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Title: Beguines  
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Subject: Catharism, Dominican Order, Inquisition, Medieval Inquisition, Jacques de Molay, Free love, Christian mysticism, Bernard Gui, John of Ruysbroeck, Jacques de Vitry
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For the style of music, see Beguine (dance).

The Beguines /bəˈɡnz/ and the Beghards /bəˈɡɑrdz/ were Christian lay religious orders that were active in Germany and the Low Countries in the 13th–16th centuries. Their members lived in semi-monastic communities but did not take formal religious vows.[1]

They were influenced by Albigensian teachings and by the Brethren of the Free Spirit, which flourished in and around Cologne at the same time but was later condemned as heretical.


Over the centuries, the etymology of Beguines has been the subject of some controversy. By 1911 the Encyclopædia Britannica concluded that the name derived from Lambert le Bègue, a priest of Liège who around 1170 preached the establishment of an association of women devoting themselves to a life of religion without taking the monastic vows. Opponents of Bègue's idea called these women Beguines. The Encyclopaedia dismissed derivations from Saint Begga and from an imaginary old Saxon word beggen, "to beg" or "to pray".[2] In the course of the 20th century, some writers suggested that Beguines was derived from Albigenses.[3] Encyclopedias, when they mention this latter explanation at all, tend to dismiss it.[4]


At the start of the 12th century, some women in the Low Countries lived alone and devoted themselves to prayer and good works without taking vows. At first there were only a few of them, but in the course of the century, their numbers increased. This was the age of the Crusades, and the land teemed with widowed women [reference required] —the raw material for a host of neophytes. These single women tended to live on the fringe of towns, where they attended to the poor. About the beginning of the 13th century, some of them grouped their cabins together to form a community, called Beguinage.

The Beguines were not nuns; they did not take vows, could return to the world and wed if they chose, and did not renounce their property. If one was without means, she neither asked nor accepted alms, but supported herself by manual labour, or by teaching the children of burghers. During the time of her novitiate, she lived with "the Grand Mistress" of her cloister, but afterward she had her own dwelling. If she could afford it, she was attended by her own servants. She was bound to her companions by having the same goals in life, kindred pursuits, and a community of worship.

They had no mother-house, nor common rule, nor common general of the order; every community was complete in itself and fixed its own order of living. Later many adopted the rule of the Third Order of Saint Francis. These communities were varied in terms of the social status of their members; some of them only admitted ladies of high degree; others were exclusively reserved for persons in humble circumstances; others again opened their doors wide to women of every condition, and these were the most densely peopled. Several, like the great Beguinage of Ghent, numbered their inhabitants by thousands. Douceline of Dinge (ca. 1215-74) founded the Beguines of Marseille; her vita, which was composed by a member of her Beguine community, sheds light on the movement in general.[5]

This semi-monastic institution was adapted to its age and spread rapidly throughout the land. The women influenced the religious life of the people. Each of these institutions was a centre of mysticism, and it was the Beguines, the Beghards, and the sons of Saint Francis who shaped the thought of the urban population of the Low Countries. There was a Beguinage at Mechlin as early as 1207, at Brussels in 1245, at Leuven before 1232, at Antwerp in 1234, and at Bruges in 1244. By the close of the century, most communes in the Low Countries had a Beguinage, whilst several of the great cities had two or more.

As the 13th century progressed, the women tended to become mystics and relied less on their own labour, often turning to begging instead. In some cases, this shift toward mysticism caused problems for the Beguines. For example, Marguerite Porete, a French Beguine and mystic, was burned at the stake in Paris in 1310 by civil authorities (heresy was against state law at that time). She was condemned by the Church for heresy and accused of being a Free Spirit. She was finally condemned and executed for reasons that are still not entirely clear. One reason may have been her refusal to remove her book The Mirror of Simple Souls from circulation.

By the 14th century, some communities were absorbed by monastic and mendicant orders. Others developed into flagellants or other practices considered heretical. In 1311, Pope Clement V accused the Beguines of spreading heresy. They were suppressed under John XXII, Urban V, and Gregory XI. They were rehabilitated in the 15th century by Eugene IV.

