The Beguines of Medieval Paris—guest post by Tanya Stabler Miller

First, I’d like to thank Candace for inviting me to discuss my book. I’m so pleased to have discovered her work, as well as her blog (through fellow beguine-scholar Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane!)

The study of beguines represents a significant challenge for historians of women and gender. In the beguines, the historian is confronted with a gendered label (“beguine” as French historian Nicole Bériou has observed, might refer to a way of being perceived by others) as well as the experiences of real women who chose to live religious lives in the world.[1] Women who wore humble garb and stood apart as living a religious life above and beyond the ordinary practice of their peers might be labeled “beguine,” perhaps admiringly, perhaps derisively. At the same time, some women consciously joined communities of like-minded lay religious women, adopting the label “beguine” by virtue of entering a recognized community.

The remaining wall of the beguinage of Paris ( which was actually the wall of Philip Augustus in the Marais).

The beguine communities of medieval Paris—heretofore unstudied save for a single article published in the late nineteenth century—usefully illustrate these complexities.[2] Upon returning from crusade in 1254, the French king Louis IX (also known as Saint Louis) founded a house—or beguinage—on the eastern end of Paris to house “honest women called beguines.”[3] The Paris beguinage was modeled on the court beguinage of St. Elizabeth in Ghent, giving the French king’s house a useful boost as a solid community of lay religious women. The Paris beguinage was surrounded by walls, governed by statutes, and eventually overseen by the Dominican prior (it should be noted, however, that the Paris beguinage was quite porous, with residents and visitors regularly entering and leaving the enclosure). Its residents wore a distinctive habit and enjoyed the support and projection of the French kings until the house was turned over to a community of Observant Poor Clares in 1485.

Even with the existence of this more “official” beguine community, Paris was home to dozens of households of women who self-identified, and were recognized in their local communities, as beguines. These households are known to us thanks to the tax assessments compiled during the reign of Louis IX’s grandson Philip the Fair (r. 1285-1314) and represented another possibility for Parisian lay religious women. Significantly, some religious and secular authorities insisted on approximating beguines to nuns, denying the beguine “status” to women who did not reside in an officially-recognized, enclosed, and regulated beguinage.

One of the more noteworthy—though perhaps obvious—points here is that beguines were women who stuck out. People noticed them. As a mostly urban phenomenon, beguines made a visible claim to live a life apart—in the sense of living a distinct, even superior Christian life—while residing and working among their fellow Christians. Thus, the term might be used to describe someone’s deportment, without necessarily referring to her “status.” Some viewed the voluntary adoption of the beguine label as opportunistic—a way to gain the admiration and favor of others. The thirteenth-century Parisian satirist Rutebeuf for example ridiculed the beguines’ claims to live a religious life, asserting that the “Order of Beguines,” as he mockingly called it, was easy. To enter the “order,” all one has to do was bow one’s head and wear a wide garment.[4] Even more troubling, a woman could leave the “Order” any time to marry, since she had taken no vows. Clearly, for Rutebeuf and many of his contemporaries, religious commitment was not a true commitment without the permanent pledge of self and property. Those who claimed otherwise were self-serving opportunists, seeking to hide their sin under the veil of sanctity. As Rutebeuf quipped, “We have many beguines who have wide garments; whatever they do beneath them, I cannot tell you.”[5]

Jeanne Brichard, one of the mistresses of the Paris beguinage (a sketch of her tomb, which was located in the Dominican convent in Paris).
Jeanne Brichard, one of the mistresses of the Paris beguinage (a sketch of her tomb, which was located in the Dominican convent in Paris).

On the other hand, admirers such as the secular cleric Robert of Sorbon (d. 1274) noted that beguines exhibited far more devotion to God than even the cloistered, since they voluntarily pursued a religious life without vows and walls, surrounded by the world’s temptations. Robert was a contemporary of Rutebeuf and he was a close friend of Louis IX. He was also the founder of the famous Parisian college for secular clerics, the Sorbonne. Robert’s opinions of the beguine life clearly reflected his personal views on community, public perception, religious sincerity, and the secular clergy’s mission in the world. He was not alone in this tendency to interpret the beguine phenomenon in light of personal concerns. Beguines, in a sense, were all things to all people.

Clerical opinion of the beguines was quite mixed. For some, it was too flexible, too dynamic. Yet, it was the flexibility and dynamism of the beguine life that encouraged thousands of women all over medieval Europe to take it up in the first place. Inspired by the new apostolic piety of the thirteenth century, with its emphasis on poverty, preaching, and imitation of Christ, beguines found ways to pursue their spiritual ambitions, in spite of contemporary prohibitions against women’s participation in these central features of the vita apostolica (that is, the apostolic life).

