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“The Wisdom of the Beguines”: Commonweal Book Review on Medieval Laywomen Mystics

“The Wisdom of the Beguines”: Commonweal Book Review on Medieval Laywomen Mystics August 29, 2015

with tons of fascinating stuff:

In the twelfth century, single women began moving in large numbers from farms to cities of the Low Countries to work in the textile industry. Many of these women formed communal living arrangements that offered safe, affordable accommodation, and a life of service to their neighbors. According to Laura Swan’s recent book, The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement, the beguines, who flourished for several hundred years, were one of many lay groups seeking the vita apostolica as a faithful response to spiritual renewal. The beguines are hardly forgotten—they have received a good deal of scholarly attention recently, and a modern ecumenical beguine movement has arisen in Europe—but Swan’s book provides an accessible overview of beguine spirituality in the context of their own times.

The availability of textile work and the establishment of schools by the countesses Joan and Margaret of Flanders helped beguine communities to coalesce, writes Swan. However, it was the beguines’ skill in caring for the poor, the sick, and the dying that earned these women the respect of townspeople, local authorities, and, at first, church leaders. Swan sees the beguines primarily as religious communities with self-governing rules (though not a rule) and a magistra (rather than an abbess or prioress) who served as a leader and spiritual guide. Beguines did not take vows, though many stayed in the beguinage their whole lives; they were free to leave their communities to marry and raise families. As their learning increased, beguines took a lively interest in theology, wrote their own meditations, and even translated Bible stories into the vernacular. They embraced a lively form of worship that involved singing and spontaneous dancing. …

Most scholars place the best-known beguine writers—Hadewijch, Mechtilde of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete—in the tradition of women medieval mystics. Swan introduces readers to many more beguine mystics and their stories. Beguine mystics reportedly experienced trances, ecstasies, visions, and the stigmata. The twelfth-century beguine Christina the Astonishing was said to have levitated at her own funeral. At the heart of beguine mysticism, says Swan, was a special devotion to Christ as lover and sufferer. The triune God, wrote one beguine, was Lover, Beloved, and Love itself. Some beguines re-enacted Christ’s passion for audiences, realistically recalling his suffering.

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