The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 764-765
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Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565. By Walter Simons. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2001. Pp. xv, 335. $65.00.)
One of the most intriguing religious movements of the European Middle Ages was that of the beguines: women who lived together, had religious vocations, nursed the ill and dying, but were not nuns and did not live sequestered in convents. Instead, beguines lived by the work of their hands in "cities of ladies": communities generally situated in the hearts of the urban landscapes of the medieval Low Countries. There has been a wealth of new research on beguines since the last major English work on beguines was published in 1954 (Ernest McDonnell's The Beguines and Beghards in Medieval Culture: With Special Emphasis on the Belgian Scene). Walter Simons' Cities of Ladies brings scholars up to date and provides a framework within which to understand this complex phenomenon.
Simons concentrates upon two facets of the beguine movement: the religious status and gender of its participants. First and foremost, the beguine movement was propelled by lay people; beguines never took permanent vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty. Secondly, female lay people defined this movement from its inception. Simons believes that these characteristics define and explain much of its subsequent history.
Simons dismisses the theory that beguines were women who aspired to be nuns but could not, either because they were not patrician or because many reform religious orders stopped admitting women after 1200. He also refutes the argument that a surplus of women overwhelming northern European cities exhausted available religious or marital resources. According to Simons, beguine [End Page 764] documents indicate that they sought to avoid marriage and helped others to do likewise. Moreover, few beguines ever became nuns even when they had the opportunity. Simons argues that beguines pursued a vocation different from that offered by either marriage or the convent: the ability to earn one's own living while caring for the disadvantaged "in the world" rather than sequestered from it.
Simons' history focuses upon the defining socio-economic aspects of the beguine movement: vocational characteristics, social composition, tense, yet often supportive relations with the clergy, and the development of the formal beguinage: a "city within a city" where beguines could safely live. Furthermore, because the movement was created by and for lay women, "beguines never formed a centralized religious order or adopted a single rule" (p. 143). Consequently, later beguines never expressed a sense of a common history with revered founders. This makes construction of their history a formidable task. Simons blends archival data from many different sources with the vitae of those elite beguines whose religious fervor warranted fuller documentation.
Cities of Ladies does not aim to write the complete history of medieval beguines, nor is it focused upon beguine mysticism, about which there has been an explosion of research since 1980. Because of Simons' grasp of the archival data, Cities of Ladies will be consulted by many kinds of scholars. In this treasure trove of information the notes comprise over half the book. Particularly valuable are two appendices documenting the locations, dates, and populations of all known beguinages in the southern Low Countries.
Cities of Ladies thus serves two valuable functions. First, it gathers much of the research on beguines that has been generated over the last fifty years. Second, Simons constructs a narrative frame that highlights the lay and female aspects of the beguine movement. Neither nuns manquées nor frustrated spinsters, medieval beguines created a unique space for their Cities of Ladies that had neither precedent nor successor.