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Beginks: How women disguised themselves as nuns to live a free life
Beginks: How women disguised themselves as nuns to live a free life
Order of the Beguins: A woman who disguised herself as nuns in order to live a free life. Photographer Edouard Booba

The women's movement called "Beginki" occupied a special place in the life of Europe. Although the Beguins were often killed and their communities persecuted here and there, many girls and women left home (sometimes even just running away) to join the Beguines. The runners took vows of chastity, not being nuns, opening a business without entering any of the workshops, wandering along the roads, although they were not pilgrims. And also the beggars are idols of modern feminists and a hundred-year-old suffragettes, although they did not know words such as “women's rights”.

Nuns without a monastery

The Beguin community largely copied the women's monasteries: the Beguines wore a uniform that resembled monastic robes, prayed together every day, owned all the money and other property together, obeyed the abbess, looked after sick townspeople and travelers for free, asked for alms and, most importantly, made a vow chastity. However, they were all lay women. Why make life so difficult for yourself?

Monument to the Beguinka in Amsterdam. Source:
Traditionally, the answer is sought in the entrance "fee" demanded by the monasteries: it was supposedly high for everyone. However, this explanation does not explain anything. If it was possible to get to monasteries only for a lot of money (or something that costs them), no one would ever have heard of peasant women who took monastic vows - and they existed. If they went to beguinks only out of poverty, it would not be possible to find the daughters of noble wealthy families there - and there were enough of them. But the most amazing thing is why women continued to go into beguys even during the years of persecution, knowing about the danger of attacks up to murder?

You have to understand why European women generally went to nuns, apart from, of course, fervent faith and no less fervent disgust for sin (especially lust). Firstly, it was one of the few opportunities to make a career (besides the monastery, there was still a court maid of honor, but for a very narrow circle of ladies). Yes, some women of the past also wanted to see more in life than hard daily housework, fiddling with children and going to the market. In monasteries they taught to read, write, sing, sometimes embroidery or painting; each nun could grow to the abbess or engage in an interesting business unusual for a worldly woman.

Rehearsing nuns in a painting by Gean Georges Viber

Secondly, it was a socially approved way to take oneself out of participation in the procreation process. Although in fact, women died in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance not as often as it is customary to imagine (after all, each went through a harsh natural selection as a girl and lived up to childbearing age, mainly the strongest), nevertheless, among the girls there was a fear of death in childbirth. Thirdly, for women with physical problems, the monastery was a chance to get away from ridicule because of the "ugliness" and the inability to find a husband. Finally, fourth and not least, the monastery was a chance for a woman to escape from the power of relatives with whom she was in conflict, or from a situation that threatens to kill (not necessarily because of politics - sometimes just because of property disputes). Fifth, finally, the monastery provided guaranteed shelter and food.

Now imagine that all this could be obtained in some places in Europe without burning all the bridges behind you.After all, one could easily leave the beguins, get married - after all, the vow of chastity was given only for the duration of life in the community. The nuns were busy with labor and prayers all day - the beguins' common prayer and household work (performed in turn by the "attendants" by several women at the same time) took only part of the day, and the beguine was completely free to fill the rest of the time.

A sculptural composition depicting a runaway in the city of Breda. Source:

The abbess was chosen together, so that it was almost impossible to accidentally fall under the power of a person of rare malice. Moreover, it was possible to master everything that is taught in the monastery here: the more educated sisters taught the less educated, but curious. And this was, again, a matter of the sole desire of both the teacher and the student.

Depraved, heretic, family breaker

There are two theories about how the Beguins appeared. One says that the order was founded out of sympathy for women who are not accepted into the monastery, the priest Lambert le Begue. Another is that the wives of the knights who died in the Crusades, who did not want to create new families, coped with the creation of the community on their own, and they also introduced the practice of inviting a common confessor for the community.

Monument to the Beguinka in Kortriyka. Source:

Theories of the origin of the name of the beguins also differ. Some associate him with Le Begues, others with the Begard Order, i.e. literally "begging for alms", the third - with the words begaan (to enter somewhere) or begijnen (to run away from somewhere), the fourth - with the fact that initially the beige (beige) clothes.

Usually, several houses standing next to each other on the street, preferably not far from the church, were bought out for the community of beguines. For the sake of safety, these houses were often surrounded by a single high wall. Sometimes a single building was built, like a hostel - a beguinage; his door was marked with a white cross. Each member of the community made a contribution at their own discretion; the rich sisters' contribution was expected to be higher. Inside the commune, the beggars shared property and what they could carry with them (combs, prayer books, and so on). The largest beguinages (of course, not from one building) numbered two thousand women!

Beguinage courtyard in Breda. Source:

To fit into society, to obtain a certain status, as well as from personal convictions, the beggars were actively involved in charity work: they looked after the sick and the elderly, gave shelter to travelers and shelter for abandoned wives, raised and trained orphans. To get money for the construction of hospitable houses, schools and chapels inside the beguinage, the beguines walked along the roads, begging for alms, asking for help from wealthy townspeople, or doing some simple business.

The first two hundred years of existence, the beguines lived in peace, but gradually they began to be subjected here and there to persecution and attacks, both by the church and the laity. There were many reasons for this, and the church had the simplest ones. First, the beguines, without asking, provided shelter and food to the sectarians fleeing from the court. Secondly, they developed their own philosophy, which for the church looked like heresy: supposedly one can approach God only by a righteous way of life and prayers. It kind of made the church and the priesthood unnecessary: ​​it was impossible to forgive that.

The famous Renaissance fraudster Anna Lominit was hiding in the ranks of the beguines. Portrait of the hand of Hans Golein

The rage of ordinary lay people and secular authorities was much more understandable. Although the attackers on the beggars repeated aloud after the church about their hereticalism or accused them of secret and massive lesbian debauchery, the matter was completely different. An independent, well-organized women's community with its own internal infrastructure was suspicious of the authorities and irritated the inhabitants. In addition, recalcitrant daughters were hiding among the runaways, and many of the abandoned wives, who were looking for shelter and food, actually left their husbands themselves, unable to bear the beatings and bullying (and without a lover with whom, in extreme cases, they could run away) …

The high organization of the communities allowed the runaways to conduct business especially effectively and in some areas compete with not so organized from the inside workshops - here we must also remember that in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, workshops that were only allowed to men were actively "squeezing out" for the sake of expanding the clientele and such previously feminine pursuits as sewing clothes or making beer arrived. In general, the beggars did not find understanding at all levels of society, no matter how good their deeds were. Their communities were expelled, and it seemed to others a good deed to kill the Beguinka.

Nevertheless, despite the forced wanderings across Europe in search of a quiet corner, the eternal discontent of those in power, bad rumors, the communities of the runaways existed for a long time - there were too many women left who were ready to live in constant readiness to move, but only not to return home to the tyrant fathers or relatives who are ready to kill for a poor inheritance. The last beguine died in 2013, and in Europe you can still see the buildings of the former beguinages here and there.

Alas, the "career" of the Beginka did not give glory, it could only be provided by the monastery. Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval diviner and nun whose music made it onto CDs, this is an example.

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