Challenging the Norms of Female Celibacy — The Beguines

Several months ago, one of our readers asked if we would consider writing on the Beguines. Recently, another reader raised the issue again, so we thought now might be a good time to post something about the Beguine movement as part of our sporadic “profiles of celibates” series. We’ll admit upfront that we’ve been hesitant to write on this movement, mostly because it consisted of multiple groups with little cohesion. Also, because the Beguines were suppressed multiple times by the Church for heretical beliefs and practices, one needs to be careful when drawing upon their history for a model of living non-monsatic or semi-monastic celibacy. However, we think there is much that a celibate person living in the world can learn from the Beguine movement. In today’s post, we’ll introduce you to the Beguines and offer some brief thoughts about how reflecting on their stories and experiences could benefit celibate people today.

The Beguines were active in Northern Europe from the 12th to 16th centuries, primarily in Belgium and the Netherlands. They were groups of women who joined in semi-monastic communities under no vows and very low levels of commitment. The major contributing factor to the emergence of this movement was a disproportionate population of women in the Low Countries. Because women outnumbered men in most urban areas, many women of marrying age were unable to find husbands. Beguinages — houses of Beguines — began popping up throughout these areas in the 13th century. Each community was autonomous, so the degree of theological orthodoxy in this movement was variable, as was understanding of the movement’s goals and work. Some groups of beguines accepted only women of high social status, and others took in women from a wider range of circumstances. Women who lived in these spaces were highly independent, usually held onto personal property, and were free to leave at any time for almost any reason, including marriage. Some widowed women entered beguinages and brought their children along. Typically, Beguine women funded themselves through educating children, working in the cloth industry or some other variety of trade, or using their inheritances. Whether her time as a Beguine would be a year or less, several years, or a lifetime, each woman committed to celibacy and charitable works while living as part of her community.

The Beguine movement was also part of the larger phenomenon of mysticism in medieval Europe. Within the movement’s first hundred years, some groups shifted focus from independence and charitable works to poverty and contemplative prayer. With this evolution came an emphasis on mysticism, and several Beguines lived out their days as beggars claiming experiences of frequent visions from God. Marguerite Porete, one of the most well-known late 13th-early 14th century Beguines, was condemned by the Church for heresy and executed by burning at the stake — largely because her Mirror of Simple Souls contained statements that authorities interpreted as autotheistic and antinomian, two characteristics of the Heresy of the Free Spirit.

In addition to mysticism, the Beguines encountered pushback from the Church in other areas. Their lack of vowed commitment and supervision under any authority except a confessor was problematic in the eyes of the Church. As time progressed and mendicant religious orders expanded, some Beguine groups became part of established, Church-sanctioned celibate communities — but others joined with heretical groups. Beguinages that did not join with other groups continued as they were. By the 16th century, most had disbanded. However, some avoided suppression during the Protestant Reformation and other political conflicts, continuing even into the 20th century.

Now, what can today’s celibates living in the world learn from the Beguines? After reflecting on this question, we see two items worthy of special emphasis:

The case of the Beguines offers an intriguing model of organic and varied celibate community. Each beguinage was independent and able to determine a way of life for itself without needing to consider what the others were doing, which will probably resonate with celibates living in today’s secular world. As a celibate single, member of a celibate couple, or member of another kind of lay celibate community, a person usually has significant freedom in determining how to live his/her vocation on a daily basis. This is an advantage because it provides the opportunity to use one’s gifts to serve God and others without restriction. But it also poses a challenge because a lack of accountability can led to a number of spiritual problems (you should read Eve Tushnet’s post on self-abbotting). In this way, the two of us see the Beguines as both a model to draw upon and a cautionary tale. We’ve learned never to doubt the importance of regular spiritual direction where we can be open about all aspects of our relationship and work.

The Beguines also challenge what both Western and Eastern Christians see as norms for celibate living. The Beguines were not nuns. They weren’t vowed to their communities. The relationships amongst women living in beguinages were diverse, and it’s clear that words like “friend” and “sister” don’t adequately describe every instance of meaningful relationship between one Beguine woman and another. The Beguines pushed back on the idea that celibacy must be lived out within the context of monasticism. In today’s world where more young people are remaining celibate (or at least single) either by choice or by circumstance, there’s a need for better discussion about non-monastic celibacy and what it could look like as a purposeful, Christ-centered way of life. Though the Beguines faced many problems, not the least of which was frequent run-ins with Church hierarchy, today’s celibates can take inspiration from this movement’s experimentation with a different kind of vocation. For celibate people to live meaningfully in the secular world, we need to get creative. We need to consider new possibilities and be open to the idea that there are more vocations than marriage and monasticism. But of course, we must reiterate that any person discerning a vocation — especially an unusual one — would benefit from spiritual direction.

We’re interested to know if there are other lessons our readers think celibate people could learn from the Beguines. Leave a comment if you feel so led, and also let us know if there are other celibate people or groups you would like us to consider profiling.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.