Unhappy Choices: Factors That Contributed to the Decline and Condemnation of the Beguines2

by Kate P. Crawford Galea

Toronto School of Theology

Toronto, Ontario

Slightly before Francis of Assisi cast off his garments and embraced Lady Poverty, a movement of women in the Low Countries was metaphorically doing the same thing. Lay women of Germany and Belgium, later called beguines, also cast off wealth and honour, even social standing, to live the apostolic life of charity, poverty and prayer. St. Francis found ongoing ecclesiastical and public support for his new way of life. The beguines did not.

Why did the beguines not receive ongoing sanction for their style of life? In 1216 Pope Honorius III declared that they might live as they desired, but papal support was fleeting, and as the thirteenth century progressed, the beguines found themselves consistently on the wrong side of the legitimacy debate. Almost one hundred years later, in 1311, Pope Clement V would declare that most beguines were heretics. Although the movement would continue with diminished strength up until the French Revolution, and greatly reduced even to our own time, it may fairly be said that it had passed its peak by the mid-fourteenth century.

What happened? How could a popular movement wither and fade within the space of a little more than a century? We will explore some of the decisions taken by the beguines, the impact of their piety on their neighbours, and the charges of heresy laid at their door, to try and answer these questions. Will we agree with Gordon Leff in concluding that the history of this movement “is the clearest indication of the inability of piety to find an accepted institutionalised outlet”?3 Or will we conclude that the holy lay women of the Low Countries were denied institutional sanction because they challenged the social order? Were they victims or were they scapegoats?

The centuries following the Gregorian reforms of the church were alive with religious fervour. This was the period marked by the rise of the new religious orders, as well as by the rise of popular movements of lay piety.4 With the high religious feelings of the day and the Frauenfrage as background, it is not surprising to find women in the thirteenth century seeking to enter religious life in large numbers. Cîteaux was the principal beneficiary of the women's religious longing, but it could not accommodate them all. In 1219 the General Chapter of Cîteaux ordered that any new nuns had to be cloistered, and in 1220 it decreed that no new foundations would be incorporated into the order. Although this last injunction was lifted in 1228 it indicates the kind of measures being taken to try to limit the influx of women to what was the strictest of orders at the time.5

It should also be noted that the Cistercian nuns were required to bring a dowry to their community as they entered religious life. This “fee” would be prohibitive to any but noble women or their beneficiaries, and so even Cîteaux was closed to most women seeking religious life.

A new option had to be found, one that embraced religious ideals without the onerous financial demands of a Cistercian postulancy. Here we find the beguines. There is no date of origin, no saintly founder to point to for this movement. Quietly and in numerous places at once, holy women set their lives apart for the love of God. Any references we can find to the mulieres quae beguinae dicuntur imply previous existence.6

What early documents that can be found refer to mulieres religiosae or to virgines continentes, not to “beguines” as such. The movement was unorganised and localised in the cities, so that women living in different urban areas might not even know about each other. What becomes apparent is that the women who would later be known as beguines were creating a “medium vitae genus inter monasticum et saeculare.”7 Single women, widowed or virgins, simply decided to live a pious life. Under their own initiative they chose not to wear costly clothes, to give alms generously, to attend religious services usually twice a day and to set their lives apart for work, chastity and prayer.

The movement was originally enormously popular, both with the women for whom it provided a safe and pious lifestyle, and with the general populace, who saw these simple unprofessed parishioners as living out a genuinely committed vocation. An early Dutch tract in the Leiden library records the affection with which the women were held. It has made the Dutch word begijn an acronym for the Dutch words bride, simplicity, mercy, sincerity and humility.8 When later assessments turn against the beguines, it would be well to remember the esteem with which they were originally held.

The origins of this movement are not clearly understood. Some credit Lambert le Bègue, the priest of St. Christopher in Liège, with first drawing holy women into the vicinity of his church for support in holy living. Others claim Marie d'Oignies, a lay sister at the Augustinian priory in Oignies, as the one who provided the first charismatic focus for women wanting a new religious life. Marie had a passion for the “cure of souls” and surrounded herself with preachers and those concerned with spiritual direction. Because of her gender she herself could not preach but she became the mentor and motive force behind the career of another cleric, Jacques de Vitry.9 

De Vitry was a crusade preacher inspired by Marie's vitality and passion, and he soon became the patron and unofficial spokesperson for the mulieres religiosae at the papal court. In 1216, largely as a result of Jacques' supplications, Pope Honorius III confirmed that beguines living a common life could continue to do so, even though the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 had forbidden the establishment of new rules for religious life. The heart of de Vitry's argument was that “a valid vocation for want of dowry or material sources might not meet the requirements of an approved order.”10

In 1233, while de Vitry was still in Rome, Gregory IX also confirmed the communal life of the beguines in his bull Gloriam virginalem, but he was intolerant of the beguines who wanted to remain in the world. As a result, only enclosed beguines had papal support from this time forward.

