Beguine Communities and Medieval History: An Unexpected Treasure?

It is my pleasure to welcome Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane, Associate Professor of History, University of Minnesota, Morris, as my guest blogger this morning. Feel free to pose any questions as comments, and I’ll post Jennifer’s responses!

A little background on Jennifer: “I am a historian of medieval Europe, although my reading and teaching interests extend both to the ancient and the early modern. My research focuses on medieval religious movements and communities, the emergence and application of the construct of heresy, inquisitorial procedures, and gender. I am also interested in lay female religious communities across and beyond the medieval centuries, and in the relationship between spirituality, discipline, gender, institutions, and the social order.” She’s the author of A History of Medieval Heresy and Inquisition (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), co-editor (with Letha Böhringer and Hildo van Engen) of Labels and Libels: Naming Beguines in Northern Medieval Europe (Brepols, forthcoming 2014), and the author of Sisters Among: Beguine and Lay Religious Women’s Communities in Medieval Germany (monograph in progress), as well as many articles.



On April 27, 2013, The Economist magazine was among dozens of news outlets reporting the death of a 92-year-old Belgian woman named Marcella Pattyn, ‘the last beguine.’ For those who study beguine history, encountering the topic on the evening news was a surprising and yet bittersweet moment.  For a few short days, an international spotlight shone on the relatively obscure realm of beguine history, if only to reflect upon the apparent demise of an 800-year-old way of life.

For any visitor to Belgium, the surviving structures of beguinages are indeed (as The Economist put it) an ‘unexpected treasure.’ The description has lingered with me since April, the image of unexpected treasure evoking the very roots of Marcella’s life and that of her thousands of unnamed sisters: that is, the broad and dazzling historical constellation of lay religious women’s communities in medieval Europe. Far from being limited to the Low Countries, hundreds of beguine-like gatherings independently cropped up between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries across what is today France, Germany, Italy, England, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Spain.  Particularly since Walter Simons’ landmark study of beguines in the Low Countries (Cities of Ladies, 2001) researchers have been reapproaching beguine history from new angles and having conversations across many of the traditional boundaries of language, region, and national history.

Because of Marcella Pattyn’s life and death, news editors in Europe and North America suddenly had to address the following: what was a beguine, anyway?  The question seems simple enough, yet the answer has been surprisingly difficult to pin down – not only for journalists in 2013, but also for historians over the past several decades.

Why is that?  One could point to several reasons, starting with the challenge of defining our terms. For example, beguines inhabited a space that blended secular and spiritual roles in a way that does not easily square with traditional categories.  As a result, many influential 19th- and 20th-century historians (whether writing in German, Dutch, or English) defined beguines in negative terms that primarily reflected the concerns of medieval clergy about beguines’ relationship to the Church:  thus one still frequently finds beguines depicted as ‘not-nuns,’ ‘lacking a formal rule,’ ‘not affiliated with orders,’ etc.  Newer research has been trying to develop a more sociological approach to beguine history, considering instead what being a beguine meant to the women themselves, and what their communities meant to the local clergy and laity who supported them across time and space. For although beguines outside of Belgium are sometimes thought to have disappeared by the end of the Middle Ages, many communities survived deep into the early modern period and beyond.

Another problem is that the terms used by and applied to beguines have varied so much over time and place that it has been very difficult to establish any kind of broad framework or systematic comparison.  For example, a woman termed a ‘beguine’ in one region might be called a ‘begutta’ in another, or a ‘bizzocha’ or ‘pinzochera’ in yet another.  Some terms designated a lay religious woman by the precise color of her garb, such as the ‘Black Sisters,’ ‘Grey Women,’ or the ‘Blue Beguines’ of northern Germany. And yet other terms that appear in medieval documents by and about the women include vernacular and Latin variations on ‘sister,’ ‘virgin,’ ‘widow’, ‘good woman’, ‘spiritual sister’, ‘soul woman’, ‘holy woman,’. . .and often combinations of the above! As a result, we are still trying to figure out a way to talk about lay religious women’s communities through this swirl of language.

Yet even as we struggle with our terms and categories, it becomes clear that (to adapt the famous phrase) medieval people ‘knew a beguine when they saw one’. Thus one of the exciting directions in new research has been comparative work establishing some common themes across lay religious women’s communities while still recognizing their tremendous elasticity of size, recruitment, relationship to other institutions, and so on.

