During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a number of pious women placed themselves under the direction of the Carmelites and individually attempted to follow the Carmelite rule in some fashion. Many of them even wore a religious habit fashioned on the general pattern of the friars’ habit.
Most frequently these women lived by themselves as recluses in a hut or tiny cell constructed near a church or monastery. Their life, then, was one of absolute solitude and prayer. This was not an unusual form of life in the Middle Ages, and we have already seen that it was practiced by St. Simon Stock before he entered the Carmelite Order.
But many other groups of pious women lived a form of communal life, wearing a kind of Carmelite habit, and following the broad outlines of the Carmelite rule. We find groups of this nature in Lombardy, Spain, Sicily, Flanders, and the Low Countries.
This, again, was not an unusual phenomenon, and it brings us to a unique religious situation in medieval Europe: the tradition of the Beguines, women who lived together without vows, and without official status, in a very loosely knit pious association, something resembling a home for Christian ladies.
These groups were called Beguines in France and in the Lowlands, the name that is most commonly used to designate them in history; Beatas in Spain; Mantellate in southern Italy and Sicily; and Humiliates in Lombardy.
The Beguines had no apostolate whatsoever, and the movement cannot be interpreted as an attempt to circumvent the contemporary ecclesiastical legislation, since the general mood of medieval Europe, which was definitely anti-feminist in many ways, was opposed to female apostolic endeavors.
These Beguines simply led quiet Christian lives: they said their prayers, did their knitting, could receive visitors freely, and could come and go as they pleased. They retained their own money, and some of them lived rather comfortably with a suite of rooms and a provision of fine foods. The life was not demanding, and it provided a pleasant residence for Christian ladies, both virgins and widows, who wanted to make an open profession of their Christian faith.
We possess little accurate information about the Beguine groups that attempted to associate themselves with the Carmelite tradition of prayer and solitude; we only know that there were a number of such groups and that they were under the direction of individual Carmelite priests.
But the spirit of the Beguines is an important factor in this chronicle because it exercised a definite influence on some convents of early Carmelite nuns.
Peter Thomas Rohrbach, O.C.D.
IV. The Nuns
Rohrbach, P 1966, 2015, Journey to Carith: The Sources and Story of the Discalced Carmelites, ICS Publications, Washington DC.
Featured image: Photographer Steve Jurvetson brings us this image of the béguinage at Bruges, Belgium, which today functions as a priory of Benedictine Sisters. (Some rights reserved).
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