Types of institutions for collective action - Beguinages

Beguines and beguinages


Beguinages are in literature also referred to as 'female guilds', considering their activities in several crafts (such as textiles), and their independence from local authorities. In the Middle Ages these beguinages emerged as more or less independent corporations of women, who wanted to live a devotional life, though with not too many strings attached. Unlike nuns, they usually did not take any perpetual vows, and they could leave the beguinage for marriage or other reasons.


What makes them most exceptional within the range of religious communities for women is that they did not take a vow of individual poverty: they could keep their own property, and work for their own benefit. Nevertheless they were expected to live a sober life, without much display of their wealth (Simons, 2001, 68). Beguines usually did take a – temporary – vow of chastity but no vow of obedience, although they were expected to respect the authority of the mistress of the beguinage.


The highest concentration of beguinages can be found in the Southern Netherlands, Holland and Zeeland, where today many can still be visited (although there are no more beguines living in them), but beguine-like institutions have been found as far as the Balkan and Southern Italy (although it is not always clear whether these can all be considered as the Low Countries-type of beguines).



Map of the city of Heusden (c. 1560) by Jacob van Deventer.

The location of the beguinage has been indicated alongside of the

main access road, outside of the town walls.



We can discern two types of beguinages: convents were usually fairly small, housing usually less than 20 beguines (figures are hard to give, especially for the earlier periods), though exceptions of convents with even up to 72 beguines (Arras, early fourteenth century) can be found. The other type, the court beguinage, was more complex and could house in some cases even nearly 2000 beguines. This was for example the cases in the Great Beguinage St. Catherine of Malines (Mechelen) around the end of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. This is the largest beguinage that has ever existed (Simons, 2001, 53-5).


> More information about convents (beguinages)

> More information about court beguinages



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