Marguerite Porète

The Mirror of Simple Souls

The Beguines

The twelfth-century renaissance might be said to have been the opening of a round of humanism in the west. This movement brought with it such disparate movements as the development of Courtly Love. It also birthed an evangelical revival in which many different groups of Christian people felt empowered to re-form themselves and attempt to reform their world according to the tenants of Christian discipleship and the tenants of the gospels in preference to the social structures in which they found themselves. An early example of this tendency was the Cathar movement in the Languedoc (area in southern France defined linguistically as the area in which the word "yes" was oc rather than oui in northern France). Footnote 1

The Beguine movement began in the early thirteenth century. Unlike the Cathars, this group seem to have begun in the north. Geographically, largest growth was in the area that on the modern map would include northern France, the Netherlands, the Rhineland area of Germany, and Switzerland. Writing by Beguines were translated into Middle English and Early Italian as well as Latin (see the translation history ofThe Mirror of Simple Souls below, for example), suggesting that the Beguine movement gained wide interest in Europe through the fifteenth century. It should be noted that it was the fifteenth century that preserved many of the texts that are at issue in this course. The designers of the period we have come to think of as the Renaissance found an intellectual and spiritual focus in the twelfth century renaissance.

Beguine Spirituality:
Life as a Beguine was not only, or even primarily, an economic priority, however; the society had a powerful religious focus, and its members included several important mystics and saints. Unfortunately, as Gerda Lerner notes, "Women who lived without parental or male protection were always very vulnerable to accusations of heresy. The Beguine Hadewijch of Brabant, who lived in a community of women, whose spiritual guide she was, supposedly escaped persecution as a heretic only by leaving this community and living in isolation The Beguine Mechthild of Magdeburg had to seek shelter and protection in old age at the convent at Helfta. Most of the uncloisered women mystics, down to the 19th century, report harassment, ridicule and public condemnation (The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, p. 80).

What was a Beguine? She was a lay woman who promised to make her life in a self-governing, all female communities maintaining

Economic Influences

During the twelfth century, females outnumbered males in the countries of greatest Beguine development. At the same time, economic markers such as total caloric intake and the production of food and goods were favorable. Domestic life, however, was still centered around fairly large economic units as groups lived and worked together, sharing in the tasks of the day and the camaraderie of their leisure hours. What this meant in practice differed by social class. For peasants, this meant working in close proximity to one another on narrow strips of land, sharing grazing and market space in common, and joining together to perform labor owed to their lord.

The nobility experienced a real shift in the twelfth century. In the main, the high medieval period had not developed the strong hierarchy we associate with the strong monarchies of Henry VIII or Louis XIV. While the situation varied from area to area, all levels of the nobility enjoyed fairly broad autonomy. Their governance of coherent geographical areas was not only economically, but also biologically discrete; the nobility bred primarily to maintain those coherences. The primary safety valve for those who would not or could not participate in these geo-genetic exchanges was the religious life. In a time of economic plenty, society had the leisure to perceive this breeding program as emotionally, aesthetically, and spiritually sterile. Thus, noble women under the tutelage of Marie de Champagne, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her first husband the king of France, developed love courts and the concept of Courtly Love, freeing women to not only to pursue relationships with men outside of the strictures of marriage, but also to shift their focus from the single family unit (with its biological, economic, and geographic coherencys) to a social group that focused on the aesthetic, emotional and spiritual development of individuals distinct from their reproductive roles. Footnote 2

The economic and demographic climate meant that merchant/guild class women could support themselves with their own skills; this was a period in which women claimed full guild membership, from apprenticeship to master status. Unfortunately, substantive dowries were required both in marriage and upon entering a nunnery; this was a substantive block outlay of wealth, as was the expense of setting up as an independent guild journeyer. A marriage dowry could provide the initial funding of an independent career for a promising male crafter, but a crippling double outlay for his female counterpart. As a result, female crafters often found it difficult to develop a fulfilling and economically viable life. There was a strong economic impetus for a life that freed women from the requisite dowry investment and the social requirement of placement under the governance of a husband or within the confines of a nunnery for functional adulthood, and this initially received support from the clergy. .Footnote 3

