“Beguines” Reconsidered:
Historiographical Problems and New Directions


Jennifer Deane

University of Minnesota, Morris



Beguines perplexed their contemporaries. Deemed of indeterminate and therefore suspect status – neither obviously lay nor religious, neither permanently wives nor nuns – these single spiritual women of medieval Europe posed an organizational problem to the Church which is now routinely characterized in the words of the Franciscan Friar Gilbert of Tournai in 1274: “There are among us women whom we have no idea what to call, ordinary women or nuns, because they live neither in the world nor out of it.”1 The anxious friar’s uncertainty about how to characterize and interpret such figures was not unique, for clerical observers routinely struggled from the thirteenth century on to define and regulate beguines. Of particular importance was the women’s ambiguous relationship to the traditional poles of secular life and formal orders: neither typically domestic nor officially monastic, such women organized and occupied a sociospiritual space often troubling to ecclesiastical authority. Thus, as Carol Neel argued in her groundbreaking 1989 study of beguine origins, “thirteenth-century description of [beguines]…often centers on what they were not, rather than what they were.”2

Strikingly, however, Neel’s observation also applies to modern descriptions of beguines. Although enormous strides have recently been made in our understanding of late medieval religiosity and the spectrum of female contribution and participation, there is a lingering scholarly tendency to force the widespread, multifaceted and enduring phenomenon of “beguine” or female lay religious life into a binary model based primarily on its relationship to the medieval Church and institutionalized orders.3 Identified in such models by the “absence” of structured hierarchies, “failure” to join an existing order, and “lack” of formal monastic discipline, beguines tend still to be categorized in terms of the singularity of what they were not, rather than the spectrum of what they were.

Yet the rich complexity and diversity of such lay religious women has to date garnered relatively little sustained acknowledgement or treatment, a consequence of several developments within the field. First are the considerable regional and linguistic divisions which have isolated scholarship on lay female religiosity in Dutch, German, French, Italian and Spanish and other contexts. Second is nomenclature, a major point of confusion that has prompted historians for over a century to debate hotly the origins and meaning of the vexed term “beguine.”4 Medieval contemporaries also struggled with the label’s ambiguity, for “beguine” was employed not only as a neutral or positive signifier but also (and more famously) as a smear word. Moreover, local terminology as well as the self-designations of lay religious women in diverse communities across medieval Europe reveal significant flexibility and overlap: for example, the names for such women in Germany range from “beguine” to “sister,” “poor sister,” “rule sister,” “spiritual sister,” “holy woman,” “tertiary,” “virgin,” “widow,” “recluse,” even “nun” and more, apparently transforming in response to specific local practices and historical pressures.5 Despite this variety, however, the term “beguine” is still too frequently presumed to have a stable or exclusive meaning.

The third historiographical problem is the scholarly tendency to adopt and perpetuate the medieval clerical assumption that beguines are defined by their contrast with enclosed women: in this model, the beguine is first and foremost a “non-nun.” Yet this negative construct cannot adequately contain the rich range and diverse local contexts of female lay religious women in the Middle Ages, and so it is time to revisit the known sources, to scour archives and libraries for those yet unknown, and to pose critical new questions. What evidence do we have for how such women understood their own identities, interests, and opportunities? To what extent were they and their communities influenced by local social, economic, political, and spiritual networks? In turn, what strategies and tactics did they employ to assert their own local interests and agendas? What kinds of variation do we find in lay female religious communities across time and place, and what convergences or parallels? How might closer study of lay religious women’s communities illuminate the socio-spiritual landscape of late-medieval Europe? And how ought scholars build on existing scholarship to map in more nuanced detail the conditions and contexts shaping “beguine” lives?

In order to provide a starting point for new conversations and analyses, this essay surveys the historiography of beguine studies across regional and linguistic boundaries, synthesizes some of the most relevant new research on medieval female religiosity, and proposes some alternative questions and possible research directions for the field. Due to the centrality of regionalism to beguine studies, I have organized the historiographical material by geography: first, the formative influence of research findings from the Low Countries; second, an overview of the lesser-known French, Spanish, and Italian contexts; and third, a brief survey of the massive German corpus of scholarship on Beginen.

Before considering the past, however, a quick note about the present: academics are not the only ones currently reconsidering beguines. A wave of popular interest in these lay religious women is currently sweeping Europe and the United States, and single women from many walks of life, both religious and secular, have been forming 21st-century beguinages based (to greater or lesser degrees) upon the medieval model, albeit with significant variations in occupation, structure, and purpose. The American Beguine Community, for example, is “creating a beguine model for today,” with a community consisting of married, widowed and single women who follow various Christian religious traditions.6 Some live in a common house or “beguinage” while others live at home, and a priority is placed upon service and outreach to the larger community. Similarly, the Beginen Köln and Dachverband Beginen offer alternative models for community living in the 21st-century based on their understanding of the medieval Beginenwesen.7 The Dachverband Beginen reports modern beguine communities in thirty-two German cities, as well as in parts of Austria and Switzerland; its preamble emphasizes the independence and economic self-sufficiency of medieval beguines as a model for contemporary women seeking autonomy.8 While the intriguing revival of “beguinish” life across cultures tell us more about modern contexts than medieval communities, it is an intriguing development that underscores the need for a corresponding revitalization of beguine scholarship.

