The interest in beguinages on the part of the nobility of the Low Countries seems to have started with the sisters and successive countesses Jeanne and Margaret of Flanders and Hainaut. The pair of them set the precedent with their foundations in several cities, most notably Ten Wijngaerde in Bruges and the Groot Begijnhoof in Ghent. The latter of these also shows the close association between the beguines and the Cistercians,* since it was closely associated with the convent of Mary’s Haven founded at the same time and the hospital associated with both communities was largely staffed by the beguines. Both of these countesses also involved themselves in legal issues related the communities within their lands and took steps to protect the beguines living in them.** They both left significant amounts of money in their wills to a number of communities, including many they had no hand in starting.
Jeanne and Margaret’s successors followed in their footsteps, as did many people of less powerful origins. Patronage of the beguines increased in the 13th and early 14th centuries as new communities were paid for and various counts confirmed earlier donations. But by the late 14th century, serious suspicions about the beguine’s morals and orthodoxy had begun to arise. These were “disorderly” single women*** who were not enclosed and could move about among lay people. Smaller convents began to disappear as their members died off, joined larger communities, or joined more regular Orders. They lacked the resources to continue in the face of first Catholic and then later Protestant disapproval. It was the courts that were best off, in part because they were big enough to have patrons among the nobility, who could provide resources and legal protection. Some of these communities survived all the way into the late 21st century, with the last beguine, Marcella Pattyn dying in 2013.
*Both Countesses were closely tied with this Order too and may have developed their respect for it through their encounters with Blanche of Castile during their childhood.
**Not only from those who would take advantage of women living “on their own,” but also from family members who wanted to force them to renounce the life of a beguine to come home and marry.
***Literally. They did not belong to any monastic Order. And don’t blame me for the pun. I stole it from Walter Simons’ Cities of Ladies.
Simons, Walter. Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
Ward, Jennifer. Women in Medieval Europe: 1200-1500. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Joan of Constantinople, Countess of Flanders - Epistolae
Margaret of Constantinople, Countess of Flanders - Epistolae