In the late Middle Ages, careers available to women were generally confined to wifehood, the nunnery, or convents set up by the order of lay women called the Beguines. In the aristocratic classes, a wife was the Lady of the Manse, and her life involved hawking, chess, musical pursuits, witty repartee, and the game of Courtly Love. Nuns too were allowed an education -- particularly those nuns "drawn from the top ranks of society, but there was less agreement as to the wisdom and necessity of learning for other women," according to historians Davis and Bowie, in their book, Beguine Spirituality. In the newly-forming wealthy merchant classes, a woman's education ran toward Christian piety and good housekeeping. For "excess women," the nunnery and the convent provided a home -- although not always a welcome one.
As Joseph Campbell noted in his analysis of the Middle Ages, Transformations of Myth Through Time, this was an age when the church authorities were, in general, a corrupt lot. In folklore of the time, monks are shown "visiting" otherwise chaste wives and widows to dispense "comfort" -- a euphemism for sexual activities. They drank, smoked henbane -- a mildly psychotropic herb -- took lovers, and ate the finest of delicacies. In the secular realm, male clergy held secular powers by political means and through the systematic collection of wealth from the merchant and peasant classes. This state of affairs began in the fifth century with the Donatist heresy that held that sacraments administered by corrupt clergy were not valid. No, said St. Augustine, the sacrament is incorruptible, and it doesn't matter whether or not the priest is corrupt. The description of the Prioress Madame Eglentyne in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was less a parody than a reflection of the general state of affairs in the church.
During the 10th century, several sweeping monastic reforms resulted in the rapid spread of Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries. These movements, at first, included houses of cloistered women, as a means of caring for the wives and daughters of men attracted by these movements; however, they did not welcome women as full participants. Although women were attracted to the movements of Dominic (c. 1170-1221) and Francis of Assisi (c. 1181-1226) neither movement, with the single exception of Saint Clare and her "poor sisters," welcomed women into their orders. To the monastic male, women posed a problem of spiritual danger, and the life of the friar, that of mendicancy and begging, was inconceivable. The primary choice for women with a religious calling was that of enclosure within a nunnery.
It is understandable that women, given these choices, would create an alternative to express their inner calling.
The Beguines were an order of lay women who had begun, in the 12th century, to seek an alternative to the monastic enclosure. The keys to this movement were the ideals of chastity, poverty, simplicity, and good works.
Although these women might be widowed, married, or single, they commonly made a vow to remain celibate while living as a Beguine. Unlike the enclosed women in nunneries they retained use of their individual property. Beguines also differed from women in nunneries in that they were free to change their status and were not under the obligation of monastic rule.
The Beguines lived in communities that they called convents. These convents were popular and influential throughout the century, although subject to persecution by the Inquisition at times. Beguine convents were set up near hospitals or leprosaria and often clustered around an established religious house. As they increased in size and complexity these communities came to be called beguinages. (Scholars believe that this name came from a Flemish word: begijnhoven.)
The Beguines never formed a coherent organization or evolved under a specific leader. What united these women, and a lesser number of men, called Beghards, was a desire to lead a committed life, without the constraints of enclosure in a monastic community or within the bonds of marriage. According to Fiona Bowie, the first Beguines "may have resembled the recluses, individuals and small groups of women of ecstatic temperament and common religious interests, but no official status."
These groups of women, daughters of the bourgeoisie and minor nobility, were inspired by Lambert de Begue, a mendicant preacher who espoused what Aelred of Rivaulx called "the religion of love." In about 1170-75 one of the earliest recorded groups of Beguines was formed around Begue. A larger group arose around Mont Cornillon in Huy during 1182, around a woman called Ivetta. Also in 1182 another somewhat more influential group formed in association with Marie of Oignies at Williambroux near Nivelles.
Mechthild of Magdeburg
One Beguine whose life and ideas have come down to us was Mechthild of Magdeburg. At the age of 12 (the onset of adulthood for girls in the 13th century) Mechthild heard her "calling" and received her first vision. Mechthild describes this as having been "hailed" by the "Holy Spirit." For reasons that remain unknown, Mechthild's family did not provide a dowry for her entrance into an existing order when she left her family about 1230 to live in the town of Magdeburg. There, according to historians Zum-Brown and Epiny-Burgard, "she asserts she knew 'only one person at the time.' She entered a house of Beguines but did not contact the 'friend' for fear such a relationship would distract her from her devotion to God."