Most of these institutions were suppressed during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century or during the stormy years of revolutions and social unrest of the French Revolution. A few convents of Beguines persisted until the early 20th century in parts of Belgium, including those of Bruges, Lier, Mechlin, Leuven, and Ghent, which last numbered nearly a thousand members in 1905.

Marcella Pattyn, the last traditional beguine in the world, died on 14 April 2013 in Kortrijk at the age of 92. Born in the Belgian Congo in 1920, she was accepted into the beguinage of St Elisabeth at Sint-Amandsberg, Ghent in 1941, and moved to the beguinage of St Elisabeth at Kortrijk in 1960, where she became one of a community of nine.[6][7][8]

The community of the Amsterdam Begijnhof, credited with having considerably influenced the development of what was the city's southern edge in the late Middle Ages, survived the Reformation as staunchly Catholic. Their parish church was confiscated and given over to exiled English Puritans. The last Amsterdam Beguine died in 1971,[9] but the Begijnhof remains one of the city's best-known landmarks.


The widespread religious revival inspired several kindred societies for men. Of these the Beghards were the most widespread and the most important. The Beghards were all laymen, and like the Beguines, they were not bound by vows, the rule of life which they observed was not uniform, and the members of each community were subject only to their own local superiors. They held no private property; the brethren of each cloister had a common purse, dwelt together under one roof, and ate at the same board.

They were for the most part men of humble origin—weavers, dyers, fullers, and so forth—they were closely connected with the city craft-guilds. For example, no man could be admitted to the Beghards' community at Brussels unless he were a member of the Weavers' Company. The Beghards were often men to whom fortune had not been kind—men who had outlived their friends, or whose family ties had been broken by some untoward event, and who, by reason of failing health or advancing years, or perhaps on account of some accident, were unable to stand alone. If, "the medieval towns of the Netherlands found in the Beguinage a solution of their feminine question", the growth of the Beghard communities provided a place for the worn-out workingman.

The men had banded together in the first place to build up the inner man. While working out their own salvation, they remained mindful of their neighbours and, thanks to their connection with the craft-guilds, they influenced the religious life. They are credited with shaping the religious opinion of the cities and towns of the Netherlands for more than 200 years, especially for the peasant.

Relation to the Church

According to John of Ruysbroeck, their religious and political opinions were similar to those expressed by anarchists of later centuries. Religious authorities believed their members had heretical tendencies and sometimes tried to bring disciplinary measures against them. The Synod of Fritzlar (1259), Mainz (1261), Eichstätt (1282) brought measures against them; and they were forbidden as "having no approbation" by the Synod of Béziers (1299). They were condemned by the Council of Vienne (1312), but this sentence was mitigated by John XXII (1321), who permitted the Beguines to resume their mode of life after reform. The Beghards were more obstinate; during the 14th century, they were repeatedly condemned by the Holy See, the bishops (notably in Germany), and the Inquisition. The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges that men of faith and piety were found among the Beghards. In their behalf, Gregory XI (1374–77) and Boniface IX (1394) addressed Bulls to the bishops of Germany and the Netherlands. The doctrine of Quietism is believed to resemble the stance of these community members.


Before the close of the Middle Ages, Beghard communities were in full decline. By 1631 they retained only 2,487 members. Their numbers diminished with the waning of the textile trade, and, when that industry died, gradually dwindled away. The highest number of such medieval foundations in Flanders and Wallonia was 94, but in 1734 they had been reduced to just 34, and in 1856 to 20. Over the period of nearly two centuries, between 1631 and 1828, their membership had decreased to 1,010.

Second wave

The historian Jean Hughes Raber defined a second wave of the Beguine Movement occurring in the 17th century, when it was supported by Archbishop Mathias Hovius. His involvement included helping improve the Great Beguines at Mechelen. Raber says there was no clear end to the Second Movement. He suggests that Catholic lay movements, such as those of Dorothy Day in the United States, the Company of Ursula, and communities of women initiated by Francisca Hernandez can be seen as extensions of the Beguines into the 20th century.

