Women's Religious OrdersThe Beguines and HeresyWere the Beguines unfairly charged with heresy?
byDana Bolton
The early years of medieval Christianity were full of women who desired to live a simple and spiritual life. No female orders existed so women were encouraged to attach themselves to male orders. Although there were several groups who accepted women in their religious orders, most found they did not meet the social and economic status set for acceptance into these groups (Conn, 2000). This led to the creation of a group that was accepting of all women, regardless of their status. They called themselves the Beguines. The Beguines began as a very large, spaced out group of women whose desire was to live a religious life and to serve others. Their characteristics, including their origin, gender, and success, along with controlling and power hungry opponents caused the Beguines to be unfairly charged with heresy.
The Beguines were recognized during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but there is evidence to suggest that they actually existed successfully prior to then. In the beginning, the women were difficult to identify as they as they were not as numerous as they were in later years and they participated in a wide variety of activities (Neel, 1989). There were official recordings that suggest connections between the Beguines and earlier generations of women who participated in a similar religious lifestyle. Mary of Oignies, whose death occurred in 1211, was identified as one of the first Beguines, and has several common characteristics as that of Oda of Rivreulle, whose death occurred in 1157 and whose life was recorded by Philip of Harvengt (Neel, 1989).
During the thirteenth Century, the growth of the Beguines quickly increased. These women desired to live a spiritual life that was unstructured and allowed them to live in a pious community where they could come and go. In essence, they lived both in and out of the world. Like their earlier counterparts, the women of these groups also cared for the sick, the dying, and the poor. They desired to live a primitive life which included manual labor. It was this labor that allowed them to become self sufficient and self supporting by living off of the land. They were devoted to their prayer and their charitable works, but did not take vows nor did they take male orders. Unlike their male counterparts who practiced under religious orders in seclusion, the Beguines remained in contact with their friends and family which allowed them to give support to their local communities (Neel, 1989).
The success of the Beguines led to their quick growth. It was also this success that brought attention to the fact that groups of women were successfully living a life that went against everything that the church hierarchy believed in. This made the hierarchy nervous and they began to watch the actions of the Beguines closely. Unfortunately, this occurred during a time when men ruled, especially in the religious aspect of life. Society did not accept women who did not listen to men, but the desire to live a religious life was so great, that these women overlooked this (Conn, 2000).
The simple fact that the Beguines were female caused them to face much criticism. Even though they worked very hard and supported themselves, they were not respected as having a true vocation. It was believed that anytime large groups of women lived closely with one another, they were either lesbians or prostitutes (Rubin, 2009). Women were not expected to be successful on their own, much less self sufficient without the rule of man.
The creation of the Beguines was not a revolt against the church and the Beguines themselves did not have any issues with the church. They did not desire to introduce new or distinct theological ideas nor did they claim any sort of authority. They simply had a desire to live religiously just as the males who became Franciscans or Dominicans desired to live (Conn, 2000).
Many males in religious roles supported the Beguines and praised their success, but the Beguines were never officially accepted as a religious order. They were even influenced in their creation by Bernard of Caiirvaux, William of St. Thierry and Richard of St. Victor (Murk-Jansen, 1998). In 1216, Honorius III accepted the joining of the pious communities. James of Vitry also supported the group and English Franciscan Robert Grosseteste proclaimed it “to be highest life of perfection and greatest degree of poverty” as they relied on their own labor instead of alms (Grundmann, 1995). Theologian Robert de Sorbon argued that they would outlast other religious groups (Grundmann, 1995). The group was also recognized as legitimate and had privileges and protection from other religious leaders such as popes, legates, and bishops (Grundmann, 1995).
It would appear that their simple lifestyle would be one of few problems but this was not the case. Complaints of abuse began to arise and the Beguines sought help from the local curia. In 1235, Gregory IX offered them protection from clergymen, monks, and laymen (Grundmann, 1995). This created an even closer relationship with the Dominicans which again brought negative attention to the group. Dominicans who were found to have relationships that were too close in nature were punished (Grundmann, 1995). Large attention was given to the fact that the Beguines had no established order. There was also the realization that the Beguines sought out help from the same groups they did not want to control them. The church hierarchy began to intervene and try to place control on the situation.
In 1215, there were conflicts which incurred banning of any new form of vita religious (Grundmann, 1995). The church demanded that large groups, especially women, had to be strictly controlled. William of St. Amour, who was a defender of the old hierarchical order, was adamantly against any new forms of religion (Grundmann, 1995). In his efforts to control the situation, he found himself unsuccessful with the curia. At this time, he turned his attention to the weaker groups, those he felt he could control. Groups that consisted of women who belonged to no established order and followed no rule, the Beguines. This led to more attention, accusations, and abuse until the Beguines were officially condemned with heresy and were forced out by religious order in 1312 (Neel, 1989).
I feel that based on what I have learned, the Beguines were indeed unfairly charged with heresy. Over the two hundred years of their existence, the Beguines grew and became successful often with the support and encouragement of religious male authority. Their desire to live a religious life without vows and a specific rule was the same desire they had in the beginning. They continued to be successful and maintained relationships with their male friends and confidants, the Dominicans. The basic characteristics that they were charged with were the same ones that they started with.
I believe that they were a group that was an easy target as their organization was established with a lot of room for argument. First of all, they were a group made up strictly of women. This fact alone, made them weak in the eyes of the church. They also went against the norm during this time period. This too brought attention to their group and their actions. I admire the fact that they were able to be resourceful and support themselves with their own hands and not have to rely on begging for support. This makes them very strong in my eyes. I believe it was fear of this type of strength that contributed to their heretic charges.
I also believe that the basis and characteristics of the Beguines played a very important role in their being labeled a heretic. The Beguines did not fit any specific religious society nor follow any definite rule and proved that they did not need to be bound by vows. Being a Beguine allowed women to combine their resources, grow and prosper without male assistance or rule. Basically they could have their cake and eat it too. They also played a huge role in the healthcare of this time which also shows the strength these women had. All of these characteristics were “heretic” in nature and yet they were allowed to continue to grow for some two hundred years before actually being charged with heresy. I believe that the fact that they became large in numbers and successful without order and vows made them a threat to the church hierarchy.
The history of the Beguines and their unfair charge of heresy are very important to the history of women. I believe that the Beguines very well could have been the first movement in women’s rights. One might argue that women’s rights would have eventually happened and while this is true, it is amazing that these women were able to become so successful in such a difficult era with the odds against them. The Beguines were a large group of strong women who went against the normal expectations for reasons that they believed in. These women stood their ground and did whatever it took to accomplish their desires. At no point and time did they deliberately go against the church. It was their same desire to live this life that led them straight into the unfair charges of heresy. Although as in any large group, there are always a few individuals who stray and take things a step farther. It is possible this happened with the Beguines as well, but as a whole they were basically the same group then as when they began. Their longtime success as women living a pious and spiritual life was intimidating to the church hierarchy and sadly the hierarchy finally felt the need to stop them by unfairly charging them with heresy.

