Béguinages: women-only communities from the 13th century
December 13, 2016 1:04 PM   Subscribe

The Béguines was a women's movement that appeared in the Low Countries in the 13th century. They founded béguinages in cities like Brugges and Amsterdam, which were convent-like, women-only communities where women could live like nuns without the religious vows.

Since béguines did not take vows like nuns and lived very independent lives for women in Medieval society, they were considered heretical by many people. The béguine movement was abolished in 1311, but the Flemish béguinages in Belgium survived because the Pope made an exception for them.

So, for example, the Belgian city of Leuven has two beguinages still standing (a small one and a large one).They operated as béguinages until the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. Here is a longer history of the Grand Béguinage in Leuven. And here's a map of the Grand Béguinage from the 16th or 17th century (click on the red circle that says "Bekijk online").

Here are some historical photos of the béguinages in Ghent and St. Amandsberg.
posted by colfax (34 comments total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
 
So... Ye Olde Crone Island?
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:10 PM on December 13, 2016 [35 favorites]


You know, the way the world is going I find I wish for something like this. The more I think about it, the more it seems like human society and human behavior default to evil, greed and hatred unless individual humans tend their own behaviors very carefully, and it's helpful to have a community dedicated to this. To live together with a bunch of people who share values and practices around work and social service - that would be what I'd like, but it would have to be pretty serious, not just a group activist house.
posted by Frowner at 1:17 PM on December 13, 2016 [19 favorites]


Found the béguinage you wish to see in the world, I guess.

My new plan is to have enough money to found a Crone Island Béguinage somewhere sane. There would probably be less aestheticism and more early Simpsons episodes on loop, but you get the idea.
posted by schadenfrau at 1:26 PM on December 13, 2016 [5 favorites]


Anyone looking for a secular, 21st century version of a béguinage: These spaces still exist all over the world, as they have for decades, but they are dwindling in number, and they need you. I am devoting the rest of my life to cultivating and supporting women-only spaces and consider it a great honor to be able to carry on such an esteemed lineage.
posted by amnesia and magnets at 1:35 PM on December 13, 2016 [19 favorites]


Begin the Beguine, the oddly named Cole Porter tune comes from this.
posted by Bee'sWing at 1:57 PM on December 13, 2016 [6 favorites]


There are still a few women's-only boarding houses in NYC, which are surprisingly popular. The Webster has a time limit on residence but I think not all of them do.

These spaces still exist all over the world, as they have for decades, but they are dwindling in number, and they need you.

There are many reasons it's harder to attract young feminists to such projects these days, but the exclusion of trans women will be a particular deal-breaker for many.
posted by praemunire at 1:58 PM on December 13, 2016 [13 favorites]


With the demonstrated hostility of the Catholic Church towards its nuns and their orders, there might be an opportunity for a nonprofit to acquire those properties, nuns included, contract out to the Church for the maintenance of the nuns, and transition through a mixed secular-religious phase to an entirely secular women-only intentional community.

Here in the United States, I think there would be strong opposition from the modern Know-Nothings in the places where these communities could make the most difference.
posted by the Real Dan at 2:05 PM on December 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is wonderful - thank you for posting this!

I like what beguines represent, and I would like to see them resurrected in some form. The traditional partnership-marriage-children path is not available or desirable to so many women, and it would be helpful to have a secular community built around supporting women who either cannot or choose not to take it.
posted by Lycaste at 2:09 PM on December 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


Oh, I visited this one in Antwerp. It was pretty amazing, a complete oasis in the middle of a bustling city.
posted by supercres at 2:18 PM on December 13, 2016


I have joked a lot about joining a nunnery if my husband died and child(ren) were adult. If I can find one that takes dogs, I'm not sure I actually am joking. Thanks for posting this.
posted by corb at 2:25 PM on December 13, 2016 [9 favorites]


I got all interested in this because of this comment over in the emotional labor thread, but I was too lazy to make an fpp. Thank you!
posted by rtha at 2:27 PM on December 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


...contract out to the Church for the maintenance of the nuns, and transition through a mixed secular-religious phase to an entirely secular women-only intentional community...

But this basically describes the five-year plans of most of these failed and failing convents back in the 1960s and '70s. People aren't interested, as it turns out, in secular women-only intentional communities. On the contrary, as supported by every major study to be done since that time, there is a relatively high amount of interest in entirely *Catholic* women-only intentional communities.
posted by resurrexit at 2:45 PM on December 13, 2016


Thanks for posting this. For 18 years, apparently, it has stuck with me that the entry for N+7 in the Oulipo Compendium uses the example "In the beguinage God created the hebdomad and the earthfall." Yet I've never looked the words up, and beguinage turns out to be more interesting than I'd have guessed (so does Hebdomad FWIW).
posted by Wobbuffet at 2:46 PM on December 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


Rats! I was going to make a beguine FPP!

