- The Beguines of Medieval Paris: Gender, Patronage, and Spiritual Authority by Tanya Stabler Miller
In her fine contribution to the study of medieval beguines Tanya Stabler Miller focuses on thirteenth-century Paris, whose enormous beguinage has not before been [End Page 816] the subject of a detailed analysis. This focus allows her to examine the role of the saintly King Louis IX in the foundation, and his and his descendants’ continued patronage and protection of the biggest “court” beguinage in France (chapters 1, 7); to use Parisian tax rolls to explore the beguines’ financial status and professional activities (chapters 2, 3); to show how university scholars like Robert of Sorbon used beguine ideals in their teaching and preaching (chapter 4); to take another look at the educational activities of beguines (chapter 5) and at the debates concerning the origin of the term beguine (chapter 6). The heart of the book, containing the most interesting and innovative findings, is to be found in chapters 2–4.
Chapters 1 and 7 provide an excellent framework for understanding the importance of royal support for the Paris beguinage, especially after the Council of Vienne (1311–12), which made the beguines’ life and work very difficult by raising suspicions about their lifestyle and attempting to suppress them (unsuccessfully). Chapter 5 addresses such diverse topics as the beguines’ religious education and book ownership, as well as the importance of the vernacular, followed by an analysis of two texts (studied many times before, notably by Barbara Newman and Sylvia Huot, who are both acknowledged) that link beguines to love by using a courtly vocabulary. Chapter 6, in addition to revisiting the term beguine, deals with the case of Marguerite Porete (executed in 1310) but adds little to Sean Field’s recent findings.
So what is in the heart of this book? Real lives of real beguines. By digging into tax records, wills, and other relevant documents, Miller has been able to recreate the world of the Paris beguinage. We see women preaching, interacting with university clerics, trying to dispose of their property, and drawing up careful wills that leave their property to other beguines (not their families). We especially see women working in the manufacture and trade of textiles, specifically those of silk. In the process some new angles appear, encouraging us to rethink the dynamics between women with religious aspirations and clerics by privileging, as do some other recent studies (notably by Fiona Griffiths), “interaction and collaboration over marginalization and persecution” (p. 13). That beguines retained control over their property distinguished them from traditional religious and enabled them to ensure, for example, that their houses stayed within the enclosure of the beguinage even after their deaths and would continue to be owned by beguines. Their role in the skilled silk manufacture and trade, only possible for non-enclosed women of course, assured their livelihood and made possible their active charity. The links between “economic success and lay religiosity” (p. 59) refocus debates about religious poverty, especially for the thirteenth century. That Robert of Sorbon adduced the beguines as exemplars of charity and humility to teach his book-obsessed clerics a lesson will surprise some readers. The author’s nuanced analysis of varying degrees of literacy also is a useful contribution to recent debates. An appendix provides the names and occupations (when known) of beguines listed in the Parisian tax rolls. Several maps and later images of some of the beguines’ tombs help us imagine this community in its Parisian location. In sum, The Beguines of Medieval Paris is an informative and lively book that will make readers see these women not as the hypocritical figures of the satirical tradition nor as the targets of hostile papal [End Page 817] pronouncements but as active and charitable women who carved out an important place for themselves in a city replete with religious orders and institutions.