Simple Lives


Recent news stories highlighting a growing trend among single women to form intentional communities along spiritual or religious lines make one wonder: Are we seeing the rise of a third wave of the Beguines, a Catholic women’s movement that started in the late twelfth century?

“There [are] many parallels between the Beguines then and women now—women building safety nets to assist each other, living lives that made sense with less economic burden on the individual, a common spiritual approach to everyday life, and the need for meaningful, purposeful work,” says Morgana Morgaine, a nurse in Asheville, North Carolina, who has studied the Beguines for the past twenty-five years and, with five other women, plans to create a Beguine-inspired community.

Morgaine is not alone. She hopes to tour medieval beguinages in Europe and to meet modern-day Beguines in Germany, who live in an estimated twenty-five communities accommodating retirees, widows, divorcees, and single mothers. Many of the women work outside the community at day jobs, share housekeeping duties, and perform charitable works such as volunteering in hospices, tutoring children, and sheltering victims of domestic violence. Like their medieval counterparts, they agree to live simply, and this includes not only curbing consumption but choosing “green” and fair-trade products.

Morgaine first heard about the Beguines in an Albuquerque quilt shop twenty-five years ago: “I somehow got into a conversation about [how] living communally made so much sense economically and socially. I was talking about the wasted energy and monies of supporting a single household and the joys of sharing lawn mowers and laundry, and having more people to support and be supported by.”It turns out the shopkeeper had lived in Belgium, one of the great medieval Beguine centers, and recommended that Morgaine look into their history.

In the past decade, scholars have given the First Wave of Beguines a fair amount of attention. Walter Simons, in his Cities of Ladies (2001), studied more than 200 beguinages in 111 communities spanning 365 years to arrive at a detailed look at the variety of Beguine life.

The Beguines sprang up in urban areas in Lowland Europe around 1190, a time when the textile industry was booming. People were moving from the farm to cities, where women outnumbered men, sometimes by as much as two to one. The beguinages provided a kind of social safety net for these women. Beguines retained their own belongings and could leave anytime. Some semblance of the social hierarchy was preserved in the beguinage; wealthy women had nicer houses and perhaps even servants. Some poorer beguinages barely scraped by.

The religious aspect of their lives was also important. Beg-uines agreed to live piously, simply, and chastely, though a Beguine who gave birth out of wedlock might be required to leave for a year, after which she could return with her child. Each community developed its own devotional routine, usually around the Daily Office. Illustrations in the Great Beguinage of Mechelen show Beguines wearing habits, but it’s not clear whether that was de rigueur. Communities also performed corporal acts of mercy, supporting schools for children, free infirmaries, and feeding the elderly at what they called the Table of the Holy Spirit. Some families specifically asked the Beguines to handle funerary arrangements and pray for their dead because the Beguines were known as honest and virtuous women.

But the Beguines were not women religious and the beguinage was not an organization with any central authority. Many Beguines could not have afforded expensive convent dowries, nor could convents, which housed an average of thirty-five women, possibly have accommodated the growing number of Beguines. At first, the Beguines lived in single-dwelling homes in groups of up to twelve. Later beguinages grew to as many as a thousand women living in several dwellings within a walled “court” or parish, which afforded them some protection and defined their community. High literacy rates and laws that allowed women to hold property in their own names allowed them to conduct their own business affairs and that of their communities.

The first wave of Beguines produced several mystic thinkers and writers—Hadewijch and Mechtilde of Magdeburg, most notably. But even though Pope Gregory IX had given the nod to their communities in the 1200s, local church authorities grew uneasy with the Beguines. They were rumored to be reading the Bible in the vernacular, holding Bible-study classes, and preaching. In the early 1300s, the Beguine Marguerite Porete wrote The Mirror of Simple Souls, a book that was deemed heretical. When she refused to recant, she was burned at the stake in 1310, and this led to such vigorous investigation of the Beguines that the communities dwindled, and the first wave ended.

A few beguinages hung on, however, and enjoyed a second wave during the Counter-Reformation thanks to Archbishop Matthias Hovius. He helped improve the Great Beguinage at Mechelen in the 1600s, favoring it over some of the local convents and monasteries because the Beguines’ charitable works enhanced the image of the church. Hovius’s patronage may also have helped assuage fears that the Beguines were not properly overseen by church officials.

It is difficult to assess when this second wave ended. While the communities began to dwindle, there are reports of beguinages operating into the early twentieth century. Moreover, other Catholic lay movements, such as Dorothy Day’s houses of hospitality, the Company of Ursula (which became the Ursuline order), and women’s communities formed by Spanish women like Francisca Hernandez could be considered granddaughters of the Beguines.

Just as they responded so nimbly to social and economic forces in the twelfth century, the Beguines may offer a model well suited to the twenty-first. Again there are large numbers of single women facing life alone. Jobs are tight for younger women, and the costs of child care and fuel eat up a frighteningly large portion of their incomes. Baby Boom women approaching retirement are finding that their IRAs and 401(k)s won’t stretch as far as they’d hoped—and equity in their homes, another source of retirement income, is dwindling after the housing bust. Reductions in Medicare and the constant specter of Social Security cuts add to the economic uncertainty. And as women try to help elderly parents struggling to maintain the family home that has become burdensome and isolating, a communal living arrangement seems more sensible, economically and socially.

But those aren’t the only reasons the Beguines look attractive now. The beguinage fed body and spirit, and today’s Beguines also want a robust spiritual life. What has changed in the intervening centuries, however, is that those who call themselves Beguines today are not strictly Catholic, but include Protestants and sometimes non-Christians. Beguine communities now, as in the Middle Ages, must develop worship that will accommodate all their members. A California group calling itself the American Beguines follows the tradition of Taizé. Morgaine’s group in Asheville also wants a common spiritual space but has not yet worked out any specific devotional practice.

Despite the ecumenism of third-wave Beguine communities, the Beguine movement remains, at its core, essentially Catholic, emphasizing worship, the works of mercy, simplicity, and antimaterialism. In a way, the first-wave Beguines have lived on as missionaries across the centuries, inspiring women today to uphold the dignity of women and encouraging them to respond to economic challenges with faith, hope, and courage.

It is a legacy Catholics can be proud of.

Published in the 2009-05-22 issue: 

Jean Hughes Raber teaches journalism at Michigan State University.

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