Gongora (eds.), The Voice of Silence: Women's Literacy in a Men's Church, Turnhout, Brepols, 2004.
- Swan, Laura, The Wisdom of the Beguines: the Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women's Movement, BlueBridge, 2014.
- Van Aerschot Suzanne & HEIRMAN Michiel, Les béguinages de Flandre. Un patrimoine mondial, Brussels: éditions Racine, 2001.
- VON DER OSTEN-SACKEN, Vera, Jakob von Vitrys Vita Mariae Oigniacensis. Zu Herkunft und Eigenart der ersten Beginen, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010 (=VIEG 223).
- Chambers, Ephraim. Cyclopædia, 1728, p. 95
- CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Beguines, Beghards
- Marygrace Peter's article on Beguines
- Articles exploring Beguines, their spirituality and current relevance.
- Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane, “’Beguines’ Reconsidered: Historiographical Problems and New Directions” Monastic Matrix (2008)
- Beguine Communities and Medieval History: An Unexpected Treasure?
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). "article name needed". Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (first ed.). James and John Knapton, et al.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "article name needed". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.