15.02.23, Miller, The Beguines of Medieval Paris

Main Article Content

Bruce L. Venarde

The Medieval Review 15.02.23

Miller, Tanya Stabler. The Beguines of Medieval Paris: Gender, Patronage, and Spiritual Authority. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Pp. 293. ISBN: 9780812246070 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Bruce L. Venarde
University of Pittsburgh

"There are among us women called beguines," reported Gilbert of Tournai, a Franciscan university master in Paris, to Pope Gregory IX on the eve of the Second Council of Lyons in 1274. Gilbert did not think this was a good thing. In this first-rate study, Tanya Stabler Miller provides us with the first full account of the beguines of Paris. The only previous monograph on the subject is a long article by Léon Le Grand published 120 years ago, a considerable portion of which is an edition of the first surviving rules of the Paris beguinage compiled in 1327. The long delay is perhaps not surprising, for the records of beguine history in the city are widely dispersed in its archives. The Observant Franciscan nuns who inherited the Paris beguinage at the end of the Middle Ages kept few old records; there are, for example, no foundation documents for the beguinage. Miller researched narrative accounts, wills and property records, vitae, devotional books, royal household accounts, tax rolls, letters, and sermons--to name the main sources of information besides the 1327 rule--drawing on the efforts of earlier scholars, mostly unpublished, and what she calls guesswork. The "guesswork" (9) required a great deal of what was surely time-consuming and often tedious archival labor. I will not belabor this point further. Suffice it to say that the narrative and analysis commented on below depends heavily on the creative juxtaposition of a wide variety of Latin and vernacular sources. This book, then, is not only the proverbial gap-filler, but also an impressive demonstration of how far a scholar can go with painstaking investigation and interpretation of scattered and limited evidence.

King Louis IX founded the Paris beguinage, a community of lay women who took informal vows to pursue lives of prayer and community service in a melding of active and contemplative religious life, a few years after his return from crusade in 1254. The foundation gathered a group of women who had already appeared on the Parisian scene in less formal groups or through attachment to a church or religious house. Louis bought property in the eastern corner of Paris's Right Bank, just inside the city walls, for what his biographer Geoffrey of Beaulieu calls "honest women who are called beguines." [1] Probably established in the early 1260s, Louis's beguinage attracted a considerable number of lay religious women at once. Miller shows that founding a beguinage was one element of Louis's patronage of those following the vita apostolica. More interestingly, she concludes that Louis was personally invested in the beguines, who, like the king, were subject to criticism for sanctimonious piety and not fitting neatly into established categories. Just as some observers doubted whether a king could also be a holy man, many found beguines, lay women whose lives were organized around spiritual service but were quite visible in the streets of the city, troubling or even suspect. By comparison to court beguinages elsewhere in northern Europe--enclosed complexes with chapels and other communal spaces as well as private dwellings--Louis's project was on a large scale. Royal accounts show his donations, his compensation to the priests of Saint-Paul, in whose parish the beguinage was established, and his payment of seigneurial dues to the abbey of Tiron, in whose censive it was located. This freed the beguinage from other authorities, making it a space under royal protection.

Once established, the community benefited from the ability to control property and from the fact that some of its residents maintained their own private property and indeed some of the wealthier members owned dwellings within the compound. These arrangements allowed at least some measure of socio-economic diversity among members of the beguinage: the rich had their own residences, the poor lived in a convent. Richer beguines were expected to support poorer ones, employing domestics or cloth artisans or offering gifts to the less fortunate. This made a rather diverse community possible within the enclosure. In fact, "a woman's connections and reputation, more than any other factor, earned her admittance into the royal beguinage" (44). This allowed economic self-sufficiency, or something close to it, freeing beguines to work in the hospital and school and also to hold administrative positions. A mistress, along with a small group of three or four senior beguine advisors, guided the community. These women supervised entry to the community, made determination about visitors inside the enclosure, worked to ensure that beguines who went outside comported themselves properly, and managed property and finances, this latter under the supervision of a Dominican prior (39-40). [2] Beguines, individually and collectively, thus maintained close ties to those outside the community; Miller emphasizes the ties they maintained and developed with their families, patrons, and business associates around the city. Such networks could thrive because some beguines moved back and forth between residence in the enclosure and elsewhere in Paris. Jeanne du Faut, who died in 1330, had lived in the beguinage in the late thirteenth century but outside it thereafter "at the center of a wide network of women" (76). Jeanne was a prosperous silk merchant whose will bequeathed a number of properties to a fellow beguine and business partner as well as to other beguines she employed (and not, significantly, to male relatives).

