by TOM CASSAUWERS
A group of beguines in the workroom of a beguinage in Ghent, Belgium, c. 1910. PHOTO/Internet Archive/Public Domain
The devout, wandering mystics were consigned to beguinages, which are now prime tourist spots
On June 1, 1310, a woman named Marguerite Porète was burned at the stake in Paris after she had refused to retract her book, The Mirror Of The Simple Souls. She was a particular kind of woman, devout to the point of fanaticism, and her book about Christian mysticism regarded as heretical by the Church.
“Marguerite Porète is a very interesting case,” says Walter Simons of Dartmouth College. “She made the mistake of wanting to make a point of her heresy. And that suited a lot of people quite well.”
Both the Church, who at the beginning of the 14th century was becoming increasingly worried about heretical movements, and the French crown saw in Porète an easy target, an unmarried, wandering mystic. It didn’t help that she was a member of a mysterious, distrusted, poorly-understood religious movement—the beguines.
Beguines were a religious movement of women who weren’t wives but also weren’t fully ordained in a religious order. There is a long history of Christian mystics, and they occupied a twilight zone in which they could move between the secular and religious worlds. They didn’t need to bear the burden of married life, but also weren’t forced to seclude themselves as nuns did, leading active and economically useful lives as single women.
The movement founds its origin in 12th century when mulieres religiosae, holy women, began grouping together in cities of present day Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Northern France. Here they lived in voluntary poverty and preached sexual abstinence, while living lives in the service of the poor and marginalized. One such holy woman, the 23-year old widow Juetta of Huy, left her family in the city of Liege around 1181 to serve lepers. She then spent the last 36-years of her life immured as an anchorite.
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via Women of History