So: what was a beguine? Today one might offer a definition along these lines: beguines were single women of any life stage enacting visibly pious and chaste lives of Christian service and community; they took simple oaths of chastity and obedience, lived according to a specific but local house rule, and were under the supervision of a house mother, elder sisters in the community, and an array of parish and civic authorities; and finally, beguines received charitable donations in exchange for prayers, memorial services, and other caritative services.

And yet apart from these consistent underlying features, there were endless possibilities for variation and local adaptation. Beguines could be affiliated with mendicant orders such as the Franciscans or Dominicans, for example, either through pastoral care, routine interaction, or by formally taking on a Third Order rule. They could also be linked to care within a hospital institution, whether as formal residents, or providers of health care during the day, and even tending to the bodies and burial of the dead. Beguine communities might provide a safe and respectable home for wealthy widows, an equally safe and respectable home for impoverished women. . . or they could combine all of the above, depending on the local context.  Defined by their fundamentally local quality (rather than being shaped by an overarching institutional organization), beguine communities were historically flexible and enduring, deeply woven into the fabric of medieval society.

Although beguine communities were certainly independent from each other, their members were never independent of parish and civic authority.  Nor did they seek to be, since connections and exchange were evidently in the women’s best interest as well as strategically productive for the environments in which they flourished.  Indeed, one of the many intriguing aspects of beguine history is the wide range of people who invested both spiritual hope and financial resources into their foundations: archival material speaks to a centuries-long certainty among laymen, laywomen, married couples, nobility, priests, canons, and bishops in the power of beguines’ prayers and their value to local communities. Even the saintly King Louis IX of France (d.1270) supported beguines, as Tanya Stabler Miller discusses in her wonderful new book (The Beguines of Medieval Paris, 2014). All of these new publications and conversations suggest that although ‘the last beguine’ may have passed, we are not through discovering the unexpected treasures of beguine history.

Selected Readings:

Walter Simons, Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001)

Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane, “’Beguines’ Reconsidered: Historiographical Problems and New Directions” Monastic Matrix (2008)

Romana Guarnieri, “Beguines Beyond the Alps and Italian Bizzoche between the 14th and 15th Centuries,” translated by Roberta Agnes McKelvie, O.S.F. Greyfriars Review 5, No.1 (1991):  91-104

Penelope Galloway, “’Discreet and Devout Maidens‘: Women’s Involvement in Beguine Communities in Northern France, 1200-1500,” in Medieval Women in their Communities, edited by Diane Watt (University of Toronto Press, 1997), pp.92-112

Tanya Stabler Miller, The Beguines of Medieval Paris: Gender, Patronage, and Spiritual Authority (University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming, 2014)

Letha Böhringer, Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane, Hildo van Engen, eds. Labels and Libels: Naming Beguines in Northern Medieval Europe (Brepols Press, forthcoming, 2014)

13 Comments on “Beguine Communities and Medieval History: An Unexpected Treasure?

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it…I think beguines are fascinating as well, so it’s fun to hear that others agree!


    • How fascinating! Wonder how this concept could/would work in today’s world. Many women might consider this concept intriguing.


      • I’ve wondered that as well, Jene. A supportive, spiritually focused community of women. Apparently these groups were wonderfully adaptive during the Reformation, including Catholics and reformed Christians in the same community, a peaceful coexistence. Quite a model of community, and working for the wider community.


      • I agree that it’s a wonderfully relevant model — in fact, there have been a number of modern ‘beguine’ communities over the last couple of decades, particularly in Germany (but also in the US and Canada). Some are secular, some are religiously-affiliated, but all seem to share a spirit of interest in the holistic well-being of women in community. As a matter of fact, some friends and I were recently imagining how lovely such a gathering could be for both residents and the local community: shared family care or child care, volunteer services for local institutions (think of all that knowledge women could bring), and so on. Even though the circumstances are so different today, there is clearly still a need for financial security for single women of all stages of life, and a caring, close, egalitarian community that perhaps benefits from donations could be a very rewarding model. (And we were also talking about the inevitable difficulties of communal life, which one also perceives in the medieval rules: watch out for gossip, no cliques, clean up after oneself, don’t bring in loud pets or kids, etc.!)