Inside and outside the enclosure, the beguines of Paris were much engaged in religious "teaching, learning, and exhortation" (104)--to the dismay of some observers suspicious about women who were neither ordinary laypeople or professed nuns. Those within the beguinage taught and learned in chapter and during religious services, including daily Divine Offices. The mistress and some residents were Latin-literate, a fact often commented upon by male visitors, one of whom, the Dominican William of Auxerre, referred to some of the members of his preaching audience there as clericae (107). Choir beguines offered prayers and vigils for patrons or deceased fellow beguines; the beguinage school may have offered basic Latin instruction and its musical teaching was well known. Sermons concerning confession, penance, meditation, and charity preached by the beguine mistresses have survived in manuscripts. Other beguines were writers, too, and often drew heavily on the themes of secular, courtly romance. One text, certainly from the Ile-de-France region and possibly written for or even by Paris beguines is called The Rule of Perfect Lovers (La règle des fins amans).

Were this study simply a nuanced description of the life and work, the lives and works, of the Paris beguinage, it would be welcome. But it is considerably more. Miller includes a chapter called "Beguines, Silk, and the City," primarily concerned with beguines who, like Jeanne du Faut, lived most or all of the time outside the enclosure. The author pieces together an urban geography of beguine life in dozens of small households all over Paris, excellently illustrated by several maps. Tax rolls from the period 1292-1313 reveal the names of 106 individual beguines and four clusters of unnamed ones. These records demonstrate the existence of small households, micro-beguinages, as it were, and strongly associate beguines in particular with the burgeoning silk industry: thirty-seven of the forty-two women whose profession is known were silk workers or merchants. Why? Silk was a high-status good, its manufacture and distribution potentially profitable, and highly suited to community networks the beguines were so good at creating. It was also welcoming to unmarried women, unlike most jobs in the Parisian economy of that time. Silk carried the social capital of respectability that beguines, especially those outside the enclosure, must have sought in the face of frequent perplexity and antagonism their usual lifeways elicited. So ordinary was the association of beguines with silk that a fourteenth-century inventory of King Charles V describes chasubles worked with "orfroiz de beguines" (67).

The residents of the beguine enclosure, on the other hand, were much engaged with the pastoral mission of university intellectuals, not least among them Robert de Sorbon (d. 1274), a great advocate and admirer of beguines. Miller stresses the importance of beguines as exemplars and colleagues of the secular clergy, including its elites in the Paris university world. Robert saw the beguines as lay ministers from whom the masters could learn much. The beguines, whom members of the Sorbonne often supplied with books, were an important audience for their sermons. Raoul de Châteauroux, for example, recorded several dozen sermons preached in the beguine chapel in the liturgical year 1272-3--far more than in any other single location in Paris. However, beguines were not merely "eager consumers of religious instruction" (100). Raoul's collection, designed as a preaching aid and perhaps training manual, became part of the chained collection in the Sorbonne library, which shows its importance as a reference book. It included excerpts from six sermons preached by the mistress of the beguinage--who was sometimes referred to as magistra. The picture that emerges, then, is of lively collaboration between beguines and elite secular clerics in spiritual and pastoral projects, with the influence of beguines as model Christians and preachers that went far outside the sphere of the beguinage.

