Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaint. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (I Peter 4:8-11)
The Beguines were groups of women who exemplified the Christian characteristics here spoken of by the apostle Peter. These groups of devout women began forming over 800 years ago (12th Century) in the Low Countries and spread across Europe. They were not nuns but groups of women committed to living and worshipping and working together to follow Christ by deepening their own faith and serving the poor.
The Beguines did not take vows but made their own rules. They were all encouraged to read and study. They were expected to support themselves. Some came with rich inheritances that they shared with everyone. Others learned trades, especially in the cloth industry.
Beguines came from every social class – nobility and aristocrats, middle class and merchants, widows, daughters of knights, urban poor and rural poor. They spanned all ages, fourteen to eighties or beyond. They were self-supporting and independent.
The Beguines were known for their deep spirituality. Their communities, known as “beguinages” could be single homes or compounds set up as small communities complete with hospitals, churches, businesses, farms, and homes. These were safe places for women to live, earn an income, and minister without interference. The picture on the right is a typical Flemish beguinage.
Beguines were passionate about their ministry. They were good business women, active in their communities and sought to use their income to help the poor. They grew their own food and raised sheep and made their own garments. A few were involved in banking and trade. Many were called as “preachers” to reform the corrupt Church.
Some Beguines lived among the lepers but most Beguines concentrated on having an infirmary in the beguinage. This was their most important building. Poor women and children and the sick and homeless could be brought to the infirmary for their care. In the infirmaries the ones brought in could receive shelter, food, medicine, religious fellowship, and some were even taught a trade or other business so that they could move on and live self-sufficiently. Young girls were rescued from prostitution and taught a trade so that they could live a new life free from exploitation.
The independent lifestyle of the Beguines helped them to work with the poor and marginalized without having to be under the control of local bishops or noblemen. They did not want to be like the nuns who were often not allowed to leave the cloisters. The Beguines wanted the freedom to choose to work among the poor in their own way. They were wise enough however to travel outside of the beguinage in groups of two or more for reasons of safety and protection of their reputations.
Besides caring for the poor, many Beguines also served as preachers, actors, and writers. Beguines were not preachers in the formal sense, but like preachers they brought the Word of God to the spiritually hungry and destitute. Beguines believed that there is a Heaven and a Hell and they were passionate about rescuing sinners from Hell. They knew that their acts of mercy to the poor to aid them physically was pleasing to God, but they also knew that this life is finite. Along with physical comfort must come the preaching of the Gospel. This the women did wherever they went.
Another type of preaching the Beguines engaged in was in the form of criticizing the corrupt Church. During the Middle Ages the hierarchy of the Church became very selfish and opulent. High offices were bought not earned. The funds from the sale of the offices enriched the pope and allowed him to live in luxury that did not seem right for the “shepherd” of God’s sheep. Illiteracy and debauchery were rampart among the clergy. Many Beguines called the church leaders back to a holier life.
Because the Beguines did not preach formally, they turned to other ways to share the Gospel. One of these ways was through drama. Going to plays was a favorite pastime during the Middle Ages. The Beguines took advantage of this. They reenacted the life of Christ before large audiences. In this way they could “preach” to the people encouraging them to repent of their sins and turn to God and then to live better lives.
We are fortunate to have an outstanding collection of the writings of the Beguines. They wrote autobiographies, mystical treatises, tracts, and many letters to friends and followers. They wrote poetry. Some also wrote music to set their poetry to.
A few Beguines did write books, but many just put their various writings into collections. Some had friends who would record their words and deeds. Copies were made and passed around. Most of the Beguines treasured their Psalters, a book used for private prayer that included the Psalms and other portions of Scripture.
The Beguines were sometimes accused of being heretics. There were many reasons for this. Often their mystical writings were misunderstood. As long as the writings were not completely against the Church’s teachings the Beguines were left alone. But the Church leaders were angry when the Beguines taught the people that they did not need an intermediary but could have a personal relationship with God on their own. This went against the Church’s teaching that a priest was always needed for people to approach God. The Beguines often met and prayed together without priests and this angered the Church officials. The Church at that time considered their belief heresy, but today most Protestants would agree with the Beguines.
Unfortunately, some Church and civil leaders were envious of the Beguines – and lusted after their property, their successful businesses, or their large following of people. It was not unusual to declare a group of Beguines heretics and seize their property and turn the women out in the cold or force them into cloisters. Several Beguines were burned at the stake, later to be exonerated.
Another attack came from the town guilds. The Beguines produced excellent cloth, for example, and sold it at a reasonable price. This was too much unwanted competition for the guilds who would try to get rid of the Beguines on trumped up charges of heresy. The guilds could find themselves unsuccessful because the Beguines were good citizens and paid the taxes on their income. The town officials came to depend on the taxes paid by the Beguines and would let them continue their businesses.
During the French Revolution the Beguines were nearly annihilated when the government seized all of their property. Many Beguines were tortured and killed along with thousands of other priests and nuns during the attack on the Church.
No matter how many attacks came against the Beguines, they managed to survive into the twenty-first century; the last “traditional” Beguine, Marcella Pattyn, died in 2013. It is unfortunate that this simple, happy, and useful way of life has come to an end.
The Beguines left us a great legacy. We have preserved for us beautiful art work, songs, poetry, and writing. Most of all the Beguines gave us an example of serving Christ by helping the poor and marginalized. They showed wisdom, courage, and strength as they worshiped God as they felt called. They would have been great in any century!