The answer to our questions concerning the rapidly changing fortunes of the beguines lies in three key aspects of beguine life: clothing, poverty and employment. We will see that unhappy choices in each area put the beguines at risk of suspicion and censure.

Jean-Claude Schmitt, a French scholar, reminds us that in the Middle Ages “the individual was reduced in some way to his or her habit, because this stated publicly, in its style and colour, before any spoken word or written guaranty, that person's place in society and the nature of the privileges he or she held.”11

Fiery priests like Lambert le Bègue preached against abuses of clothing by clerics who refused to wear the appropriate habit. The beguines came dangerously close to abusing the powerful symbol of the religious habit, by approximating it in their daily dress.

In the earliest days there was no distinctive habit for the mulieres religiosae; however, the women must have dressed simply and humbly, as poverty was one of their virtues. The Cartulaire du Béguinage de Sainte-Elisabeth à Gant tells us that the women were “so poor that they have nothing but their bed and a chest of clothes.”12 We know that membership in mediaeval charitable brotherhoods might lead one to adopt plain clothing, so it would not have been unusual for the beguines to simplify their dress. The earliest records of the vestis beghinalis indicate that it differed only in colour from the attire of other townswomen, being plainer and perhaps beige or grey.13 Later records actually provide quite complex details about the women's clothing, indicating that, in some places at least, a habit had evolved, most likely for the women living together in beguinages. Schmitt records the following description: “on the head, a veil tucked into the cloak, and not floating free as is ordinary among women. Under the cloak, it was in effect sewn to the tunica superior which was a long frock falling to the heels.”14 This description was recorded in the context of a battle waged against the beguines by the Bishop of Strasbourg. On August 13, 1317, the Bishop of Strasbourg ordered that the beguines must change their manner of dress within three days or suffer excommunication. In particular, the beguines were to adopt “a little hood not sewn to the tunic.”

Strange as this order seems to us, we must understand it in context. The women's headgear was perceived to be too similar to that of particular groups, either nuns or married women, who wore loose veils, or tertiaries and other religious who covered their hair with a hood sewn to their cloak. The Bishop wanted to see them in bonnets or loose hoods not attached to their cloaks so that they were clearly not imitating women under vows. It was considered a grave offence to mimic or copy religious as this was perceived as “evidence of encroachment on monastic preserves without compensation from discipline and renunciation.”15

We should note the date of this altercation, August 13, 1317. The origins of the beguine movement are thought to be around 1175-1180. This is roughly 125 years later, and shows the marked decrease in public sympathy to the beguines that occurred over that period of time. Where once they were considered models of piety and simplicity, now they are greeted with suspicion.

When the beguine movement arose, there was a popular fascination with the vita apostolica. Francis of Assisi would embody this by literally disrobing in public, and later by demanding the right to be poor. The holy women of the northern countries also wanted the right to be poor, to follow the way of Jesus, the apostles and the early church. Most of the first beguines, like Marie of Oignies, were noble women who chose to give up their privileges in order to live simply. We know from real estate records that the women bought and sold their own houses, and women who left the life retained control of whatever property they had originally had.16 At first, being a beguine was an option for voluntary poverty. As time went on, though, the option became less and less voluntary, as the beguinages became essentially “poor houses” for otherwise destitute women. In the end, many of the beguinages were so poor that authorities had little reason to persecute them, as such action would yield virtually nothing in the way of confiscated property.17

As the thirteenth century passed into the fourteenth, as upward mobility replaced apostolic poverty, the earlier ideal became suspect. The beguines, now trapped in poverty by economic forces beyond themselves, found themselves defending and living by an out-dated virtue, apostolic poverty. Complicating this shift was the fact that the original beguines had begged in order to give alms to the truly poor. Begging had been seen as a religious vocation and mendicants swept over Europe crying “Alms, for the love of God.” This rash of beggars elicited a mixed response from the laity. Many responded generously, believing that almsgiving was a charitable work that benefited the donor in the economy of salvation. Some decried the mendicants, accusing them of living off the common good, of laziness and hypocrisy. As the value of work ascended in the public mind, the value of begging declined. As McDonnell describes it: “People began to ridicule the mendicant orders; alms which had heretofore been generously given were now refused; they were called hypocrites, successors of Antichrist, false preachers, flatterers and advisers of kings and princes ”18 The beguines were caught in this shift of public opinion, and where once they passed their alms on to others, by the end of the thirteenth century their own dependence on public charity laid them open to public charges of laziness and hypocrisy by association with the mendicant orders.

