A Short Review of “The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement”

A Short Review of “The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement” May 27, 2016

Going into this book I knew basically nothing about the beguines–not even how you pronounce it. (BEG-een, BEY-geen or buh-GEEN, according to dictionary.com.) All I really wanted from Laura Swan’s short popular historical survey was an introduction to a vocation that has been almost entirely forgotten: laywomen, sometimes itinerant but sometimes living in communities from two or three people to a miniature city of over a thousand women, ministering to their neighbors and developing a unique style of Catholic spirituality.

The book gave me what I needed: a first step over the threshold. It includes small portraits of many beguines and beguine-adjacent women, including saints and mystics and foundresses of hospitals. You’ll get a sense of what made beguines distinctive, and what made them sometimes threatening to both laymen and clergymen.

I am unsure how much I trust this book, largely because it’s basically a defense brief for beguines. Swan hates conceding that any critic of any beguine might’ve had a point, even when the lady in question literally proclaimed herself to be God. It’s maybe unfair to compare Wisdom of the Beguines to Alan Bray’s majestic The Friend, since Swan is writing for a broader audience and anyway not everybody can be Alan Bray, but one thing I love about his book is that he knows that every vocation brings its own typical temptations and characteristic sins. Every form of love can become a way to use another person; every form of self-gift can be used to shore up our self-image; every form of communion also causes conflict. And this focus on the problems caused by committed, public friendship makes Bray’s book more honest, more suspenseful, and more trustworthy.

That said, here are the main things I noticed in Wisdom of the Beguines:

  • the fluidity of the beguine model. Beguines often had close relationships with vowed religious. Before women could be Dominican nuns, they were Dominican-influenced beguines; many women who started out as beguines ended up taking religious vows, and while some of that was due to pressure from church hierarchs, beguine spirituality influenced both men and women religious. Beguines could live in their own walled mini-cities (where there were in fact class divisions, a point Swan skims over even though the question of how small Christian communities handle economic inequality is pretty relevant and important) or they could live in little groups, or they could live as recluses. Even “beguine” is an umbrella term covering women who were referred to by many different terms throughout Europe: beata in Spain, bizzochera (which iirc is “penitent”) in Italy, etc. A lot of recent discussion of community has noted that laypeople can gather around a monastery or other religious community, like animals coming to drink at the watering hole. The beguines often model that way of living in the shadow of the monastery.
  • the beguines’ relationship to the growth of capitalism/the money economy. Beguines were often businesswomen. They made textiles and sold them, for example. And they flourished in part because they’d do this work for less pay than the members of the growing trade guilds. Swan views this economic activity in totally rah-rah terms, Laywomen Are Doin’ It for Themselves!, which leads her to demonize the guild members. I’m sure sexism played a role in the (increasingly powerful) opposition to beguines’ businesses, but why would anybody expect union men to love scabs? In general I wonder how much the beguines’ economic independence and mobility–which is part of what makes them such good models for Christian women today, let me emphasize!–influenced their spirituality. More emphasis on the individual and her own inner guidance by the Holy Spirit (some of these women sound like Quakers, which I do not intend as a compliment), less emphasis on stability and on the Church as the Body of Christ? A more critical approach might’ve proven more illuminating here, idk.
  • That said, the snapshots we do get of beguine spirituality in this book are often beautiful and fascinating. The section on the beguines’ power to release souls from Purgatory was especially striking to me. (Including the connection between beguines’ prayer ministry to souls in Purgatory and beguines’ ministry to prisoners here on earth.) It made me wonder whether there’s a connection between their prayerful attention to Purgatory and the influence of courtly love on beguine spirituality: The courtly love tradition gets pretty intense, iirc, about the pains of love, love as passion. If that’s your template for the soul’s relationship with her Divine Lover then there’s nothing unintelligible or threatening about a searing Love that cleanses you, a love so bright and hot that you can’t bear it until you’ve been utterly transformed into its flame.
  • I know nothing about interdict and medieval church-state politics but the description of it here was striking. Swan argues that interdict unintentionally empowered beguines–medieval people interpreted restrictions on their sacramental care as damage, and routed around them.

    I wish this book were less pushy–and, frankly, less predictable in its individualist feminism–but I’m deeply grateful for it. Swan clearly loves these women and their calling, and she has done rescue work here, making a hidden treasure of Christian history available to contemporary women. (You can read Commonweal‘s review, which is what persuaded me to check the book out, here. Also, if you live here, I just returned it to the DC library system.)

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