Embracing the Beguines

A Model for the Modern Witch Community

As our own modern age presses onward into the exponential growth of available information, the witch community is struggling to define who holds the ‘correct’ information, where that information can be found, and what one should do with that information in order to properly honor the Craft. We are in the unique position of recognizing it is time to steer a course for the future, lest the past be lost, lest the great minds of witchcraft be watered down and repackaged as a consumable, lest we fail to come together for the greater good. I suggest a helpful model of solution to these weighty questions can be found in the mystical history of the medieval Beguines, a Catholic movement of spiritual women that gave a place to the displaced, created an economy to flourish under, and honored connection to God (Source!) as paramount.

A Witch Responds to the Hungers of Their Time

In order to understand why the Beguines are worthy of note in our witchy circles, it is important to take into account the religious, social, and economic climate of the time. It is the 13th century and Aquinian theology reigns supreme across Europe. In marrying faith and reason as the one true path to God, Thomas Aquinas had systematized Christian theology to the point of eliminating personal contact with the Divine as truly viable possibility. As theology grew more and more into a playground of intellectuals, rather than a dialogue on the mysteries of the metaphysical, personal connection to faith became less accessible to most groups.

Furthermore, continual war, plague, and famine had decimated the male population of the time and thus the social order. For women, options were increasingly scarce. The marriage pool was limited and convents were overflowing with women who could not be married off. Suddenly, only the very wealthy could pay to dump their daughters in a convent. Out of this atmosphere of religious rigidity, social imbalance, and economic imbalance sprang alienation, suspicion, and polarization. The social chaos had reached a climax and people were seeking solutions, much as we are now. One of these solutions was the Beguine movement.

Source: Pitts Theology Library

Who Were the Beguines and Why Do They Matter to Modern Witchcraft?

The existence of the Beguines was first reported in the mid thirteenth century. Matthew Paris in his Cronica Majora, reported this notable development of religious life: “In Germany there has arisen an innumerable multitude of celibate women who call themselves Beguines, a thousand or more live in Cologne alone.” At their birth, the Beguines were tertiaries, groups of women who straddled the boundary line between the secular and sacred realms. They took simple vows but were not cloistered. They were celibate but free to leave the community to marry. Their strength was in their numbers and their plan to build their own self sustaining communities was a welcome one. Furthermore, they tended to be made up of educated or skilled women, who commonly used their talents such as proselytizing, writing, teaching, healing, weaving, gardening, and social work as community building cornerstones. Finally, these were women truly devoted to the vita apostolica, the prophetic witness in and to a wounded world. In essence, the Beguines were loosely organized women living a religious life based on service to God through community works.

The Church was now put in a position of response to a highly effective, pious, but unsanctioned religious order. The nunneries couldn’t possibly hold all the women seeking religious life; their only option in their zealous search might easily be joining a heretical sect if the Church was to condemn the Beguinages. On the other hand, the Church had long disapproved of women leading an active rather than contemplative lifestyle. The only viable option for the institutional Church was to embrace, and thereby codify the movement.

Historic Beguine Community – Amsterdam

Connection to Source

This compromise may well have put an end to the interest in the Beguine movement except for the inconvenient fact that these women were not only active, but also intensely spiritual. The Beguines knew their theology and they responded to it with their own experience. Their spirituality was based on physical manifestations of personal experiences and on intimate revelations from contact with the Divine. The ultimate aim of their religious life was union with God. Visions, miracles, and study were all means to this union. Their connection to Source can not be overstated and, quite frankly, it scared the Church into some semblance of respect for their purported messages from God. One of my favorite anecdotes about the Beguines is actually centered on the fact they were not allowed to distribute communion to each other, as only priests held that right. The Beguines, although disappointed, agreed this was not a problem. They simply entered trance like states and manifested Jesus standing before them, distributing communion. That is my kind of witchcraft. Those are my kind of people. That is the type of energy I want the witch community to have, internally, externally, within, and without.

Shifting Perspectives

Rather than view the surplus population as an insurmountable problem, these women created their own praxis, theologies, industries, communities, and economies. They successfully straddled the liminality of their own existence. Might we do the same? Instead of viewing the multitudes accessing information about witchcraft for the first time as a threat to the current order, perhaps it is time to shift our perspective. I submit it is time to start thinking about the witch-curious as possible industry makers, community contributors, and workers building an economy of our own making. Let us reclaim our sense of direction by redefining it into a mode of functioning, a lifestyle, that actually works and supports itself. The wakening of the witches is the wakening of the communal, the action oriented, and the expectation we should hold space for each other rather than gate-keep the path forward. Above all, the Beguines remind us of the indisputable commonality we all have, that is, connection to Source.

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