Catherine and the Beguines

Posted by cathygrise - April 30, 2015

Catherine of Siena (1347-81)

Initial from Drawn by Love website

Catherine of Siena found her religious calling early in her life, and made a nuisance of herself at home by falling into trances, praying incessantly, and going on a hunger strike to protest against marrying her widowed brother-in-law. At the beginning her parents took away her bed chamber and forced her to do extra chores around the house. Eventually her parents gave up and allowed her to join the local community of Dominican lay nuns: the abbess was none too happy about it because all of the nuns were widows and CS was far too young and unmarried to join the community. So she continued to live at home and began to gather a group of followers around her because of her work with the sick and poor. She was well-known for her ascetic practices. She was the poster-child for what scholar Rudolph Bell called “holy anorexics”—women who starved themselves to have mystical experiences and to achieve religious authority for their self-abnegation. She also had a special relationship with Christ—they exchanged hearts in a vision, and they were married in another vision , and she received the stigmata, but it was visible only to her. These mystical experiences captured the popular imagination of her time and were painted often in the late 1400s and 1500s. But she did not shut herself away from society. She was also active in papal and local politics, and had a prolific career as a letter writer. Despite her gender and her non-aristocratic origins she became a powerful figure in her time and is still counted one of the four patron saints of Europe.


Origin- Siena (Italy)

Marital/professional status- joined third order of Dominican nuns (not enclosed) and lived at home

Ascetic practices- Starvation, illness

Prophecies, visions, and other forms of mysticism-Had visions from an early age, trances, mystical marriage to Jesus, stigmata, exchanged hearts with Jesus

Charitable works- Worked with poor and sick

Forms of persecution- Yes, by family when younger; later by demons


I have chosen a group of three women mystics  as points of comparison with my main example, Catherine of Siena—who was born later (1347-81) but who shared many of the spiritual practices of her forerunners. They are the Belgian béguines Christina Mirabilis (1150-1224), Marie of Oignies (1177-1213), and Elizabeth of Spalbeck (1246-1304).

Christina Mirabilis (1150-1224):

Christina the Astonishing from Catholic Saints website


When she was young she had a seizure and was thought to be dead, but she came back to life at her funeral and flew up into the rafters of the church. After this, she lived a life of very extreme asceticism, throwing herself in a freezing river, climbing into bread ovens, flying up into trees and refusing to come down, running through thorns and brambles, and generally making a nuisance of herself. The villagers chained her up more than once, but she survived these episodes through divine intervention and eventually her community stopped persecuting her.

Origin- Liège (Belgium)

Marital/professional status- Never married, Béguine (semi-religious, unenclosed)

Ascetic practices-Exposure to extreme heat and cold, climbing up trees and bushes, starvation

Prophecies, visions, and other forms of mysticism-visions,

Charitable works-Too busy with ascetic practices

Persecuted by community? Yes, considered mentally ill and chained up

Marie of Oignies (1177-1213)

Entered into an arranged marriage but persuaded her husband to live a chaste life. They turned their home into a lepers’ hospital and Marie devoted herself to the care of the poor and sick. She saw visions, dressed in white, and performed extreme acts of self-mortification (e.g., cut off pieces of her own flesh). She was also famous for having the gift of tears, where she would cry uncontrollably when she saw a crucifix.

Origin- Liège (Belgium)

Marital/professional status- Married, in name only; Béguine (semi-religious, unenclosed)

Ascetic practices-Starvation, cutting, dressing in white, vegetarian

Prophecies, visions, and other forms of mysticism- Gift of tears, visions,

Charitable works-Turned home into lepers’ hospice, worked with poor and sick

Persecuted by community? No

Here is a picture of Christ going through a winepress:

m691.005ra wine press

Elizabeth of Spalbeck (1246-1304)

Elisabeth from Heiligen net

She was given the stigmata (Three Women, p 29) and fell into ecstatic trances daily. She reenacted the crucifixion of Christ every day, performing the role of Jesus, which literally took hours, with breaks in between for rest (she modelled it on the monastic hours which split up the day and night into 7 episodes of performing the office). She ate and drank very little, mortified her body by hitting it often, and was generally too weak to move from her bed—except for during her trances and reenactments.

Origin- Liège (Belgium)

Marital/professional status- Never married, Béguine (semi-religious, unenclosed)

Ascetic practices-reenacted Crucifixion, starvation, self-mortification, severe dress

Prophecies, visions, and other forms of mysticism-prophecies about community members, trances, stigmata

Charitable works-Too busy

Persecuted by community? No

Boundary crossings – the community and the body

There are many similarities between the practices of the béguines and Catherine of Siena. But here I will focus on their role in the community.

The traditional pattern for a female mystic was to be a nun who lived in a female monastery: think Hildegard of Bingen or the nuns at Helfta. These mystics’ entire lives were devoted to religion, prayer, and study—this was the function their community expected them to perform for the benefit of them all. Within this enclosed setting—living, eating, breathing, and singing religious devotions—these women had all the tools they needed to develop intense relationships with the divine.

The women here follow another model. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Belgium and Germany and then in the late fourteenth century across Europe there developed groups and individual women who chose not to live in nunneries but still wanted to live a religious life – these women were often called béguines, a loosely defined movement of semireligious women who were not enclosed and did not follow a specific rule of religious living. Some of them joined lay spiritual communities—such as béguinages—in the middle of towns where they could perform social outreach (usually working with the sick and poor). These settings still allowed them to follow their spiritual inclinations for a strict way of life and gave them a place to develop their mystical relationship with Jesus. Others did not join communities but carried this work on alone or with the help of supporters who gathered around them [exs. CS EH BS]. Some of these lived in anchoritic cells attached to churches, such as ES. Many of those who did not join lay spiritual communities were married or widowed—like EH and BS—challenging the traditional concept that only virgins were acceptable vessels for visionary experiences.

All of these women challenged many traditional boundaries—not just of human and divine, but also religious and lay, interior and exterior, being enclosed and being in the world—at a time when ideas about the religious life and spiritual living were being debated. Rising lay movements, like the Mixed Life movement in late-medieval England in which nobles and the gentry cultivated their inner piety through showy works, buildings, and practices, and the upsurge of urban lay piety in the merchant and gentry classes across Europe, were breaking down the traditional distinctions between those who fight (nobility), those who pray (clergy), and those who worked (peasants) as spiritual practices came out of the churches and monasteries and into homes. Calls for ecclesiastical and monastic reform became stronger during and after the Great Papal Schism in the late-fourteenth-century, and people joined monasteries looking for a renewed faith or joined the new lay orders (Franciscan and Dominican?) as an alternative way to live a religious life. There were more religious options at this time, and thus there were more decisions to be made about how to live a religious life—something that all Christians were being expected to integrate into their lives.

The medieval female mystics that were most popular in this period offered models of the integration between religious and secular ways of life, and especially ways in which to imbue everyday space with sacred meaning and function. God was not to be found only in the churches and monasteries: he could be found in the home, in the street, and in one’s heart.


Jennifer N. Brown has published an edition (with introductory essay) of the lives of Christina Mirabilis, Elisabeth of Spalbeck, and Marie of Oignies found in MS Douce 114. The manuscript includes a life of Catherine of Siena.

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