Sunday, August 16, 2015

Colleen Seguin: “Beguines of Medieval Paris”

Colleen M. Seguin

Book Review

Tanya Stabler Miller, The Beguines of Medieval Paris: Gender, Patronage, and Spiritual Authority. University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, 2014), 293 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4607-0

1> Tanya Stabler Miller examines tax, guild, and property records, royal account books, wills, sermons, and didactic literature in order to argue that beguines were central players in the religious, intellectual, and economic worlds of Paris in the Middle Ages.  Beguines have always been hard to place—for their contemporaries and for historians— since they belie stereotypes of medieval women.  How should one classify independent religious women who took no formal vows, blended contemplation and action, might effortlessly leave their celibate status and choose to marry, and engaged freely in property transactions and silk production without male supervision?  Not surprisingly, some medieval people viewed them with considerable suspicion.  Perhaps more surprising is the degree to which beguines became religious role models for Parisian university clerics, some of whom came to pay great heed to the spiritual teachings of the beguine mistress.  The burning of the beguine Marguerite Porete for alleged heresy in 1310 has cast a long shadow over beguine history, obscuring the degree to which most beguines were accepted, even embraced, in their communities before that time.  As Miller indicates, their lives were tightly woven into the very fabric of cosmopolitan, dynamic medieval Paris, Western Europe’s largest city in the thirteenth century.

2> Miller expands scholarship on beguines beyond the common focus on the Low Countries, persuasively arguing that scholars have focused too much on either hagiography or heresy.  Studies that focus on men’s hagiographical writings about individual beguines make much of the mysticism of this handful of women, a far from universal religious experience among beguines.  In contrast, scholarly focus on Robert Lerner’s and Richard Kieckhefer’s work has overemphasized the persecution of beguines.  Miller paints a more complicated picture and shifts the focus of the academic discussion.  She demonstrates that women who became beguines were not “settling,” not enduring a vocation that they saw as second-best to marriage or the convent.  Rather, the hallmark of their experiences was a rewardingly flexible religiosity focused on service that met their emotional, intellectual, and economic needs. 

3> Parisian beguines owed many of their freedoms and much of their success to the saintly Louis IX (r. 1226-70) who founded a beguinage in Paris c. 1260, a foundation which endured until the late fifteenth century.  The King’s personal religious renewal was met with hostility in some quarters. (25, 33)  Miller suggests he may have seen both mendicant friars and beguines as models for his own religious quest.  The pious Louis was aware of the struggles of maintaining religious probity in a world teeming with temptations and may well have felt a special affinity with women who freely chose to face the same spiritual challenges and commit to the vita apostolica.  Miller places particular emphasis on Louis’ royal beguinage (housing approximately 400 beguines), while still incorporating the experiences of the untold numbers of Parisian beguines outside of that institution.  Parisian beguines derived considerable long-term benefits from Louis’ early involvement with the beguinage.  The French royal family came to view the foundation as emblematic of their piety and power, protecting the women at times when opposition to their way of life became heated.

4> Criticisms of the beguines, levelled by secular clerics such as William of Saint-Amour, were predictable.  In this view, beguines were destitute, ostentatiously pious, probably hypocritical women who maintained inappropriately close relationships with mendicant friars.  Vulnerable both to the mendicants’ intellectual and sexual seduction, beguines were loose women who took advantage of their lack of religious enclosure for their own nefarious purposes.  Such scurrilous accusations against medieval and early modern religious women are both typical and tedious.  For early modernists, many of the critiques of beguines resonate powerfully with later censures of Mary Ward’s Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

5> What is especially interesting in Miller’s analysis are the genuine ways in which beguines’ lives always complicated and at times challenged their hierarchical, patriarchal world.  The inheritance system of medieval Paris allowed unmarried women like beguines to “inherit, invest, and donate property.” (36)  They could and did choose how to bequeath their assets, at times to other single women.  They developed social networks both among themselves and beyond the beguine communities.  The beguine mistress and her council vetted applications to the community; although the beguinage did not erase distinctions of social status, it welcomed all women of good reputation who valued a shared pursuit of lay sanctity.  The beguinage was markedly self-sufficient and secure, possessing its own chapel (where the beguines’ mistress at times preached), a hospital for ill or elderly members, living accommodations that included both dormitories and private homes, and eventually a girls’ school.  Miller characterizes this area of women’s urban space as a “remarkably porous” “magnet” (37) that attracted a variety of visitors as well as allowed the beguines sustained free access to the world outside its walls.  Even men could enter the beguinage with permission if the meetings occurred in public areas.  (39)  Although no women under the age of thirty could live alone, there were few other restrictions on housing arrangements among the women.  Some women became weavers; many became silk workers.  Understood as “culturally feminine,” Paris’ silk industry emerged in the late thirteenth century. (61)  Lucrative silk work proved crucial in helping many beguines attain economic independence.  This respectable “women’s work” could serve as lifelong employment for women.  The industry attracted highly skilled laborers (some of whom were immigrants) who could belong to guilds and work as apprentices.  Beguine entrepreneurs were permitted to manage home workshops as “female masters.”  At times, beguine merchants invested their earnings in annuities, which they could pass on to fellow beguines, some of whom might be their servants or other employees.  As Miller points out, examination of the lives of beguine silk workers broadens scholarly understandings of medieval household production by moving us beyond the image of the patriarchal workshop to incorporate lay religious women’s all-female economic communities.