Mechthild was literate in medieval Low German and may have also been literate in Middle German. This was a mark of the 13th century, when the idea of literacy spread beyond the monastic walls for the first time since the ancient world. This widespread literacy among the "gentle" classes was, in large part, responsible for the development of lay writings of the court, and the rise of the troubadours. Recognized for the lyricism of her poetry, Mechthild was familiar with and adopted the conventions of the literature of her day.
She was a formidable woman who lived to be a very old lady despite persecution by church authorities who maintained that women were incapable of "subtle thought," and therefore could only be inspired to heresy without proper guidance.
Mechtild's Vision: The Flowing Light of Godhead (Das fiessende Light der Gottheit)
In about 1250, Mechthild began the writing of her life's work, The Flowing Light of Godhead. It is a mixture of prose, ecstatic poetry, dreams, revelations, and visions. She occasionally exhorts her "sister Beguines" to address their actions to God rather than to the mundane. She adopts the medieval convention of addressing herself as "lowly" and "defiled"; in fact, she revels in her debasement before her "bridegroom" and constantly yearns for the fulfillment of her visionary relationship with the divine. While she debases the body, this relationship is, nonetheless, an erotic one, with tangible, physical language used to describe her union with the divine throughout. In the words of religious analyst J.C. Franklin in Mystical Transformations: The Imagery of Liquids in the Work of Mechthild von Magdeburg:
Mechthild's God, unlike the God of some other mystic writers, is actually thought to possess a perceivable countenance. He is "seen" not merely through his reflection upon earthly objects but as himself. One might suppose that if man was created in the image of God then God must be anatomically similar to man. Thus Mechthild's God has not only a general countenance, but also eyes, ears, a mouth, arms, and legs, feet a chest and a heart: "min gotlich herze".
It is important to remember that, for Mechthild, this relationship is one of union of the soul, the body is the material to be overcome, always:
The body says to the soul:
"Where have you been? I am tired."
To that the soul replies: "Quiet, fool.
I have been with my loved one. . . ."
(Magdeburg, Galvani trans.)
Her vision of heaven is courtly, hierarchical with the angels, martyrs, and saints in the heavenly choir in tier after tier ascending in "purity" until the Godhead is revealed over all. Her view of humankind is delightfully medieval, both hopeful and simultaneously befouled: the human soul, whom God created as "Bride" to his "Bridegroom," as goddess before Lucifer, had the Fall from Heaven not taken place, as companion to the Trinity, has "befouled herself" by taking the fruit of the Tree in the Garden of Eden.
Mechthild believed that good Christians must emulate the life of Christ in sacrifice and charity. This emulation included flagellation, debasement, and "bound" devotion: a system of ligature holy women and men underwent during contemplacio, or holy devotion, in order to not be distracted by the "worldly nature of the body." Her relationship with her body is, in a word, medieval: she addresses it as "vile" and "unworthy" in words that resemble St. Francis' "Brother Ass." It is unworthy in the sense that the body cannot know of the soul's union with the divine Bridegroom, nor can the experience be fully described in her writing, as it is a "secret game" of ecstatic union. This "game" is only alluded to, hinted at, and yearned for.
Her descriptions of this state are sensual and erotic. One believes, after a few stanzas, that Mechthild was quite ignorant on the subject of actual sex, and that her union with her spiritual Bridegroom was of a different order entirely: a paradox of explicit innocence. Consider this exchange between Mechthild and the Bridegroom, from the Menzies translation:
Thou art my resting-place, my love, my secret peace, my deepest longing, my highest honor. Thou art a delight of my Godhead, a comfort of my manhood, a cooling stream for my ardor.
And, she answers, without hesitation,
Thou art a mirror of my vision, a delight of my eyes, an escape from my self, a tempest of my heart, a fall, a weakening of my power -- and yet my highest security!
