While beguines could be found doing nearly any kind of job open to women, there was a strong pull towards work they could do as a community. Most beguines living in court beguinages, and many living in convents as well, found employment in the textile industry. They carded, cut, and spun wool and flax, and washed, dyed, and napped finished cloth, all of which allowed them to congregate in the courtyards of their beguinage and work in community with each other.
Many beguines worked in hospitals run either by the city they lived in or by their beguinage, caring for the sick and the poor. Many, though not all of these hospitals were at least partially charitable institutions, allowing beguines to not only support themselves, but also to put into practice spiritual ideals that were spreading rapidly through Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries.** Teaching was considered another way of taking those spiritual ideals into one’s own hands and putting them into practice, and as such was also a common occupation.
These may have been the most popular jobs among beguines, but they were nowhere near the only ones. Some of them were craftswomen or sold work produced by other members of their community. Others rented out their property and lived off the income. They tended, however, to cluster in occupations at the lower end of the economic scale, usually not having access to training or resources for anything else. Many found employment in domestic service, others sold their labor by the day to various craftsmen, herded animals, or ran small farms.
Work was, for beguines, a spiritual ideal in and of itself. The story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10:38-42 was often referenced in relation to the beguines. They strove to reach and balance the ideals represented by both women, the contemplative (Mary) and the active (Martha), where previous thought had emphasized mostly the former.
*Religious not in the sense of having a religion but rather in the sense of living according to under a Rule approved by religious rules and formally promising oneself to poverty, chastity, and obedience to one’s superiors within the Church. The majority of religious women at this time (i.e. nuns and recluses) lived mostly on the income from lands donated to their communities or on donations from pious laypeople.
**Indeed, the very formation of the beguine movement was tied to this increased interest in individual access to religion and in carrying out the spiritual ideals of humility and charity, which some argued were not being followed by the greater monasteries and the upper echelons of the Church hierarchy.
Simons, Walter. Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
Jewell, Helen M. Women in Late Medieval and Reformation Europe 1200-1550. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Beguines and Beghards - Wikipedia