The designation "functional adult" has been achieved in a variety of ways over the centuries, and we societies have provided various rites of passage to mark the climacteric. In our own time, that point is marked by a series of events which include the right to own and operate high speed transportation, the right to consume habituating psychoactive substances, responsibility to give over the body to the needs of the state in time of emergency, the completion of study toward skilled employment, marriage, and parenthood. Note that some of these items are economic, others are physiological, and some blur those distinctions, but all children and young adults know that full adulthood comes when the youth forms an economically viable independent unit or joins with a peer or peers to achieve that goal. Independence requires the accession to adult responsibility; a child movie star may earn millions of dollars and support her entire family, but society prevents her from functioning as an independent unit financially prior to a clearly demarcated "age of responsibility." In the postmodern world, that age is highly variable. A child can push drugs on the streetcorner and earn enough to be economically viable before the age of ten, while a graduate student may maintain a room in her parent's home and eke out a living on student loans until she is thirty.

Children were raised very differently during the high medieval period than they are today. Their fiscal viability was similarly variable, but in the main the cost of their upkeep was offset by their economic contribution much younger. Except among the peasantry, children tended to remain within their birth home only until the age of seven or eight. Noble boys (particularly first sons) became pages in the court of a family friend or ally; girls became young ladies in waiting. Alternatively, these children were sent to monasteries or nunneries to be trained toward literacy; for the males, this meant focusing toward a career in government and/or the clergy, while the females this training taught not only literacy, but also the ability to function as the manager of the broad socioeconomic complexes that would fall under her control whether she married or joined a religious order. Unless a parent was a master crafter, guild-class children were placed with guild masters as apprentices, and went to live with those families at an age we connect with entry into grade school. It should be noted that, while parents paid an entry fee for their children's bonding with a master crafter that may be equated with tuition expenses today, such children were already economically viable entities, learning a trade while performing tasks making them worth their keep. Apprentices typically graduated to journey status at fourteen or so and, for women, the problem of securing and maintaining a secure living space for life as an economically viable adult could begin at that point. Guilds that were traditionally female made provisions for live-in apprentices and journeywomen, but less traditional trades could lack such provisions. The young women (and widows without master-sites) who could not, or did not, wish to loose autonomy and enter the traditionally sanctioned spaces for women, the marriage home or the nunnery, literally had no place, either physical or social, to exist within their society. A beguinage provided both social and spiritual support for the free female worker. And, particularly in urban environments, females were trained in a broad spectrum of skills, working as blacksmiths, brewers, bricklayers and stone masons, weavers, soldiers, scribes, musicians, artists, surgeons, etc. Footnote 4

Footnote 1.

For further study: Abels, Richard, and Ellen Harrison. "The articulation of Women in Languedocian Catharism." Medieval Studies, vol. 41 (1979), 215-51.

Footnote 2.

For further study: Facinger, Marion F. "A Study of Medieval Queenship: Capitain France, 987-1237." In Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History. William M. Bowsky (ed.). Vol. 5. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968, pp. 3-48. Gold, Penny Schine. The Lady and the Virgin: Image, Attitude and Experience in 12th Century France. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Footnote 3

For further study: Farmer, Sharon. "Persuasive Voices: Clerical Images of Medieval Wives." Speculum, vol. 41, no. 3 (July, 1986), 517-43.

Footnote 4

For further study: McDonnell, Ernest W. The Beguines and Begherds in Medieval Culture, with Special Emphasis on the Belgian Scene. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1954. Le Goff, Jacques. Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages. Arthur Gildhammer (tr.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Bonnie Duncan
English Department
Millersville University
Date last modified: 11/25/95 <