Precis #1
Focus: Thirteenth century women, who desired to live a religious life and serve others found themselves without a group to join. In order to fulfill this desire, they created a group called Beguines. This group was not perfect and had faults that led them to be charged with heresy.

Support for Beguines
Evidence against Beguines
Church/higher order
1216 Honorius III accepted joining of pious communities (139)

Church allowed/tolerated groups (139)

Religious men (James of Virtry) supported movement/organization (140)

English Franciscan Robert Grosseteste, proclaimed it to be highest life of perfection & greatest degree of poverty (relied on own labor instead of alms) (140-141)

Parisian theologian Robert de Sorbon argued they would outlast other groups (141)
Not enough room in established orders (139)

Conflicts with 1215 Banning of new forms of vita religiosa (139)

Church said that large groups, especially women, had to be strictly controlled

William of St. Amour defender of old hierarchical order against all new forms of religion (141)

Unsuccessful with the curia, turned to those that followed no rule (141)

No way of changing them and ban accomplished nothing (147)
Attempt at Regulation
Recognized as legitimate and had privileges and protection from religious leaders such as popes, legates, and bishops (140)

Wanted protection but not the rules and regulations that came with it (143)
Attacked beguines and said that they could not live as members of the monastic estate, wear a distinctive habit, and could not cut hair – it was a violation of church (141)

Close relationships with Dominicans which led to punishment of those becoming too close (141)

Confusion on who was to monitor
Beguines (143)
Complaints of abuse and sought help from curia (142).

1235, Gregory IX offered protection from clergymen, monks, and laymen (142).
Church opened door to negative attention and future accusations

Abuse continued disrupting beguine organization (143)
Implications: The women of the Thirteenth Century had a need that was not being met, their desire to fulfill a religious part of their life. They created a group called the Beguines to fulfill this desire. Although this group had tendencies of heresy, they were accepted and supported until the hard core church hierarchy became involved. The attack on them led to charges of heresy.

