The Beguines - Representatives of an Alternative Way of Life

Project Report, 2000

10 Pages, Grade: 1,0



I. Introduction

II. What is alternative?

III. Reactions of the public

IV. Decline of the origins

V. Summary

VI. Bibliography

I. Introduction

Beguines have been the subject of numerous controversies from the Middle Ages to the present. Their contentious history results partly from the heterogeneous composition of their movement and the difficulty of defining this wide-spread group of pious women. One point at least is agreed upon: The beguine movement arose at the beginning of the thirteenth century and existed until the early Renaissance; geographically it was situated in the more developed countries of Central and Western Europe (i. e. France, Belgium, Rhineland Germany, Netherlands).[1]

The aim of this essay, however, is concerned less in a description of the external circumstances than in an analysis of the beguinal way of life. Firstly, this investigation deals with the typical features of the beguine movement focussing on their alternative lifestyle for medieval women (section II). Thereupon, section III explores, whether the components of this innovative movement caused a sensation for their contemporaries and how the reactions of the secular and the ecclesiastical authorities influenced its development. Finally, section IV examines the background and the conditions for the diminution of the religious movement.

II. What is alternative?

These women … wished not only to be poor but to live with the poor. Against the natural order of society they deliberately chose to deny their noble or rich background and turned instead to a way of life scorned by those they had known.[2]

Considering this statement of Brenda M. Bolton one is able to select main ideas of the beguine movement: their motivation in living lives of religiousness, penitence, charity, poverty, chastity and obedience had its roots in the desire to emulate Jesus Christ outside of the traditional ecclesiastical institutions – an aspiration influenced by the spirit of the religious movement at the begin of the thirteenth century.[3] As Bolton mentions, the movement attracted (in its early days) first of all members of the nobility and patricians. Women of these highest social classes were the only ones who could obtain permission to enter convents – nevertheless, some of them decided on a conscious renunciation of the life of a nun. Regarding the relatively comfortable circumstances concerning the life inside cloisters, Galloway as well as Shahar claim, that one reason for this decision could be the rejection of affluence, which prevailed in most nunneries. The wealthy women preferred to accept the loss of reputation which might be a consequence of such an unusual way of life.[4]

Apart from this superior religious aim there was, however, only a little sense of unity, because the beguine movement displayed a wide range of habits with various emphases.[5] Firstly, not only did the kinds of organisation differ “to […] a great extent in terms of size, function and social origins of inhabitants”[6], but also did the quantity of the pious women: some of them lived alone, others in the parental household, and many gathered into so-called “Beguinages”. Later on, beguines used different methods to support themselves in a self-sufficient way. Although they were often permitted to retain their possessions, the women tended to earn their livelihood through manual labour, e.g. cloth-making.[7] Beside this, some of them engaged in nursing, teaching and writing, and “apart from their earned income, beguines occasionally received gifts or legacies, often contingent on providing prayers or taking an important place as mourners at funerals.”[8]


[1] See Emilie Amt (ed) (1993): Women’s lives in medieval Europe. A sourcebook, New York/London: Routledge, p. 263; Penelope Galloway (1997): ‘Discreet and Devout Maidens: Women’s Involvement in Beguine Communities in Northern France. 1200-1500’. In Watt, Diane (ed) Medieval Women in their Communities, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, pp.92, 94; Margaret L. King (1991): Women of the Renaissance, Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, p. 104; Margaret Wade Labarge (1986): Women in Medieval Life. A Small Sound of the Trumpet, London: Hamish Hamilton, p. 115, 120; Angela M. Lucas (1983): Women in the Middle Ages. Religion, Marriage and Letters, Brighton: Harvester, p. 147; Shulamith Shahar (1983): The Fourth Estate. A history of women in the Middle Ages, London/New York: Methuen, p. 52.

[2] Brenda M. Bolton (1976), p. 147. Quoted in: King, Women of the Renaissance, p. 107.

[3] See ibid., p. 104; Amt, Sourcebook, p. 263; Galloway, Beguine Communities, p. 93; Labarge, Women in Medieval Life, p. 115f.; Lucas, Women in the Middle Ages, p. 147; Shahar, The Fourth Estate, p. 52f.

[4] In its beginnings, the beguine movement recruited hardly ever women, who were unintentional poor. See Galloway, Beguine Communities, p. 95; King, Women of the Renaissance, p. 106; Shahar, The Fourth Estate, p. 52f.

[5] See Galloway, Beguine Communities, p. 96.

[6] Ibid., p. 105.

[7] See ibid., p. 92, 96, 107; King, Women of the Renaissance, p. 104; Shahar, The Fourth Estate, p. 53; Labarge, Women in Medieval Life, p. 115; Amt, Sourcebook, p. 263.

[8] Labarge, Women in Medieval Life, p. 117; See Labarge, Women in Medieval Life, p. 117-120; King, Women of the Renaissance, p. 104; Shahar, The Fourth Estate, p. 53; Amt, Sourcebook, p. 263.

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The Beguines - Representatives of an Alternative Way of Life
University of Sussex
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Beguines, Beginen, alternative Lebensform, alternative way of life, Middle Ages, Mittelalter, Frauen, women
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Marion Luger (Author), 2000, The Beguines - Representatives of an Alternative Way of Life, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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