Beguinages are in literature also referred to as ‘female guilds’, considering their activities in several crafts (such as textiles), and their independence from local authorities. In the Middle Ages these beguinages emerged as more or less independent corporations of women, who wanted to live a devotional life, though with not too many strings attached. Unlike nuns, they usually did not take any perpetual vows, and they could leave the beguinage for marriage or other reasons.
What makes them most exceptional within the range of religious communities for women is that they did not take a vow of individual poverty: they could keep their own property, and work for their own benefit. Nevertheless they were expected to live a sober life, without much display of their wealth (Simons, 2001, 68). Beguines usually did take a – temporary – vow of chastity but no vow of obedience, although they were expected to respect the authority of the mistress of the beguinage.
The highest concentration of beguinages can be found in the Southern Netherlands, Holland and Zeeland, where today many can still be visited (although there are no more beguines living in them), but beguine-like institutions have been found as far as the Balkan and Southern Italy (although it is not always clear whether these can all be considered as the Low Countries-type of beguines).
We can discern two types of beguinages: convents were usually fairly small, housing usually less than 20 beguines (figures are hard to give, especially for the earlier periods), though exceptions of convents with even up to 72 beguines (Arras, early fourteenth century) can be found. The other type, the court beguinage, was more complex and could house in some cases even nearly 2000 beguines. This was for example the cases in the Great Beguinage St. Catherine of Malines (Mechelen) around the end of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. This is the largest beguinage that has ever existed (Simons, 2001, 53-5).
The most common type of beguine institution was the convent (Latin: conventus, Dutch: convent, French: couvent, German: Beginenkonvent), which was an association of beguines living together or in close proximity of each other under the guidance of a single superior, called a mistress or prioress. In most cases, beguines who lived in a convent agreed to obey certain regulation during their stay and contributed to a collective fund (Simons, 2001).
Similarly, references to beguine houses can also often be found. Although they might not exactly refer to their association as a ‘convent’, these houses where a very small number of women lived in similar ways as beguines who lived in a convent, can be included in this type. In particular in areas where the beguine movement was not so popular, we can find such beguine houses.
In particular in areas where the movement was popular (such as Flanders), large court beguinages were formed. A court beguinage (Latin: curtis, curia beguinarum, Dutch: (begijn)hof, French: court (de beguines), German: Beginenhof) consisted of several houses for beguines built around a central chapel or church where their religious activities took place, and often included also functional buildings such as a brewery, a bakery, a hospital, and farm buildings. The dwellings themselves could vary from small houses inhabited by one or two beguines beguines lived, sometimes accompanied by a servant (usually also a beguine), to larger convents that had their own mistress. The whole complex – dwellings, ceremonial buildings and other functional buildings together – had one single prioress, who sometimes had their own administrative building (Simons 2001, 51).
Simons, W., 2001. Cities of ladies: beguine communities in the medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).