Toward the end of the twelfth century an utterly new phenomenon occurs: different women intend to exist as such, without being either wives or nuns. They are neighbours or living in the same house or in terraced houses in the same street. Some live as hermits near a church, or with sick people, some live alone or in groups, near a male convent. Others, mainly poor women, choose a wandering apostolic life, praying and begging for “a piece of bread for God’s sake”.
This is how the movement of the Beguines comes to life. In spite of a variety of forms, the movement has the same aim everywhere: living a secluded life in an urban environment, heading for perfection through prayers, sanctified work, help of the poor, community life and mystical research, also with forms of asceticism.
The Beguines’ experience is a creative mixture of both secular and religious ingredients. Among the secular ones: individuality, institutional independence, remunerated work. Among the religious ones: a dedicated life with revocable vows, intense praying, help to the poor, mystical research.
The first group of Beguines historically documented develops around Marie d’Oignies (b. 1177- d. 1213). After nursing with her husband a group of lepers for twelve years, in 1207 Marie retires to live a Beguinal life at Oignies, in Hainaut, a province of today Belgium. A second group forms with the help of Lambert le Bègue. Just before his death in Liège in 1187, the prelate had a group of small houses built around the church of San Christophe, in order to accommodate women intending to live in seclusion. We also know of the existence in Nivelles in 1208 of a group of women devoted to praying and charity.
The considerable increase of their number, the vicissitudes due to an errant life and the clerical pressure for a protected setting of these women lead to the creation of beguinages: groups of small individual houses enclosed by walls, which later acquired the status of a parish. The movement gains its widest expansion in the thirteenth century and develops mainly in the beguinages from the second half of the same century.
Such diversity, and the absence of a centralized administration make it difficult to quantify the number of Beguines. From a letter of Pope John XXII to the bishop of Strasburg, we know that in 1321 only in West Germany live about 200,000 Beguines. In 1372 as many as 1,300 Beguines live in Brussels, that is more than 4% of its 30,000 inhabitants. One estimates that at the moment of its greatest expansion the movement counted about one million Beguines throughout Europe. But there is no documentation for it.
The Beguinal movement does not have a precise origin nor a founder
In the seventeenth century there has been an attempt to indentify her in St. Begga, but this attempt lived shortly, as Begga, sister of the abbess Gertrude de Nivelles died much earlier, precisely in 693. Without a founder, without a precise origin, the Beguinal movement also has no unified rule, as each beguinage has its own one. Last but not least, the Beguinal movement has no formal historiography, which partly explains its limited historical visibility.
These women are called by different names according to the country where they live. In one of his sermons, written between 1229 and 1240, Jacques de Vitry enumerates them so:
In Latin MULIER RELIGIOSA
In French PAPELARDE
In Lombard HUMILIATA
In Tuscan BIZZOCA
In German COQUENNUNNE
In Flemish BEGIJN
The origin of the Flemish name is uncertain: it may be a philological corruption of the word Albigenses; it may come from the colour beige of their dress; it may come from Old German “beggen, beggan”: to pray; or from Old French “begart”: to pour out prayers; or still, from Celtic, in French “bègue-béguelle”: simpleton, bigot.
The Beguinal movement includes also men, the Beghards. Like the Beguines, the Beghards are not tied by irrevocable vows, nor have a unified rule and the members of a community obey only to their local superior. But unlike Beguines, Beghards do not have private property. The brothers in the same convent share their money, live under the same roof and eat at the same table. They are in general of modest origins, weavers, dyers and so on. For this reason they are closely linked to guilds. We even know that in Brussels – and probably elsewhere – no one could ever be admitted to a Beghard convent unless he was a member of the weavers’ guild. Beghards are often men who have suffered hardship, men who had survived friends or have been deprived of familiar ties due to unlucky events, men who could not live on their own because of delicate health, old age, accidents.
The Beguinal movement emerges in the same period of religious fervour when the Franciscan and Dominican orders are born, as well as a number of movements qualified as heretics [Apostolians, Albigenses, Cathars, Free Spirits, Poor Volunteers] violently repressed by the Church. Also the Beguinal movement is considered suspicious and in the odour of heresy. Thanks to the active intervention of some prelates, in the thirteenth century two Papal bulls [by Gregory IX in 1233 and by Urban IV in 1269] are issued in protection of the Beguines in a few dioceses of what today is Belgium. But the German, French, Italian, and other Beguines found it hard to resist, as the repression was still active elsewhere.
The Inquisition, created in 1231, condemns to the stake also a number of Beguines, among them Lutgarde of Trier in 1231, Aleydis of Cambrai in 1236, and Marguerite Porete in 1310. The Vienne Synod (1311 – 1312) condemns the Beguinal movement as heretic, but the sentences was mitigated by two papal bulls: the first, by John XXII in 1319 in favour of the Beguines of Brabant, the second by Clemente VI in 1343, in favour of the Dutch Beguines.
Persecuted, subject to inquisitional procedures, often deprived of their properties, even forced to close their institutions, only the Beguines of the Low Countries manage to hold on without too many aggressions, even in a general atmosphere of suspicion and strict compliance with the authority. In these are hard times, new buildings such as the beguinage of Hoogstraten built in 1380, are extremely rare. The repression lasted until all the Beguines were transferred in closed and strictly controlled communities. The most obstinate Beghards were locally condemned several times and came to an end with the end of the Middle Ages.
The crisis of the Calvinist Reform in the northern Low Countries causes the disappearance of all beguinages, except those in Amsterdam and Breda. In the southern Low Countries, the movement has a revival, but on it the wind of the Counter-Reformation blows, which calls for a stricter supervision by spiritual directors and a stricter seclusion.
The Austrian government, which after the treaty of Utrecht  obtains the government of these territories, does not encourage the movement. On the contrary, it introduces a set of obstacles such as permissions and taxes, which forces the Beguines to sell their beguinages at low prices.
Lastly, the French occupation in 1795 confiscates their properties and acknowledges their existence only as charitable services. In 1824 the Beguines obtain the right to wear again their dresses, but not to own their properties, and for a while they are also forbidden to enter new professions.
In spite of this, in 1896 in Belgium still live 1,230 Beguines. In 1960, 600 Beguines are living in eleven beguinages but at the end of the twentieth century their number can be counted on the fingers of two hands. The latest beguine in the word, Marcella Pattijn (1920- 2013), died Sunday 14 April 2013 in Kortrijck in the home Sint-Jozef where she have lived after have been living in the Kortrijck Beguinage from 1960 to 2005.