Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Beguines: Forming Christian Communities

Across Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and northern France, laywomen came into a personal relationship with Jesus during the late Middle Ages. In order to grow spiritually, they formed households where they could have fellowship with likeminded sisters in Christ. At first the Beguines purchased large houses where half a dozen or a dozen women could live together as a spiritual community. Just after the year 1230, however, Countess Johanna of Flanders, and other nobility made sizeable donations of land and money, allowing the women to establish large Beguine complexes. The Beguine movement exploded.

Known as beguinages, in French, and Begijnhoven, in Dutch, these communities consisted of scores of quaint townhomes built around an open square the size of several football fields placed side-by-side. The open space provided gardens for the women and, in due time, also housed a church building for the Beguines. To provide safety for all the women, a large wall surrounded the entire complex.

In Belgium alone, ten thousand women joined Beguine complexes in the next half century! Most beguinages held several hundred women, but three of them grew to enormous size: Ghent housed 700 Beguines, Li├Ęge 1000, and Mechelen eventually holding some 1900 Beguines!

While only a few Beguines still live in Belgium today, more than a dozen of these complexes are preserved as historical sites today.

Personal Reflection
These medieval women were remarkable in their initiative to form Christian households. Forming such lay communities was virtually unheard of in their day, but that did not keep the Beguines from starting something new. They were determined to have fellowship with likeminded believers and in doing so started a whole movement that lasted strong into the nineteenth century.

We today need to have that same determination in establishing spiritual friendships that will help us grow. It might be meeting with another person one-one-one each week, or it might entail beginning a small group. For some, it could be the establishment of a full-blown community like the Beguines.

An excellent book describing the Beguine movement in Belgium is Walter Simons, Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200 – 1565 (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).

2009 © Glenn E. Myers


  1. Chapter 4:
    Hadewijch was right when she said that a wide range of emotions comes from following God and seeking after gim. While we should not flee these feelings, we should also not be controlled by them. I also liked what she meant when she said, "When we truly experience God's presence, we lose interest in the passing pleasures of sin..." Once we find ourselves fully immersed in God, worldly temptations will mean nothing to us anymore. there are just as many "fair-weather" friends in our day as there was in Hadewijch's day, many people are excited about Christ during the early part of their Christian life, but soon grow bored and cold in their walk with God. But like she said, it's important to understand that its not just able ecstatic feelings, but about deep and genuine love.

  2. It's fantastic that women of this time came into a spiritual relationship with Christ and truly undertsanding what it is all about. I totally agree with the Personal Reflection "We today to have that same determination in establsihing spiritual friendships that will help us grow." It's so important to surround yourself with positive influence and with people that are going to continually feed into your spirit. Someone that can make you strong were you are weak and vice versa...

  3. In our individualistic society, American Christians have for the most part lost the value of community. We just focus on "me and Jesus" -- which is bad theology as well as bad grammar. Rather, while the Beguines had a very personal, even intimate, relationship with the Lord, it was never "private." They recognized the value in healthy, close spiritual friendships.

  4. Reading about these beguinages brings my mind to Dr. Francis Schaeffer's "L'Abri." French for "shelter," L'Abri provides a spiritual community of like minded believers focused on the worship of Christ through fellowship and study. Dr. David Noebel's "Summit" was modeled after Schaeffer's model. Summit also focuses on cultivating minds conformed to the will of God; developing a complete and coherent Christian Worldview in a secluded setting. Both "Summit" and "L'Abri" seem to have adopted these revolutionary concepts similar to those of monastic lifestyles, but not as binding; you may come and go as you please.
    Such centers for thought, fellowship, and worship provide the fertile soil for the cultivation of a conformed being and a renewed mind. They provide personalized faith that empowers each Pilgrim on his path through sanctification.
    But like Dr. Myers said, all of these communities provide opportunity for ministry and outreach.
    -Ben Horne

  5. It is inspiring to see the initiative that these women took in their spiritual growth. This life of spiritual growth as well as Christian fellowship was I am sure not one to be taken on lightly. There probably was ridicule, much like many Christians get today for living out their faith, even other Christians. People probably told them that they were wasting their lives and their dowries (for those who had them). Their spiritual growth was so important to them that they aggressively pursued a spiritual life in a way that would possibly be ridiculed as over dramatic. These women had a love for Jesus, and they wanted to give all for Him to consume their lives.

  6. Dr. Myers, your thoughts regarding American Christians could be called insightful were the problem of individualism not so blatant in our communities of faith. As someone who has served in worship ministries, I was often discouraged by much new music that was requested--music that, time and again, had that "Jesus and me" focus. I loved finding songs that emphasized the collective nature of our faith while also emphasizing the greatness and awesomeness of God. Since such songs too often seemed few and far between, our fellowship has encouraged those so gifted to write new songs that would help the community understand that, while our decision to respond to God's grace is a personal one, our involvement in the Church is necessarily one characterized by community.

  7. "Forming such lay communities was virtually unheard of in their day, but that did not keep the Beguines from starting something new." For the most part, this type of close-knit community is virtually unheard of today, but I believe it is needed more than ever! My family and I have been involved in "Life Groups" with other families where we come together at least weekly to break bread, study Scripture, pray, and celebrate each other, but I have found it so hard to maintain these relationships. My family of seven's schedule is hectic enough, so trying to incorporate other families into our lives gets harder and harder. Collectively, the world has gotten so busy, and there are more distractions and idols than ever. I agree with Dr. Meyers in his reference to the Beguines, "we need that same determination!"