I’m reading a fascinating book right now — Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.* It’s not my normal fare, but it sounded really interesting, especially as an unmarried woman, so I checked it out of library. My parking fines at work.** Anyway, historically, independent women are not as rare as we imagine they were. In America, unmarried women are largely responsible for: the abolitionist movement, the suffragist movement, labour reforms, and the gay rights movement.
One of the things I’ve learned in reading this book is that, in medieval Europe, women who were unmarriageable for whatever reason — age, ability, lack of dowry, lack of suitable husband, being widowed by the Crusades — didn’t necessarily have to go into convents. For unmarried women who did not wish to enter the convent (and effectively marry Jesus), there was the beguinage.
A beguinage was a house or houses or neighbourhood of unmarried women who were committed to a life of Christian service and were free to leave for any reason they wished. It was expected that they would remain unmarried in their lives as beguines, and that their time as beguines would be devoted to service to the poor, a trade such as textile making, and/or teaching. However, they did not take vows of chastity, poverty or lifetime devotion and were not required to liquidate any assets they had upon entering the beguinage.
These orders emerged in Northern Europe in the 12th century and were most popular in The Netherlands and Belgium in the 13th and 14th centuries. Belgium saw a resurgence in popularity of beguinages in the 17th century, but their numbers never reached that of the medieval period. The last beguine, who was been born in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and served in Belgium died in 2013.
The Medieval Church alternated between a laissez faire attitude toward beguines and outright denouncing them as heretical.*** Not taking vows and giving everything they owned to the Church seems to have been a sticking point.
*This line made my cousin in a major Canadian city and me laugh, “92% of college girls surveyed in the 1920s said they had participated in sexual, below-the-neck fondling, and that, by this time, “young middle-class men were more likely to lose their virginity with women of their own class than with prostitutes.”” We spent a good five minutes discussing what above-the-neck fondling was. The best we could come up with was a wet willy and a nose boop.
**Although, since I split with my ex, I haven’t actually *had* a parking fine because I’m spending significantly less time in his parking gestapo neighbourhood.
***This is pretty rich considering the medieval Papacy was a revolving door of simony, murder, illegitimate children, power hunger that would put Game of Thrones to shame, and literally disinterring a deceased Pope to put his corpse on trial. As previously noted, I *love* the medieval Papacy because it’s completely bonkers.