In 13th century northern Europe, groups of women formed their own autonomous religious communities. Neither nuns nor wives, the Beguines forged their own route through the strictures of Medieval life.
The Beguines are a fascinating group to me. I’m guessing here, but I’d say that if you’ve heard of them at all you are in one of four categories:
- A scholar of medieval or ecclesiastical history
- A resident of northern Europe, particularly the Low Countries
- A jazz or swing fan who knows Cole Porter’s song Begin the Beguine
- Just a clever and well-read person
The story of the Beguines begins in the 12th century CE. Women in northern Europe had two pathways to choose from: they could marry and be a wife, or they could take vows and become a nun. So many options! So much choice and freedom!
The Beguines took the third way. They bought their own houses, dedicated their lives to piety and work with the poor, and eventually grouped together into beguinages. A beguinage was a cluster of buildings owned by the beguines, a small (proto-feminist?) community of devotees. This might sound like a nunnery by another name, but there were some key differences: the beguines had no formal leadership structure; took no vows; could leave at any time; and continued to own property, travel, and live “in the world.”
They were both extremely popular, and rather controversial. Most cities in northern Europe had at least one beguinage, and some were enormous – the great beguinage of Ghent had thousands of members at its peak. But the religious authorities were not, on the whole, fans.
A famous beguine author, Marguerite Porete, was burned at the stake in Paris in 1310 for heresy. In 1311, the Council of Vienne formally disbanded the beguine movement, and their popularity subsequently waned. Nevertheless, the beguines persisted. The last traditional beguine, Marcella Pattyn, joined the beguines of Ghent in 1941 – at the time, there were only nine. She died in 2013, the last beguine on Earth.