Letha Boehringer

title.none: Geybels, Vulgariter Beghinae (Letha Boehringer)

identifier.other: baj9928.0601.008 06.01.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Letha Boehringer, Historisches Archiv der Stadt Koln,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Geybels, Hans. Vulgariter Beghinae: Eight Centuries of Beguine History in the Low Countries. Turnhout: Brepols, 2004. Pp. 181. $36.00. ISBN: 2-503-51579-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.01.08

Geybels, Hans. Vulgariter Beghinae: Eight Centuries of Beguine History in the Low Countries. Turnhout: Brepols, 2004. Pp. 181. $36.00. ISBN: 2-503-51579-7.

Reviewed by:

Letha Boehringer
Historisches Archiv der Stadt Koln

The title of this essay is misleading: the author does not treat the beguine movement in the Low Countries as a whole, but in the Flemish part of Belgium where the beguines originated. At the end of the twelfth century, several women in Flanders, most of them in the diocese of Liege, chose a religious life in modesty and virginity, without taking formal orders in an established order. They were counseled and protected by members of the high clergy, most notable among them Jacques de Vitry. This new forma vitae spread rapidly through the Low Countries, France and in Northern and Western Germany. Similar movements sprang up in Southern France, Italy, the Alps and on Lake Constance--whether they all owe their origins to Flanders is one of the questions yet to be answered. Beguine lifestyle varied greatly from place to place and from time to time. Many women lived on their own or in small groups of women friends and relatives. Convents housing up to a dozen beguines in ordinary dwellings were founded in nearly every town. Only a fraction of these houses were large enough to offer room for a higher number of brethren. There were peasant beguines in the countryside, rich and poor beguines, the former living in their own houses and benefiting from their inherited fortune, the latter living on alms and work as house servants, spinners or weavers. All of them had one task in common: to pray for the souls of departed family members, founders of convents and benefactors, thus sharing the culture of memoria so essential to medieval society.

Geybels' book deals exclusively with one form of beguine life, the well-known beguinages, i.e. beguine courts, of today's Belgium. These consisted of a group of houses, often situated along a central courtyard, together with gardens, buildings for farming and manual work, an infirmary, a chapel and a cemetery. The ensemble was surrounded by a wall. Larger beguinages, whose chapels were often granted parochial status, formed veritable "cities within cities." However, even in Belgium the majority of beguines did not live in courts, but in convents, as Walter Simons, Cities of Ladies. Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 2001, p. 50, pointed out. The fame of the beguinages relies on their charming architecture and on the fact that they form the only surviving material evidence of medieval beguine life. As the beguines--unlike the Sisters of the Common Life--were entitled to private property, their houses and belongings were bequeathed to relatives and friends. The convents disappeared in the course of the Reformation or the Secularisation of the ninteenth century leaving no trace but the widespread street name "beguine's alley." As a convent usually provided neither for a library nor for archives, very few written records are preserved, unless a beguine house was transformed into a nunnery in the Late Middle Ages which took care of older evidence.

Geybels' assertion (14) that there are extant beguinages in Northern Germany is not quite correct. There is but one beguine court in today's Germany, in Aachen on the Dutch and Belgian borders. But during the period concerned, Aachen belonged to the diocese of Liege and was rather part of the Maaslands than of the Rhinelands. Why beguine courts were founded exclusively in the Netherlands, Flanders and Brabant is another open question. It seems that throughout the Low Countries the founders of beguinages were from the highest levels of society, such as bishops cooperating with noblemen and -women. The sheer size of the courts made them important parts of the social and economic life of their towns. In accordance with local guilds, several of them were integrated into the textile industry, providing for certain steps in the course of the weaving and dying processes (cf. Simons, op. cit. p. 86). Thus, beguinages claimed more prominent positions in urban society than convents. But such comparative issues are not raised in Geybels' book, which briefly sketches the historical background, the spirituality of the women (mainly focusing on the mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp) and the chores of daily life in a beguinage throughout the centuries. The last of four chapters is devoted to a short description of the thirteen Belgian beguinages granted World Heritage status; the beguinage of Turnhout today being the home of the Brepols publishers.

