The Beguines are perhaps the more important and more influential of the two groups associated with Marguerite Porete, and the movement with which she readily identified herself. This self-identification, however, is complicated by the very nature of the Beguine heresy, as well as by Marguerite ’s understanding of it. Indeed, the lifestyle she chose to follow as a Beguine in some ways helps to explain why she was executed and reveals the difficulties that the Beguines as a whole experienced at the end of the thirteenth century and beginning of the next – a period when increasing restrictions were placed on them, and the term beguine came to be synonymous with ‘heretic’.
Despite the difficulties the Beguines faced during Marguerite ’s lifetime and for much of the rest of the Middle Ages, they first emerged in Liège in the late twelfth century, and by the middle of the next they were a popular and well-received religious movement (or movements). The designation beguine appeared in the 1230s. Although at first suspected of heresy because of their lifestyle, the Beguines were welcomed by the Church hierarchy already by the early thirteenth century; they clearly addressed the need of the Church to respond to the spiritual demands of women, notably of urban ones. The Beguines were pious religious women, who lived alone or in small communities in cities which had grown larger and more populous in the course of the twelfth century. The emergence of these religious communities was, in fact, a reaction to social changes associated with the new towns and cities as well as to the changes in spirituality generated by these social changes. Beguine communities and their way of life became necessary because the traditional outlets for women’s piety no longer proved suitable in the new urban environment: these communities offered a means for pious living to the economically less well-todo. The established monastic communities of women did not fully adapt to the changing spirituality of the twelfth century, which, among other things, emphasised the apostolic life and a more internalised form of religious piety. Moreover, those traditional communities required of their novices to bring a dowry with them. Although the size of the dowry was less demanding than in the case of arranging a good marriage, it was still large enough to bar many women. Traditionally, the established monastic communities had been the preserve of aristocratic and even royal women, and thus social status also limited that accessibility of the convents to many women. At the same time, the new orders that emerged in the twelfth century, particularly the Cistercian monastic Order, were reluctant to welcome women into their ranks. Although Robert of Arbrissel and other, more progressive, thinkers implemented reforms which encouraged the involvement of women, the newly forming orders of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries tended to limit their participation.
The first of the Beguine communities appeared in the urban centres of northern Europe, spreading throughout Flanders, France and the Rhineland. These devout women who were unable to join traditional communities because of a lack of wealth or social status first formed associations around local churches. By the early thirteenth century they had started to occupy houses where they could live according to their own lifestyle. The earliest of these houses were established by prosperous bourgeois women who also welcomed those less well off, and they were all bound by religious piety. They lived simply, supporting themselves by sewing, weaving, embroidery and the copying of books, and they regularly attended mass and the canonical hours of the day at the local church. Beguine women seemed intent on living in voluntary poverty and chastity, and thus their movement tapped into the growing interest in the life of apostolic poverty. The Beguines were unique, however, in that they took no vows and had no formal institutional structure, local conditions often shaping the individual community or beguinage. It was this lack of formal organisation and the absence of a religious vow that contributed to the great popularity and success of the movement, but also laid the foundation for its downfall.
Although the Beguines would eventually face increasing suspicion from Church leaders, they found widespread support for a period during the early and mid-thirteenth century. One of their earliest and most influential advocates was Jacques de Vitry (c.1160/70–1240), confessor to one of the important early Beguines, Marie d’Oignies (c.1177–1213), and the Bishop who convinced Pope Honorius III (1216–27) to approve the way of life of Beguines. Many other bishops came to support the communities of Beguines, as did some members of the Franciscan Order, with whom the Beguines shared a certain affinity. Most notably, the great English Bishop and scholar Robert Grosseteste (c.1170–1253) staunchly supported them, declaring that the life of the Beguines was superior to that of the mendicants. And in France, the Beguines found support from the King himself. By the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century, however, this situation had changed; various questions about the life of the Beguines and rumours of their sexual immorality had surfaced. The very lack of a rule, or vow, now reflected badly on them since no formal restraints could be imposed on the behaviour of these women. Beguines could live in community or independently; and the itinerant Beguine, who often followed her own understanding of the scriptures, was deemed a particular threat to society and to the Church. As a result of this growing distrust, in 1312 the Council of Vienne issued two decrees against the women who called themselves Beguines, declaring that there was ‘an abominable sect of malignant men known as beghards and faithless women known as beguines’.