The Revolutionary Women of 13th-Century Europe
Before we dive into the fascinating world of the Beguines, here’s some background on this term and how it connects with John Starr Cooke.
First, let’s start – or begin – with a Cole Porter song at the center of our story.
No one knows what ‘Begin the Beguine’ means or why Cole Porter gave the tune that name. But it was one hell of a hit last century. All we know is that Porter composed the song between Kalabahi, Indonesia and Fiji during a 1935 Pacific cruise aboard Cunard’s ocean liner Franconia.
As a young man, John Starr Cooke was taken on that exact same cruise by his father.
“John later recalled that on this trip he met Cole Porter,” writes Mark Walker, “and that Porter wrote the song ‘Begin the Beguine’ for him. This is part of the reason John produced the photograph of himself, with the inscription ‘BEGIN’.”
The phrase resonated with John and stayed with him throughout his life. Hard to say why that was so, but perhaps he was being prompted to look deeper into history…. Which is where we travel now – way back to the 13th century.
A Medieval Women’s Movement
The Beguines have been called the first women’s movement in Christian/European history.
Active in Europe during the 13th–16th centuries, the Beguines were part of a larger spiritual revival movement that stressed imitating Jesus’ life through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion. Members lived in semi-monastic communities but did not take formal religious vows – although they did promise not to marry “as long as they lived as Beguines,” to quote one of the early Rules. They were free to leave at any time.
The fact that most people have never heard of the Beguines is a sad testament to the vicious and unrelenting censorship, mind control and physical force of the worldly authorities. It reminds us that we are not alone in that many brave souls in our history risked all to push the boundaries and challenge power. But you’ll hardly ever read their names in the history books.
In her article “Beguines and literature in the Middle Ages” for the Europeana website, Hannah Johnson provides a deeper insight into this fascinating medieval women’s movement:
“Women in the Middle Ages greatly contributed to the creation and transmission of literature, both Latin and vernacular. The Beguines were one of the most influential groups of women in this respect. They were an order of female semi-religious active largely in the 13th century in and around (present-day) northern France, southern Germany, and the Low Countries.
“Beguines were women who chose to live religiously but did so without vowing perpetual poverty or chastity or enclosing themselves in convents, thus keeping themselves firmly independent from institutional ecclesiastical authority. As a result, they were called semi-religious because they stood on the border between secular and religious life: officially, they were secular (outside of Church control) but performed a religious role within society.”
Hannah continues: “They lived in ‘beguinages’, which could either be houses or entire towns where beguine women formed a community that lived and worked together. Primarily, beguines performed charitable works for their lay communities and would sometimes provide religious guidance. Some beguines even preached to the people.”
We learn that the Beguines served local communities in a myriad of ways.
Patricia A. Geary, in her article “The Beguines of Medieval Europe: Mystics and Visionaries”, writes:
“The women did ‘apostolic work’ appropriate to the needs of the surrounding area. They worked in their own infirmaries, in nearby hospitals, or in the homes of the seriously ill where they also sought to bring the words of Scripture to the ailing. They cared for lepers, who were outcasts and considered untouchable by the general population. Further, beguines prepared the bodies of the dead for burial, while many served as midwives receiving their training from doctors or other midwives. They created facilities for abandoned babies and foundlings while many beguine communities included children, be they orphans or child prostitutes. These children were taken in, supported, protected, and educated by the group. Along with ministry to the poor and ill, a number of beguines dedicated themselves to the education of youth through the establishment of coeducational schools. The beguines believed that an educated citizenry would be a boon to the local economy as well as of benefit to their own financial endeavors.
“Life as a beguine had a number of advantages for women as they could move about freely, and those who did not marry avoided the potential risk of dying in childbirth, a common occurrence at the time (Gwendoline, 2017). Within a century, there were tens of thousands of beguines across the recently revitalized European continent.”
Over time, Beguinages served to educate and cultivate women, resulting in a number of beguines becoming well-known mystics and writers. One was Marguerite Porete, who was burned at the stake on June 1, 1310 for her “heretical” work ‘The Mirror of Simple Souls’.
A dictionary definition of the word mysticism gives us this: “belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.”
It is most interesting to consider that the mystic impulse seems to have inspired the Beguines from the very beginning of their adventure. They warmed to the mysticism of Joachim of Fiore, with many adopting his radical doctrine that the “Age of the Holy Spirit” was imminent.
But the Beguines were playing with fire – the fire and brimstone of worldly forces.
Joachim’s theology of history moved “from the Age of the Father (Old Testament), characterized by fear and servile obedience (this was the age of the married and the old), to the Age of the Son (New Testament), which was characterized by faith and filial obedience (this was the age of the clergy and the young), to the Age of the Holy Spirit, due to begin about 1260, which Joachim believed would be characterized by love and liberty (this was the age of monks and infants).”
Following the example of the Franciscan Spirituals – strict observers of the rule and testament of St. Francis of Assisi – many Beguines would have believed that the Age of the Holy Spirit was to be preceded by the coming of the Antichrist. This inevitably set them on a collision course with the chief defender of the “Age of the Son,” the Catholic Church, which wasn’t too keen on seeing its power dissipate to the “Age of the Holy Spirit.”
Like other heterodox groups of that period who have been erased from history, the Beguines shared a fascinating and quite revolutionary lifestyle when considered from the point of view of the individuals who existed in these communities. The most obvious advantage was the total freedom this offered some women (and, of course, for all who exercised the challenge of holding views at odds with the Church and lived in marginal or out-of-reach communities).
Even now, it’s extremely intriguing to consider that ultracool “heretics” like the Amalricians, “a pantheist, free love movement named after Amalric of Bena,” had existed. According to Wikipedia, “The[ir] beliefs are thought to have influenced the Brethren of the Free Spirit.”
Remember, we’re still in 13th-century Europe. 14 followers of Amalric began to preach that “all things are One, because whatever is, is God.” Again, it was a mystic outpouring that would put them on a course – as had other heretical groups such as the Cathars – for physical elimination by the Church.
We can learn a number of things from all this.
There is a resonance between the spiritual revival movement of the 13th century and today, right NOW – but in ways not understood by most modern observers.
Right NOW, the Age of the Holy Spirit is nigh. We are living on the cusp or transition point of great world ages – between what is termed Pisces and Aquarius.
The whole of any significant world-changing event or process has its esoteric or occult dimension. These are the hidden connections, synchronicities and pointers that inform us that a ‘thing’ – a new ‘thing’ in this instance – has manifested.
If you study anything long enough, those connections will come to mind, especially if the ‘thing’ in question has resonance or is relevant to the framework in which you operate.
But it’s not so obvious or clear to you unless you’re engaged with that whole. In this case, the whole new ‘thing’ of the New Tarot for the forthcoming Aquarian Age – its archetypal force. Engage it and you will make some very interesting connections – if your ‘eyes’ are open.
‘Begin the Beguine’ – the Beguines – is one of those pointers that suggest a resonance across time and where we may look to understand the shape of things to come.
Whether John knew it or not, ‘Begin the Beguine’ points us to a resonating chord in our history, in the life & ideas of this revolutionary medieval women’s movement, and one which certainly speaks to us today and for the future.
Top image from Christine de Pisan’s Book of the City of Ladies, c. 1405, Bibliothèque nationale de France. Read about it here.