Beguines, the freest women in the Medieval Era

The freest women

Beguines, religious, independent...
Beguines free women, religious, independent…

Beguines free women in the Medieval Age, founded a movement that whenever it is explained surprises everyone who listens to it. First because of how unknown it is, despite its longevity. And second because of what it meant for a movement that gave freedom and independence to women in the middle of the Middle Ages. A group of women who decided to live in community, spiritual, but not religious, who lived helping those most in need and who decided not to live isolated from the community to which they belonged.

Who were the Beguines?

They were secular women who lived in community without having to take ecclesiastical vows, they only took the vows of poverty and chastity. They built their beguinages or beguinages near hospitals and protected by walls.

The first beguinage is believed to have been built in Liège, present-day Belgium, around 1180 near the Church of St. Christopher. The movement was born in a historical context in which after two centuries of Crusades there was a female overpopulation. And many women were tired of the abuses of the church and did not want to take the vows, although they wanted to live in a female community in which they felt safe. and free.

First beguinages were built in Flanders, Brabant and the Rhineland, although they quickly began to expand to other regions, reaching as far as the Iberian Peninsula. There is data that there were beguinaries in Catalonia and Asturias. However, due to the persecution they had from the ecclesiastical leadership, they began to retreat to where the movement was born.

Organization of the beguinaries.

Beguines were women of any social stratum, although, it is true, they used to welcome and help low-income women, single and repudiated mothers or prostitutes. There were rich women who left them money as an inheritance so that they could continue carrying out their activities, but they used to work. Usually in jobs related to the textile industry or, and more importantly, in patient care. Moreover, they are considered the first nurses in history. Women who dedicated themselves to caring for, helping and providing assistance to patients.

These women did not take the habits or take the vow of obedience, which was important to them, and their organization within the beguinaries was democratic. There was a figure called the Grande Dame, who was the most important figure in the beguinary and who was democratically elected by all the beguines.

Were surrounded by a wall, but the beguines could go out during the day. They were free to go where they wanted or perform tasks outside the beguinage that they wanted. However, every night, for protection, they closed the doors of the beguinaries. They could also leave the beguinage whenever they wanted, some to get married and others ended up taking the habits.

Men were forbidden to enter the beguinaries, only priests could access them on Sundays for mass and confession, since the beguinaries used to have their own church within them. The Beguinages were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

Beguinary of Bruges, founded in 1245.
Beguinary of Bruges, founded in 1245.

Art and mysticism

Beguines dedicated themselves to cultivating different artistic areas, the most common being music; they used to play the banjo, accordion and organ. It is important to point out that one of the aspects they cultivated was literature, usually poetry. And many of them were women who knew how to read and write and taught other Beguines or children.

Many of the best-known Beguines were poetesses: Hadewych of Antwerp (1200-1260) was the most famous mystical poet and wrote in the vulgar language, Dutch, instead of Latin; Matilda of Magdeburg (1207-1282) who was a Beguine in her youth but later decided to become a nun. Maria d’Oignies (1177-1213) wrote stigmata, being the first person to write on this subject; or the most famous of all: Marguerite Porete, author of The Mirror of Simple Souls and put on trial by the Inquisition.

Beguines, the freest women in the Medieval Era
Beguines, the freest women in the Medieval Era
Persecution of the Beguines

The freest women in medieval times

During the fourteenth century began the persecution of the beguines. In a historical context in which the Church and the rulers increasingly wanted to monopolize more power and wealth, both orders such as the Templars or these women were a challenge for the ecclesiastical leadership. The moment in which they suffered the most was when the inquisitor Guillermo de Paris persecuted this group of women. At the Council of Vienne, the heretical doctrines of this group were condemned, followers of Marguerite Porete, who would end up being killed alive at the stake in the year 1310.

Little by little they were withdrawing and establishing only in the north of Europe, mainly Belgium and the Netherlands. Here they managed to survive for centuries. Partly because of the respect they had for their care for the sick and the most destitute of the population, and on the other hand, because they took more discreet positions in order to reconcile with the ecclesiastical leadership.

End of movement

Beguines free women. It is true that, despite the unknown nature of this movement, its end is very recent. The honor of being the last beguine goes to Marcella Pattyn who died on April 14, 2013 at the age of 92 in the city of Courtrai/Kortrijk (Belgium). And with her ended a very important movement for women that was born in the S. XII and ends in the XXI century.

Now these places have different uses: the Bruges beguinage belongs to a religious order, the Malines and Ghent beguinages are luxury houses, the Antwerp beguinage are also private residences, but only for women. Possibly the most beautiful conserved beguinage is that of Leuven, which today is the residence of the Catholic University of Leuve (KLU).

Finally, the importance of these women can be explained from many points of view and in the book Las beguinas: libertad en religion Elena Botinas and Julia Cabaleiro point out that the beguinaries and the movement are “a space of transgression of limits, tacit or written, imposed on women, not mediated by any type of dependency or subordination, in which they act as generating agents of new and specific forms of relationship and female authority.A space that becomes symbolic by becoming a point of reference, as a model, in short, for other women”.


If you want to know more about the beguines, the free women of medieval times and their importance, you can join any of our tours. A good place of reference is the book “The mirror of souls” by Mario Escobar or any of these pages: beguines, gomeres,…