While most documents pertaining to male or female beguines date from the early thirteenth century onward, evidence for lay claims to the apostolic life date from the eleventh century in the Low Countries, which constituted a centre for religious dissent. Lambert le Bègue, erroneously considered a sort of founder of the beguine movement, rebuked the clergy for greed and simony and was arrested for heresy in 1175, a charge rebutted in 1177 by Calixtus III. Lambert's apologia asserted that all Christians held the responsibility for exhorting others through good example, a concept that attracted clerical ire but influenced the beguine movement as it blurred the distinction between clergy and laity.35
Walter Simons' study of beguines in the Low Countries signals the region's advanced level of urbanisation and literacy and women's contribution to economic production. During the urban expansion from the eleventh century onward, the increasing population of women moved to cities to work. Moreover, increasing numbers of women sought to lead an unmarried and religious life. The Arrouaisian and Premonstratensian orders initially attracted large numbers of women, as did foundations of regular canons and informal communities. An anonymous treatise from Liège deals at length with the numerous women and men who dedicated themselves to a religious life with an informal structure during the first half of the twelfth century. From the
34 See works by F. Andrews and S. Brasher in the bibliography.
35 Walter Simons, Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 24-34.
lives of the holy women Juetta of Huy and Mary of Oignies, some information can be gleaned on what Simons terms the 'pre-institutional phase' of the beguine movement: the loosely structured communities that sprang up before the turn of the thirteenth century. Juetta served a lepers' house outside Huy, while Mary, after persuading her husband to take a vow of chastity, began working at a leper hospital in 1191 before taking up residence near a monastery of canons at Oignies in 1207.36
The eventual exclusion of women by the Premonstratensians (1198) actually gave impetus to the women's movement, because the communities remained after they lost their affiliation and sought a new direction. Furthermore, mulieres sanctae living in towns grouped together in houses for women and formed their own communities. They developed community rules of life that mirrored those of the monastics but did not bind participants to vows of obedience and stability. It is probably not mere coincidence that many beguines lived in the area that is now northern France and Belgium, where Premonstratensian houses were numerous.
Most women seeking to live a life of apostolic poverty were apparently affluent, whether from the nobility, lesser nobility or merchant class; the benefits of the new economic prosperity moved them to react strongly against the contradiction between wealth and apostolic ideals. Mulieres sanctae grouped together in private houses to lead lives modelled on the Gospel, supporting themselves by assets brought with them and by the trades that they practised. Men followed a similar path but in smaller numbers. Some women also lived solitary religious lives, either in their homes or as itinerants. By the 1230s and 1240s, chroniclers report that numerous women living in urban areas had organised themselves into religious communities, many of which became large, structured beguinages. The vitae record a strong distaste and distrust of the new urban wealth, such as Ida of Nivelles expressed about the funds her father provided for her monastic dowry.37
The ideals of poverty and religious perfection motivated twelfth-century Christians across Europe. At the turn of the thirteenth century, intellectuals in Paris continued the effort begun by Gregory VII to sanctify society, largely by urging the adaptation of monasticism to the lives of all Christians. Pope Innocent III undertook a sweeping agenda for reform, the elements of which were concretised in the canons of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Innocent III targeted dissident movements and recruited preachers to
36 Simons, Cities of Ladies, 39-40.
37 Simons, Cities of Ladies, 63.
persuade them to align with orthodoxy. Preaching also propagated the call for crusade against both heresy in Europe and Muslim domination of the Holy Land, an element on the papal reform agenda since Urban II preached the First Crusade in 1095.
Divergent interpretations of the apostolic life, albeit grounded in monastic ideals, resulted in conflict and crisis. The church asserted its authority to control religious fervour and to define and regulate the pursuit of the vita apostolica, intervening when competing definitions challenged established bounds. This assertion of authority produced tension, even competition and crisis, as various groups asserted claims to poverty, religious perfection and preaching. The tension over competing definitions and boundaries of the apostolic life escalated in the following centuries, as demonstrated in the conflict between Observant and Spiritual Franciscans and in the decrees of the Council of Vienne (1311) against the beguines, to cite only two of many examples.
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