What is a beguine?

Although it is difficult to generalize about such a broad, diverse and enduring phenomenon as that of medieval female lay religiosity, a cursory overview may be useful if paired with the qualifier that the characteristics described below are offered more as an orientation to the topography of medieval female lay piety than as a description of any particular house or as representative of any particular city, land or region. To put it another way, to offer a richer understanding of the field, communities and regions will need to be mapped according to their own spiritual, social, economic and political coordinates. With that caveat, however, one can reasonably state that women called “beguines” first appeared on the medieval religious scene in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, emerging first in the Low Countries and parts of southern Germany. A sudden and yet highly localized phenomenon, different types of communities quickly cropped up across Europe soon (and for centuries) thereafter as part of a vibrant new striving among Christian laypeople to live according to the apostolic model of chastity, poverty, and simplicity.

By the end of the High Middle Ages a multiplicity of possible roles existed which offered greater flexibility and activity --as a “beguine,” tertiary or penitent, member of one of the large dissenting or reforming movements, or a locally variable combination of the above. As unmarried or widowed women living either alone or, more frequently, in communities ranging regionally from one or two to hundreds, such lay religious women embraced apostolic ideals and usually simple (as opposed to solemn, or canonically binding) vows to a life of poverty, chastity, humility and obedience. Of particular importance to the women and to their lay and clerical supporters was their prayer life: beguines were petitioned or even required in statutes to pray for their benefactors, and in some communities the daily prayer cycle was structured along lines similar to monastic schedules.

Plainly garbed in clothing evocative of nuns’ habits, they typically supported themselves and served the town or village through their labor – often weaving, spinning, performing domestic chores such as cleaning and laundry, tending the sick, or caring for the bodies of the deceased before burial.9 Individual houses usually had their own locally written rule or statute, usually based on a monastic exemplar, which stipulated the specific discipline and function of the community. Because of the women’s combination of both active and contemplative pious service, commentators frequently invoked the story of the sisters of Lazarus in Luke 10: 38-42 when discussing the beguines. In this passage, Jesus chastises Martha for her busy-ness and tells her that Mary has the better part, yet among northern beguines and their supporters, it is the active Martha who seems most appealing and instructive. The mistress of German beguine houses was frequently called a “Martha,” for example, and scholars have in recent years have begun to explore the biblical text more deeply for its relevance to active female medieval piety.10

While the ideals of chastity, poverty, simplicity and service were not in themselves controversial, a problem lay in the question of who possessed the right to enact them. Medieval clerical and lay leaders strove for centuries to maintain proper ordo, that fixed hierarchy of regulated estates and roles, in which women’s place was scrupulously circumscribed.11 As single women, beguines were deemed sexually and socially dangerous by ecclesiastical elites because of their proximity to male confessors and/or men in the secular sphere; beguine communities could thus become a highly-charged presence in the cities of northern Europe.12 As Christian women, moreover, whom the Church typically sought to channel into the irrevocable institutions of either marriage or monasticism, beguines represented to some an alarmingly unauthorized and disturbingly temporary way of life. Clerical contemporaries such as Friar Gilbert were thus distressed by the sense that beguines willfully located themselves in sociospiritual territory that spanned, and thus threatened to dissolve, the ideologically crucial barriers defining female status. Due to the medieval concern for female sexual purity and its powerful cultural significance, beguines were sometimes mockingly associated with prostitutes (the only other publicly visible non-monastic community of single women) or as hypocritical “loose women” more generally.13

Thus in an era which powerfully defined feminine identity and status in binary terms (married vs. single, religious vs. lay, and regulated vs. unregulated) the manifold socio-religious niches inhabited by such women were theoretically challenging; thus such women were increasingly assigned the negative portion. Clerical contemporaries frequently depicted beguines as the antithesis of the increasingly organized and administratively centralized monastic orders over the course of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, and were particularly perturbed by the women’s apparent lack of supervision. Their amorphous canonical status could offer beguines greater liberty and mobility than their monastic sisters, but it also made them more vulnerable within both their local communities and Christendom more broadly.

Particularly after the issuance of Pope Boniface VIII’s bull Periculoso in 1298, which formally proclaimed that the status of female religious required both solemn vows and cloistering, and decrees from the Council of Vienne (1311-1312, published 1317) which sought to suppress unauthorized beguines,14 lay religious women across Europe endured periodic, sometimes fierce, and usually locally-driven waves of persecution over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.15 That the label beguine became increasingly – but not exclusively – a derogatory term after the early fourteenth century further complicates its use as a tool of historical analysis.16 Yet the extent and influence of beguine persecution should not be overemphasized: many communities across the continent experienced no such criticism or condemnation, and the phenomenon of a richly populated spectrum of female lay religious continued to (and in some cases beyond) the sixteenth century.