My interest in these communities reflected my preoccupations with the ways in which the term “beguine” was wielded, adopted, or disavowed, as well as with the lived experiences of lay religious women. Integrating these interests was an important aim of my book, The Beguines of Medieval Paris: Gender, Patronage, and Spiritual Authority. In many ways, this integration effort represented the conflict medieval historian Dyan Elliott so eloquently described in her important contribution to an AHR forum on Joan W. Scott’s seminal article “Gender: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis.”[6] Discussing transitions in medieval historiography on “Women” and “Gender,” Elliott noted contemporary concerns about medievalists “turning away from the study of real women in favor of gender analyses.” Deftly exploiting literary sources, such studies have gone a long way toward uncovering gender categories in medieval thought, but there is so much more to learn about “real women.”

The power of the label is evident in the “watershed” moments of beguine history, from its first appearance in the sermons of James of Vitry (the beguine movement’s earliest and perhaps most famous promoter), to its reference in the trial of the doomed mystic Marguerite Porete (who was burned at the stake in Paris on charges of heresy in 1310), to its centrality in the condemnation of lay religious women at the Council of Vienne in 1311-1312.[7] Nevertheless, the Paris community continued to exist, with its residents unabashedly referred to as “beguines.”

To reconstruct the world of Paris’s beguine communities, I needed to tell the story from a multiple perspectives. Parisian women who decided to live as beguines did so under specific social, cultural, and economic conditions. As a historian attempting to understand these conditions, I found myself grappling with the categories and labels with which medieval observers discussed the beguine phenomenon. I needed to understand why medieval people adopted or applied the label “beguine” and what they meant when they used the term.

15228At the same time, I could hardly ignore the lived circumstances of women who were known in their communities as “beguines.” The tax rolls—perhaps considered among the driest of documents—were, and are, an incredibly exciting treasure trove of information, since they help illuminate the world of women’s work and friendships. Testaments and property records helped fill the gaps, fleshing out women such as the beguine and silk merchant Jeanne du Faut, who made frequent mention of her “beloved” business partner and fellow beguine Beatrice la Grant in her testament. A wealthy silk merchant with a broad social network, Jeanne bequeathed her entire estate to Beatrice, in spite of the existence of several male relatives. Medieval Paris was home to many other women just like her.

The beguines living in Paris’s beguinage forged productive and enduring ties to clerics studying and teaching at the University of Paris. While there are still many who assume a hostile—or at least tense—relationship between religious women and clerical authority, sermons and pastoral literature produced by scholars affiliated with the medieval college of the Sorbonne paint a far more complex picture. Masters and students of the Sorbonne frequented the beguinage of Paris, following the example of the college’s founder Robert Sorbon. Sermon collections contain dozens of sermons preached at the beguinage of Paris, as well as several excerpts preached by the mistress of the beguinage herself.

Bringing these threads together, the book seeks to uncover the history of communities of women who were at the center—not the periphery—of economic, social, political, and cultural life in medieval Paris.


[1] Nicole Bériou, “Robert de Sorbon, le prud’homme et le béguin,” Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, (Paris:1994) 474-82.

[2] Léon Le Grand, “Les béguines de Paris,” Mémoires de la société de l’histoire de Paris et de l’Ile-de-France 20 (1893) : 295-357.

[3] As reported in Geoffrey of Beaulieu, “Vita ludovici noni” Recueil des historiens des Gaules et de la France, (henceforth RHF), ed. Martin Bouquet et al. vol. 20(Paris, 1840), 12.

[4] Rutebeuf, “Les ordres de Paris,” Oeuvres complètes, 2 vols., ed. Michel Zink (Paris: Garnier, 1989), 1: 227.

[5] Rutebeuf, “La Chanson des ordres,”Oeuvres completes, 1: 332. Beguines were a frequent target in French literature; see Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, “Satirical Views of the Beguines in Northern French Literature,” New Trends in Feminine Spirituality: The Holy Women of Liège and Their Impact, ed. Juliette Dor, Lesley Johnson, and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Turnhout: Brepols, 1999), 237-249.

[6] Dyan Elliott, “The Three Ages of Joan Scott,” American Historical Review (2008):1390-1403.

[7] An early attempt to discuss the power of the label is found in my article “What’s in a Name? Clerical Representations of Parisian Beguines (1200-1328).” Journal of Medieval History 33, no. 1 (2007): 60-86.

2 Comments on “The Beguines of Medieval Paris—guest post by Tanya Stabler Miller

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