Researching the Middle Ages and Catholic mysticism, I came across a remarkable thing: the Beguines, groups of women devoted to furthering spiritual development for themselves (and others) while also living and working in the 13th Century world (the same time period in which St. Hildegard of Bingen lived). Further, the women were self-supporting in their intentional communities and weren’t controlled by the Church to the extent that nuns were. Sometimes the group was small, several women sharing a house (the original use of the word “convent” as in assembly), while at other times they created an entire “city within a city” that was called a “Court Beguinage” where often hundreds of women would live and work together, providing an infirmary and other services, including education for children, to the indigent of the larger city. I had no idea! I find it almost unimaginable that Medieval culture allowed for this to happen! Brilliant!
These communities were highly fluid, and welcomed women from all walks of life who wanted to commit themselves to spiritual inner work and remain interactive outside their walls. Once accepted into the convent or Beguinage, they took vows somewhat similar in many ways to nuns except that they could also leave at any time. At this period in history, monasteries required nuns to provide a dowry; many women were devout but had no dowry or money and the Beguinage offered a wonderful and rewarding opportunity for them. Acceptance into the group was based upon consensus, and it was relatively rare for a total stranger to join “until they were known and had become friends with the beguines.” The property of the convent or Beguinage was owned by the women, not by others, and they transferred it to other Beguines.
If you’ve become curious, I highly recommend the book The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement, by Laura Swan, or this 1990 article in the New York Times “Ancient Beguinages of Flanders.” There are some lovely photos of the Beguinages in Ghent HERE.