Interpretive Frameworks

By the early 20th century, the foundations of beguine scholarship had already been established by Johann Lorenz Mosheim’s monumental volume De Beghardis et Beguinabus Commentarius, published posthumously in 1790.17 In 1910, after a century-long hiatus in the scholarship, Karl Bücher built on Mosheim’s characterization of beguine sisterhoods as pious circles offering mutual protection,18 explaining the beguines as unmarried overflow urban craftswomen who banded together for essentially social and economic purposes.19 From this perspective, beguines were viewed primarily as “not-wives.” Shortly thereafter (1912-14), Joseph Greven approached the problem of “surplus” women differently, interpreting beguines as would-be nuns who were unable to gain entry into an order, as “nuns manquées.”20 Here the movement’s very origins were characterized in terms of failure of an essentially traditional religiosity: beguines as “not-nuns.”

In 1935, Herbert Grundmann proposed the groundbreaking thesis of a specifically female religious movement during the Middle Ages, a classic argument which has powerfully informed the intervening decades of research.21 Yet he also asserted in the first sentence of the study that “all religious movements of the Middle Ages achieved realization either in religious orders or in heretical sects,” a point of view that effectively renders invisible the many enduring, non-heretical communities of beguines across northern Europe.22 Moreover, Grundmann adopted Greven’s model of the beguine essentially as an unsuccessful nun, a point against which John Freed would briefly but significantly argue forty years later.23 Thus the early emphasis in the field was on origins over development, on the monastic model over new forms, and on heresy rather than piety.24

North American scholars briefly picked up the research thread mid-century, first with the publication in 1941 of Dayton Phillips’ influential but now dated study of the social and economic context of beguines in medieval Strassburg,25 and second with Ernest McDonnell’s major 1955 study of beguines (“with special emphasis on the Low Countries”).26 McDonnell’s monograph was expansive, detailed and unsurpassed in its breadth and interpretive sophistication – so much so that it effectively quashed rather than fostered additional research. In 1989, Carol Neel provided an important new interpretive path by challenging the historiographical emphasis on beguine “spontaneity” and difference, and drawing attention to continuities and parallels between beguines and their earlier monastic sisters.27 No significant English-language volume on beguines would appear for nearly a half-century after McDonnell’s study, although a variety of short articles and book chapters continued to appear.28

At the turn of the 21st century, two significant publications appeared that both signalled, albeit in different ways, a shift in interpretive frameworks. First was a broad collection of essays published by Brepols in 1999 clustered around the topic of the early spiritual women of Liège and their impact, both historical and historiographical.29 Ranging from theological treatments to localized studies of piety and practice, and from gender analyses of medieval perception and modern reception of beguines to the specific consideration of individual women, the volume embodies a multiplicity of perspectives and approaches. The contributors explicitly engage with Grundmann’s construct of a women’s religious movement that emerged around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and explore numerous perspectives on lay female religiosity in the Middle Ages– not only geographical (Swedish beguines!), but devotional, literary, metaphorical, poetic, professional, representational, and theoretical. In its inclusiveness across traditionally segmented topics and approaches, the volume provides an interesting model for future studies.

The second crucial contribution to the field was Walter Simons’ Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1250 – 1565; published in 2001, it was the first major monograph on beguine life to appear in English in nearly fifty years.30 In contrast to the variety of the Brepols volume, Simons’ focused study offered an exhaustively researched account of beguine life in a single region (the Low Countries). Of particular significance was his analytical extension beyond the issue of “surplus women” in marriage or monasteries, evaluating the beguines instead as representing both a lay religious status and form of urban social expression.31 Moreover, his treatment of the contemplative and active poles of lay female religiosity is thoughtful material that will, along with his rigorous methodology, doubtless prove applicable beyond the walls of the local curtis beguinage into scholarship on far-flung communities across continental Europe.32

The Low Countries

A major barrier to inclusive histories of female lay religious has been the regionalization of scholarship both across and within national boundaries of the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy and Spain. To place Simons’s research and that of other modern scholars in context, let us take a brief survey of historiography by region. Particularly influential has been the long tradition of scholarship on beguines from the northern and southern Low Countries, and most notable in historiographical terms is the work of L. J. M. Philippen.33 In his 1918 study, Philippen tackled the issue of change over time and articulated a narrative of beguine development that identified four separate and sequential stages of growth. While this sequence was based specifically upon his observations of communities in the Low Countries, Philippen’s model has proven a pervasive feature of beguine historiography, routinely but inaccurately assumed standard for “beguines” across the map.

