Laura SWAN. The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement. Katanoh, New York: BlueBridge, 2014. pp. 208. $13.56 hc. ISBN 1933346973. Reviewed by Ann SWANER, Barry University, Miami Shores, FL 33161
Laura Swan has written a fascinating account of an informal movement of independent lay women who lived and ministered together in communities all over Europe beginning about 1200 and continuing into the twentieth century. The book’s subtitle calls this a “forgotten story;” because the beguines were never a formal or official movement there was not much history about them. But starting in about 1980 scholars interested in women’s spirituality began to study this women’s movement. The sources for this research are very interesting; they rely largely on records like land sales, deeds, contracts, rent books, obituaries, wills, and other legal documents to piece together the lives of these women. They also have some writings by and about the beguines, many of which were preserved by nuns.
Beguines on the other hand lived alone or in small convents or large court beguinages – small cities within or alongside a city. They lived and ministered in urban areas (except those who ministered to lepers who were not allowed in the cities). They did not have a common rule but developed their own rule of life in each community. They came from every social class. Their communities were informal and largely non-hierarchal. They were led by an elected leader or, in the larger communities, by a council of elders; they were free to choose their leaders with no outside interference. Children often lived in the beguinages. The beguines owned their own property, ran their own businesses, and paid property and income taxes. They were sophisticated businesswomen who were relatively comfortable with the emerging market economy. They did not take permanent vows and were free to stop being a beguine and marry if they chose. The local bishop had no more authority over them than over any other lay Catholic.
Swan sets the founding of the beguines in its context at the start of the new millennium with its calls for church reform, with the beginning of the Crusades and the development of courtly culture, with the emergence of cities and universities, with a new money-based economy and a growing merchant class, with the growth of lay spirituality, the cult of the Virgin Mary, and new religious orders. In this context women moved to the cities seeking employment opportunities and independence and many became beguines.
The spirituality of the beguines was experiential, affective, incarnational, and “rich in imagination.” Their daily lives were punctuated by prayer. They were devoted to the humanity of Jesus and Mary. The “placed themselves” within events in the earthly life of Jesus and tried to experience them along with him. “Through their close imitation of Christ’s life, and by cherishing the bodiliness of both Jesus and Mary, beguines were elevating the human body in general.” They had a devotion to the wounds of Christ and many were said to have received the stigmata. Many claimed to “see” either the infant Jesus or the crucified Jesus in the elevated host. Swan says that the beguines had an enormous impact on what became known as eucharistic adoration. The beguines urged their followers to take responsibility for their own religious life because all people can experience direct intimacy with God. They exhorted their followers to a deeper spiritual life through preaching, teaching, and performing in passion plays, morality plays, mystery plays and other interactive media. They were committed to bringing as many people to God as they could. They were convinced that the call to holiness is for everyone.
The beguines also left outstanding spiritual texts: autobiographies, letters of spiritual direction or moral exhortation, poetry and music. They also copied and illuminated texts. Swan says, “The literary production of the beguines is part of the great Christian mystical writings of the Middle Ages.”
Finally Swan examines the question, “Were the beguines heretics?” Some were investigated by the Inquisition and a few were found guilty and executed; others were forced to move into monasteries. Church councils attempted to suppress the beguine way of life. But the beguines were quite politically savvy; because they insisted on paying property and income taxes even though church authorities offered to help them apply for exemptions, when the bishops tried to confiscate their properties to turn them into monasteries the civil authorities protected them because they did not want to lose the tax revenues or to lose the social services of the beguines. But the independence of the beguines was often perceived as lack of allegiance to the institutional church. Swan concludes that while a few beguines may have been drawn to heretical movements or heretical ideas, most were quite orthodox. But when they resisted the control of ecclesiastical authorities they were accused of heresy and put on trial. Their heresy apparently was thinking that they could direct and document their own spiritual journeys; define, choose, and carry out their own ministries; and manage their own affairs, without help from men.
Swan sees parallels between the turn of the second millennium and the turn of the third: “rampant greed, political strife, endless war, environmental devastation, the outbreak of pestilence, religious upheaval and killing in the name of God.” She suggests that the beguines’ courageous, practical, and loving response to their situation has something to say to us in ours.