Who were the beguines, the women who went to live in communities without men in the Middle Ages

The beguines It is a movement that was born at the end of the 12th century in a specific geographical area, Flanders –Brabant– Renani

On June 1, 1310, at the Place de Grève in Paris, Marguerite Porete went up in flames. She had been sentenced to that excruciating death for having written a mystical work, Miroir des simples âmes (c.1300; “The Mirror of Simple Souls”), a dialogue between Love, Reason and the Soul.

He had written it in his language, Picardo, and not in Latin as dictated by ecclesiastical rules, and it was “a spiritual itinerary book” that he read aloud in different locations, making it dangerously popular. For the authorities, his message was that love for God could be expressed without the need for an established clergy as mediator. The idea of ​​democratizing the faith threatened to disempower not only the clergy, but also King Philip IV of France, who was trying to establish himself as the defender of the Catholic faith.

For these and probably other reasons, “The Mirror of Simple Souls” had already been declared a “heretical” work several years earlier in Valenciennes by the Bishop of Cambrai, who ordered a copy to be publicly burned in the Place d’Armes.

Marguerite sought the advice of ecclesiastics in the Netherlands and received encouragement from as luminous an ecclesiastical figure as Geoffrey de Fontaines, former Regent Master of Theology at the University of Paris.

Perhaps thinking that with the passage of time the storm had also passed, at the end of 1308 she decided to read her treatise in public, and was arrested and handed over to the Inquisition court.

For a year and a half, William of Paris, the king’s confessor, questioned her while a panel of 21 theologians evaluated excerpts from her work.

At her trial, she refused to take an oath of “truth” before the Inquisition, considering it an unfair institution, and to receive sacramental absolution for offenses that, according to her, she had not committed. She was found a repeat heretic, and Marguerite and her book were sentenced together.

The follower of the chronicler Guillermo de Nangis, who narrated the execution, reported that he showed “noble and devoted” signs of penance that twisted the hearts of the spectators. His case contributed to the writing of a canon of the Council of Vienne (1311-1312) that condemned the Beguine movement – of which Marguerite Porete was one of its most notable figures – as heretic.

The movement
The Beguines were part of an era of vigorous spiritual flowering during the Middle Ages. At that time, the options for Christians were not many: they could marry God, and become nuns confined to the cloister under vows of obedience, chastity and poverty, or with a man, and live quasi-confined in their homes under vows of obedience and fidelity. .

That left those who refused to marry or couldn’t find a partner, given the high mortality of men in the Crusades, as well as widows and even some married women with no clear space in which to live or a place to enjoy themselves. some hint of independence. This is how the semi-religious lifestyle of the Beguines arose in Flanders in the 12th century, forging a third way for women of all ranks and fortunes.

They didn’t belong to any religious order, so they made their own rules, and depending on them, they could live anywhere from solitary wanderers to cloistered communities, with a lot of variety between those two extremes. Such diversity and the absence of a centralized administration make it difficult to quantify the number of beguines.

From a letter from Pope John XXII to the Bishop of Strasbourg, it is known that in 1321 some 200,000 Beguines lived in West Germany. In Brussels, five decades later, an estimated 1,300 Beguines lived, more than 4% of its 30,000 inhabitants.

It is estimated that at the time of its greatest expansion the movement had one million Beguines throughout Europe, but there is no documentation to confirm this with certainty.

Although they tended to be very pious and lead a life of religious devotion, they were not bound by permanent vows. Chastity, for example, was valued as long as they remained in the community, but they were free to leave it and marry. They lived in beguinages, self-sufficient groups of individual houses often congregated around a church and fenced off, in urban settings.

In hospitals and leper asylums or in their own infirmaries they cared for the poor and sick.

They made their living from the flourishing European textile industry, washing raw wool or sheets, making lace and weaving. Or they worked in homes, farms, and gardens.

Thus, his daily life was an unusual mixture of religious elements, such as prayer and mystical search, and secular: individuality, institutional independence, paid work.

Thanks to the latter, they could enter the city at will, as long as they returned to their beguinages at nightfall, which allowed them an exceptional degree of independence, unknown to their medieval counterparts.

None of this was going to go unnoticed. The so-called mulieres sanctae, or mulieres religiosa (in Latin: holy or religious women) and later beguines, a term of unknown origin, enjoyed the appreciation of the beneficiaries of their charitable works and the admiration of powerful personalities.

For the German abbot and writer Cesarius of Heisterbach (1180-1240), for example, “although these women, who we know are very numerous in the diocese of Liège, live among the people, they surpass many cloistered women in the love of God .

“They live the hermitic life among the crowds, spiritual among the mundane, and virginal among the pleasure seekers. The greater their battle, the greater their grace, and the greater crown awaits them.”

The preacher, historian and leader of the Church Jacques de Vitry tried to have the Beguines recognized by the ecclesiastical authority. De Vitry had a deep relationship with Marie d’Oignies, who renounced her family fortune to lead an apostolic life and became a “living saint.”

After her death, De Vitry wrote Vita Marie de Oegnies (1216) in which she captured almost everything that is known about her life, as well as the first account of this new form of feminine spirituality.

For him, women like her could save Christianity from heresy.