In the issue of employment, also, we find the beguines strangely vulnerable. Not all beguines depended exclusively on alms; in fact, those who lived in beguinages and curtes, autonomous parishes, had trades to support themselves. As income from begging declined, income from other sources became more important. McDonnell notes that in the Middle Ages at least 201 occupations were available to non-noble women.19 Of these several hundred, the beguines focussed on weaving, spinning, carding, sewing, nursing, mourning, and the education of young girls.

The fabric-related trades were starting to have guilds associated with them at this time. Female labour was forbidden in many guilds and restricted in all. Untrained labour was inadmissible. The beguines were obviously in a precarious position in these trades, as they were both formally untrained and female. The guilds were forming and defining themselves for much of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when the choice to enter fabric-related trades would have been made by the women. It must have seemed a sensible choice, as the northern countries were economically significant in this trade, and as the women could spin, card and weave in their homes.

By the fifteenth century we find the guilds taking action against the beguines. In Liège the beguines were forbidden to engage in business yielding more than ten marks.20 In Cologne in 1469, 1470 and 1480, the guild of silk spinners demanded the expulsion from its own ranks of any person who farmed work out to the beguines. At Basel, the beguines were confined to using the distaff instead of the spinning wheel, ostensibly to diminish noise, but Schmitt surmises that it was actually to limit their production.21 The beguines had been receiving tax privileges equivalent to those accorded religious houses, but the effect of the rules of restriction was to offset any benefit those privileges might have afforded. The association of the beguines with weaving took on a dangerous character as it became known that heretics predominated in that trade. Schmitt tells us that “traditionally heretics passed for weavers, the word 'weaver' even being synonymous with 'heretic.'“22

Compounding this unfortunate association, the beguines had chosen the name Martha to designate their superiors in the beguinage or the curtis. Martha, the biblical character, was being rehabilitated in this part of Europe at this time. She who had once represented the lesser way, the active life, was being adopted as a symbol of the goodness of manual labour. Meister Eckhart would preach favourably on Martha to beguines near Cologne. The Franciscans had “Marthas” in their order, although these positions were filled by males. Some heretics, though, also had Marthas - and these were female. It was this fact - the female Marthas of the heretics - which, combined with other suspicions noted above, worked against the beguines.23

We mentioned above the occupations chosen by the beguines, and have studied the tragic associations resulting from the choice of fabric-related jobs. We now look at official mourning and nursing.

It was a mediaeval custom that funerals should be accompanied by a “dole” to the poor. It seems that certain families would make donations to the beguines in town if they would accompany the body and distribute the necessary dole: “Each [beguine] bought a candle from the sacristan and fixed there one or more coins which she then offered to the poor attracted by the ceremony of the funeral.”24 In this way, the beguines became the executors of the necessary public charity associated with a funeral. This practice seems to have been fairly common, and probably a safe source of revenue for unskilled women. In Strasbourg, in the fifteenth century, the local preacher Geiler de Kaisersberg was forced to admonish his flock for neglecting their public duties and hiring the beguines to do their charitable work for them!

Obviously, the service was appreciated, but it was also dangerous, as over time it led to an association of beguines with corpses. It seems the beguines would also watch over the corpse before the funeral if requested, and questions started to be asked about what “liberties” the women might be taking with the bodies. It was widely felt that women's sexual desires were as strong as, if not stronger, than men's, and it was known that these women had neither spouses nor binding vows of chastity. Nursing would also be a career that would open the women to charges such as these, once suspicions had been aroused. In later days, when fears around witches were high, this association with corpses may also have fed suspicions of sorcery.25

We can summarise the areas of vulnerability in the life of a beguine: her clothing laid her open to charges of impersonating religious; her poverty and begging laid her open to charges of laziness, hypocrisy and living at public expense; her work with fabric put her in an antagonistic position with the guilds and gave her an unfortunate association with heretics; her official mourning and care of the sick encouraged suspicions around her sexual morality, perhaps even around sorcery.

