The Beguines; A Medieval Women's Movement
The Beguine was the first feminist movement in Christianity, but wasn’t recognized by the scholars before the 1980’s.
The very first Beguinage (Beguine community) was established in 1242 in Brugge, Belgium, and the movement spread as far as Denmark, France and Spain.
The women who joined the Beguine movement came from all walks of life and every social class. It was their right to chose their own life, to live in freedom, and search for their own divinity, that attracted them.
"The Beguines taught of a loving God who desired a relationship
with each individual person."
(The Wisdom of the Beguines (2014) p.9 )
The Beguines believed in taking full responsibility for their own spiritual education, and their movement has been described to be of extraordinary diversity. Everybody had to follow their own path and live in accordance with their own calling.
The women lived either at home with their families, in their own purchased houses, or together with other Beguines in free communities called, Beguinages. Some remained close to their family homes and villages, whilst others became wandering preachers, teachers, and healers. Others were more mystical and into deep spiritual experiences like Hadewijch.
They "walked with a passion, the path they felt called to, quietly, but lovefully improving the lives of those around them while cultivating an intense spiritual life."
The Wisdom of the Beguines (2014) p. 48
The author of The Wisdom of the Beguines, Laura Swan, writes that these women spent numerous hours in prayer every day, performed extreme fasting, and explored the deep mystical presence of the Holy Spirit within themselves.
According to Swan, the Beguines were the true apostles of Jesus Christ who modeled their lives after Christ, free of the restraints imposed by the Roman Catholic church, and yet, remaining under their protection. This kept most of them free from being accused as heretics and being burnt at the stake by the inquisition.
The Beguine women worked hard for a living and used the money they earned to help the poor.
They set up schools to educate the young; establish hospitals and hospices; became teachers in their own right and even gave aid to prisoners upon their release. The Beguines were also extremely talented scholars themselves as they read many kinds of texts, and were constantly sharing and collecting knowledge. They even invited Catholic priests to their study groups to share and discuss spiritual insights. What I think is really important to acknowledge, is the enormous legacy of books and letters they left behind.
What's also little known, is that the Beguines had their own bible. It was called The Book of Hours.
The Wisdom of the Beguines by Laura Swan is a fantastic book that presents the histories of many important Beguines who lived at those times.
Some of them you might even know; Angela of Foligno (commonly known as a devoted Franciscan), Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Genoa, Hildegard von Bingen, Héloïse, Marguerite d’Oingt and Gertrude of Helfta.
Pictures: Catherine of Siena, Héloïse and Hildegard von Bingen.
Swan’s research and travels to many of the places mentioned in the book, makes it a really interesting read. However, it also colours the book to some degree, in that Laura Swan is a Benedictine Sister herself.
When the religious and political system became dangerous to their way of life, many Beguines decided to join one of the two monastic traditions of that time; the Benedictines and the Cistercians. Swan’s own spiritual beliefs and connections to the Beguines is therefore not hard to miss - but it only makes the book better.
Pictures: Brugge, Belgium
Other historical commentaries and resources often describe the Beguines as non-religious. However, both Swan and other historical resources agree that the Beguines remained completely independent, both economically, spiritually and socially. Their very foundation was based on their outstanding talent as business women. The Beguines were, in fact, the first feminist movement in Christian history.
As a final note, I just want to mention that there has been raised several questions as to whether this movement was connected to the Cathars. As far as we know, there seems no evidence of such a connection.
If you would like to learn more about these fascinating women and their lives, I'd to invite you to you watch the documentary below and read Swan's wonderfully written book.
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