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Beguines

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Definition of Beguines:

Beguines were women who led lives of religious devotion, usually in the same house or community, without joining a religious order. Their male counterparts were known as Beghards.

Purpose of Beguines:

Beguines sought to fill a spiritual void without putting their lives entirely under the control of a religious order. In addition, the Beguine lifestyle helped address the social and economic difficulties of unmarried women who outnumbered available men in their area.

Origins and spread of the Beguines:

The Beguinal movement began in the late 12th-century among upper-class women and swiftly spread to the middle class. Beguines first appeared in the cities of northern Europe; by the mid-13th century, Beguines could be found in the Low Countries, Germany and France.

Origin of the name "Beguine":

The exact meaning of the word "beguine" is uncertain, but there are three theories:

  • The term may have originated in the Flemish word beghen, "to pray" (and not any association with "to beg," for Beguines didn't beg and weren't part of any mendicant orders).
  • "Beguine" could have evolved from "Bega," the patron saint of Nivelles where the first Beguinage is reputed to have been established.
  • The name could be derived from Lambert le Bègue, a priest who spent lavishly to found a cloister and church for Crusaders' widows and orphans.
Whatever its origin, the word "Beguine" had been established as their name by the 1230s.

Life for Beguines:

Beguines might live together in a single house, or in individual houses in a walled enclosure. Their community was called a beguinage. Other Beguines would live separately, yet follow the same spiritual philosophy.

Beguines supported themselves through cloth-making, lace-making, nursing and other trades. They did not beg. Beguines could own property; each individual Beguine would retain the rights to their property in their own name.

Although Beguines promised to remain celibate while in the beguinage, they could leave at any time and marry if they wished. Some Beguines were separated from their husbands by war; others deliberately left to observe the Beguine lifestyle with the understanding they would return to their spouses.

Much of a Beguine's time was spent in spiritual contemplation, and some explored mysticism. They were occasionally affiliated with Dominican or Franciscan friars.

Persecution of Beguines:

Due to their associations with friars and their mysticism, Beguines were sometimes suspected of heretical behavior. They were often the target of restrictive legislation, and throughout the 13th century they frequently faced prejudice and persecution. In 1311, at the Council of Vienne, the dissolution of beguinal communities was ordered.

The Beguines survived, however, and throughout the rest of the 14th century, the official policy of the Church toward them varied according to the moment. Then, in the 15th century, the Church officially established a policy of toleration.

Decline of the Beguinal Movement:

The frequent persecutions of Beguines may have failed to eradicate the movement, but it did play a part in the decline of Beguinage. Faced with strict regulations and hostility from their fellow Christians, some women joined formal religious orders instead of living the Beguine lifestyle.

Beguinal communities still exist today, primarily in Belgium but also in other parts of Europe and even in America. They often focus on charitable efforts in addition to spiritual matters. Beghards -- never particularly popular -- were completely eradicated during the French Revolution.

Famous Beguines:

    Marie d'Oignies: One of the earliest Beguines, Marie was married at 14 and convinced her husband to forego sex and devote his life to lepers. In her later years she lived as a hermit, denying herself meat and mortifying her flesh.

    Hadewijch of Antwerp: Forced from her community, Hadewijch wrote many letters to keep in touch with her sisters. She also wrote poetry.

    Mechthild of Magdeburg: Mechthild spent most of her adult life as a Beguine. In her early 30s, she began to write down her poetry and visionary experiences, and she continued to write until her death.

    Marguerite Porete: Well educated in literature and religious texts, Marguerite wrote The Mirror of Simple Souls, which at one point was condemned by the authorities. She was deemed a heretic and burned at the stake.

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