6> Miller’s most significant contribution to the largely unknown story of Parisian beguines is her meticulous reconstruction of the manifold links between the secular clerics of the early Sorbonne and the beguines.  The vitriol of seculars like William of Saint-Amour notwithstanding, beguines and the Sorbonne’s priests forged mutually beneficial relationships in which religious counsel flowed in both directions.  The clerics considered their ability to preach well to a receptive audience of beguines to be important pastoral work.  Furthermore, the beguine mistress’ sermons, remarkably, were included as part of a collection of preaching models housed at the Sorbonne.  As heightened interest in and emphasis on effective preaching peaked in the early thirteenth century, clerics like Robert of Sorbon pointed to the idealized beguine’s humility and propensity for exhorting others to live good Christian lives as models of conduct for pastorally minded clerics.  A steady stream of preachers—mendicant and secular alike—passed through the chapel of the beguinage, exposing the beguines to what was au courant in the world of the medieval church, an extraordinary opportunity for a community of laywomen to obtain broad and deep exposure to the burning theological questions of the day.  Their shared devotion to an active spiritual apostolate provided zealous clerics committed to a preaching mission and theologically inquisitive beguines living in a “book culture” with much common ground.  (109)

7> The end of Miller’s book documents how suspicion about lay preaching, fear of heretics, and ongoing tensions between the secular and mendicant clergy created an environment hostile to the thriving, fluid, collaborative milieu that the beguines had created.  Soon after Marguerite Porete was executed in Paris as a relapsed heretic the Church’s Council of Vienne (1311-12) met.  Among other business, they pondered what they saw as the lessons of the Porete case.  The Council issued “two confusing and contradictory decrees” (142) on beguines, demonstrating the ways in which some clerics understood Porete’s ideas (perceived as antisacerdotal and antinomian, 144) as representative of the beliefs of all beguines.  The first decree, Cum de quibusdam, accused some “women commonly known as beguines” of possible “insanity” by preaching erroneous doctrines, leading “simple people” into sin, and doing much evil “under the veil of sanctity.” (143)  Consequently, beguines’ status was to be “perpetually prohibited and completely abolished” on pain of excommunication.  (143)  A loophole that excluded good, “faithful women” notwithstanding, the directive wreaked havoc on the lives of northern European beguines.  A period of confused, erratic local investigations and enforcement of the Vienne decrees and the succeeding Clementine decrees ensued, temporarily forcing the Parisian beguines out of their beguinage. King Charles IV (r. 1322-28) promulgated new statutes for the royal beguinage, insisting that the praiseworthy beguines of his Parisian establishment were not those whom the Vienne decrees had targeted.  (163)  

8> Although the eventual decline of the beguinage is beyond the scope of Miller’s analysis, she briefly sketches the details of its demise.  A variety of factors contributed: changes in urban property laws that favored men, periodic famine and plague, and dwindling royal support for all charitable foundations due to the unrelenting fiscal pressures of the Hundred Years’ War.  Although French kings long had supported the institution financially, requested the inhabitants’ prayers, asserted their doctrinal orthodoxy, and, crucially, emphasized the institution’s intimate connection to their royal predecessor St. Louis, the closing of its school in the mid-fifteenth century was a blow from which the beguinage could not recover. 

9> Thus beguine life in Paris ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.  Yet before it disappeared it was a distinctive, flourishing element of vibrant medieval Paris.  Life as a beguine was deeply appealing to many fervently religious elite women with aspirations to cultivate their spirituality, teach, tend to the indigent and ill, and/or develop thriving businesses—all while maintaining the flexibility to cease any of those activities at will and marry.  Miller’s evocative study paints a compelling picture of the lost world that these women created.  Her engaging book moves beyond a focus on the mystical musings of exceptional beguines like the undeniably important Porete to the quotidian realities of life for the majority of beguines who were integral parts of the religious, intellectual, and economic landscape of fourteenth-century Paris.

Colleen Seguin is an Associate Professor of History at Valparaiso University, where she teaches European history and humanities classes. Her research focuses on early modern Catholic Englishwomen. Seguin's article "Ambiguous Liaisons:  Catholic Women's Relationships with their Confessors in Early Modern England" (Archive for Reformation History, 2004) won the American Society of Church History's Jane Dempsey Douglass Prize.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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