The newest of the many theories on the origin of the word beguine is that it is a modified form of Albigensis.26 This would indicate that the word had heretical connotations from its origin, and some have made this claim. It seems to me unclear that the association with heresy goes back to the beginning of the movement, but it is incontestable that the two become conflated before long. We have seen above how their very occupations put the beguines at risk of this sort of identification. We will explore now how other factors led to the conclusion voiced by Pope Clement V in 1311 that beguines were heretics.27

What do we know about mediaeval heresy? In his book on the subject, Gordon Leff shows how heresy was actually in a sense “created” by society. Remembering the enormous outpouring of religious feeling at the time, and remembering that the Fourth Lateran council had forbidden new religious orders after 1215, we see that popular religious feeling had little creative outlet. Leff says that heresy “was an indigenous growth: its impulse was invariably the search for a fuller spiritual life, and it drew upon the common stock of religious concepts to implement it.”28

This “common stock of religious concepts” included poverty, humility, prophecy, vernacular translations of the scriptures, and union with God. The Franciscans tried to live the ideal of apostolic poverty - but only for a short while, and even then it had to be modified. The Waldensians translated the scriptures, but eventually they strayed too far and had to be condemned. The mystics pushed at union with God, and almost everyone toyed with humility in the early days. What made “heresy” out of “heterodoxies” was the official pronouncement of the Church. When the Church felt threatened, as it did when any of these concepts strayed into anti-clericalism, it laid charges of heresy.29

Already we can identify points of contact with the beguines: poverty; humility; anti-clericalism, in the sense that the women were lay and had no official rule; and mysticism, for some of them. We have not seen accusations concerning translated scriptures, but we will.

In 1274, Gilbert of Tournai contributed the Collectio de scandalis ecclesiae to the reform program of the Second Council of Lyons. In it he states, “there are among us women called beguines, some of whom blossom forth in subtleties and rejoice in novelties. They have interpreted in ordinary French idiom the mysteries of Scripture which are scarcely accessible to experts in divine writing. They read them in common, irreverently, boldly, in conventicles, convents and on squares.”30

The heart of this accusation is three-fold: rejoicing in novelties, interpreting the scripture in French, teaching in public. These are all serious charges, and it is hard to pick the worst from the standpoint of the Church. Certainly, the women had vernacular scriptures, but so did the Waldensians, who escaped censure for a while. The charge that seems to bear the most weight is that of teaching in public. The beguines had taken in young girls for education since the earliest days. The Cartulaire to which we have referred, frequently tells us that the beguines in Gant “are so circumspect in their manners and so learned in matters, that great and honourable people send their daughters to them to be brought up, hoping that to whatever state of life they are afterwards called, whether of religion or of marriage, they will be found better prepared than others.”31 No hint of heresy here, but of course, this assessment depends entirely on what the women were teaching those girls.

By the end of the thirteenth century, Southern European heretical groups had found their way to the Northern countries. The Spiritual Franciscans and the Cathari (Albigensians) are known to have gone north; and northern heretical groups like the Brothers of the Free Spirit and the Hussites were also at work. The beguines who wandered or lived alone might very easily slip into heresy simply out of ignorance, by listening to these very persuasive preachers. The beguines who lived in common were less at risk, but their “brothers” in the movement, the Beghards, were frequently teaching heresy by this time, and would have aroused little suspicion amongst the beguines whom they visited and directed spiritually.32

In 1311, Pope Clement V clearly condemned this sort of behaviour in Cum de quibusdam mulieribus: “it has been repeatedly and reliably reported to us that some of them [beguines], as if possessed with madness, dispute and preach about the Highest Trinity and divine essence and in respect to the articles of faith and the sacraments of the Church spread opinions that are contradictory to the Catholic faith.”33 That was the death knell for the movement. The beguines were charged with teaching heresy. In the same document the Pope “prohibit[s] forever their status and abolish[es] them completely from the church of God.”

Had the women been preaching? Had they been teaching heresy? The Pope certainly thought so, although he left a tiny loophole for beguines living lives beyond repute to continue in community. Some scholars think that the beguines were unjustly tarred with the brush of heresy which was being applied liberally by the curia in the northern countries.

Individual women certainly might have fallen under suspicion. In 1310, Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake in the Place de Grève in Paris, for teaching heresy.34 In 1366, Metza von Westhoven was condemned by Henry de Agro, inquisitor of Mainz, Bambert and Basel, for being a relapsed heretic.35 But did the whole movement stray? McDonnell and Schmitt both emphasise the confusion and passion surrounding heresy in these countries at the time. No one really knew much about the beguines. They had no official spokesperson, no rule, no order to protect them. They were poor, in trouble with the guilds, under suspicion in their public activities - and they were women without male protection. The evidence was simply too damning, and public sentiment had long ago turned against these conspicuously “holy” women, whose uncloistered simplicity might have seemed an affront to ordinary townspeople. When charges of heresy were laid against Marguerite and Metza, the whole movement paid.

