Much if not most of women's experience has languished in the dark shadows of history. Around 1980 scholars became interested in a medieval movement of independent women known as beguines and began unearthing historical records about their way of life. The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women's Movement by Laura Swan illuminates the development and growth of the beguines from its formation around 1200 until the death of the last beguine in 2013. Swan presents a well-documented, amply footnoted academic study which is quite readable. On occasion she creates an imaginary stroll into a beguinage to draw the reader into her story.
Swan tells us that beguines were from every social and economic class and their ages ranged from about fourteen up to their eighties or beyond. She describes them:
Self-supporting and single or widowed, these women stood out for their spiritual and personal independence, preaching in public and debating with select theologians and biblical scholars... For the most part, beguines were free to make their own life choices and to move about their town or city as they wished (as long as they had a companion with them), and women of every family status would become beguines: they were unmarried or widowed, or they would leave their husbands, or raise children alongside. And they could cease being beguines and get married.
While the majority of monasteries for women were located in the countryside, most beguinages were established in urban areas. The beguines were excellent businesswomen and owned property. Some made their living in the world of finance, while others were registered merchants or worked in the emerging textile industry. They composed music, illuminated texts, translated scriptures from Latin into the vernacular, wrote poetry, and preached.
The beguines' business endeavors were motivated by their need to finance their ministries to the poor. The beguines were dedicated to contemplation and prayer. Many great mystical writings, such as those by Mechthild of Magdeburg and Catherine of Siena, came from beguines. Yet they were equally dedicated to living the gospel life through action. They established infirmaries and orphanages, attended the dying, educated children, and cared for lepers. For the beguines, ministry was as important as attendance at prayer—a radical idea at the time.
Swan offers a picture of beguines across Europe in their daily lives in beguinages, their ministries, their compassion and spirituality, their roles as preachers and performers, and their literary works. As independent women making their own decisions in areas such as business, finance, and spirituality, they faced opposition from men who were threatened by their actions and sought to control them. Many were accused of heresy and faced the Inquisition. Swan doesn't shy away from addressing the question of whether the beguines were heretics.
I first heard of the beguines twenty-five years ago when I was moved by works by some beguine mystics. At the time, very little information was available about the extent or details of this remarkable group of women, so I dove into Swan's book with great anticipation. I wasn't disappointed.
A member and former prioress of St. Placid Priory, a community of Benedictine women in the Pacific Northwest, Laura Swan has for many years studied and written about the history of women's spirituality and the monastic life. She is the associate editor of Magistra: A Journal of Women's Spirituality in History and adjunct professor of religious studies at St. Martin's University in Washington State. Her books include The Forgotten Desert Mothers and Engaging Benedict. Read more on the St. Martin's University website & her FaceBook page.
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