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The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten…

The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval…

by Laura Swan

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The author, Sr. Laura Swan O.S.B. is a member of St. Placid Priory and a former Abbess there. http://www.stplacid.org/

The Middle Ages were a time of more freedom for some women than previously thought and Swan lays it all out for us in this book. I suspect the general outline and most of the contents may be a result of her teaching curricula as a lecturer in religious studies at St. Martin University in Lacey, WA https://www.stmartin.edu/directory/sister-laura-swan as well as her personal interest. In any event it was an eye-opening and uplifting book for me which was in many places very familiar.

The beguines were mystics and women lay religious of some personal means (their male contemporaries were called beghards) who got their start with patronage from Low Country nobility in the early 13th century.

Swan gives us a very in-depth look at who they were and what their lives were like and points to property, civil, and business documentation of the times to prove both the facts of their existence and her thesis of their financial, spiritual, and personal independence from men and the Church. While she does footnote, it’s restrained and I would have liked to have had references to primary source documents of these records, even if they are in Old German or Old French or Old Dutch. Swan does however provide a very nice bibliography of works in English translation.

As Swan takes us into the world and times of these women, she shows us that they were widespread and long successful – the last beguine died in 2013. In Belgium alone there were 111 Medieval beguinages and of those 13 are UNESCO World Heritage Sites today.

From psalter and manuscript artists and designers, to cloth merchants, to human trafficking-fighters, to bankers (perhaps even for the Knights Templar? The author does not say) , these exceptional women were also published authors, street preachers and renowned mystics, healers, diplomats, and counselors to the powerful and the powerless in equal measure. They did not withdraw from the world but chose to remain actively in it and regarded the Triune God in all His forms as Beloved. They took no vows, many remained married, lived in their own homes and traveled their cities freely.

Swan tries gives us as complete a picture of the beguines and their world as can be given to a general audience: who they were and gives us biographies of the well-known and not-so-well-known-but-interesting among them; how and where they were distributed around Europe; what the beguinages were and how they functioned & supported themselves; what beguine ministries and spirituality was like and how it was performed and lived out; how beguines offered compassion to their world; how they preached and became performers of their own passion plays; their writings; and she examines what their heresy trials were really about . (Hint: land grabs)

At one point early on I stopped and really considered if this was another one of those “Mary Magdalene wife of Jesus” books, just more subtly done. I still can’t say for sure, and you’re going to have to decide that for yourself. But if there ever were any daughters of Mary Magdalene and Jesus, I think these might have been they, authentically.

If you’re a woman of religious or spiritual bent, or anyone interested in the history of the Medieval period in Europe, I think you ought to do yourself the favour of reading this well written and well-presented non-fiction Medieval Womens’ History book about the beguines. ( )
  ktho64152 | Aug 6, 2016 |
Too academic to be a popular history, too shallow to be a satisfying academic study, this book was not terribly well written. It did offer some interesting insights into a tradition I'd heard very little about, though. Swan puts heavy emphasis on the beguines' religious calling, but I gotta say, if I was a medieval woman and I found out there was a place where I could live in a community of women without men and learn a trade with which I could support myself, religious calling wouldn't come into it. ( )
  jen.e.moore | Mar 26, 2015 |
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The beguines began to form in various parts of Europe over eight hundred years ago, around the year 1200. Beguines were laywomen, not nuns, and thus did not take solemn vows and did not live in monasteries. The beguines were a phenomenal movement that swept across Europe yet they were never a religious order or a formalized movement. But there were common elements that rendered these women distinctive and familiar, including their common way of life, their unusual business acumen, and their commitment to the poor and marginalized. These women were essentially self defined, in opposition to the many attempts to control and define them.… (more)

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