Of the four stages identified by Philippen, the first was of the beguinae singulariter in saeculo manentes, or individual women living piously in their own homes or with their families.34 This form of life was followed by a communal second stage in which the women came together in small congregationes beghinarum disciplinatarum that were increasingly overseen by clergy and perhaps a female mistress. Characteristic of this second stage is the blending of community activities – shared contemplative devotion as well as joint participation in local parish life.35 Philippen’s third stage of beginae clausae is characterized by withdrawal from the secular world into an enclosed court (curtis), although these were often established around a hospital so that the women could continue to provide charitable Christian services.36 During this crucial transformation, beguinages became institutions whose modi vivendi were shaped by the locally-variable rules and statutes, and lent authority by a certain degree of papal approval.37 The final stage, or culmination of the model, was the formal incorporation of the beguine court into the Church as an autonomous parish.38

Several problems abound, many of which have been articulated by Walter Simons. First is that of terminology and the influence that a historian’s invention can wield over the topic: Philippen found the terms beguinae singulariter in saeculo manentes and congregationes beghinarum disciplinatarum in a mid-thirteenth-century episcopal document and anachronistically applied them back to the early years of the beguine phenomenon.39 As Simons put it in his critique of the model, Philippen’s “use of Latin terms for the ‘four stages’ wrongly created the impression that his classification reflected distinctions made by contemporaries and was sanctioned by the Church.”40 Second, recent scholars have objected that the institutionalized parish was not necessarily the culmination of beguine development – that there is nothing inevitable or “natural” about either the stages themselves or their chronological relationship to one another.41 A final problem is not inherent to Philippen’s model, but rather in the way in which it has been broadly applied. For example, large and organized beguine courts were virtually unique to the Low Countries, rarely appearing in France (outside of Paris), Italy, the Rhineland or other German lands; however, the uncritical adoption of the four-stage model has obscured this fact by characterizing smaller houses not as different forms of life, but as immature specimens of the courts which “failed” to grow. As a result, the specific variations and contexts of other regions have been overlooked, or awkwardly positioned as equivalent in order to fit the model, thus masking the real variety and complexity of forms in which lay female religiosity could and did manifest across Europe.42

The early beguine phenomenon in the Low Countries has significantly shaped the historiography in yet another way, in that certain of the women themselves have come to possess almost iconic status as a model or prototypical beguine against which all other forms appear lesser, even deviant. For example, the story of the Brabant beguine Mary of Oignies (1167 – 1213) is a staple in the literature, particularly her heroic marital chastity, work with lepers, and final withdrawal to the contemplative life.43 Crucial to her influence then and now was the patronage of Jacques de Vitry, canon regular, bishop of Acre, cardinal, papal legate, and Mary’s friend and biographer. In 1233, for example, Jacques (who had succeeded seventeen years earlier in eliciting verbal approval of such “pious women” from Pope Honorius III) persuaded Pope Gregory IX to issue the bull Gloriam virginalem, which provided the first official recognition of, and grant of protection to, the “chaste virgins of Teutonia.”44 And through his Life of Mary of Oignies, his words of support for her way of life ring down the centuries:

With what zeal did they [holy women] preserve their youthful chastity and they armed themselves in their honourable resolve by salutary warnings, so that their only desire was the heavenly Bridegroom. Widows served the Lord in fasts and prayers, in vigils and in manual labour, in tears and entreaties.45

While Jacques de Vitry never used the term beguine, Mary’s life has taken on the status of a standard of chastity, poverty, service and “irregularity” against which subsequent women called beguines would come to be compared. Jacques himself later described the female lay religious vocation in terms evocative of Mary’s example: “[W]e see many who, scorning the riches of their parents and rejecting the noble and wealthy husbands offered them, live in profound poverty, having naught else but what they can acquire by spinning and working with their hands, content with shabby clothes and modest food.”46 However, the relevance of her experience to “beguines” of other regions and ages should not be overstated – to put it another way, Mary is an important example of the early modus vivendi and its influence in northwestern Europe, but her life does not become an exclusive or necessarily prototypical model for women in other regions.

Similarly potent in historiographical terms have been the early and powerful mystical writings of northern “beguines” such as Hadewijch, Mechtild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete. The visionary experiences and literary abilities of such women have rightly garnered sustained scholarly attention, work that has proved invaluable to our knowledge of medieval literary and religious thought.47 Yet it has also served to link inexorably the categories of “beguine” and “mystic,” although the vast majority of such women likely never experienced such revelations and certainly never put pen to parchment in an attempt to describe them. In other words, to identify the executed mystic Marguerite Porete of Paris as a “beguine” is accurate, according to contemporary sources, but not particularly informative about either her context or that of other women associated with the beguine life.48 One must resist following inquisitors into a careless conflation of beguine and mystic (or beguine and heretic), or a groundless assumption of uniformity of belief and practice where there is none.49

