Among In the 11th and 14th centuries, the medieval West experienced a whole series of transformations of a socio-cultural, economic and spiritual nature, becoming an exciting moment in history.
Within the field of spirituality, these transformations had as protagonists lay men and women from all social strata who staged a real rebellion against the established power, and therefore, against the Church. Away from evangelical ideals and excluded, precisely because of their secular condition, from religious life, they lived reduced to a purely material universe.
This ability involved a break with the order established by the Church; a rupture that for women was double: on the one hand, because of their condition as laywomen and on the other, because of their condition as women.
From the theological point of view, but also from the doctor and the scientist, were considered physiologically and spiritually weak, defective in body and moral strength and incapable, with very few exceptions, of rising to the consideration of spiritual reality.
Despite these opinions, these women created a current of spirituality from them and for them, with total autonomy from men. A current of spirituality that they endowed with such strength and power that they influenced, not only the mysticism of their time, but that of later centuries: they were the so-called beguines.
the first feminists
the beguines are considered the first feminist group in history. Their history dates back to the 12th century, placing them in Flanders and the Netherlandswhen a group of Christian women decided to come together to live together and help those most in need.
After spread rapidly to northern and southern Europe. Apart from the structures of the Catholic Church, which they rejected, since it did not recognize the right of women. These women lived outside the orders of the men who were then the ones in charge in everything related to politics and religion.
The beguines had a spiritual life, but they cannot be considered nuns. They lived in a community of women faithful to themselves and far from any repression. His desire was to lead a life of intense spirituality, but not in a cloistered way, but fully integrated into the then emerging cities.
What did the beguines live on?
They dedicated their lives to praying and working for and for others, but not within convents or monasteries, but in houses normally provided by the nobility, and even in some cases by the church itself, especially at first, since they had repercussions for the good of the community caring even for lepers and the most disadvantaged.
they wore an orderly life dedicated to prayer and textile work that allowed them to maintain themselves, since they did not have any financial support from the community.
A curious topic is that most of them practiced some art, especially the music, but also literature and paintingwhich may denote that they were educated women and that they belonged to the middle or upper classes.
how they were organized
According to the experts and the texts that have survived to this day, each community or beguinage had its own organization and it had a supervisor known as the ‘Grande Dame’ who was democratically elected from among all the women who made up the community.
In the case of the beguines, despite being part of a social environment closer to the nobility than to the people, they chose to wear humble clothing. They were characterized by a kind of hood and a beige tunic.
The women who were part of this way of life did not have to take vows as nuns do, nor did they have to commit themselves for life, but had to accept -for as long as they were- to live under the promise of poverty and chastity. Of course, any Beguine who wanted could leave the group immediately and continue with her life.
Origin of the beguines
The first beguinage dates back to 1180 in Liège (Belgium) near the parish of Saint Christopher where they adopted the name of Father Lambert Le Bège. Although, there are versions that ensure that beguina comes from old German and means prayer or requester. From there it spread to the east, towards Germany and central Europe, but it reached Austria, Italy, France, Spain and Poland.
Elena Botinas Montero and Julia Cabaleiro Manzanedo are the authors of The beguines: freedom in relation (Publicaciones de La Abadía de Montserrat, 2002) state that “the need for a specific feminine space created and defined by women was expressed in literature by Cristina de Pizán at the beginning of the 15th century in The Book of the City Damas in which she imagined the construction of a solid and impregnable city inhabited only by women. But a few centuries before, the women called Beguines had already materialized the existence of a space similar to the one imagined by Cristina”.
A space of your own
Reclusion, beguinate or beguinage are some of the names which designates this space in which the beguines or recluses live (with both names these women are known in Catalonia) and which can take on different shapes and dimensions, since it can be a cell, a house or a complex of houses such as the great Flemish beguinates, declared a World Heritage Site in 1998 by Unesco.
In some cases their facilities have acquired new purposes, as in the Leuven beguinage, fully restoredand which now belongs to the University of Leuven, which uses it as a campus.
A space that was not domestic, nor cloistered, nor heterosexual. A space of transgression to the limits imposed on women, not mediated by any type of dependency or subordination, in which they acted as generating agents of new and proper forms of relationship and of a feminine authority. And who also became a reference model for other women.
For a time, the church ignored them and allowed them freedom to carry out their tasks, so they enjoyed two centuries of rapid expansion, but their lack of submission to the high ecclesiastical spheres led to their persecution by the church, and some were burned alive and others condemned to heresy.
During the fourteenth century, the inquisition condemned the Beguines and issued several bulls to submit them to papal discipline, until on October 7, a bull from Pope Nicholas V encouraged the entry of the Beguines into the Carmelite order. Beguines were pressured to belong to religious orders and join a community of nuns or dissolve.
Experts consider poets such as illustrious beguines Beatriz de Nazaret, Matilde de Madgeburgo and Margarita Porete, precursors of mystical poetry from the 16th century, as well as the first to use vernacular languages for their verses, instead of Latin.
One of the best-known cases in our country is that of Margarita Porete, the author of The mirror of simple soulsaccused of cajoling her confessors and therefore, of being a witch.
But without a doubt, the most famous mystical beguine is Hadewych of Antwerp (located in 1200-1240), author of several works in poetry and prose.
Y Marcella Patty, died April 14, 2013 at age 92, while he slept in his house in Sint-Jozef, which closes the chapter on the existence of the beguines. She was the last representative of one of the freest female life experiences in a time when it was not easy.