Thursday, July 14, 2022

The Beguines Begin

Christianity inspired many different approaches to life: some became canons regular (parish priests), some joined monasteries or convents, some became mendicants (wandering monks/preachers), some chose to be hermits, and some decided to simplify their lives in a way that they deemed more "Christ-like."

In the early 1100s, some women in the Low Countries (where the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg are now) began devoting themselves to a simplified life of prayer and charitable work. They did not take formal vows of poverty or obedience as nuns would—though they embraced chastity—and there was no compulsion to remain in their chosen lifestyle, if for some reason they decided to change.

The trend among women grew, however, until in the following century it was apparent that this was a movement that stood out among towns and villages. Many women would move to be near each other, forming communities for mutual support. Local clergy would point to them as exemplars of Christian behavior. Jacques de Vitry even appealed to the pope to recognize them formally.

These groups never gained formal recognition by the pope, but local churches encouraged the behavior, even help establish the communities, called beguinages after the name Beguine. (The origin of "Beguine" is unknown; a theory that it came from a priest named Lambert le Bègue, "Lambert the Stammerer" seems unlikely.) Some of these communities were huge: The Beguinage of Paris had 400 women, one in Ghent had thousands of members.

Eventually the Beguines fell out of favor, especially after the Council of Vienne; why that happened will be the subject for tomorrow.

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