French Béguines, Italian Bizzoche, Spanish Beatas

Marguerite Porete was not alone in her status as a French beguine, although the sources on women’s lay religious life in France are neither as abundant nor as thoroughly attended to as those of the Low Countries.50 A handful of scholars since the late nineteenth-century briefly considered the beguinages of notable cities such as Paris, Reims, and Besançon;51 more recently, Bernard Delmaire has uncovered archival evidence for beguine houses in more than twenty towns in northern France,52 and Penelope Galloway has examined the powerful influence of female patrons on beguinages and the extent to which feminine involvement in such communities extends beyond simple membership.53 Further pursuing the complexity of beguine status and meaning in the French kingdom, Tanya Stabler Miller has recently analyzed the various rhetorical strategies to which Parisian clerics put the ambiguous category of “beguine” to use, demonstrating its polyform instructive value for elite French clergy in their sermons to male and female listeners.54

The beguines of southern France are also receiving long-overdue treatment, though much work remains to be done in this geographical area and on the broader spectrum of female lay religiosity in the Mediterranean.55 Once again, the terminology perplexes. While there were indeed organized communities of women dedicated to chastity and prayer called “beguines” in southern France, the corollary term “beguin” (or “beguine” for the feminine) was also used in this region to designate lay supporters of the Spiritual Franciscans, followers of the thirteenth-century theologian Petrus Johannis Olivi who advocated strict poverty for the order.56 Historians to date have treated the northern beguine communities and southern beguin(e)s largely in isolation, insisting that they are manifestations of significantly different contexts and cultures and thus essentially unrelated phenomena.57 However, the term “beguin” was used early on to designate pious laity connected with the Franciscans, a characterization certainly applicable (although the mendicant affiliation might vary) to many lay female communities throughout central Europe.58 The association of the southern beguins with dissent is indeed an important and intriguing aspect of medieval lay piety;59 however, the southern French women’s particular focus on the cause of the Franciscan Spirituals and the poverty controversy should not prevent scholars from considering them more broadly with their orthodox lay religious sisters both locally and to the north.60 The fact that contemporaries chose to use the construct “beguin/e” for both northern and southern women is of interest, if only to point once again to the tremendous variety and flexibility inherent to the label. In other words, acknowledging the problem of nomenclature and the variety of “beguinish” manifestations does not mean we should neglect the search for regional or temporal commonalities.

The Italian version of the beguine phenomenon (termed bizzoche or pinzochere) has periodically been investigated as well, though regional, cultural and linguistic variation has effectively kept the scholarship segregated. In 1984, Romana Guarnieri first suggested connections between transalpine beguines and Italian bizzoche, noting the only partial relevance of Philippen’s model of beguine development for Italian communities.61 In 1987, Joyce Pennings followed Guarnieri’s lead by examining communities (case sante) in late-medieval Rome and highlighting the vast potential for research considering the broad spectrum of female lay religiosity.62

The 1990s witnessed a blooming of scholarship, both in Italian and English, on “beguinish” communities. In 1992 and 1994, Katherine Gill published important articles on women’s religious communities in late-medieval Italy, a major contribution of which was to critique positivist notions of clausura and to illuminate the variety of means by which bizzoche and pinzochere developed authority through active service and negotiated papal exemptions.63 In contrast, Mario Sensi’s detailed analysis of the bizzoche of Umbria and Marche represented a crucial, archivally-based contribution to Italian scholarship that appeared in 1995;64 one year later, Daniel Bornstein and Roberto Rusconi edited a collection of essays with the specific purpose of bringing finely-researched Italian studies of medieval and early modern female religiosity to the attention of Anglophone scholars.65 Bornstein’s introductory essay on the history and historiography of late-medieval Italian female piety provides a useful orientation to current scholarship, and the volume represents an important step towards breaking down geographical, linguistic, and methodological divisions in the field.66

Although from a slightly later period, the topic of beatas in late-medieval and early modern Spain offers some intriguing parallels and correspondences to medieval beguines. Similarly isolated linguistically and geographically, beatas were a widespread phenomenon of Spanish cities in both individual and communal manifestations (beaterías).67 According to a 17th-century observer, a beata was a woman in “in religious habit who, outside of a [religious] community and residing in her own house, professes celibacy and leads a retiring life, praying and doing works of charity.”68 The subsequent missionary transplantation of such women into colonial Latin America also merits notice: in an intriguing passage which could just as easily refer to fourteenth-century European “beguines,” for example, Jacqueline Holler reports that the institutional position of lay religious women in sixteenth-century Mexico City was “problematic from its inception” and the beatas themselves deemed “inherently troublesome” by clerical authorities.69 By the late 1530s, and remarkably akin to their sisters in Europe two hundred years earlier, such women were “viewed with suspicion by bishops who came to believe that true convents staffed by professed and enclosed nuns were the solution to the problem presented by the beatas.”70 Thus, despite the variations inherent in beguines, bizzoche or beatas, there appear crucial continuities and commonalities in the experience of lay religious women which demand further consideration across both temporal and geographical divisions.

