In response to the death of so many fathers and husbands on crusade to the Holy Land, a movement began in the late 12th century in Flanders (what is now Belgium) to establish communities for the widows and orphans of these men. They were known as the Beguines. They were called in Latin the mulieres sanctae, which literally means “sanctified women”.
It was a unique situation in the Middle Ages, for the women in these communities, or Cities of Ladies as they are called in Walter Simon’s excellent book, had the freedom, quite unlike nuns, to enter and leave the community at will. They could take vows or not take vows, earn a living, own property, and study the Bible and pray in the common tongue. If they had taken vows, they could break those vows at will to marry. Eva, in Taking the Cross, is a beguine.
The prayers of the Beguines were considered especially powerful, and to be the beneficiaries of those prayers, noblemen would fund the construction of such a “city of ladies”, some of which were sizable and elaborate.
In 1209, the movement was on the rise, spreading from Flanders into France and Germany. For the first 100 years, the Beguines were sanctioned by and absorbed into the Catholic Church.
By the late thirteenth century, having communities of women who were not bound to a husband or to the Catholic Church began to be viewed as heretical. Women, who were perceived as weak-willed, simply could not be trusted with such an arrangement, or so it was thought. Those who were once lauded for their prayers came to be called apostate. It serves as a reminder that today’s saints are sometimes tomorrow’s heretics (and vice versa).
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