Third wave

Raber suggests the Beguines' response to social and economic forces in the 12th century offer a model that can meet current conditions: economic uncertainty or worse, single women comprising a larger section of the population, loss of wealth in the form of deflated values of housing. He notes a California-based group, the American Beguines, as an example of revival of the Beguine Movement, with notable but not necessarily problematic differences.[10] In the last decades, a new beguine movement arose in Germany.[11] Recently, the Beguines of Mercy were founded in Vancouver, Canada. It is a contemplative, secular order of educated Catholic women, whose roots are in spiritual community. Their affiliations are good works, quiet contemplation and living out their spiritual values.[12]

Literary references

In his multi-volume novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767), Laurence Sterne has his character Corporal Trim describe a Beguine.[13]

In Charlotte Brontë's 1853 novel Villette, Beguines and a Beguinage are mentioned in Chapter 17, "La Terrasse."

Françoise Mallet-Joris's first novel was Le rempart des Béguines (1952) (published in 2006 in a new English translation as The Illusionist). The title is the name of the street where Tamara, a courtesan, lives apart from the bourgeois society of Gers, a fictional Flemish town.

In Umberto Eco's 1980 novel The Name of the Rose (1983 in English), the Beghards are frequently mentioned among the heretical movements which the Inquisition is persecuting.

Bernard Cornwell in his 2003 novel Heretic has a character, Genevieve, who is a condemned Beguine heretic rescued by the main character, Thomas of Hookton.

Karen Maitland in her 2009 novel The Owl Killers portrays a group of Beguines in the fictional early 14th-century English village of Ulewic.

See also



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Further reading

  • BURNHAM Louisa A., So Great a Light, So Great a Smoke. The Beguin Heretics of Languedoc, Cornell University Press, 2008.
  • SCHMITT Jean-Claude, Mort d'une hérésie. L'Eglise et les clercs face aux béguines et aux béghards du Rhin supérieur du XIVe au XVe siècle, Paris-La Haye-New York, Mouton-E.H.E.S.S., 1978.
  • SIMONS Walter, Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565, Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2001.
  • THÉRY Julien,'Inquisitio contre Rixende, fanatique du XIIIe siècle' : la copie d'un document perdu des archives de l'archevêché de Narbonne par le Minime François Laporte (BM Toulouse, ms 625, fol. 73-83, vers 1710), in L'archevêché de Narbonne au Moyen Âge, dir. Michelle FOURNIÉ, Daniel LE BLÉVEC, Toulouse : Presses universitaires du Mirail (Collection Méridiennes), 2008, p. 63-90.
  • DE CANT Geneviève, MAJÉRUS Pascal & VEROUGSTRAETE Christiane, A World of Independent Women: From the 12th Century to the Present Day: the Flemish Beguinages, Riverside: Hervé van Caloen Foundation, 2003.
  • MACDONNELL Ernest W., The Beguines and Beghards in Medieval Culture: With Special Emphasis on the Belgian Scene, New York: Octagon Books, 1969.
  • REICHSTEIN Frank-Michael, Das Beginenwesen in Deutschland, Berlin, 2001.
  • VAN AERSCHOT Suzanne & HEIRMAN Michiel, Les béguinages de Flandre. Un patrimoine mondial, Brussels: éditions Racine, 2001.
  • VANDENBROECK Paul, Le jardin clos de l'âme. L'imaginaire des religieuses dans les Pays-Bas du Sud, depuis le 13e siècle, Brussels-Ghent, 1994.
  • NEEL, Carol, The Origins of the Beguines, Signs, 1989.
  • MURK-JANSEN, Saskia, Brides in de Desert: The Spirituality of the Beguine, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998
  • PETROFF, Elizabeth Alvilda, Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994

External links

  • Chambers, Ephraim. p. 95
  • CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Beguines, Beghards
  • Marygrace Peter's article on Beguines
  • Articles exploring Beguines, their spritiuality and current relevance.
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