Das Beginenwesen in Germany

The corpus of scholarship on beguines in German-speaking lands is massive, although little of this rich material has emigrated beyond linguistic and geographical barriers. Because the two dominant English-language monographs on beguines (McDonnell and Simons) both focus on communities in the Low Countries, Anglophone readers remain largely unaware of the extensive populations of such women in other parts of Europe, particularly in the German-speaking lands between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries.

German historians are not to blame for this perceived lacuna in the field, for scholars of das Beginenwesen have been extraordinarily productive over the past century, drawing upon deeply localized archival research to produce an enormous bibliography exceeding 300 books and monographs on over 600 individual communities.71 Nearly every German-speaking city and town with documented beguine houses has its historian(s), such as Johannes Asen and Letha Böhringer for Köln,72 Brigitte Degler-Spengler for Basel,73 Martina Spies for Frankfurt,74 Brigitte Hotz for Hildesheim,75 and Sigrid Schmitt for Straßburg.76 Cities such as Basel and Strasbourg have also received particular attention for local anti-beguine inquisitorial activity from scholars such as Alexander Patschovsky and Sabine von Heusinger.77 Beyond such urban centers, however, regional studies of beguine life in German lands also represent a significant proportion of the accrued scholarship, ranging from Eva Gertrud Neumann in the Rhineland78 to Günter Peters in the north,79 Brigitte Degler-Spengler in Switzerland,80 Ernst Manfred Wermter in Prussia,81 and Andreas Wilts in the area of Lake Constance.82

Wilts’s study of the region around Lake Constance is a particularly illuminating contribution, as his research stretched the spectrum of “beguine” or lay religious woman in several important ways: first, his discovery of isolated hermit beguines in rural locations challenged the prevailing characterization of such status as a primarily urban phenomenon;83 second, his emphasis upon the emergence of German beguine life as early as the 1210s, and plausible connections between southern German beguines and northern Italian lay religious such as the Humiliati, calls into question the northern origins of the German Beginenwesen;84 and third, his depiction of local nuns as “frustrated beguines” with shifting conceptions of the desired blend of vita contemplativa and vita activa offers a fascinating inversion of the tired historiographical depiction of the latter as foiled wives and would-be nuns (beguines manquées?).85

However, the rich archival foundation of German scholarship has otherwise yielded surprisingly little broad geographical synthesis or diachronic interpretive analysis. In 2001, Frank-Michael Reichstein attempted to span the gap by publishing an ambitious collection of source material pertaining to beguine communities across medieval Germany, including extensive registers of beguine foundations, statutes, and mendicant affiliations.86 While Reichstein offers a first attempt to synthesize the experience and meaning of beguine life across Germany, however, his text leans more toward the descriptive than the analytical, does not engage with the problem of beguine terminologies and identities, and offers no sustained consideration of regional differences and distinctions. Thus while the registers and source materials are a valuable contribution, he does not develop a convincing alternative framework.

In fact, the purpose of Reichstein’s volume was not to offer a nuanced and novel approach but rather to counter and critique a certain wing of German feminist scholarship on beguines that promoted the “Emanzipationsthese” or “Emancipation Thesis.” During the 1980s, scholars interested in women’s history and feminist interpretations of medieval material found in the beguines an enticing vision of sisterhood and alternative community – in fact, the same perceived qualities of beguine disobedience, self-determination, and irregularity which so threatened medieval clergy drew approval from many historians engaged in the 20th century struggle for women’s rights. According to the Emanzipationsthese, beguines were part of a self-consciously female, purposely independent movement with little to no secular or clerical oversight – figures who served as positive models of women rejecting patriarchal domination and regulation, or “women without a rule.”87 One example of many is the vivid claim that the “independence of the Beguine movement from clerical leaders or overseers distinguished it from all other Christian groups of the time. Beguines had sought no one’s permission to be chaste or thoughtful, and their virtue was not enforced by obedience to their family or religious head.”88

As appealing as this image may be, however, the sources tell a different story. One of the only common threads binding diverse “beguines” across time and space was concern for their socio-economic and spiritual supervision – a concern that was not only imposed but also internalized and self-initiated. The myth of beguine independence once again reflects medieval clerical anxieties more than historical realities: not only were such lay religious women never free of jurisdiction and oversight (for example, all were subject to the authority of their parish priest, and a headmistress who was herself overseen by male supervisors), but there is scarce evidence to suggest that they sought or even conceived of such independence. What the sources do point to are a kaleidoscopic array of local contexts, of social matrices, in which beguines negotiated and to which they contributed. The many intriguing examples of conflict or tension with patrons, pastoral figures, family, neighbors and so forth indicate a far more complex constellation of motives and interests than simple independence, and it is this very variety and elasticity that requires further treatment. While it is not useful to consider beguines as proto-feminists (as most feminist scholars today would likely agree), there is however a real need for the application of new and critical feminist methodologies within the field.

