Monday, January 26, 2015

Who Were the Beguines?

It was a mystery to me, so I was glad to receive a review copy from BlueBridge ( and have enjoyed reading it. The Wisdom of the Beguines, the Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women's Movement is by Laura Swan, who is adjunct professor of religious studies, Washington State, and a former prioress of a community of Benedictine women in the Pacific Northwest. I am impressed by the research and study she must have done to tell us about the Beguines, and am grateful to her for all of this history of an important woman's group I had not heard of previously. Yes, I have heard of some of the early women mystics, such as Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, but those are about all I knew of, until now.

The Beguines began to form in groups in Europe more than 800 years ago! That's in the early 1200s. They were not nuns, but laywomen. They did not take vows, nor live in monasteries. There was no founder or rule to live by. Some lived alone, some lived in groups, perhaps sharing a house. Swan writes: "They did share their common way of life: chastity and simplicity, their unusual business acumen, and their commitment to God and to the marginalized."

Beguines existed into the twenty-first century and some news media reported the death of "the last Beguine, Marcella Pattyn in 2013." She was in her 90s and had lived in Belgium. They thought she was the last but Swan says there are reports that young women are "making spiritual promises and seeking a beguines lifestyle today, both in Europe and in North America."

Swan gives much information about who was where and what they were doing, their ups and downs, problems with business guilds, church officials, and local politics, even while they were much involved in helping the poor and needy in their communities. Often their day included "prayer, fasts, physical labor, and works of charity," She says that the beguines were "united in their commitment to ministry," and they were also involved in local businesses to support their ministries. I think we have much to learn about the women who have gone before us and their ministries and The Wisdom of the Beguines is an important beginning.

---Lois Sibley