The Light of the Beguines: Medieval Europe’s Altruistic Women
The story of the Beguines is important to remember in a time of increasing social fracturing.
The world is not fair, in both the design of our societies and the capricious nature of fate.
It should give us some comfort, then, that over the centuries, people have banded together across divisions to protect their communities. Leading the way were women.
One such group were the Beguines.
Not Your Typical Nunnery
While they were spiritual in nature, these communities were not part of the rigid hierarchies of monasteries and religious houses across Europe. Rather, they were much more ad hoc, informal constructions, with a slightly anarchic streak.
As the 12th Century progressed, northern Europe became an increasing centre of trade, particularly in cloth. Movement of people began towards cities such as Antwerp and Bruges to work. Some of those who made these cities their new home, particularly young women, opted for a quiet religious life.
As our world increasingly appears to spin out of control, I take great comfort in the ability of people, especially women, to band together.
This was due to many reasons – financial security, personal safety, a desire to better themselves, or simply their faith.
Now, those who entered this life were not nuns. They made no vows of chastity or special obedience and they could leave at any time. There were no abbesses ruling with a big stick.
Islands of Inspiration
As a consequence, Beguines, operating out of homes known as ‘Beguinages’ could express themselves in spectacular ways.
Beguines in the Low Countries were among some of the first to translate the Latin Bible into the vernacular, centuries before the Reformation. Beguinages also gave birth to much important late medieval poetry, as well as handiwork.
This creativity was only part of their work. Beguinages acted as healers to their local community, as well as sheltering the elderly and infirm. Hospitals were founded by them, and records of their healing techniques can be found in libraries across the Continent.
Of course, young women living together without the oversight of church officials had to be hotbeds of sin and corruption, it was thought, and there was some persecution of the Beguines. One, Marguerite Porete, was even burned at the stake in Paris in June 1310, her work The Mirror of Simple Souls being declared heretical.
While they were spiritual in nature, these communities were not part of the rigid hierarchies.
As a consequence, Beguinages adapted to avoid persecution. They began wearing veils and habits, and opened commercial operations within their houses. While they outwardly took on the appearance of nuns, they still lacked the hierarchy and vows of their convent-bound sisters.
Despite the turbulence of centuries, the Beguines manages to survive right up until the 20th Century. The last of the Flemish Beguines, a woman called Marcella Pattyn, died as recently as 2013 and was buried with her sisters in a communal crypt.
The homes used by Beguines can still be found across Europe, from Stuttgart in southern Germany to Norwich in East Anglia. Perhaps the most well-known, and extensive, is the Begijnhof in Amsterdam – well worth a visit.
As our world increasingly appears to spin out of control, I take great comfort in the ability of people, especially women, to band together and work to protect themselves and their community from fate’s fickle nature.
Community cohesion and self-defence is increasingly important in a time of social fracturing, and the example of the Beguines is one to lead the way.