New Directions: Local Identities, Negotiated Disciplines, Permeable Boundaries

What, then, is one to do with the perhaps awkward but certainly overdetermined category of “beguine”? No single or simple solution will do, so let us pick up some new questions along the many stimulating new paths recently charted in medieval religiosity, cultural history and gender studies. First, we can consciously and consistently acknowledge the limitations of the label “beguine”, accepting the ambiguity as historically accurate and appropriate, and further exploring the flexible meanings and experiences of lay religious women. Wilts, for example, points us back to the impossibility of defining “beguines” as such when he casually acknowledges in a footnote that, despite the book’s title (Beginen im Bodenseeraum), none of the women are called beguines in his source material.89 A sampling of over thirty statutes and house rules for German communities of lay religious women between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries reveals that contemporaries called such women not only beguine, but also poor woman, willing poor, sister, poor sister, soul sister, rule sister, spiritual sister, and sometimes simply virgin, widow or woman – in many cases, various combinations of the above appear even within the same document.90 Since women themselves frequently shaped the content of even such normative documents as house rules, there is work to be done here. How did such lay religious women identify themselves and their socio-spiritual roles? How did naming patterns for such women vary and shift, and why?

Second, we can transcend the binary of “good” and “bad” beguine whose legacy has so long distorted the field, and recognize the divergence of opinion even within the medieval ecclesiastical hierarchy. In her analysis of canonical perceptions of beguines, tertiaries and other lay religious women, for example, Elizabeth Makowski deftly dismantles the myth of ecclesiastical uniformity and consistency. Demonstrating how contradictory and uncertain were even the most formal of ecclesiastical positions and terminologies, she further shows how elite techniques of research and writing (medieval, early modern and modern alike) have inadvertently contributed to the ultimate dominance of a negative view of beguines.91 Makowski’s scholarship is a crucial contribution to the field, objectively analyzing the canonical, ecclesiastical, elite, formal, and official within its proper historical context and tracing the complex ways in which competing understandings of beguines circulated and transformed over time.92

Recent scholarship on monasticism also offers some powerful new critiques and perspectives on the apparent opposition of official and unofficial which are particularly relevant to the issue of female lay religious practice and status. For example, Giles Constable reminds us that while the twelfth-century policies of adherence to an established rule and membership in a specific order certain certainly reflected a desire for institutional uniformity, in practice “it was never very effective in preventing the proliferation of many forms of religious life. . . nor did it seriously hinder the recognition and acceptance of diversity by most churchmen.”93 In her provocative study of the “invention” of the Cistercian Order, Constance Berman further explores this gap between theory and practice and challenged both the method and assumptions of much prior scholarship on the order’s history. While controversial, her book raises important questions about the meaning of community: put simply, what does it mean to say that a monastic order exists?94 As reviewer Elizabeth Freeman elaborated, “Does it only exist when it leaves documents in the archives? Does it exist in the day-to-day practices and rituals that leave no written trace? Does it exist in the buildings, in the work, in the prayers, in the charity? Does it exist when a group of people such as women try to live according to their vision of a given monastic custom, only to remain absent from official records?”95 Such questions should also prove relevant to studies of the formation and meaning of communities such as beguinages which do not adhere to traditional and formalized institutional models. In her own research, Freeman has usefully demonstrated how the arbitrary scholarly division between “formal” and “informal” communities (of “nun” and “not-nun”) within the Cistercian order has obscured the extent to which medieval women productively formed communities and actively joined themselves to orders, an observation that may be usefully harnessed to the study of lay female religiosity as well.96

Another productive avenue of investigation lies in lay religious women’s spiritual programs, routines and disciplines, a topic that has arguably been overlooked due to the repeated classification of beguines as “irregular” and as “women without a rule.”97 Maiju Lehmijoki-Gardner’s recent discovery of the active involvement of Italian Dominican penitent women in writing their own rule of observance, for example, provided an illuminating new perspective on female strategies and agency in crafting an orderly religious life.98 In a slightly later period, Katherine Gill has cogently demonstrated the multiform strategies employed by pious Italian women to avoid, adapt, embrace or emend clausura and other official regulations.99 And in the French context, Sean Field has thoughtfully analyzed the process by which Isabella of France negotiated and designed a rule for her community of sisters.100 A crucial assumption underpins such research: that cases of female spiritual discipline, order and regularity must not be dismissed as always or inevitably the consequence of imposed male authority. Critical scholarship demands recognition of all the historical possibilities for women, including active female desires for structure, institutional affiliation, organization, and pastoral care.101

New approaches to the bonds between lay religious women and their ecclesiastical brethren are also underway, particularly in the arena of female strategies for pastoral care. Fiona Griffiths, for example, offers a compelling new perspective on the cura monialium or spiritual care of women via her investigation of the pastoral relationship between Héloise and Abelard.102 In contrast to the traditional scholarly representation of the cura as a burden and source of resentment among medieval clergy, Griffiths’ textual analysis reveals that Abelard not only viewed the cura as a positive element central to his own redemption and that of other religious men, but also that Héloise and the women of the Paraclete themselves were actively involved in and concerned about the quality of their pastoral care.