Work Cited
Grundmann, Herbert. Religious Movements in the Middle Ages. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 1995.
Precis #2

Focus: In the thirteenth century, women, who desired to have a religious role, did not have a group to join, hence the creation of the Beguines. There is evidence to suggest that Beguines existed even before they were acknowledged in the thirteenth century. This article also provides characteristics of the Beguines to provide a better understanding of their origination.

12th Century
13th Century
Had fundamental misrepresentation (323)

Were difficult to characterize due to size/location (323)
Expressed distinct feminine expression of popular piety (323)

Description centers on what they were not, instead of who they were and they lived both in and out of the world. (323)

Increased rapidly during this time (329)
Wide range of activity made it hard to identify early groups. (325)

Served both poor and the sick through hospital/hospice work. (334).

Chastity and no govern ruler that separated them from nuns and secular females (325)
Lacked specific founder and did not have papal authority/or govern ruler (325)

Chastity and lived in urban areas with no male dependence and served sick and took on worldly tasks (324)

Impacted religion and economy (325)

Pope Honorius III approved Beguines but would not institutionalize it (327)
1st official recording
Suggests connection between earlier generations of women (327)

Philip of Harvengt recorded life of Oda of Rivreulle who was attached to a religious order (337)

Commonalities of Oda and Mary of Oignies are they were both chaste, chose poverty, were leper nurses, and both mutilated themselves for sake of holiness (337).
James of Vitry recorded life of his friend (not subordinate) Mary of Oignies supporting thirteenth century origination date (326)

Mary - described as a spiritual superior of the Church’s male hierarchs to encourage Catholicism for women who strayed. (326)
Demise of Beguines
Growth, not demise, occurred during this time
Religion and medieval society were intolerant of women who eluded men’s direct control (339).

Condemned on suspicion of heresy by Council of Vienne in 1312 – forced out by religious order.

Implications: The Beguines were recognized by their growth in the thirteenth century, but evidence suggests that they existed prior to that. The characteristics of the Beguines does suggest heresy tendencies but the fact that they were allowed to exist for such a long period of time provides evidence to also imply that they were not heretics.
Work Cited
Neel, Carol. (1989). The Origins of the Beguines. The Chicago Journals. 14, 321-341.
BibliographyGrundmann, Herbert. Religious Movements in the Middle Ages. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 1995.Murk-Jansen, Saskia. Brides in the Desert. New York: Orbis Books. 1998.Neel, Carol.(1989). The Origins of the Beguines. The Chicago Journals, 14, 321-341.Additional BibliographyConn, Marie. Noble Daughters, Unheralded Women in Western Christiantiy 13th to 18th Centuries. Connecticut: Greenwood press. 2000.Rubin, M. (Ed.) (2009). Medieval Christianity in Practice. New Jersey: Princeton University Press ExtrasPictures of Beguinages today
Beguinage Pics

I found the three books that I used for research to be very interesting. If you get a chance and have not already, please read pages 241 - 245 in our Medieval Christianity book by Miri Rubin. It too has some interesting information. There are many famous Beguine heretics, one that I found the most interesting is Marguerite of Porete, who was burned at the stake for not recanting her beliefs in her book The Mirror of Simple Souls. Check her out!

Critic by Elizabeth J. Loved it! The Beguines sound like Nuns Gone Wild! They still wanted to do good deeds and help but they wanted the benefits of the world like…SEX. This was like the feminist movement of that time. I love the way they joined together to make their belief and way of life happen. Living off the land, providing for their selves and not taking male orders, oh the life, no wander they grew so quickly. They basically said to hell with the vow, we can do well to others and live the life we want to live. I must admit, I was shocked that they had the support of religious males, even though they weren’t truly accepted by the religious order. . I really enjoyed your writing; it has inspired me to do more research on this topic

Critique by April Gentry: I chose to critique this research wiki due to the topic, I thought the topic was interesting and I wanted to read more about it. I thought the research paper regarding the 13th century women was informative and well written. The argument was clearly and well defined; the analysis was structured correctly and flowed well. The research paper addressed the 5 W’s and H. The paragraphs appear to be structured correctly; however, when you copy and paste in the wiki the format changes. I personally learned about a different order of Nuns who were not traditional.

Wow your argument of Religious Women's Orders was excellent. You were very precise with the information you gave, I especially was very impressed because, if a person was reading your argument and had never had any prior knowledge about this topic by the time they were finished reading your paper they would have a full understanding. Not only was the paper good but your analysis backed up the information that you used in your paper. Kudos to you, great job. By LaKeta S.