1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Beguines

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[ 652 ]

BEGUINES (Fr. béguine, Med. Lat. beguina, begina, beghina), at the present time the name of the members of certain lay sisterhoods established in the Netherlands and Germany, the enclosed district within which they live being known as a beguinage (Lat. beginagium). The equivalent male communities, called also Beguines (Fr. béguins, Lat. beguini), but more usually Beghards (Lat. baghardi, beggardi, begehardi, &c., O. Fr. bégard-t, Flem. beggaert), have long ceased to exist. The origin of the names Beguine and Beghard has been the subject of much controversy. In the 15th century a legend arose that both name and organization were traceable to St Begga, daughter of Pippin of Landen, who consequently in 1630 was chosen by the Beguines as the patron saint of their association. In 1630 a professor of Louvain, Erycius Puteanus (van Putte), published a treatise, De Begginarum apud Belgas instituto et nomine suffragium, in which he produced three documents purporting to date from the 11th and 12th centuries, which seemed conclusively to prove that the Beguines existed long before Lambert le Bègue. For two centuries these were accepted as genuine and are admitted as such even in the monumental work of Mosheim. In 1843, however, they were conclusively proved by the German scholar Hallmann, from internal evidence, to be forgeries of the 14th and 15th centuries. It is now universally admitted that both the institution and the name of the Beguines are derived from Lambert le Bègue, who died about the year 1187. The confusion caused by the spurious documents of Puteanus, however, led, even when the legend of St Begga was rejected, to other suggestions for the derivation of the name, e.g. from an imaginary old Saxon word beggen, “to beg” or “pray,” an explanation adopted even by Mosheim, or from bègue, “stammering,” a French word of unknown origin, which only brings us back to Lambert again, whose name of Le Bègue, as the chronicler Aegidius, a monk of Orval (Aureae Vallis), tells us, simply means “the stammerer,” quia balbus erat (Gesta pontificum Leodiensium, c. A.D. 1251). Doubtless this coincidence gave a ready handle to the scoffing wits of the time, and among the numerous popular names given to the Beghards — bons garçons, boni pueri, boni valeti and the like — we find also that of Lollards (from Flemish löllen, “to stammer”).

About the year 1170 Lambert le Bègue, a priest of Liége, who had devoted his fortune to founding the hospital and church of St Christopher for the widows and children of crusaders, conceived the idea of establishing an association of women, who, [ 653 ] without taking the monastic vows, should devote themselves to a life of religion. The effect of his preaching was immense, and large numbers of women, many of them left desolate by the loss of their husbands on crusade, came under the influence of a movement which was attended with all the manifestations of what is now called a “revival.” About the year 1180 Lambert gathered some of these women, who had been ironically styled “Beguines” by his opponents, into a semi-conventual community, which he established in a quarter of the city belonging to him around his church of St Christopher. The district was surrounded by a wall within which the Beguines lived in separate small houses, subject to no rule save the obligation of good works, and of chastity so long as they remained members of the community. After Lambert's death (c. 1187?) the movement rapidly spread, first in the Netherlands and afterwards in France — where it was encouraged by the saintly Louis IX. — Germany, Switzerland and the countries beyond. Everywhere the community was modelled on the type established at Liége. It constituted a little city within the city, with separate houses, and usually a church, hospital and guest-house, the whole being under the government of a mistress (magistra). Women of all classes were admitted; and, though there was no rule of poverty, many wealthy women devoted their riches to the common cause. The Beguines did not beg; and, when the endowments of the community were not sufficient, the poorer members had to support themselves by manual work, sick-nursing and the like.

