|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
- Women's History
- For many reasons there were more single women than single men during this time in history ( ca. the twelfth century). There is a theory in which this surplus of women is seen as the main cause for the Beguinage's origins. The Crusades created difficulties for many women. There were not enough men to go around for everyone to marry. Furthermore, the convents were for the upper class families and had high entrance fees. Some theorists claim that due to this displacement, some women formed Beguinages. Though this could be accurate, one has to ask if this is giving the women who were living in Beguinages and running them successfully enough credit.
- What does the treatment of the Beguines by the Church have to say about the treatment of women historically? In the beginning of the rise of Beguinages the Church did not feel compelled to condemn them as heretical, but as their numbers grew, the situation changed and they were persecuted for their beliefs and lifestyle. Was this because their group consisted solely of women? There were other religious groups, such as the Franciscans, which had comparable goals (poverty and chastity) and they were not condemned as heretical.
- The Church
- What does the condemnation of the Beguines have to say about women's role in the Christian Church? It is important to note that women are not included in the upper echelons of the Church hierarchy. Is this exclusion responsible for the difficulties Beguines faced getting clerical approval of their lifestyle?
- There is an issue of lesbianism within the Beguine movement which is rarely addressed. Ann Matter discusses this issue. Where does the sexuality of women fit into the Beguinages? Beguines were "women identified women." The question is, what did this mean? They were economically self-sufficient and independent, for the most part, from men.
- Beguines were often associated with being prostitutes. Where did this connection arise? Was it just the idea of a group of women living under their own protection that brought about this association?
- The Beguines' numbers were in the thousands. How could a group that large be considered marginal? Was their marginality due to their geographic dispersion and their lack of cohesion? Or did their large numbers pose an imagined threat which eventually forced "marginal" status upon them?
- The Beguines were active in society. They held jobs and performed charitable acts. The evidence indicates that they were on the fringes of society, as some of our other "marginal" groups have been. Were they marginalized solely by the Church, or were they also attacked individually within the community?
- The Beguine communities were diverse geogarphically and politically. All of the Beguinages were autonomous and therefore independent of each other. Thus, there is no single definition for Beguines.
- Marguerite Porete: The Mirror of Simple Souls By Bonnie Duncan of the English Department at Millersville University. Margueriie Porete was a Beguine condemned and executed for heresy in 1310. This document is an excerpt from chapters 119-122 of her text.
- Bernard Gui: Inquisitor's Manual Translated by David Burr of the History Department at Virgina Tech. --Bernard Gui's view of the Beguines and the Beguine movement, which were not positive. He discusses their errors in lifestyle, the outward signs by which they could be identified, their mistaken beliefs, and the ways in which the Beguines should be examined and questioned.
- Na Prous Bonnet Translated by David Burr of the History Department at Virgina Tech. Na Prous Bonnet (Boneta) was condemned as a Beguine in 1325. This document discusses her connection with God and her response to interrogation.
- Sisters Between: Gender and the Medieval Beguines Written by Abby Stoner from SFSU. Contains information on the following issues:
- Medieval Reformation
- Mary d'Oignies and Self-Authorization
- Jaques de VItry's Perceptions
- The Mysticism of Hadewijch and Mechtuchid of Magdeburg
- The "Heresy" of Marguerite Porete
- The Council of Vienne
- The Beguines Written by Elizabeth T. Knuth. This is an article which gives some background on Beguinages along with some etymology.
- The Rise (and Fall) of the Beguines
- Conclusions and Implications for Today
- Beguines & Beghards This is a site from the Catholic Supersite, New Advent. It gives a good background on the Beguines and Beguinages during the Middle Ages. It is important to note that this does come from a Catholic source and that the Beguines were eventually considered heretics by the Church.
- Ernest McDonnell, The Beguines and Beghards in Medieval Culture: With Special Emphasis on the Belgian Scene (New Brunswick: Octagon Books, 1954).
- Carol Neel, "The Origins of the Beguines" in Judith M. Bennett, et. al., ed. Sisters and Workers in the Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
- Walter Simons, "The Beguine Movement in the Southern Low Countries: A Reassessment." Bulletin de I'institut historique belge de Rome 59 (1989).
- Joanna Ziegler, "The Curtis Beguinages in the Southern Low Countries and Art Patronage: Interpretation and Historiography" inBulletin de l'Institut historique belge de Rome, vol. 57 (1987), 31-70.
- Joanna Ziegler, "Secular Canonesses as Antecedents of the Beguines in the Low Countries: An Introduction to Some Older Views", Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, vol. 13 (1992), 117-135.
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.
- Susan Suleiman, ed., The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986).
- Ulrike Wiethaus, ed., Maps of Flesh and Light: The Religious Experience of Medieval Women Mystics (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1993).
- "Sexuality, Gender, and the Body in Late Medieval Women's Spirituality," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 7 (Spring, 1991).
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