The Beguines

A Beguinage in Belgium.

Adult women during the Middle Ages were expected to live under the guardianship of a man, either within the household as a wife and mother, or dedicated to the Church and living in a convent as a nun. The Beguines questioned this concept and lived outside of these set boundaries. Women who entered Beguinages (Beguine houses and/or convents) were not bound by permanent vows, in contrast to women who entered convents. They could enter Beguinages having already been married and they could leave the Beguinages to marry. Some women even entered the Beguinages with children. Their piety was centered around the eucharist and the humanity of Jesus. Their origin is debated, but around 1150 C.E. groups of women, eventually called Beguines, began living together for the purposes of economic self-sufficiency and a religious vocation.

In the beginning, clerical attitudes towards Beguines were ambivalent. The groups were religious and the women were dedicated to chastity and charity, which could not be condemned in any way. The fact that they existed and existed without men, except for priests and confessors to lead them, was suspect to the ecclesiastical hierarchy. For this and many other reasons, many Beguines came to be known as heretics and were persecuted as such. Though they were never an approved religious order, they were at one point granted special privileges and exemptions customary for approved orders. The Church, however, did not approve of their lack permanent vows. Women were not supposed to have that much freedom. What is particularly interesting about the Beguines was that, unlike most of those considered heretics, most of them considered themselves orthodox, but still Beguines. Some strongly identified themselves as such and while in court testified to that effect, demonstrating self-identification with the group. Yet the group was diverse and is hard to define. This diversity was due in part to the geographical distribution as well as to the individual autonomy of each community.

Issues Important to the Study of Beguines





Issues of Sexuality

The fact that the Beguines were adult women causes issues concerning sexuality to be raised. Beguines were often associated with prostitutes. This corresponds to a larger concept of persecution of marginal people and the ways of creating a rhetoric of marginality. The accusations forced upon the marginal groups that we have been studying have been similar and often overlap. This is a bibliography of books which discuss Beguines, religious women, and sexuality.

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