Academic journal article Magistra

Toward a Revised View of Medieval Women and the Vita Apostolica: The Humiliati and the Beguines Compared

Academic journal article Magistra

Toward a Revised View of Medieval Women and the Vita Apostolica: The Humiliati and the Beguines Compared

Article excerpt

Options available to Italian women of the thirteenth century were severely limited. The highly patriarchal nature of medieval Italian society, the strict conventions of Church canon, and the prescribed norms of behavior for women of all classes were clearly defined. For the most part, a young Italian girl could really expect only one of two fates from life: the social enclosure of marriage or cloistered protection from society inside a nunnery. This was, of course, the case for most medieval women, but historians have long held that, while some women in northern Europe found ways to circumvent these restrictions to civic participation and follow a vita apostolica, seeking spiritual fulfillment in community service, those of the Mediterranean south were much more restricted.(1)

The beguine movement of Flanders is generally seen as a unique institutional response to the desire for apostolic living, reflecting the greater public presence of women in Northern Europe in general. However, an extensive evaluation of the documentary evidence for the Humiliati of northern Italy, which illuminates the previously unrecognized participation of large numbers of women in that movement, suggests the possibility of a similar legitimate avenue for Italian women's direct role in civic life.(2) This article will compare elements of the beguine and Humiliati movements in order to illuminate the similarities and differences in the experience of women throughout Europe who sought to live a simple, spiritual life of service to their fellow citizens.

To date, historians of women and religion find support for the contention of differing religious experiences between northern and southern Europe by comparing the evidence of women in institutionalized religious communities, with evidence from individual religious experience. Scholars suggest that women in northern Europe had a broader range of institutional religious options than women in southern Europe, whose spirituality took on a much more personalized character. This is evidenced by the increasingly popular movements of female mysticism, eremiticism, and sanctification in the thirteenth century, which clearly illustrate a predominance of women from the Mediterranean. These women's religious experiences were of a very individualized, often mystic, personal nature.(3) Conversely, evidence from urban lay movements such as the beguines of northern Europe illustrates the greater freedom of women in northern Europe to participate in novel lay religious communities.(4)

The thirteenth century saw the rise of many such original religious movements that often challenged the traditional orthodoxy of the Church. Studies of these various groups, individually and as part of a pan-European religious movement, indicate all were reacting to changes in society and increased restriction by the church.(5) In recent years, scholars have also been increasingly interested in women's participation in these movements. The range of religious responses ran from the heretical Catharism of southern France to the rise of mendicant orders such as the Franciscans. While women's participation, or lack of participation has been evaluated for many of these groups,(6) the beguine movement is generally viewed as the single predominantly female organization which existed within an urban milieu and which allowed women avenues of public participation not afforded them elsewhere.(7)

This author's research into one of these lay groups, the Humiliati of northern Italy, suggests that these conclusions need to be reevaluated. After examining evidence from more than 240 individual Humiliati communities, it appears that women dominated the order and were participating in many very public activities in ways unprecedented in Mediterranean society. In addition, the women were not living in cloistered isolation, but were involved in various public occupations such as textile manufacturing, land ownership, farming, hospital administration, and even commercial lending. …

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