Why did the beguines not receive ongoing papal sanction for their movement? We have explored the overt reasons for their marginalisation: their clothing, their poverty, their employment, their association with heresy. We have not touched on the subtler, and perhaps even more significant, issue of their challenge to the social order. “Many of their contemporaries regarded the beguines and beghards with alarm, even suspicion. They were a part of a vague world, indefinable, those who crossed borders, 'mixed' people, individuals and categories which were neither fish nor fowl.”36 This was an uncomfortable position to be in, in a society that had a role and a rule for every one. The beguines carved out a place for themselves somewhere between religious and lay. In our day, this position is occupied in various ways by the active women's orders, by oblates, friends of orders, Staff Associates, lay preachers, and missionaries. But this is many years later, and even now these roles cause some societal discomfort. The beguines had a vision of holy living that did not correspond with the categories available to them at the time. Perhaps their greatest crime was in challenging the categories themselves.

2 I would like to thank Phyllis Airhart and Paul Fedwick for their continued mentoring.

3 Gordon Leff, Heresy in the Later Middle Ages: The Relation of Heterodoxy to Dissent c. 1250-1450 (New York: Barnes and Noble; Manchester University Press: 1967) 21.

4 R.W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (London: Penguin, 1970) 214-271

5 Note that although foundations would be accepted after 1228, Cîteaux would take no responsibility for their pastoral care. Helfta was one of the convents to be accepted under this rule. Roger DeGanck, Beatrice of Nazareth In Her Context, Cistercian Studies Series 121 (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1991) 14.

6 Ernest W. McDonnell, The Beguines and Beghards In Mediaeval Culture: With Special Emphasis on the Belgian Scene (New York: Octagon Books, 1969) 5, 120.

7 McDonnell, 84.

8 De Deugden van ene goded Begijn,” McDonnell, 413.

9 Beguine Spirituality: Mystical Writings of Mechthild of Magdeburg, Beatrice of Nazareth, and Hadewijch of Brabant, ed. Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies, Spiritual Classics. (New York: Crossroad, 1990) 15-17. See also Elizabeth Avilda Petroff, Mediaeval Woman's Visionary Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

10 McDonnell, 6.

11 Jean-Claude Schmitt, Mort d'une héresie: l'église et les clercs face aux béguines et aux béghards, Civilisations et Société, 56. (Paris: École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 1978) 108. This translation and others from this text are mine.

12 Jean Bethune, quoted in McDonnell, 148.

13 McDonnell, p. 128. Speculative etymologies for the word “beguine” have also traced it to “beige” or to Old French li beges, meaning “one dressed in grey.”

14 Schmitt, 107.

15 McDonnell, 129.

16 Schmitt, 45.

17 McDonnell, 477.

18 McDonnell, 458.

19 He does not note the correlative number for men, which would be an interesting comparison (McDonnell, 84).

20 McDonnell, 84.

21 Schmitt, 48.

22 Schmitt, 101.

23 Schmitt, 101-103.

24 Schmitt, 46.

25 For the mediaeval understanding of women see Eleanor Commo McLaughlin, “Equality of Souls, Inequality of Sexes: Women in Mediaeval Theology,” Religion and Sexism, ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974) 213-266, 239. For use of corpses by witches, see Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic ([n.p.]: Penguin Books, 1971 [1984]) 274, 706. For a fuller discussion of sorcery as it relates to beguines, see Schmitt, 195-201. He notes that charges laid against the beguines during the Inquisition were those pertaining to heresy, and that charges laid against witches were of malefica.

26 See, for example, J. Van Mierlo, “Béguinages” in Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie écclesiastique 7, ed. Alfred Baudrillart, A. de Meyer and Et. Van Cauwengergh (Paris: Librairie Letouzey, 1934): 457-473, cols. 458-459.

27 Cum de quibusdam mulieribus,” quoted in McDonnell, 524.

28 Leff, 2.

29 Leff, 3, 7, 14.

30 Quoted in McDonnell, 366.

31 Quoted in McDonnell, 148, 149.

32 McDonnell, 412.

33 Quoted in McDonnell, 524.

34 Anne L Barstow, “Introduction” in Marguerite Porete, A Mirror For Simple Souls, ed. and tr. Charles Crawford, Spiritual Classics. (New York: Crossroad, 1990) 9.

35 McDonnell, 560.

36 Schmitt, 5.