Beguines began in the Netherlands Here is a short introduction to them. This synopsis is followed by links to several research essays. It is worth read all the essays listed at the end of the page since not all the authors are in full agreement and you will get some sense of just how unclear our current knowledge is about this women's movement of the European Middle Ages.
During the period of Europe History called the "Middle Ages," women were expected to live in the home of their fathers until married and then in the home of their husband. Women who did not marry joined monasteries where they lived with other women. Monasteries, as noted elsewhere on this web site, were often centers of learning and scholarship and a number of nuns became scholars of some repute.
In the Netherlands, a third option arose - a new women's movement.
The etymology of the name is unclear. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that the word could be derived from the old Flemish word beghen "to pray". That encyclopedia notes that others think it may derive from Bega, the patron saint of Nivelles, where, according to some the first Beguinage was established. But, no matter where the word came from, this was an important movement for women of the 12th century and after.
These women lived alone. They were not hermits. They tended to live near the edge of towns, not off in the wilderness as a hermit might. They were not nuns. They did not take vows. They devoted themselves to prayer and good works and it appears that many were devoted to study. After sometime some of them began to group themselves together and live in what became called a Beguinage.
Since this period was one of constant warring and the Crusades were in progress, there were many unattached women who were attracted to the Beguine life.
Again, these women were not formally nuns or sisters. They took no public vows. Still the Beguines were granted a number of special privileges usually reserved for approved orders of nuns.
Some were tried as heretics - even though as a group, these women appeared to be highly orthodox in their beliefs and prayer practices.
Essays worth reading
Eliszabeth T. Knuth has an excellent essay which can be found Online: Published in December 1992
Abby Stoner, Sisters Between: Gender and the Medieval Beguines
Marygrace Peters, O. P. The Beguines: Feminine Piety Derailed.
This page was last updated 12/19/14.