The Beguine communities were fruitful soil for the missionary enterprise of the friars, and in the course of the 13th century the communities in France, Germany and upper Italy had fallen under the influence of the Dominicans and Franciscans to such an extent that in the Latin-speaking countries the tertiaries of these orders were commonly called beguini and beguinae. The very looseness of their organization, indeed, made it inevitable that the Beguine associations should follow very diverse developments. Some of them retained their original character; others fell completely under the dominion of the friars, and were ultimately converted into houses of Dominican, Franciscan or Augustinian tertiaries; others again fell under the influence of the mystic movements of the 13th century, turned in increasing numbers from work to mendicancy (as being nearer the Christ-life), practised the most cruel self-tortures, and lapsed into extravagant heresies that called down upon them the condemnation of popes and councils.[1] All this tended to lower the reputation of the Beguines. During the 14th century, indeed, numerous new beguinages were established; but ladies of rank and wealth ceased to enter them, and they tended to become more and more mere almshouses for poor women. By the 15th century in many cases they had utterly sunk in reputation, their obligation to nurse the sick was quite neglected, and they had, rightly or wrongly, acquired the reputation of being mere nests of beggars and women of ill fame. At the Reformation the communities were suppressed in Protestant countries, but in some Catholic countries they still survive. The beguinages found here and there in Germany are now simply almshouses for poor spinsters, those in Holland (e.g. at Amsterdam and Breda) and Belgium preserve more faithfully the characteristics of earlier days. The beguinage of St Elizabeth at Ghent has some thousand sisters, and occupies quite a distinct quarter of the city, being surrounded by a wall and moat. The Beguines wear the old Flemish head-dress and a dark costume, and are conspicuous for their kindness among the poor and their sick nursing.

It is uncertain whether the parallel communities of men originated also with Lambert le Bègue. The first records are of communities at Louvain in 1220 and at Antwerp in 1228. The history of the male communities is to a certain extent parallel with the female, but they were never so numerous and their degeneration was far more rapid. The earliest Flemish Beghard communities were associations mainly of artisans who earned their living by weaving and the like, and appear to have been in intimate connexion with the craft-gilds; but under the influence of the mendicant movement of the 13th century these tended to break up, and, though certain of the male beguinages survived or were incorporated as tertiaries in the orders of friars, the name of Beghard became associated with groups of wandering mendicants who made religion a cloak for living on charity; béguigner becoming in the French language of the time synonymous with “to beg,” and beghard with “beggar,” a word which, according to the latest authorities, was probably imported into England in the 13th century from this source (see Beggar). More serious still, from the point of view of the Church, was the association of these wandering mendicants with the mystic heresies of the Fraticelli, the Apostolici and the pantheistic Brethren of the Free Spirit. The situation was embittered by the hatred of the secular clergy for the friars, with whom the Beguines were associated. Restrictions were placed upon them by the synod of Fritzlar (1269), by that of Mainz (1281) and Eichstätt (1281). and by the synod of Béziers (1299) they were absolutely forbidden. They were again condemned by a synod held at Cologne in 1306; and at the synod of Trier in 1310 a decree was passed against those “who under a pretext of feigned religion call themselves Beghards . . . and, hating manual labour, go about begging, holding conventicles and posing among simple people as interpreters of the Scriptures.” Matters came to a climax at the council of Vienne in 1311 under Pope Clement V., where the “sect of Beguines and Beghards” were accused of being the main instruments of the spread of heresy, and decrees were passed suppressing their organization and demanding their severe punishment. The decrees were put into execution by Pope John XXII., and a persecution raged in which, though the pope expressly protected the female Beguine communities of the Netherlands, there was little discrimination between the orthodox and unorthodox Beguines. This led to the utmost confusion, the laity in many cases taking the part of the Beguine communities, and the Church being thus brought into conflict with the secular authorities. In these circumstances the persecution died down; it was, however, again resumed between 1366 and 1378 by Popes Urban V. and Gregory XI., and the Beguines were not formally reinstated until the pontificate of Eugenius IV. (1431-1447). The male communities did not survive the 14th century, even in the Netherlands, where they had maintained their original character least impaired.

See J. L. von Mosheim, De beghardis et beguinabus commentarius (Leipzig, 1790); E. Hallmann, Die Geschichte des Ursprungs der belgischen Beghinen (Berlin, 1843); J. C. L. Gieseler, Eccles. Hist. (vol. iii., Eng. trans., Edinburgh, 1853), with useful excerpts from documents; Du Cange, Glossarium; Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopädie (3rd ed., 1897) s. “Beginen,” by Herman Haupt, where numerous further authorities are cited. (W. A. P.)


  1. In the year 1287 the council of Liége decreed that “all Beguinae desiring to enjoy the Beguine privileges shall enter a Beguinage, and we order that all who remain outside the Beguinage shall wear a dress to distinguish them from the Beguinae.”