the other sister research seminar: Medieval and Early Modern Beguines, from Provence to Northern Europe

By Emma Gabe and Laura Moncion

The Other Sister held its fifth thematic meeting on 15 March 2021 on medieval and early modern beguines from Provence to Northern Europe. The four speakers very generously shared their unpublished, forthcoming work with the group. This session was organized by Alison More and Isabelle Cochelin, with the question period moderated by Gustave Ineza. Our guests included a number of beguine specialists who engaged in a lively discussion and provided significant insights. 

The following chapters were pre-circulated and discussed during in this seminar:

  • Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane, “German Beguine Communities: Origins and Emergence,” chapter from Sisters Among: Beguine Communities in Germany c. 1200-1600, forthcoming.
  • Tanya Stabler Miller, “’More Useful in the Salvation of Others’: Beguines, Religio, and the Cura Mulierum at the Early Sorbonne” in J. Deane and A. Lester, eds. Between Orders and Heresy, forthcoming with University of Toronto Press.
  • Sergi Sancho Fibla, “Reading in community, writing a community. Douceline’s Vida and the beguines of Roubaud,” in D. Nieto-Isabel, and L. Miquel Millan, eds. Transgression, Exclusion and Persecution in the Middle Ages, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022.
  • Sarah Joan Moran, “Inside Beguine homes: material culture, devotion, and family ties.” Chapter 4 in Unconventual Women: Visual Culture at the Court Beguinages of the Habsburg Low Countries, 1585-1794, forthcoming with Amsterdam University Press

Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane (University of Minnesota Morris), studying beguines in German-speaking regions, pushed back against the idea of beguines as liminal figures by discussing how they were connected to their communities, families and authorities around them. To this end, the tentative title for her upcoming book, from which this chapter was drawn, is Sisters Among, emphasizing that beguines were integral and close to the people and institutions amongst which they lived. Deane’s contribution discussed the various ways in which German beguine communities originated, and the points at which these communities begin (or stop) self-consciously calling themselves “beguines”. This intervention is in part historiographical; Deane problematized early approaches to the study of beguines, noting that binary way in which scholars have approached the topic.

Tanya Stabler Miller (Loyola University Chicago) also addressed the historiographical context of beguine history in her contribution, seeking to balance the local context of medieval Paris with the broader trends of religious movements. Miller noted that historians have often overlooked how supportive the local clergy were to the beguines on the ground. She focused on Robert of Sorbon, the founder of the Sorbonne university, and his writings and lectures to correct this scholarly oversight. Robert provided pastoral care to beguines and, in his lectures to those training to be secular clergymen, promoted pastoral engagement with them. In the context of medieval Parisian discussions on how best to live a religious life, Robert promoted beguine piety as an example, and particularly as an example of pastoral care.

Sergi Sancho Fibla (UC Louvain) studied the beguine community of Roubaud in France through one manuscript, the vita of the community’s foundress, Douceline. He argued that the vita was used by the beguines to define and support the community’s collective identity. Revisiting some scholarly commonplaces surrounding Douceline’s Vida and the manuscript which contains it, including questions about the Vida’s authorship and date of completion, Sancho Fibla presented the idea that the manuscript was used as “the book of the house” rather than “the book of the foundress”, a document legitimizing the community’s existence and network of relationships between the community, their families, and friars, and which hoped to claim this legitimacy for future generations. The community disappears from the historical record by the end of the fifteenth century.

Sarah Moran (Universiteit Utrecht) spoke about the art and architecture of court beguinages in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Low Countries. Her forthcoming book Unconventional Women: Art and Architecture of the Court Beguinages of the Hapsburg Low Countries, 1585–1794 looks at the architecture of court beguinages, the art and iconography owned by beguines, their portraits, material culture, and art and furnishings of their churches. Speaking in particular to the material culture, she concluded that the decoration of beguine homes conformed to Tridentine ideology, as Christ and the Virgin received a central place in their homes, but that the material culture of beguinages also reflected the spiritual and artistic trends of the wider community. 

A long and lively discussion followed with questions that touched on free will, numbers, diverse sources, age of entry, processions, and sermons or exhortations by the beguines, amongst other topics. The four speakers agreed that beguines seem to have all chosen this way of life, unlike the nuns who were sometimes constrained by their family to enter a monastery. Moran explained that, as beguines kept her own wealth and inherited normally, their families had nothing to gain by force them into beguinages. Interestingly, the speakers and other participants indicated that beguines outnumbered nuns, at least in some cities across Europe, although exact numbers are difficult to ascertain: Walter Simons mentioned a ratio of ten beguines to one nun in the Low Countries; Moran reached a similar conclusion for her period in Ghent; Sigrid Hirbodian also confirmed that beguines were more numerous in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Strasbourg; and Letha Böhringer affirmed the same for Cologne where she knows the names of 2,100 beguines for the period 1320–1400. In general, beguines joined communities at various ages in the Middle Ages, and some houses refused women below 40. Nevertheless, this was not universal as it appears that by the early modern period in the Low Countries at least, women usually joined in their late teens or early twenties. Most remained beguines for the remainder of their lives.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.