Sisters Between: Gender and the Medieval Beguines
Ex Post Facto, Volume IV, No. 2 – Spring 1995
The Beguines of northern Europe have been called the first women’s movement in Christian history. This group of religiously dedicated laywomen, who took no permanent vows, followed no prescribed rule, supported themselves by manual labor, interacted with the “world,” and remained celibate, flourished in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries–a time when the Church had defined two legitimate roles for pious women: cloistered nun and keeper at home. With their freedom of movement, economic independence and spiritual creativity, the Beguines carved out an unusually expansive– and controversial–niche for female religious expression. Although the Beguine way of life has been of considerable interest to feminist scholars and women’s historians, few researchers have approached the subject with a focus on gender.
Yet notions of “femaleness” and its boundaries–conceived by the devout women themselves and the male clerics with whom they came in contact–played a central role in creating, fostering, and restricting the religious development of the Beguines. Their position as “sisters between” the two sanctioned spheres of home and convent was both the source of their success and the cause of their downfall: they derived power and freedom from their ill-defined gender space, but the ambiguity of their place as women in the Church proved ultimately too unsettling for the male authorities to tolerate.