Lay religious women and church reform in late medieval Munster: A case study of the Beguines

Erica Gelser, University of Pennsylvania


The beguine movement consisted of lay women living a quasi-religious lifestyle that was found across Europe. Without taking monastic vows, the beguines lived in celibate communities and took an active part in the world. The women maintained characteristics of their medieval origins, yet the movement was flexible and allowed for regional variation. Scholars have assumed that small communities of German beguines disappeared after the Council of Vienne. Of approximately fourteen beguine houses in the towns of Münster, Coesfeld, and Bocholt, six survived, in some form, into the sixteenth century and beyond. Why did the Münsterland beguines continue to exist for centuries? For Münsterland beguine communities to flourish, they must have represented a distinct lifestyle that provided incentives for women to join them, and they must have provided benefits to society that gave ecclesiastical and civic authorities reason to tolerate them. Münsterland beguine foundation and statute documents provide information about beguines' habits, communicating the expectations held for the beguines. Examining the intercessory market and the Münsterland beguines' position within it provides an understanding of the beguines' role in society. Information from these beguine records, viewed together with the history of other North German beguines develops a composite picture of beguine patterns of behavior and ideals and helps define what distinguishes beguines from other religious or semireligious groups. While chastity was the core requirement for both the Sisters of the Common Life and the beguines, there were differences in the organization of and the freedom allowed to beguines, especially in respect to ideas about private and communal property. Local ecclesiastical authorities knew of the existence of the beguine burgher communities but were either unable or uninterested in applying pressure upon them to adopt a regularized monastic existence. Small Münsterland beguine houses were a successful alternative to the beguine courts of the Low Countries. Their survival provides for a better understanding not just of the beguine movement but of the wide variety of local religious expression of the pre-Tridentine Latin Church.

Subject Area

Religious history|European history|Medieval history

Recommended Citation

Gelser, Erica, "Lay religious women and church reform in late medieval Munster: A case study of the Beguines" (2008). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3309433.