Review: The Wisdom of the Beguines

By Rachel MacFarland

For the last couple months, I’ve been slowly reading Laura Swan’s The Wisdom of the Beguines (The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement), published by BlueBridge in 2014. It’s historical nonfiction, heavy with places/names/dates, and that kind of reading goes down slow. And while the subject matter is fascinating—women forming their own self-supported and sustaining communities as an alternative lifestyle to the limited traditional roles of wife, mother, and nun (beguines could be any of these and still be a beguine), the presentation of the material gets somewhat trapped and dulled by the limitations of the genre. 

As the title directly states—the beguine movement is a forgotten story. According to Swan, beguinages (the communities of the beguines) have existed across Europe from the 1200s until 2013. Granted, the height of their existence was roughly 1200 to 1500, but come on—that’s 800 years of entirely women-run communities, all across Europe, that I had never come across before. The word HIStory is all the explanation needed. So I hand it to Laura Swan—she did a massive service to English speakers in researching this HERstory. In the back of the book, when she lists her sources, she points out that much of what is published on the beguines is in French, Dutch, and German. Further, when skimming through her sources, it seems standard public access has also been limited by the fact that beguine stories are largely kept behind the walls of academia and the church. And it’s a shame, these limits, because Swan’s own role, then, as author, was to build the bridge over the walls. She took the whole history and tried to pack it into one relatively thin book. It could almost be called Beguines for Dummies, and while I absolutely believe this book is worth the read, it’s not exactly Wonder Woman.

And the real bitch of that is that it could be.

Because these women were incredible. They came from all walks of life, and while many of them were wealthy, they used their money and influence to buy and maintain properties, offer housing, create jobs, feed the poor, and keep space for women to live quiet lives of spiritual sanctity, unaffiliated with the church. They were often aligned with a monastic order, for ease and for protection, because if they could keep peace with the church, they were largely left to live and do as they pleased, and all it seems they ever did was Do Good. You would be hard-pressed to find fault with these women, unless you’re one who likes to think a woman’s place is where a man tells her to be. 

And some of them were wild—like music festival wild, all trippin’ on visions and the ecstasy of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. They wrote, they preached, they sang, they prayed, they fasted, they meditated. They were devout to their concept of a holy life, and while it was deeply rooted in Christianity and the context of Europe’s Middle Age, it was still alternative as hell. They didn’t want or need the church to middle-man their path to God, and some of their names for God are grand: Wise Love, Leader of the Dance, Sweet Dew, Flowing Light, Fire of Love, Whirlpool, Ocean Depths, Winemaker, The All in All. Tell me you haven’t met someone speaking in those same tongues at a Flaming Lips show. And they were all living together, these women, hundreds of them, sometimes thousands, all over Europe, 800 years ago, printing books and job training and running their own real estate. That’s thrilling! Unfortunately, this book doesn’t read with that thrill, or the thrill of beguine spiritual ecstasy. It reads like a homework assignment you put off until an hour before its due. But I don’t blame Swan; it’s still a solid introduction to a topic with too little attention. 

I’d love to read the graphic novel version someday.  

Rachel MacFarland is Co-Publisher/Writer/Curator at Ope! Publishing in La Crosse.

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