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Cities of Ladies

Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565

By Walter Simons

Publication Year: 2003

Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2002

In the early thirteenth century, semireligious communities of women began to form in the cities and towns of the Low Countries. These beguines, as the women came to be known, led lives of contemplation and prayer and earned their livings as laborers or teachers.

In Cities of Ladies, the first history of the beguines to appear in English in fifty years, Walter Simons traces the transformation of informal clusters of single women to large beguinages. These veritable single-sex cities offered lower- and middle-class women an alternative to both marriage and convent life. While the region's expanding urban economies initially valued the communities for their cheap labor supply, severe economic crises by the fourteenth century restricted women's opportunities for work. Church authorities had also grown less tolerant of religious experimentation, hailing as subversive some aspects of beguine mysticism. To Simons, however, such accusations of heresy against the beguines were largely generated from a profound anxiety about their intellectual ambitions and their claims to a chaste life outside the cloister. Under ecclesiastical and economic pressure, beguine communities dwindled in size and influence, surviving only by adopting a posture of restraint and submission to church authorities.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v-vi

Illustrations and Maps

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xv

The city of Ghent today is as vibrant as ever. Once Flanders’ unruly capital, it now teems with students who rush through its streets on their way to class; tourists who arrive by the busload to pay tribute to van Eyck’s Altarpiece at St. Baafs; hordes of workers commuting to the vast industrial plants that border its canal to the Scheldt estuary. But those who wander away from the city and proceed...

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1. Women, Work, and Religion in the Southern Low Countries

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pp. 1-34

Medieval visitors to the southern Low Countries would have been struck first by the variety of the landscape unfolding before them as they crossed the region from west to east. In a journey of a mere 150 miles, they would have traveled from the marshy lowlands of coastal Flanders to the gently rolling wheat fields of Brabant—immortalized by Pieter Brueghel in the sixteenth century—to the...

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2. The Formation of Beguinages

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pp. 35-60

Around 1200, lay women of the southern Low Countries began to lead a new kind of religious life that became popular rapidly. Its success drew the attention of many contemporary observers. James of Vitry, the famous preacher, moralist, and cardinal (d. 1240), who worked hard to publicize the women’s efforts, noted in his Life of Mary of Oignies that by 1212, ‘‘many holy maidens (sanctae virgines)...

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3. The Contemplative and the Active Life

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pp. 61-90

Like many other religious movements—orthodox as well as heretical—that rose up after the eleventh century, the beguines demonstrated both a desire to withdraw from contemporary social life and a wish to be involved in it. These seemingly contradictory goals were embedded in the apostolic model that informed religious renewal and dissent in this age. The model celebrated the ideals of voluntary...

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4. The Social Composition of Beguine Communities

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pp. 91-117

The oldest studies of medieval German beguines believed they came primarily from the lower artisan or servant strata, a conviction that relied more on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sociological theory than on empirical research.¹ In his authoritative Religiöse Bewegungen of 1935, Herbert Grundmann rejected that view categorically and argued that the beguines’ ideal of voluntary...

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5. Conflict and Coexistence

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pp. 118-137

In the summer of 1273, most probably on the feast of the Transfiguration celebrated on August 6, the Dominican Giles of Orleans preached a sermon in the church of the beguines of Paris on the parable of the unjust steward, taken from Luke 16. Giles was a popular preacher, who spoke to the beguines at least four times in that same liturgical year. In this sermon, he wished to remind them that...

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6. Conclusion

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pp. 138-143

The mid-sixteenth century was a turbulent time for the southern Low Countries. Political and religious dissent led to numerous conflicts between the Spanish crown and its subjects from the 1520s on; excessive taxation and economic setbacks further aggravated the tensions, which finally escalated in the iconoclast movement of 1566 and the subsequent revolt. In 1559, in an atmosphere of rising anxiety,...


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pp. 145-147


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pp. 149-222


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pp. 223-251

Appendix I: Repertory of Beguine Communities

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pp. 253-303

Appendix II: The Population of Select Court Beguinages

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pp. 304-313


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pp. 315-335

E-ISBN-13: 9780812200126
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812218534

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2003