Thus the prevailing view of the cura monialium as a binary system consisting of passive female and reluctant male is being replaced by a more dialogic and dynamic model, a corrective that will also prove useful for addressing the wide variety of pastoral relationships between clergy and religious women (whether regular or secular).103 Questions to be explored in local contexts include: who provided pastoral care for beguines? Were these relationships requested by the women, imposed, or negotiated through different strategic interactions? To what extent do we find tension or competition between secular and regular clergy over pastoral relationships? What evidence do we have of beguine preferences for certain pastoral characteristics? And in what circumstances do such choices become overtly political?104

In evaluating beguine pieties and practices within their socio-spiritual networks, we also need to consider the permeability of boundaries traditionally regarded as unbreachable: between regulated and unregulated women, between Latinate and vernacular female authorship, or between women of different modi vivendi and orders. Bruce Venarde, for example, has drawn our attention not only to the existence of a “vital culture of female religiosity” beyond cloister walls in the tenth and eleventh centuries, but also the circumstances in which it directly inspired or incubated later conventual female religious communities.105 In her research on German convent chronicles, Anne Winston-Allen has uncovered long overlooked writings by nuns and other religious women which include reflections back to their “founding beguine mothers,” texts which not only demand attention to the historical meaning of lay religiosity for medieval women, but which also force reconsideration of the relationship between women, reform, and monastic observance in the later Middle Ages.106 In keeping with Lehjimoki-Gardner’s interest in female religious strategies, Winston-Allen argues that one misrepresents the past by overlooking either the passionate conviction that some women brought to Observant reform or the equally passionate determination of others to resist it.107 Moreover, official membership in orders was not a requirement for involvement in or relevance to reform: for example, Michael Bailey recently analyzed the central role played by German beguines in the formation of diverse, even contradictory, Dominican notions of reform, religiosity and the vita apostolica.108 There is thus more to “beguine” space and status than has yet been explored, and the relationships (both smooth and rocky) between sisters and brothers of various sorts are a rich topic for exploration.

Finally, we need to map a new geography of medieval female lay religiosity with tools that allow detailed attention to diversity, variety, and change over time. By shifting from traditional binary oppositions (lay/religious, irregular/regular, informal/formal) to a framework of intersecting and overlapping spectra, we can begin to incorporate both the local and regional, both the synchronic and diachronic. For example, the spheres of active and contemplative piety as interpreted by beguines, is likely to prove a more productive analytical tool for exploring the women’s various desires, choices, and experiences than the clerical constructs of “official” and “unofficial.” For example, while the mistress of German beguine houses was usually called a "Martha" in explicit reference to her active Christian role, the beguines of Paris and southern France seem to have been drawn more to Mary and the contemplative mode – a spiritual resonance frequently expressed in terms of devotion to the Virgin.109 How, then, did lay religious women interpret and engage in active and contemplative piety in their own lives? From what models did they draw, and why? And to what extent was their navigation of these realms determined by gender, since women’s experience of public and private must have distinctively shaped their own geographies of piety?110

Continuities and transformations across chronological and regional boundaries also merit further attention. Challenging the relevance of the medieval/early modern divide for lay religious women, for example, Craig Harline’s study of the relationship between active and contemplative religious women in the Low Countries provides a useful model for re-evaluating the extent to which service-oriented Catholic female religiosity survived and even thrived beyond the fifteenth century.111 Wilts, too, has revolutionized our understanding of both the early origins of “beguinish” life in German lands, as well as variation across urban and rural landscapes, and the transformation of such phenomena over time. Moreover, his intriguing observation of the early emergence of such communities in the region around Lake Constance undermines the notion that the phenomenon emerged first in the Low Countries and traveled south via the Rhine; this important new knowledge should provoke new reflection on the regional connections between northern and southern lay religious women.112 In the northern regions, important parallels have been drawn between the Devotio Moderna and beguine phenomenon, particularly the Sisters of Common Life,113 and more work certainly remains to be done here. After all, Jacques de Vitry himself “thought the Humiliati of Lombardy, and the first Franciscans of Umbria...were related in their hearts to the pious women of the Netherlands, Germany, and Northern France.”114

These are only a sampling of studies whose findings and methods should pave the way for future work, challenging the prevailing and often inadequate categorizations of female religious status and experience. Medieval clergy and modern historians alike have hitherto emphasized the “betweeness” of lay religious women, painting an oversimplified image of contested middle space between binary opposites (wife and nun). However, this two-dimensional framework does little justice to the manifold local choices, conditions, and contexts of medieval lay religious women and their communities. Rather than continuing to privilege the categories of elite medieval clergy, therefore, let us instead adopt new methods for exploring “beguine” lives and develop richer models for representing them in all their complexity, depth, and dimensionality.