Given the richness of what has gone before, the final chapter is somewhat disappointing. Following the condemnation of the beguine Marguerite Porete as a heretic by twenty-one Paris theologians in 1310 and her immediate public execution, the Council of Vienne (1311-1312) issued decrees largely hostile to beguines, especially those in large communities like the Paris beguinage. At the same time, the council's decrees left room for appropriately faithful, humble, and penitential women to serve God in their dwellings "whether or not they promise chastity" (143). (Quite an escape clause.) It was left to the French kings, as Miller describes it, to refound and rehabilitate the Paris beguinage. Certainly the successors of Louis IX had continued their patronage of his foundation. But I wonder how seriously we should take a chronicler's assertion that the institution was disbanded in the wake of the Vienne decrees (158). Miller shows that in 1318, Philip V asked for an assessment of beguinage property. That is certainly no proof that the institution had been disbanded, which may be why "no source indicates when, or under what circumstances, women were readmitted into the enclosure" (159). Rather, it seems more than a remote possibility that despite the condemnation of Marguerite Porete and the decrees of the Vienne Council (a revised version of which did not reach Paris until 1317, very shortly before Philip ordered the property inventory), the beguinage, although in serious need of the restoration of its reputation, survived as a community. Certainly the statues of 1327 issued under Charles IV had papal approval. Charles's preamble refers to beguines outside France who had "behaved badly" and the papal decree that "eradicated and abolished all in the said estate," but he proceeds to note that "the beguines living in the said dwelling [in Paris] were found innocent and not guilty of the said misdeeds" (161). Ambiguous language, papal and royal, leaves open the possibility that although the Paris beguinage had some tough times in the wake of the Council of Vienne, the actions of the late 1310s and 1320s were not a refoundation but a restoration on more formal terms. Miller argues, through subtle reading of the statutes, that the beguines played a role in the composition of this (quasi-)rule. Is that a likely element of the refoundation of a community of the disgraced and disbanded? I suspect more continuity--the plausibility of which is increased by strong association of the Paris beguinage with its saint-king founder--than Miller's analysis allows. Also somewhat disappointing is the very brief account--fewer than ten pages--of the beguinage after 1327. It also contains some undocumented assertions. Referring to the fifteenth-century situation, we read that "The beguines' lack of strict enclosure also increasingly affected patronage, as Parisian elites, whose religious and social sensibilities shifted to fall increasingly in line with those of the nobility, sought to place their daughters in convents or contract a favorable marriage" (167). The only reference to support this assertion is a note to a study of family strategies in sixteenth-century Paris. Miller implies, without quite stating so directly, that the sources are very thin for the last century and a half of the beguinage's history, but she also seems have serious case of post-Capetian fatigue.

Little matter. There is a great deal to admire and ponder here. Miller's book joins a set of primary source translations and monographic work in English by distinguished scholars like Sharon Farmer and Sean Field on late Capetian and specifically Parisian society. A rich body of material on Paris and its environs in this era, referred to in the back matter to Miller's book, makes possible focused undergraduate and even graduate teaching on the subject. (The important translations of two early lives of Louis IX by Field et al. apparently emerged just too late to be included in the bibliography.) The same goes for teaching about beguines and female religious culture, given the flurry of studies in the wake of Walter Simons's magisterial Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565, much of it in collections like those edited by Fiona Griffiths on male and female religious and spiritual life in late medieval Germany or Labels and Libels: Naming Beguines in Northern Medieval Europe. Those two collections, along with the translated vitae of Louis IX and the book under review here, were all published in 2014: a banner year for those interested in these subjects!



1. A quibble: honestae here might better be translated as "honorable," especially given the suspicion and even outright hostility that Paris beguines attracted from their first appearance.

2. A methodological difficulty arises here: Miller's description appears to assume that the 1327 statutes describe accurately, rather than prescribing, life at the beguinage in the decades before 1327 and afterwards. Given the scarcity of sources, "upstreaming" is probably unavoidable. But it would have been appropriate to acknowledge it.

Article Details

Author Biography

Bruce L. Venarde

University of Pittsburgh