The author writes in English, for he claims that "there are only three monographs on the beguines in English" (13); in the footnote, he refers to Dayton Phillips (Beguines in Medieval Strasburg, 1941), Ernest McDonnell (The Beguines and Beghards in Medieval Culture with special emphasis on the Belgian Scene, 1954) and a recent volume on the World Heritage Flemish beguinages. No reference is made here to the much more recent study of Walter Simons, although it is mentioned as a source of a list of beguinages (161). Furthermore, the author asserts, "There are almost no French and German publications." If referring to studies on the Belgian courts, this might be true, but as to the phenomenon as a whole, it is a surprising assertion. In the course of his book, Geybels quotes from about a dozen German publications concerning different regions, but seems to be unaware of the thesis of Frank-Michael Reichstein which not only contains a useful catalogue of beguine settlements in Germany from Aachen to Zwickau, but cites from several hundred publications (Das Beginenwesen in Deutschland. Studien und Katalog, 2001).

Thus, Geybels' bibliography can be called eclectic and his study relies mainly on older studies in Dutch, primary sources being quoted from these. Therefore, some rather important points are misrepresented. The name "beguine" does not come up with the origins of the movement in Flanders after 1170 (39f.), but more than a generation later, around 1220, in the Rhinelands: Caesarius of Heisterbach and the author of the Koelner Koenigschronik use it, and the first individuals explicitly called beguines are being mentioned in a shrine charter from Cologne dating from 1223. Geybels is certainly right in claiming that "there is no convincing and yet accepted etymological origin from the word" beguine (43f., note 41), but he does not render the discussion about the related word "to beg" correctly. The name could have been derived from a Indo- European root (not a Dutch word, as Geybels assumes, cf. Simons, 122) and might refer to the habit of constantly muttering prayers under one's breath (the root begg- producing such words as to beg and the French begayer: to stammer, mumble, speak unintelligibly).

The development of the beguine movement is described in terms of four subsequent stages, derived from a book of 1918 (42, note 39). These stages are not adequate to explain the evolvement of the beguine movement. It is no longer accepted that its sudden success and the increasing numbers of beguines in the thirteenth century are the consequence of a mere shortage of nunneries. Beguines created and chose a flexible lifestyle and weren't just unsuccessful nuns. Furthermore, it was by no means "unavoidable for the beguines to become enclosed and regularised" as early as in the thirteenth century (49). Beguines living on their own persisted up to the fifteenth century when women interested in a religious life outside the cloister would turn to the modern devotion (for this period, cf. the recent thesis of Madelon van Luijk, Bruiden van Christus. De tweede religieuze vrouwenbeweging in Leiden en Zwolle 1380-1580, 2004). The idea that church officials would react uniformly hostilely to beguines and force beguines into their control is misleading. After all, from a legal point of view, they were laywomen, protected by the town's officials who would often have daughters and sisters among them. As a matter of fact, threats from bishops against presumed heretics were frequent, but actual persecution took place but rarely, and for various reasons--one of them being hostility towards their mendicant confessors, not to the women themselves. The picture that beguines were constantly threatened by the inquisition emerged because there is comparatively little research on acceptance and cooperation, but ample work on heresy and persecution; however, Geybels refers neither to Robert Lerner's important book nor to the studies of Alexander Patschovsky and Sabine van Heusinger. Inshort, it is certainly not possible "to provide a concise but complete summary of one of the most important spiritual movements" of the Low Countries (157) in a small paperback. For more in depth information, the anglophone reader should still turn to McDonnell's classic monograph and for more recent research to the fine volume of Walter Simons. Geybels' book might be useful as a travel guide to Belgian beguinages; it is not quite what one would expect from the title and from a Brepols publication.