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United by social commitment in France, Italy, Germany, and the USA

The return of the Beguine

 Il ritorno  delle beghine  DCM-004
01 April 2023

The Beguine have returned. Today, they are scattered throughout the world and reliving the sororal and community experience that characterised the movement at its beginnings in the Middle Ages.  In Saint-Martin-Du-Lac (France), lay and consecrated people have formed a monastic community dedicated to helping the needy. In the Roman suburb of Tor Bella Monaca (Italy), a group of former nuns is engaged in the recovery of families entangled in drugs and social distress. In the United States, the Companions of Claire, led by a woman who once belonged to the order of the Poor Clares, help farmers do business locally.

These people are Christians who, like the historical Beguines, choose the freedom of experiencing faith without the need to take vows. Women who are no longer young, who make concrete the need to interweave a sisterhood and for this reason they live under the same roof, and are united by the living mission of a social commitment. A commitment that is also feminist, such as the new German Beguines in Essen who promote help for the sick, or the French Beguines in Montreuil who are united in a community that is also a retirement home where Christian spirituality is ecumenical and shared.

These examples flourish, quietly, and reawaken interest in the Beguines who were never an order and never had a rule or foundress, although they took the vows of chastity, obedience and poverty. They were anarchic but never heretical, the Beguines began to appear in 1200 in Flanders and the Netherlands and then spread to Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy where they took on different names according to the different places: humiliate, papelarde, mulieres religiosae, devotae. They neither got married nor became nuns; they were the first case in history of a women's movement freed from male domination, as Silvana Panciera recalls in her Le Beghine [Beguines]. Una storia di donne per la libertà [A Women’s Story of Freedom], which Gabrielli has republished after 10 years in a new revised and expanded edition, with a preface by the scholar of speculative mysticism Marco Vannini.

For the medievalist Raoul Manselli, they were responsible for the “second evangelisation of Europe” thanks to their mission in urban contexts. One of them, the Belgian Isabelle Duvit, opened the continent’s first public school in Brussels; and they were the first Beguine nurses in Europe where their presence was favoured inside the city hospitals called the “hotel-dieu” that took in the sick, the homeless and prostitutes.

Yet even today the term Beguine, with its obscure etymology or perhaps because of the beige cloths they wear, brands a woman as unhappy and bigoted. It is the semantic residue of an independence that has attracted the malice of the ecclesiastical hierarchies and burgomasters over the centuries. After all, they did not know how to label these women who were determined to follow a different life from everything that was socially codified up to that time. Indeed, the Beguine demonstrated that above all the first freedom was economic freedom. They did not have to ask anyone for money, as they lived off their own labor, earning from their weaving, teaching, and accompaniment of the sick until they passed away. 

Their freedom was also actualized in their choice to live in the Beguinage, which were neat little houses and particularly widespread throughout the Netherlands and Belgium. These Beguinage changed the architectural layout of many urban settings, for their communities were protected by walls with a door that was often closed at night to keep out aggressors but also, symbolically, to reaffirm the purity of the Beguine who chose a lifestyle that for centuries was considered irregular. Within those new buildings for women, the devotee lived soberly, but not in poverty. The occupants dedicated the hours of the day to work and apostolic commitments. The oldest of the Beguinage, which are still intact, can be visited in Leuven (Belgium), the area according to historians where the Beguines first appeared. In the 13th century in Belgium alone, they made up 6% of the population with 126 communities. In 1321, the huge number of 200,000 were counted throughout Germany. Many were “missed wives” because of the Crusades that had drained young people from Europe to the borders of the Ottoman Empire. Others were too poor to become nuns, since families still had to donate a dowry to the convents. Therefore, they remained at home or lived in small groups of three or four, in a new family format that sometimes included mystical or ascetic forms, as the Beguines of the first centuries felt the wave of spiritual renewal that swept through the Church, while foreseeing the jolts of the Protestant Reformation. While much of the history of the Beguines is still uncertain, it is clear that their presence often provoked the irritation of the ecclesiastical hierarchies. The Inquisition condemned more than one of them to the stake for heresy and witchcraft. The most famous was Marguerite Porete, a Frenchwoman, a highly cultured woman who, according to some sources, translated the Bible from Latin into the vernacular and left behind a book that was only found in the mid-20th century and attracted the attentions of the Church court at the time. Porete was recognised as “irregular”, theologically deviant and therefore invited to appear before the Parisian ecclesiastical judges. Because she refused, she was burnt alive in the French capital in 1310. Clement V excommunicated the entire Beguine movement in the early 14th century. Yet they did not disappear; in fact, quite the contrary. Moved by faith, courage and realism - in the words of scholars Weyergans and Zenoni - they continue to exist today as hidden yet living roots.