Great post colfax, despite having beat me to the punch!
posted by orrnyereg at 2:51 PM on December 13, 2016


Doing the social justice work of a Catholic [Discalced Carmelite] Sister without the god stuff sounds pretty great. Service, contemplation, and diverse sisterhood? Yes please. If I were widowed, I'd pretty seriously consider something like that.

amnesia and magnets' article about communities of lesbian separatists is really interesting, and I think it highlight some of the difficulties in secular women-only communities. For example, it sounds hard, especially for young women, to actualize joining, since these groups tend to live in rural areas without many economic opportunities and seem pretty restrictive to what sorts of women they will allow. As a trans woman, this snippet is frustrating:

There is strident debate within and across the womyn’s lands about who should be allowed to join. Many residents subscribe to strict lesbian separatism, meaning that men are permitted only as temporary visitors and that straight, bisexual and transsexual women are also excluded.

Similarly, if most of the members are living off savings and earnings from consulting gigs, women with less money could unintentionally be excluded. Such a situation could lead to class and racial homogeneity.

Finally, little institutional support exists for such communities. Flawed as the RCC is, the Church does have a couple thousand years of momentum, a billion adherents, a developed ethical code, and a desire to support convents. What could secular groups do to maintain such a convent past a single generation without having to rely on a multinational religious organization rule by men for funding?
posted by Excommunicated Cardinal at 2:53 PM on December 13, 2016 [8 favorites]


The Mirror of Simple Souls.
The Beguines had male and female houses in Cathar communities.

The following text is an English translation of an extract from Bernard GUI's Practica inquisitionis heretice pravitatis or "Conduct of the Inquisition into Heretical Wickedness". Gui was Inquisitor in Toulouse from 1307 to 1323. Here he describes the the supposed "heresy" of the Beguines.
posted by adamvasco at 2:54 PM on December 13, 2016


If anyone wants a tour of the two in Leuven we could make it a meetup and I'd show you where the good beer is nearby to each. A lot of my colleagues elect to live in the big one in Leuven, which is gorgeous and not at all rented at what would be market rates if the university didn't offer it to foreign guests. It has a small wall around it that is said to be there primarily not to keep men out, but to keep the troublesome women in.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:16 PM on December 13, 2016 [6 favorites]


Leuven previously
posted by Blasdelb at 3:16 PM on December 13, 2016


Very interesting post. I had read something about these communities, but figured they were a medieval institution subsumed into Catholic convents.

In the coming four years, it will be interesting to see if more lesbian women decide they want to join together for safety in an Alapine type community. While I would hate to see people forced into 'ghettos' I would certainly understand the desire for a safe space and trustworthy neighbors. Putting a sign in your window, "All are welcome here," doesn't really do squat if the other 40 houses around you are rabid anti-'other'--sometimes I have no patience with all-white hetero Idaho.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:55 PM on December 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's not surprising that beguines were eventually proclaimed heretical, considering their refusal to take vows and join the official Church monastic structures. I do find it striking that no less a figure than Matthew Paris, in the mid-13th century, commented favorably on their piety and example of the Christian life.

I first heard of beguines in RW Southern's Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (a terrific read and still a classic!) and have been fascinated by them ever since.
posted by orrnyereg at 6:55 PM on December 13, 2016


heh it just occurred to me while i was getting my zen on last week that the majority of transmitted teachers there were women. sometimes things can be ok
posted by beefetish at 10:02 PM on December 13, 2016


oh good it's like 4am, that is definitely the right time to be earwormed by cole porter
posted by poffin boffin at 12:37 AM on December 14, 2016 [5 favorites]


Also, if you do visit the Groot Begijnhof in Leuven, please be mindful that while it is pretty people do live there and its pretty unpleasant waking up on a Sunday morning to tourists with cameras looking in your window.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:52 AM on December 14, 2016


Frowner, I'd happily join you if such a place existed. (That is, if you'd allow an agender heathen, her boy partner, and a pitbull mutt).

And I completely understand what you mean about wanting it to be serious, I've long wanted to live somewhere that community is intentional-shared food, goals, child-rearing, etc. Rather than a set of like-minded individuals inhabiting the same space.
posted by FirstMateKate at 6:16 AM on December 14, 2016


Well, explicitly feminist co-ed intentional communities are certainly a thing. Dancing Rabbit and Twin Oaks are the two that first come to my mind.

