Monday, August 22, 2011

Beguine(ing to look) a lot like Medeival Feminism

I have a confession to make. It may not be all that surprising. When I'm not obsessing over food, swinging from the rafters, engaging in asana, cleaning our apartment, or running errands, I'm delving through various texts, working my way inch by inch through the heavy-lifting part of writing a book: research. It is sometimes tedious, sometimes ludicrous, and just often enough, inspiring. For reasons that are unclear to me but I'm pretty sure are closely related to superstition, I'm going to keep any and all details under my hat for now, but for the sake of sharing some fascinating history with you I will divulge that at the moment I'm researching pre-schism Christian mystics. A working definition of a mystic is one who seeks union with God, literal and direct revelation of the Divine. Many mystics experience visions, ecstasies, and revelations, but these are generally considered beside the point. These are the people not content with tradition, not content with faith, which is not to say they lack faith. On the contrary, their faith is so strong, it awakens in them a hunger for more; the real deal! You may have heard of Hildegard of Bingen, or perhaps Thomas Merton. Even if you have no ties to Catholicism, I'll bet you know who St. Francis of Assisi is! These are all mystics.

Obviously it's beautiful to read about the lives and teachings of people so passionate about seeking the Divine in the midst of their earthly lives, but having worked my way from the Apostle Paul up to Meister Eckhart, I'm beginning to feel a little blase about the endless litany of 'turning inward, away from creation, suffering with Christ, cultivating virtue being only the beginning...' When that feeling sets in, I turn back a few chapters to the Beguines.

The who?

I told my husband to google it. He promptly typed, 'bagwynes.' My only point being, no one has heard of these people!
The Beguines were women belonging to a rather nebulous school of Christian orders set up on the outskirts of towns in the Rhineland. They weren't nuns: they took no vows, maintained ownership of their property, accepted no alms, and had the freedom to leave and return to the world at will. If they didn't have financial resources, they worked to support themselves as teachers, seamstresses, and manual laborers (perhaps most interesting for the time period). The Beguines were celibate, but a widow or a woman abandoned by her spouse could join the Beguines, and any woman was free to leave to marry if she wished, or free to take orders at a more tradition convent, or just return to her family.

When I first read about the Beguines I was so moved to imagine these beautiful, free, self-supporting communities of self-possessed women living their lives as they saw fit. I am, perhaps romanticizing this scenario a bit. The Beguines flourished around the same time that the Crusades were monopolizing all the men: getting married was a less available option, and staying to be a burden on their families must have seemed like even less of one to these women. Even so, imagine, the 1200's, women living alone in communities, working for their living! How much sooner could we have made the strides in equality we have made if those communities had continued to flourish? What have we lost ourselves and our daughters in allowing that piece of history to pass out of common knowledge, even among Catholics?

The Beguines had the misfortune of being associated through geography, and gender, with the Brethren of the Free Spirit. The Brethren of the Free Spirit was a lay (not ordained) Christian movement with some radical beliefs for Christianity: pantheism, and the idea that once the soul had reached a certain level of closeness with God, it was best to let the body indulge all of its base urges in an effort to keep it sort of satisfied and out of the way. You can imagine how well free love went over in medieval Christendom. Followers of the Brethren of the Free Spirit were condemned to heresy, and the Beguines, though they didn't subscribe to these beliefs, were swept up in the zeal to bring the heretics to justice. Of course, it's clear that it would have taken very little for a group of self-supporting women living without benefit of men to fall far enough out of favor to provoke an attack. It is perhaps inevitable they couldn't be allowed to live in peace, numbers ever growing, in that time and place. Worse though, is how they have been wiped from our cultural memory completely, unable to regrow when better conditions presented themselves.

I found this article about modern Beguines in Germany, and this out-of-date blog about the American Beguines. The former is A.) in Germany, and B.) though I think a more secular order of Beguines would be right up many people's alley, I know for me I would want something more along the lines of the original. The latter, well, I e-mailed them, but as of yet I have no evidence that they're still an active group.

I am all for reinstating orders of Beguines. I was heart-broken to not find out about them soon enough to start a Beguine order at my Catholic University. I was married for nearly two years before I knew they existed. Of course, we don't need the shelter of a religious community for women to live alone and make their own way anymore, but a religious community without the austerity or the permanence that are the norm in women's religious orders is, I think, something Christendom does need. What better scenario to give women a true choice, removed from constant demands of the world, to make choices about their beliefs and their actions? I can't help but wonder how many women, living in a supportive community of this type, would elect not to be sexually active, perhaps for a time, perhaps until marriage. How many women would find themselves more comfortable deciding not to marry till they were older, or at all, or pursuing career choices still less common for women to get into. Removed from the onslaught of institutionalized sexism, how many women would start to question the way they live their lives? They way they value themselves and others of their gender? The behavior they expect from other people of both genders?

And again, maybe I'm romanticizing this just a bit. Who's to say that a Vatican-sanctioned Beguine order would actually be far enough outside the reach of Patriarchal society to question it? A historically accurate Beguine order would require celibacy, which would limit those joining to a majority of women already deeply involved in their Catholic faith. It may be safe to say that such a population is, at least statistically speaking, less likely to question the status quo either within or without the religion they follow (I say this as a member of this population that feels very abnormal in questioning the status quo both within and without her religion; perhaps this is only my impression and is quite mistaken). Maybe a non-Vatican-sanctioned order of Beguines is necessary for this to work, but I can't help it: I'm still holding out for celibacy! If you can't handle it for more than a couple of weeks at a time, then go back into the world and do what you feel like you need to do, but come to this community without that baggage.

Who's with me? Anyone..?

Live Omily,


  1. Came across this post today. I'm with you.

  2. Glad to hear it! The more the merrier! Thanks for your support. :-)