The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement
Hardback: Bluebridge, 2014
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Reviewed by Michelle Wilbert
In this well researched, accessible, and highly readable short history, Laura Swan, professor of religious studies at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington, has opened the door to an exploration of a little known spiritual movement that flourished in the medieval period across Europe. Notable for its vigor, clarity of vision, and vocational integrity, it is made remarkable by the singular fact of gender: this was a woman’s movement that aspired to provide its members with real options at a time when virtually none existed. It gave women ownership of their spiritual development and expression, a considerable level of economic and social independence, and a passionately expressed sense of community and purpose.
Beguines were not nuns, although they were committed to religious life; they lived in community – embracing the familiar foundations of simplicity and chastity – and provided a startling array of ministries to the towns and villages where they established themselves: teaching, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for orphans, widows and other women in need or those rejected by society for failing to meet the established norms of church and community. They were robustly successful businesswomen, primarily in various handicrafts – at which they excelled, often forming their own guilds – and in real estate, where they bought, sold, and rented properties; they were bookmakers and illustrators, responsible for some of the most beautiful prints and illuminations of their day and credited with painstakingly copying and providing books to people who would otherwise never have had them long before Gutenberg invented his printing press.
This economic self-sufficiency allowed them to choose their own ministries as they were entirely self-supporting and thereby created for themselves a virtually unprecedented degree of freedom and independence. They were mystics devoted to a life of prayer and contemplation, but they were “contemplatives in action,” to quote the early Jesuit, Jerome Nadal (1507-1580), their ministries animated by a highly individualized interior spiritual guidance that provided the infrastructure for their lives and work. They were particularly committed to providing ministry to the most vulnerable in society: the poor, women and children, the ill and infirm, the aging and dying. They struggled through accusations of heresy and persecution by the Inquisition, although – astonishingly – very few were ever convicted or martyred.
Beguines have existed in regionally distinctive ways from the 13th century to the present day—even before the death of the woman known as the “last Beguine,” Marcelle Patten, who died in Bruges, Belgium, in 2013, young women across Europe had become Beguines, living alone and in small, informal groups, such that the interest in this community of devout, socially conscious and committed Christian women seems be an evolving, spiritually vigorous and lasting movement. Within that context, a rather fascinating religious and social phenomenon of the medieval era has left enormous guidance and gifts to the church of our day. This fine book is a worthy addition to the library of anyone seriously interested in searching for fresh inspiration from the past for new directions for the church and the world.
The narrative structure of the book is compelling and well organized with an easy and readable pace. Professor Swan’s introduction followed by the subsequent chapters devoted to outlining the various structures, ministries and spiritualities of the Beguine movement is wonderfully animated by her own curiosity and desire to examine her subject more closely – even intimately – seeking to bring the Beguine movement out of relative obscurity, while hoping for – and finding –a complexity and relevance fascinating in its own right and highly adaptable to the post-modern church. There are few well-articulated “women’s movements” within church history, and to find such a powerful and yet charmingly warm and accessible example of it within the context of the medieval church, culture and society is startling and her own delight in this discovery shines on every page. The writing is most compelling when she shares anecdotes about individual Beguines – and there are many such; if there is a shortcoming in this book, it may be found in the overabundance of names, dates and short vignettes which can be momentarily overwhelming and a bit confusing– yet one feels not only her enthusiasm but her love for these women, and her distinct pleasure in being able to introduce them by name to a world that had forgotten them, and to enable herself, and others, to get to know them as women and spiritual companions.
A focus on the mysticism and mystical practices of individual Beguines permeates the stories and could be unsettling, especially to those unfamiliar with medieval religious history. Stories of stigmata, physical levitation during prayer and other pronounced examples of religious fervor were considered proofs of holiness and spiritual depth in contemplative prayer and were often accompanied by systematic and vigorous acts of self-abnegation and physical and emotional “penance” and these examples can be hard to read and comprehend. It seems clear through these narratives that such practices and experiences were avidly pursued by Beguines as they strove for divine union with God, and in some cases, the extreme nature of both the pursuit and practice can give rise to a certain incredulity, but is an inescapable fact of medieval religious belief that cannot be sidestepped without insult to the integrity of the work. The essential spiritual nature of Beguine commitment was fervent, passionate, almost erotic—again, well documented within medieval religious history as a primary objective to professed, vowed religious life but never or only rarely considered the province of lay people who could not be considered reliable mystics. To the credit of the author, she is gentle in her observations and frugal with her commentary as she narrates this aspect of Beguine spirituality, presenting the facts as they are and leaving any further analysis or evaluation with the reader.
While there is much in this valuable book to guide the Christian community today – a commitment to intentional Christian community; a focus on core Gospel values of inclusivity; care of the marginalized in church and society; equality and justice; prayer and contemplation – the real gift may be in its use as an adaptable guide to a fully empowered, spiritually vibrant and nonhierarchical women’s movement within the church. While women have made strides in ministerial roles and church “leadership,” the church continues to function as a largely patriarchal structure evincing little or no example – beyond the newly reinvigorated Beguine movement of central Europe – of groups of women freely choosing a lay but communal way of life, a locus of ministry and livelihoods chosen and earned entirely in support of the community and its ministries. While this book does not extend into the implications of adopting or creating such a movement in the post-modern church, it offers 800 years of Beguine spirituality and ministry that is far too valuable to set aside unexamined. There is much to recommend about this women-centered spiritual resource of the middle ages, and we read this book as history only at our spiritual and cultural peril for the concept is not simply interesting, it is beguiling in the best sense of the word—imagine the possibilities and implications of a reinvigorated Beguine movement! This lovingly written book of admirable and thorough academic, historic, and spiritual narrative and insight is a treasure and an access point to a deep well of wisdom and renewal.
Michelle Wilbert is Spiritual Director at Taproot: Spiritual Direction for the Contemplative Life; writer and poemcatcher.