Of course, the psychoanalytic view of this union could be that of sublimation and repressed desire, but this would be missing the point. Mechthild did not seem to entertain the notion that she could feel "earthly desire" in any way. Quite the opposite, in her view only the very pure and chaste maidens achieved the highest honors in heaven: the ecstatic companionship of their holy Bridegroom. Further, this holy and chaste mystical love must be earned. Unlike her initial description of love as an overflowing bounty from the Godhead, the soul progresses through the levels of heaven as she is wooed:
In a seemly fashion, and flow and swim,
They fly and climb
From choir to choir and come before the heights of the realm.
(Magdeburg, Franklin trans.)
Mechthild's life was beset with trouble: she was at odds with and in favor with the organized church at various times. When she was denied communion at about age 30, she grieved extravagantly in her poetic conversations between the Soul and Love. This is a matter of amor, of a lover who has wooed her soul and who now commands her every desire, her every wish, her very being.
So flowing in Thy love!
So burning in Thy desire!
So fervent in union!
O Thou dost rest on my heart
Without whom I could no longer live!
(Magdeburg, Menzies trans.)
Her Beloved does not fail her: Like the Romance knight and his lady, Mechthild is led to the dance, wooed, and brought into union with her eternal "Beloved" in verse that describes the medieval conditions of amor. Her wish is His command. He pulls her along to a secret place; and there she must not ask for anyone, for He wants to play a game with her alone. Then the youth speaks:
Maiden, you did this dance of praise very well. . . . Come at midday to the shade of the well into the bed of love; there you will be refreshed with Him.
(Magdeburg, Galvani trans.)
Mechthild's fate paralleled that of the Beguines as a whole. When the orders came under Inquisitional persecution, Mechthild was forced into monastic vows. Although she was welcomed by her monastic sisters and cared for tenderly, she failed quickly and died without adding to her body of work (already suspect in the eyes of the Church). Mechthild engaged herself in her community of Beguines, but always held that her true life was lived in the presence of her Bridegroom, when lifted from her body in mystical union.
The End of the Beguines
The Beguines declined as a result of persecution and clerical opposition. The Church began to distrust Beguine mystical theology after the publication of Beguine mystical writings, including those of Mechtild and Marguerite Porete. This distrust gave rise to accusations of immorality and the heretical doctrine of "Free Spirit," a charge also leveled at the Albigensians. In Bowie's words:
As the Church became increasingly paranoid concerning the presence of heterodox teachings, and brutal in its attempts to eradicate those it conceived of as a threat, Beguines, Beghards, Jews, witches, and various other sects found themselves vulnerable and subject to frequent accusation of heresy, with often terrible consequences.
These "terrible consequences" included the burning of Marguerite Porete. Marguerite Porete was a writer and somewhat of a recluse who lived to a very old age for her day, some eighty-five years. Very little is known about the life she lived except as it pertains to her book The Mirror of Simple Souls Who Are Annihilated by Love. Porete's book was banned as heretical until it was discovered in the early 20th century and brought to light by religious scholars. She was burned at the stake in Paris on June 1, 1310, at the Place de Grèvé. (She was, incidentally, condemned by the same Inquisitor General who presided over the trials of the Knights Templar in 1307, Master William of Paris, King Philip's confessor.) It was said that Porete went to her death with her eyes open, her mind clear, and with forgiveness in her heart.
The burning of Marguerite Porete, the persecution of Mechthild von Magdeburg, and the brutal crusade against southern France that ended the troubadour tradition of the Midi begun by Guilhem of Poitou and annihilated the Albigensians were all products of the same Inquisitorial fires, which burned unchecked across Europe until the Reformation, at which time the "torch" was passed to the Protestant Witchfinders who lit the faggots just as brightly in the town squares of Europe and later in colonial America.
By the 15th century, Beguine convents had become little more than charitable institutions. There are a handful of Beguines along the Rhine today to remind us of their unique beginnings at a time when these women represented a flowering of the human spirit amid oppression, a flowering that has never been contingent upon gender.
Copyright © 2003 Lezlie Kinyon
Lezlie was born in the state of Washington and grew up in the rain. Naturally, she relocated to a sunnier clime some years ago, and currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently working on doctoral research in Human Science at Saybrook Graduate School. By day she works in an after-school program as a tutoring coordinator in a service learning program she has designed and implemented. Lezlie has written poetry and stories since she was a child. Her publications include an e-novella, "Rusalka Moon," with illustrations by her daughter, Thea Kinyon.
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