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§ 83. The Beguines and Beghards.


While the Cathari and Waldenses were engaging the attention of the Church authorities in Southern Europe, communities, called Beguines and Beghards, were being formed along the lower Rhine and in the territories adjacent to it. They were lay associations intended at first to foster a warmer type of piety than they found in the Church.10411041    Hase, Karl Müller, Kirchengesch. I. 570, Alphandéry, p. 2 sqq., and others treat the subject under the head of lay-activity. of these communities developed immoral practices and heretical tenets, which called forth the condemnation of pope and synods.

The Beguines, who were chiefly women, seem to have derived their origin and their name from Lambert le Bègue, a priest of Liége, who died about 1177.10421042    The Beguines are called a sect, secta Beguinarum, in Guy’s Practica, p.264, etc. The term Beguines, or Bequini, is also derived from beggan, to beg, by Jundt, or from bègue, to stammer. See Haupt, in Herzog, II. 517. Lea, p. 351, seems inclined to advocate the old opinion which derived the name from St. Begga, d. 694, the mother of Pepin of Heristal and the reputed founder of a convent.10431043    Premium castitatis verbo et exemplo predicavit, Fredericq, II. 33. sought to make known the Scriptures to the people, and founded in Liége the hospital of St. Christopher and a house for women which in derision was called the beguinage. The women renounced their goods and lived a semi-conventual life, but took no vows and followed none of the approved monastic Rules. Houses were established in Flanders, France, and especially in Germany, as for example at Valenciennes, 1212, Douai, 1219, Antwerp, 1230, Ghent, 1233, Frankfurt, 1242. In 1264 St. Louis built a beguinage in Paris which he remembered in his will. The beguinage of Ghent was a small town in itself, with walls, infirmary, church, cemetery, and conventual dwellings. According to Matthew Paris, writing of the year 1250, their number in Germany, especially in the vicinity of Cologne, was countless.10441044    Multitudo innumerabilis, Luard’s ed., V. 194. In another place, IV. 278, he gives the number as 2,000. He also states that they were governed by no Church Rule, nullius sancti regula coarctatae. Golden Frog, zum goldenen Frosch, the Wolf, zum Wolf, the Eagle, zum Adler.10451045    Uhlhorn, p. 380.

The communities supported themselves by spinning, weaving, caring for the sick, and other occupations. Some of the houses forbade begging. Some of them, as those in Cologne, were afterwards turned into hospitals. As a rule they practised mendicancy and went about in the streets crying Brod durch Gott, "Bread for the sake of God." They wore a distinctive dress.10461046    The brief of Boniface IX. mentions "gray and other colors," Döllinger, Beiträge, II. 383.

The earliest community of Beghards known to us is the community of Löwen, 1220. The Beghards practised mendicancy and they spread as far as Poland and Switzerland. It was not long till they were charged with loose tendencies, a disregard of the hierarchy, and heresy. Neither the Beguines as a body nor the Beghards ever received distinct papal sanction.10471047    A synod of Béziers, p. 299, forbade both male and female societies on the ground that there was no papal sanction. Wetzer-Welte, II. 204, calls them ordensähnliche Gesellschaften, and Alphandéry, p. 2, extra-ecclésiastiques.

Both associations were the objects of synodal enactment as early as the middle of the thirteenth century. The synod of Mainz, 1259, warned the Beghards against going through the streets, crying, "Bread for God’s sake," and admonished them to put aside offensive peculiarities and not to mingle with Beguines. Another synod of Mainz, 1261, referred to scandals among the Beguines. A synod of Cologne, a year later, condemned their unchurchly independence and bade them confess to priests on pain of excommunication. In 1310 synods, held at Treves and Mainz, forbade clerics entering beguinages on any pretext whatever and forbade Beghards explaining the Bible to the ignorant.10481048    Hefele, VI. 490, 600.

The communities became more and more the objects of suspicion, and a sharp blow was struck at them in 1312 by Clement V. and the council of Vienne. The council forbade their communal mode of life, and accused them of heresies.10491049    Hefele, VI. 543, 544. possible to reach a state of perfection in this world. A person reaching this state is under no obligation to fast and pray, but may yield himself without sin to all the appetites of the body.10501050    The actus carnis is no sin, for it is an impulse of nature. Döllinger, II. 384-407, 702 sqq. They were also accused with denying a hell.

Clement’s bull erred by its failure to discriminate between heretical and orthodox communities, a defect which was corrected by John XXII. This pope expressly gave protection to the orthodox communities. In the fourteenth century, the number of houses increased very rapidly in Germany and by 1400 there was scarcely a German town which had not its beguinage. Up to that date, fifty-seven had been organized in Frankfurt, and in the middle of the fifteenth century there were one hundred and six such houses in Cologne and sixty in Strassburg. In 1368 Erfurt had four hundred Beguines and Beghards.10511051    Haupt, in Herzog, II. 519.

In the earlier part of the fourteenth century, the Beguines appeared in Southern France, where the Inquisition associated them closely with the Tertiaries of St. Francis and accused them of adopting the views of John Peter Olivi.10521052    Bernard Guy, 264 sqq. See also the letter of the bishop of Utrecht, Oct. 6, 1318, in Fredericq, II. 74.

In the latter part of the fourteenth century, the Inquisition broke up many of the houses in Germany, their effects being equally divided between itself, the poor, and the municipality. Gregory XI., 1377, recognized that many of the Beghards were leading good lives. Boniface IX., 1394, made a sharp distinction between the communities and classed the heterodox Beghards with Lollards and Swestriones.10531053    "Sisters," a popular name for the Beguines.10541054    Willige Armen, see Döllinger, II. 381-383. Gregory XII., Eugene IV., and Sixtus IV. also commended the orthodox societies.s to the good of the people, he gave papal recognition. To avoid persecution, many of them took refuge with the Franciscans and enrolled themselves as Tertiaries of the Franciscan order. With the Reformation the Beghards and Beguines for the most part disappear as separate communities.10551055    There are still religious houses in Belgium and Holland called beguinages. In 1896 there were fifteen in Belgium and in Holland, one in Breda, and one in Amsterdam. For the Brethren of the Free Spirit, who are often associated with the Beghards but had a different origin, see part II. of this volume.

These sectaries were in part forerunners and contemporaries of other communities with a pious and benevolent design developed in Holland in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and with which German mysticism is closely associated.



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