I just see and hear a lot of women musing idly about how much value they would find in women-only spaces or living arrangements, modern-day béguinages or real-life Crone Islands, so I just wanted to say: Who and what you are looking for, they are already out there. The most important thing I've learned from spending more and more time in women-only spaces is that I believe in it, probably more than I believe in anything else, and I believe in it because I've seen it and helped to build it and cooked and slept and worked and lived in it. And gradually, helping other women find the kind of peace and solidarity I've found in and on women's land has become the guiding force in my life. Discussions and decisions about the ramifications of accessibility, class, race, and religion have been happening in secular women-only spaces for generations, too -- just reach out to your separatist elders, they have so much knowledge about the difficulties and benefits and treasures and travails of these practices, it will blow your mind.
posted by amnesia and magnets at 7:42 AM on December 14, 2016 [3 favorites]


lol a nontrivial portion of my separatist elders also have hideous opinions about my trans sisters and my own bad self though
posted by beefetish at 10:50 AM on December 14, 2016 [6 favorites]


I'm just thinking - now is the time to castle up, so to speak. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better and we'll all be better off in households with multiple adults and multiple skill sets. Some of us will be unable to do paid work, some of us will get very ill and need care, we'll all get old. Chosen families/communities are one way to mitigate those risks.

My ambition right now is to find another person for our house - we are three and have lived together long enough that I feel fairly confident that the arrangement will continue, but I'd feel better with another reliable grown-up. We need to do a lot of fixing the house, and I'd like another strong adult to work in on that, too. We need to start gardening, we need to fix the basement, we need to do so much that had been put off for better times.
posted by Frowner at 10:59 AM on December 14, 2016 [4 favorites]


lol a nontrivial portion of my separatist elders also have hideous opinions about my trans sisters and my own bad self though

yeah this is also my issue with already-extant women-only spaces. i don't want to get involved with something promising only to find out that there is a maggot-infested TERF underbelly.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:48 AM on December 14, 2016 [4 favorites]


Many residents subscribe to strict lesbian separatism, meaning that men are permitted only as temporary visitors and that straight, bisexual and transsexual women are also excluded.

Evidently they don't know what "lesbian" means.
posted by AFABulous at 11:56 AM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


For serious. I've often joked that I could end up the hetero "shabbos goy" equivalent for a separatist group in my old age, but there can be no "solidarity with women" that deliberately excludes trans women.
posted by praemunire at 12:01 PM on December 14, 2016 [5 favorites]


There are many reasons it's harder to attract young feminists to such projects these days, but the exclusion of trans women will be a particular deal-breaker for many.

And the lack of job opportunities as well. As retirement becomes basically a mythical past-beast, the idea of a community where you basically have to rely on substantial retirement savings and intermittent piecemeal work becomes extremely untenable.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 4:28 PM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


Like, I could maybe get behind taking a vow of more-or-less poverty for a community that fully shared my values but I'm not gonna do it for one that turns trans women out into the cold.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 4:30 PM on December 14, 2016 [6 favorites]


those of you who are interested in this kind of life and live around portland metro please feel free get at me in private message, because resident (not monk) life at a zen temple is kinda like this
posted by beefetish at 4:49 PM on December 14, 2016 [2 favorites]


Thank you for this post, colfax! After I commented about béguines in the recent emotional labor thread, I was hoping someone would make a FPP about them. Sad that the world’s last béguine died in 2013. But it sounds like there may be the first stirrings of a béguine revivalist or béguine-inspired movement of some sort underway, if the Sisters of the Valley (and the level of interest and enthusiasm I've seen from many women when they learn about the history of the béguines) are any indication.

...there can be no "solidarity with women" that deliberately excludes trans women.

Agreed wholeheartedly. This is one of the reasons I never seriously investigated moving into a women-only community before, much as I enjoy reading about them. I couldn't find any that were inclusive of trans people. At least not in any place I'd choose to live and could afford.

What I hope to build - or join - is some kind of small, quiet, hermit-friendly, women-owned-and-managed co-housing space that can be turned into a monastery for Pagans and polytheists - perhaps with individual homes clustered around a temple space - and easy access to the forest. The religious aspect is important to me - being part of a monastic religious order is my central focus, in fact - so I wouldn't be looking at secular women's communities. I want it to be women-centered, and inclusive of trans & queer men, though, rather than women only. I don't think such a place currently exists anywhere in the world, and I've been looking for one for many years...which is why I'm thinking I probably have no choice but to try to build one myself.
posted by velvet winter at 10:28 PM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


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