From Academic Kids

For the style of music, see Beguine (dance).

Beguines are lay sisterhoods made up of women who devote themselves to a life of religion without taking monastic vows. Such communities have existed since the 12th and 13th centuries. They began in the Netherlands, although the origin of the word is uncertain — it may come from a Flemish word meaning "to pray," or possibly from Lambert le Bègue, a priest of Liège who died around 1187 and who may have founded the sisterhood, or it may even be related to the word Albigensian.

In the 12th century Beguines were women who lived as nuns without taking religious vows; with no vows they could return to normal life if they wished. There were originally very few of them, but as they became popular during the period of the Crusades, many women joined then when their husbands, fathers, or brothers were away in the east or had been killed there. Beguines lived and worked outside towns and cities among the urban poor, relying on labour to support themselves rather than begging for alms. They were more recognizable in urban settings than the major monastic orders, who mostly lived in rural areas, and were known for their kind attentions to the poor, the ill, and the dying.

In the early 13th century the first Beguine communities, known as beguinages (from Lat. beginagium) were formed around grand mistresses, with a small church and often a hospital, but individual houses for each woman rather than a single large building on the model of a convent. No two communities of Beguines were connected to each other by any rule or mother house. Some beguine communities included only upper class women, some only the poor, but most were women of all classes. Numbers varied in different areas but in Ghent the community had several thousand members. Beguines also spread to France (encouraged by Louis IX), Germany, and Switzerland.

By the end of the 13th century nearly every town in the Netherlands had a beguine community (or several). As a rule, beguinages were shut of from the rest of the town by a wall and gates which were shut at nightfall. No men, not even priests, were allowed inside a beguinage when the gates were closed.

As the 13th century progressed they tended to become mystics and relied less and less on their own labour, often turning to begging instead. By the 14th century some communities were absorbed by monastic and mendicant orders, and others developed into Flagellants or other practices considered heretical. In 1311, Pope Clement V accused the Beguines of spreading heresy, and they were persecuted under John XXII, Urban V, and Gregory XI. They were rehabilitated in the 15th century by Eugenius IV. Most communities ceased to exist by the time of the Reformation, but a few still survive precariously in the Netherlands and Belgium.

A similar community for men was the Beghards, who developed around the same time but ceased to exist during the 13th century.

Surviving beguinages are almost invariably protected, thoroughly renovated and often popular tourist attractions. These days, they are prized locations for families and small businesses with long waiting lists and/or very steep rents.

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