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A word as to the Béguines.
There lived at Liège, at the end of the twelfth century, a priest named Lambert le Bègues. His name does not prove him to have been a stammerer; on the contrary, he was a preacher of great fervour, and attracted multitudes to his sermons. Le Bègues was probably the name of his family.
At that time the Bishop of Liège, whose name was Raoul, was a man of evil reputation. He had formerly been Archbishop of Mainz, but had been deposed from his office on account of simony. At Liège he sold by auction in the market-place the church preferments that fell to his share. The clergy of Liège, who had not been shining examples of holy living even before the arrival of Bishop Raoul, were now encouraged by his example to live in a disorderly manner, and the morals of the 28 town of Liège were at a very low ebb when Lambert began his preaching there.
It would seem that at that time, both in towns and country places, there were a number of wandering priests, who went about preaching and administering the Sacraments, without being under the orders of any special bishop. Probably they were more or less associated with the lay preachers of the “Brethren,” called in a vague way the Waldensian Brethren, whose evangelising was carried on so extensively as to bring upon them much persecution in the whole of Western Europe.
It was in order to direct this zeal for evangelising into more Catholic channels that Francis of Assisi and Dominic founded the orders of predicant friars; just as in our days the “Church Army” in England has been formed to bring under Church authority the work of evangelisation, which had been set on foot by the Salvation Army.
Lambert was apparently one of the independent priests who preached on their own account, and was, therefore, free to speak unwelcome truths. He had been originally a chorister in S. Paul’s Church at Liège. He was probably a man with means of his own; 29 for not only did he preach earnestly and constantly against the worldliness of the professing Church, but he provided a practical means of separating from the world.
In a large garden which he had by the river side beyond the city walls he built a number of small separate houses, which he filled with women of all classes who desired to live a secluded life and devote themselves to good works. In the middle of the garden he built a church, dedicated to S. Christopher, which was finished in the year 1184. Lambert then placed his community under the care of a priest.
These Béguine sisters took no vows; they were free to leave the community when they chose to do so. They retained possession of their money and property. They were under no convent rules; they simply promised obedience to their Superior as long as they remained in the Béguinage. But if they wished to return to ordinary life, or to marry, they had a right to do so, as married women living, of course, no longer in the community. They were not required to wear any special dress, but to be clothed in “modest apparel.”
They lived either alone in one of the little 30 houses, or two or more together, keeping house for themselves, and having their rooms very simply furnished. They did their own baking and brewing; and if they had no means of their own, they had some employment by which to gain their living. This Béguine life was, therefore, regarded by the Church as less meritorious than convent life, notwithstanding the fact that the Béguines were employed in nursing the sick, attending to the poor, and in teaching young girls reading, writing, and needlework. They were free to go out with leave of the Superior and visit their friends, or the poor in the town outside of which the Béguinage was built. Some of them might even live in the town, wearing ordinary dresses, and keeping shops, or maintaining themselves by their labour.
These rules of Béguine life were multiplied in various ways as Béguine communities became rapidly very numerous in Belgium, Holland, and Germany.
But to return to Lambert, their founder. His sermons, which contained solemn warnings addressed to the higher clergy by reason of their evil ways, very soon brought upon him persecution and ill-usage. During one of his sermons in the great church of S. 31 Lambert he was seized by order of the bishop, and imprisoned in the castle of Revogne. He employed himself in his dungeon in translating the Acts of the Apostles from Latin into French.
Amongst other accusations which had been brought against him, it was said that he had prophesied the destruction of S. Lambert’s Church. Whilst he was translating in his dungeon, it came to pass, on the 28th of April 1185, that the sexton of the church went up into the belfry to ring the bell. He had taken with him a pan of hot coals in order to warm his hands. A coal must have fallen through a crack in the floor into a space below, where wood and straw were stored up. In the following night the tower was seen to be in flames.
The fire spread quickly, burning not only the church, but the bishop’s palace, which stood near, the houses of the canons, and the neighbouring churches of S. Peter, S. Trudo, S. Clement, and the Eleven Thousand Virgins. For three days the whole town was in the greatest danger.
The charge against Lambert was now changed into an accusation of sorcery. He was brought 32 to his trial, but the “four discreet and learned men” appointed by the bishop to judge his cause, could find no proof of any offence with which he was charged. The people of Liège, who were displeased at his imprisonment, began to clamour for his release; and he himself demanded to be set free, that he might go to Rome and appeal to the Pope.
His request was granted. The Pope acquitted him of all charges brought against him, and authorised his work by instituting him formally as the Patriarch of the Béguines.
He only survived this journey to Rome six months, and died at Liège towards the end of the year 1187. He was buried before the high altar in his church of S. Christopher. Some chroniclers relate these facts in a slightly different way, according to which Lambert was sent to Rome by the bishop with a list of charges brought against him. But the important point remains proved, that he was the founder of the widely-spread community of men and women known later as Beghards and Béguines.
For after his death, possibly before, communities of men were formed on the plan of the Béguine communities. These men maintained 33 themselves by weaving or other handicrafts. They met together for meals and for prayer, but did not have their possessions in common. They had no rule, but were accustomed to wear simple clothes—brown, white, black, or grey.
As time went on, the ranks of the Beghards or Béguines were largely recruited by the “Friends of God,” with whom they seem at all times to have been in constant intercourse; so that in the fourteenth century to be a Beghard or Béguine, meant much the same thing as to belong to the Waldensian Brethren. In consequence, their persecutions during the fourteenth century amounted at last to extermination, their houses being replenished from the ranks of “orthodox” Roman Catholics. The persons, therefore, from that time onwards bearing the name of Beghards or Béguines differed in nothing from members of Roman Catholic orders.
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