It was a time of great change. Politics was shifting, gender roles were evolving, financial systems were being questioned, and people were flocking to Europe’s cities.
Sound familiar? This is actually a description of what was happening in the 12th century, when Mechthild, a young German girl left her noble family and became what is now known as a beguine.
Beguine is an odd word, a Dutch nickname for women who chose neither to marry nor to become nuns, but to make their way independently in the world, devoted to God, in the ordinariness of society.
Thousands of men had gone to fight in the Crusades and had never returned. In their absence, women had taken on their jobs - becoming farmers and blacksmiths and merchants. Beguines took their financial freedom, and put it to good use. They owned property, they ran farms, they operated small businesses, they made and sold cloth, and worked as tailors and embroiderers.
Mechthild of Magdeberg was one of them. Just the way she chose to live her life was radical for its time. Women born to wealthy families, like Mechthild was, were expected to marry before the age of 19, and consolidate their family’s wealth and social standing, or to become a nun.
Instead, Mechthild forged a third way - refusing the economic safety and control of marriage, and rejecting the socially acceptable isolation of the convent, to live her life on her own terms.
And those terms, were to combine devotion to God, with freedom in society. When she was around the age of 22, she chose to leave her home in Saxony and head to the city of Magdeburg to live as a beguine.
Ten years earlier, aged only 12, she had begun to have conversations with God that were like visions. Later in her life a Dominican priest wrote them down, so we can read them today. Every day for the next 31 years, we read that she experienced ‘a loving greeting’ from the Holy Spirit.
Mechthild described the beginning of her relationship with God like this: ‘The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw, and knew I saw, all things in God, and God in all things.’
In early Medieval times, many believed that to live a holy life meant living apart from ordinary life - going into a monastery or a convent, or training to become a priest in holy orders. But the beguines wanted to follow God in the ordinariness of life. Mechthild, with her understanding that God is in all things, joined them.
To beguines like Mechthild, God affirmed the worthiness of humanity in its ordinariness. They saw in the life of Mary someone who had experienced the joys and challenges of being a woman: she’d raised a child, tended to the needs of an extended family, lived in a violent world. Mary had been a woman, like them, who lived in a society that didn’t respect or protect women. She had had to watch her son die.
So beguines honoured, not just people’s actions or thoughts, but their bodies, as holy. It was a belief they held because of their own experience: women gave birth, women breastfed babies, women prepared food for others, women cared for the sick and the dying.
They gave shelter to women who needed it in their spare rooms, and over time acquired land to build housing for those who had nowhere to stay. They built hospitals for lepers. They ran schools for girls. They trained women with skills so they could earn a living. They rescued prostitutes. Wherever they were, they contributed to the life of the city where they lived.
Mechthild wrote: ‘How should one live? Live welcoming to all.’
The radical life of the beguines was rooted in this idea: that if God is in the ordinary, then the ordinary is blessed.
May you know your body as sacred, as Jesus’s body is sacred; may you see all things in God, and God in all things.
Johanna Derry Hall