Matriarchy at the beguinage

To find a matriarchy you don’t have to travel far. In the Netherlands there are multiple beguinages to be found, like the one here in Amsterdam (the one on the photo). The beguinages in the Netherlands are currently not in practice, though they have been for many centuries. The women that started the beguinages in the twelfth century were very revolutionary and courageous. What can we learn from them? 

Beguinages used to be inhabited by bold women, the beguines, and were formed as independent communities in the twelfth century. Living in a beguinage gave the opportunity for unmarried women to take care of their own life independently from men and practicing Catholicism independently from the main religious authorities. The possibility to live in this way was super unusual for unmarried women at that time, typically unmarried women could be either a nun or a prostitute. Not much freedom of choice there. Groups of women started getting together and initiated a counter movement against the status quo -the matriarchal groups got formed. The communities formed as beguinages did finally provide more freedom of choice to the unmarried women. 

The women in the beguinages got a different life, they often got a job and could go out when they wanted to. Being free to take part in society, visit people outside of the beguines, and living without the many church rules of that time, differentiates them significantly from nuns. Nuns lived in monasteries and made everlasting promises, such as having no possessions. Beguines did not make such promises, they could own goods and keep all that they earned by working. They did have to work, as they needed to take care of themselves. Beguines could also leave the beguinage if they wanted to get married (or to just leave, though I doubt many would do so as other options were limited). The beguinages became super popular, and at some point more than 70 beguinages existed in the Netherlands alone. 

People outside of beguinages were not always that fond of this new trend. The working women could become competitors of existing guilds, they e.g. made textiles, started a school, or became doctors at their own sick-bay. Also some religious establishments became very distrustful of the beguines, since the beguines lived independently and under no watch of any church. Though there were definitely people outside of the beguinages, like their family or supporting counts and dukes that helped and supported the beguines, more and more opposition was formed against them over time. Since the 1400’s churches accused the beguines more often of being heretical groups, and forced the beguines to merge with monasteries or other beguinages that already were under control of their church. The beguinages under control of the main churches got the common ideology forced on them and were reinforced stricter rules increasingly. Over time the beguines became less and less rebellious, and more obedient. 

Slowly the beguinages decreased in their popularity, and therewith their size. Today no beguinage is in practice anymore in the Netherlands. The buildings of four of them do still exist, in Amsterdam, Breda, Delft, and Haarlem. Even though the start of the beguinages was over 900 year ago, we could still learn from their courage and inventiveness. If you don’t agree with the status quo, look for companions and together change can be set in motion. 

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