  1. Jennifer, I’m curious whether one appeal of the beguine community was that a woman was welcome to join with or without a dowry/contribution to the community? Candace


    • That’s a great question…and the short answer is “yes,” the eased cost of entry was a significant factor in the appeal of beguine life. Convents could be very expensive to enter, and thus restrictive by socioeconomic status, family, etc. And beguine communities were often supported by an initial investment by a founder and then by donations from the community. That said, many women of means joined beguine communities as well. The financial aspects of beguine life are really interesting, and there is a lot of work left to do on the subject! Since there was a lot of variety over time and place, I’ll base the following on the German context (with which I’m most familiar).

      On the one hand, not only was a dowry not required, but as secular figures, beguines retained control over whatever goods/funds they had before joining the community. One of our best sources for beguine life in Germany, therefore, are the countless records of mundane local financial or legal transactions in which they were involved…not as beguines, per se, but as transactors who happened to be beguines.

      On the other hand, although beguines were legally free to leave the community (in contrast to nuns who were bound lifelong to the religious status), there was a steep financial penalty for doing so. Some did, for marriage or domestic service, but those who brought funds with them to the house upon entry had to surrender much or all of it to the community upon departure. So women did not join or leave the small German beguinages (usually around a dozen women) casually.

      And perhaps because the German houses were small, adding a new sister (presumably for her lifetime) was a serious step. Many communities were initially founded with specific women in mind: relatives, friends, or the founder herself. Upon their deaths, the remaining residents and male supervisors (clergy and/or city council) would select another woman interested in joining. Because the pious reputation of beguines was absolutely vital to their well-being, new women were vetted carefully.

      All of which sounds as if beguine houses were modeled after convents…however, the women retain their rights of mobility, active service in the community, and (if they had wealth to begin with), control of their various resources. And it’s this combination of both religious and secular involvement that interests me so much about these women!

      Long answer to a great question: can you tell I could go on and on? 🙂


  2. The Beguines have always fascinated me though I haven’t been able to study them closely. The ability to gain self-determination to a larger extent than in an “official” community of women religious seems to me a significant appeal of the Beguine life? Jennifer, do you see this aspect/attitude coming out of the historical record? Wonderful post! Thank you!


    • Hi Julie — thanks for the question! I do think that the appeal of beguine life, generally speaking, had much to do with the more elastic nature of the status. Beguine communities were generally located right in the city or town or village, in contrast to convents which were often at some distance; and beguine life generally involved routine interactions with local environments, whether for pious services, social or domestic work, mundane errands, family activities, etc. One thing that intrigues me about beguine communities in Germany is that the house rules suggest that leadership depended upon age and experience, and responsibilities rotated among the members. So a beguine would have various opportunities to be of service within the community. Your question points us, I think, to an essential reason why beguine life flourished as broadly and as consistently as it did.

      That said, the sense of beguines as somehow striving to escape masculine structures and systems doesn’t resonate with the source material. No beguine was ever ‘independent’ from Church authority, since all were subject (like any Christian) to their parish priest. Moreover, many beguine communities wove strong and mutual relationships with men of the mendicant orders, or with other religious figures. And by the sixteenth century, city councilmen had also become routinely and for the most part, productively, involved in helping to supervise and support beguine houses.

      So I think it’s right to say that beguine life, far from being a kind of second-rate option for would-be nuns, offered a very particular set of benefits and opportunities (spiritual, financial, social, memorial, individual, communal) and so on, that appealed widely. My research suggests that from the 13th century all the way through the early modern period, supporters (and thus beneficiaries) of beguine life included laywomen and men, married couples, clergy, nobility, the destitute, and so on.

      Ok, I’ll stop there for now. Thanks for the question, and I throughly enjoyed I loved your post, too. Can’t wait to read your book. Fascinating Margery…!


  3. Thanks again for the chance to be part of your wonderful blog, Candace! What a great idea to invite historians to share their work…and I am in turn thoroughly enjoying yours as well. Just dove into ‘A Spy for the Redeemer’, which I was supposed to save for holiday reading…good thing I have ‘The Cross-Legged Knight’ packed away as well. Happy Holidays to you both, and to all your readers!


    • Oops … i mean to say ‘medievalists,’ not ‘historians’! Typical historian 🙂


  4. Pingback: Part 9 -Bruges! – d'aventures

  5. Pingback: Women in Community–& a preview! | A Writer's Retreat

%d bloggers like this: