Religious Options for Medieval Women: Hermitesses and Beguines
An extract from Dr. Ann K. Warren “Five Religious Options for Medieval Women” “Christian History”, Issue 30, 1991
In the High Middle Ages, Christian women found many ways to live a holy life.
Dr. Ann K. Warren is Adjunct Associate Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University and author of “Anchorites and Their Patrons in Medieval England” [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985]
“Christina of Markyate made a formal vow of virginity at age 14, in about the year 1110. Two years later her family, an upper-class, Anglo-Saxon family in England, forced Christina into a betrothal.
She was kept in physical custody for a year, during which an ecclesiastical judge was bribed to set aside her vow of virginity. The marriage took place at last.
The resisting bride, however, would not consent to its physical consummation. She spent the night prepared for her deflowering recounting to her husband the story of St. Cecilia—the saint who had convinced her husband, Valerian, to live with her chastely until each could enter a monastery. Christina’s husband had other dreams. The situation was at an impasse.
Christina then fled, with the aid of a local hermit. An anchoress named Alfwen hid her for two years. Christina was then moved to a hermitage at Markyate, where some male hermits lived, and they secreted her for four more years. Ultimately her family accepted that her resolve would not weaken. The marriage was dissolved, and Christina became technically free to live a more “normal” religious life.
By this time, however, the solitary lifestyle had become established. She became a hermitess, inheriting the site where she had hid for four years. In time a group of disciples formed around her, the hermitage becoming first a group household and ultimately a convent with Christina as abbess.
Christina’s story takes us into all the types of religious life of her period. She was in turn a consecrated virgin, a recluse, a hermitess, and a nun. A traditional anchoress figures in her story as well. As her life illustrates, to be a bride of Christ was not necessarily to be a nun. Especially in the later Middle Ages, women pursued the religious life in a variety of forms.”
Occasionally women chose to be hermitesses. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, some women of religious bent rejected the communal and regulated life of the convent for the desolation and difficulty of a solitary life in the wilderness. Like many men in this period of religious revival, they took to the forests, the deserts, and the bogs. Alone or with a small group of like-minded individuals, they lived in makeshift dwellings and sought a mystical relationship with God. These hermitesses stood largely outside the formal organization of the church, unless they chose to accept the counsel of a caring clergyman.
The nunneries of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the hermitages that grew in this same period, were aspects of a society almost completely rural. There remained abundant land, yet uncleared, on which a pious noble might found a convent for his daughter; there were forests within which an enterprising hermitess might establish herself. Towns were few, the distances between them long.
These religious movements of withdrawal, paradoxically, gradually tamed and eliminated the environment to which they had fled. They cleared the land and provided outposts of civilization, encouraging and aiding the growth of towns and cities. By the thirteenth century western Europe was considerably deforested. The eremitic age was over, and new religious vocations for women emerged. The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a more urban age, was the age of beguines and tertiaries.
The beguine was merely a religious woman, “mulier religiosa”. She took temporary vows, usually of chastity and simplicity of life, donned some kind of identifying habit, and dedicated herself to good works. The beguine, a product of the growing cities of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Europe, worked in those cities, answering the needs of the displaced poor and sick. She was bound to no order. She might live at home or with a group who shared her values. She could later renounce her vows and marry without difficulty.
The beguine movement was the only religious current of the Middle Ages that was female in conception. It did not owe its impetus, its main support, or its direction to men.
Pressure for the beguine movements (and the tertiary movements) was generated in part by an imbalance in the numbers of men and women of marriageable age. From this pool of unattached women arose more women who wanted to assume religious lives and more women available (because unmarried) to lead them. They awaited only the right stimulus to aid them in focusing their lives religiously.
That stimulus emerged in late twelfth-century Belgium, from two women: Ivetta of Huy and Mary of Oignies.
Ivetta of Huy (1157–1228) was born to an affluent family near Liege. She was married at 13 and widowed at 18, already the mother of three sons. She resisted the demands of her family to remarry and with the support and encouragement of the Bishop of Liege, she was allowed to take widow’s vows. She gave the care of her children to her father and spent the next ten years using her home as a hostel for pilgrims and travelers and working in a nearby leper colony. Still feeling too much contact with worldly affairs, Ivetta then moved to the leper colony, enclosed herself in a cell, and lived there as an anchoress until her death forty-eight years later, by then famed as a mystic.
Mary of Oignies (1177–1213) also was born to wealth in the Brabant region. She was married at 14, against her will. More successful than Christina of Markyate, she was able to convince her husband that they live in continence and share a religious vocation. They worked together caring for lepers. Mary’s reputation spread, and she became the center of a group of women who lived chastely and worked among the sick. In 1207, after about fifteen years of work with the lepers and of exercising a kind of moral leadership over the amorphous community that had grown up around her, she retired to an anchorhold near Oignes. She lived in the cell only six years before dying at the age of 36.
Mary and Ivetta both began their religious lives in the world. Though both gradually withdrew from the world, the concept that a religious life could be lived in the world was central to their perception. Poverty was also a tenet of their ideology; the families of these women had to constantly stand guard that they not decimate the family fortune with excessive almsgiving. Combining apostolic poverty and service in the world, they thus shared characteristics of the movements spurred later by St. Francis.
From these women the beguines developed. The movement swept through the Low Countries and Germany in the thirteenth century, centered in the cities. The beguine movement accommodated women of more middling status than those who filled the nunneries. The beguines lived in the world, supporting themselves with any manner of honest work and spending the remainder of their time in charitable works. They served the poor and the sick in the urban environment. They banded together, unattached women of the cities, living separately or communally in houses (later called beguinages) built or bought with their own resources.
To get a sense of how many there may have been, by the end of the fourteenth century there were about 1,500 beguines living in Cologne, a city whose general population was only about 20,000. Over a two-hundred-year period, on average, perhaps one in ten residents was a beguine.
While acknowledging the social and demographic components of the movement, it is important to stress that this was essentially a religious happening, a great outpouring of religious fervor. These women, who stood apart from hierarchy and structure, were degraded by many. The word beguine itself was a smear meaning “heretic.” Yet the movement could not be stopped. It offered women a wide range of charitable employment with a minimum of complication, a self-regulated balance between outreach and contemplative withdrawal, and the freedom to change one’s mind and later marry or assume another religious role.”
For a review of “Anchorites and Their Patrons in Medieval England” [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985], see http://www.hermitary.com/bookreviews/warren.html
Samuel Fanous and Henrietta Leyser (eds) “Christina of Markyate: A Twelfth-Century Holy Woman” [Taylor & Francis, 2004]
“Samuel Fanous and Henrietta Leyser present a vivid interdisciplinary study devoted to the life, work and extant vita of Christina of Markyate, which draws on research from a wide range of disciplines.
This fascinating and comprehensive collection surveys the life of an extraordinary medieval woman. Christina of Markyate made a vow of chastity at an early age, against the wishes of her parents who intended her to marry. When forced into wedlock, she fled in disguise and went into hiding, receiving refuge in a network of hermitages. Christina became a religious recluse and eventually founded a priory of nuns attached to St. Albans.
Beautifully illustrated, this book provides students who regularly encounter Christina with a research compendium from which to begin their studies, and introduces Christina to a wider audience.”
Wolfgang Riehle “The Secret Within: Hermits, Recluses, and Spiritual Outsiders in Medieval England” [Cornell University Press, 2014]
“Spiritual seekers throughout history have sought illumination through solitary contemplation. In the Christian tradition, medieval England stands out for its remarkable array of hermits, recluses, and spiritual outsiders, from Cuthbert Godric of Fichale and Christina of Markyate to Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe.
In “The Secret Within”, Wolfgang Riehle offers the first comprehensive history of English medieval mysticism in decades, one that will appeal to anyone fascinated by mysticism as a phenomenon of religious life. In considering the origins and evolution of the English mystical tradition, Riehle begins in the twelfth century with the revival of eremitical mysticism and the early growth of the Cistercian Order in the British Isles. He then focuses in depth on the great mystics of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: Richard Rolle (the first great English mystic), the anonymous author of “The Cloud of Unknowing”, Walter Hilton, Margery Kempe, and Julian of Norwich. Riehle carefully grounds his narrative in the broader spiritual landscape of the Middle Ages, pointing out both prior influences dating back to Late Antiquity and corresponding developments in mysticism and theology on the Continent. He discusses the problem of possible differences between male and female spirituality and the movement of popularizing mysticism in the late Middle Ages. Filled with fresh insights, “The Secret Within” will be welcomed especially by teachers and students of medieval literature as well as by those engaged in historical, theological, philosophical, cultural, even anthropological and comparative studies of mysticism.”