Blog post

Beguines and literature in the Middle Ages

13th century female semi-religious orders who created and transmitted vernacular literature

Illustration from The Book of the City of Ladies (Le Livre de la Cité des Dames) depicting two scenes. In the first scene, on the left side, a woman (the author) sits at the desk with books on it; in front of her, three women (three Virtues) are standing wearing crowns. In the second scene, on the right side, the female author is helping one of the Virtues (called Lady Reason) build the external walls of the titular City of Ladies.
by
Hannah Johnson (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Women in the Middle Ages greatly contributed to the creation and transmission of literature, both Latin and vernacular. The Beguines were one of the most influential groups of women in this respect. They were an order of female semi-religious active largely in the 13th century in and around (present day) northern France, southern Germany, and the Low Countries.

Beguines were women who chose to live religiously but did so without vowing perpetual poverty or chastity, or enclosing themselves in convents thus keeping themselves firmly independent from institutional ecclesiastical authority. As a result, they were called semi-religious because they stood on the border between secular and religious life: officially, they were secular (outside of Church control) but performed a religious role within society.

They lived in ‘beguinages’, which could either be houses or entire towns where beguine women formed a community that lived and worked together. Primarily, beguines performed charitable works for their lay communities and would sometimes provide religious guidance. Some beguines even preached to the people.

Page of the manuscript  The Book of the City of Ladies (Le Livre de la Cité des Dames) with an illustration at the top and the text below it. The illustration depicts two scenes. In the first scene, on the left side, a woman (the author) sits at the desk with books on it; in front of her, three women (three Virtues) are standing wearing crowns. In the second scene, on the right side, the female author is helping one of the Virtues (called Lady Reason) build the external walls of the titular City of Ladies.

One of the ways beguines contributed to the creation and transmission of vernacular literature was by writing spiritual (or mystical) texts in their local language. Some well known examples of such women are Hadewijch of Antwerp, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete (active in the Flemish region). Hadewijch probably spoke Latin, but chose to compose her devotional poems and visions in her native Middle Dutch. Mechthild, however, was likely not literate in Latin and as a result composed her visionary work The Flowing Light of the Godhead in Middle High German.

A page from the manuscript The Flowing Light of the Godhead with text in Middle High German

These texts were widely popular. Indeed, The Flowing Light of the Godhead was translated into Latin around the time of its composition, which attests to its popularity and indicates the religious authority that this vernacular text held for a Latin literate religious male elite.

Page from the manuscript Lux divinorum with the Latin translation of Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of the Godhead) by Mechthild of Magdeburg

Many beguines came from noble backgrounds and therefore would have been exposed to vernacular courtly literature in their youth. One of the ways we know that these women were actively engaging with secular texts is because references to courtly literature can be found frequently in mystical texts like Hadewijch’s and Mechthild’s.

They also encouraged the translations of extant religious texts into the vernacular. For example, an Old French translation and commentary on the popular Biblical book the Song of Songs (end 13th century/beginning 14th century) has been preserved. This commentary is associated with beguines. The fact that it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and that the most prolific speaker in the commentary is the female character (the Bride) attests to a strong female influence on the production of this text.

Black and white copy of medieval manuscript

It is unclear whether this text was composed by a male spiritual counsellor for a community of beguines or by a group of beguines themselves. What is certain, however, is the involvement of beguines in the creation and dissemination of a vernacular text inspired both by the Bible and contemporary courtly literature.

This blog is part of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project which explores how medieval reading culture evolved and became a fundamental aspect of European culture.

Manuscripts Women's history Art of Reading in the Middle Ages