USC Book Club: The Wisdom of the Beguines

February 2015:

The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women's Movement

By Laura Swan

Review: This fascinating account tells the story of a little-known but surprisingly widespread movement of medieval women that started in the early 1200s. The beguines, active across Europe, were laywomen who formed their own communities, served the poor and sick, ran successful businesses, preached, wrote spiritual tracts, and achieved an unusual degree of independence.

Some of their medieval visions, practices, and reported miraculous occurrences may sound strange to modern ears, but Laura Swan tells the stories of these strong women leaders—their great resilience and success, as well as the envy, criticism, and persecution they suffered—with great sympathy. In the process she makes a compelling case that the beguines offer readers “hope and a fresh path … to live with prophetic courage.”

—Meinrad Scherer-Emunds, Executive Editor, U.S. Catholic

BlueBridge says: Beguines were medieval laywomen defined by their visionary spirituality, unusual business acumen, and strong commitment to the poor and marginalized. The beguines invite us to seek out their wisdom and to discover them anew.

Hardcover: $16.95

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General Book Club guides


Questions for Discussion

1. Many of our parishes are quite large and we can feel lost in a sea of people. Many come to our parishes seeking community and questing for faith. To welcome seekers, we need to form smaller communities within our large parishes. In what ways are the beguines an example for encouraging “small community” within your parish? In what ways do they inspire new initiatives?

2. Beguines formed communities based on a passion for shared ministry to the marginalized and dispossessed as well as to support one another in prayer. How is your parish forming community around particular ministries or to deepen in prayer? Who are the “lepers and destitute widows” around you? How do you go out (beyond the walls of your parish) to truly see who is in your midst?      

3. A desire to live the vita apostolica or the “life of the apostles” (as the early church did) emerges every few centuries. Are we living in such a time now? Is there a call to return to the vitality and vision of the apostles? What might that call look like today?

4. Both women and men went out to the “highways and byways” to preach the good news in early Christianity. How might you preach good news in the normal course of your day? What creative ways can you think of? Do you listen for “teaching moments”?

5. Oftentimes the story of a character/person will resonate with us. Sometimes we will experience a dislike for a character/person. Is there a beguine or other historical person whose life inspires or challenges you? What might this say about your current spiritual/faith journey? Might this reveal a call in your life?

6. The story of “Christina the Astonishing” was one of the most popular in medieval times. Why might people have been so attracted to her? Does her story have anything to say to us today?

7. How did you react to the section on purgatory? Where you disturbed? Why? Did this challenge your notion of purgatory?

8. The beguines present some interesting images for God. These images came out of their intense lives of prayer. Did any of these images for God resonate with you? Did some of these images disturb you?

9. Women have always played a significant part in the history of the church. Women have been effective leaders (and change agents) without holding formal positions within the leadership of the church. In what ways does the story of the beguines open possibilities for women today?  

10. Beguines emerged at a time of major social and economic upheaval alongside political uncertainty. We, too, live in such times. What guidance and hope might the beguines offer you as you listen for spiritual guidance in making choices?

11. What aspects of beguine spirituality resonate with you? How might this nourish your life of prayer and awareness of God?