Beghards and Beguines

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Beghards and Beguines are the names of the religious orders of the Middle Ages, who united into convent-like groups for the sake of unselfish activity and a deepening of religious life. The Beghards were the men, the Beguines the women of these free organizations.

Lambert le Begue (d. 1187), a priest of Liege, was formerly considered the founder of these societies, known as beguinages (Realencyclopedie für Protestantische Theologie and Kirche II, 517 ff.). They arose not so much out of the need for homes for impecunious women, as out of the urge for discipleship of Jesus. They were a kind of convent, whose inmates were not required to take the vows of a nun and could freely leave their beguinages. The first beguinage was founded in Cologne in 1230. About 1400 nearly all the cities, and even the small towns had their "houses of God," and they were also found in the countryside as well. In Switzerland they were called Sisters of the Forests.

The number of inmates in a beguinage varied from two to 50. There was no uniformity in dress; but the greatest simplicity in dress was obligatory. Women who entered gave up all worldly possessions, supporting themselves with the work of their hands. In later times they devoted themselves to social work, especially nursing and the education of girls. In the 14th century they had acquired the character of poorhouses and alms establishments.

The Beghards arose in the 13th century to correspond with the Beguines. They were found in Louvain, Belgium, as early as 1220, and in Antwerp by 1228. Beghard and Beguine are epithets of ridicule probably of Walloon origin. They are also called Lollards, boni pueri, or boni valeti. Though not so numerous as the Beguines, Beghards were found scattered throughout Germany as far as Poland and the Alps. The earliest Beghards in the Netherlands, where the movement reached its highest development, were principally weavers; later they did much copying and selling of manuscripts. German Beghards were also potters, weavers, etc.; in addition they served as nurses and pallbearers.

In the second half of the 13th century cruel persecution set in. It was assumed that the pantheism of the "Brethren of the Free-Spirit" found its principal support among them, a suspicion which was, for the most part, unfounded. At the Council of Vienna, 1311, it was decided to suppress them because of their heresy. This decree was most brutally enforced. Thousands died at the stake. The male beguinages were transformed into inquisition prisons; the female beguinages were sold and the proceeds used for church purposes. Their most violent opponents were Johann Mülberg, a Dominican of Basel (1400), and Felix Hemmerlin (1440), a Zürich canon.

In Belgium there were still some beguinages, numbering 15 in 1896 with 1,230 members, in 1933 only 11 beguinages. They engaged in pious introspection and handwork, chiefly lacemaking, which was an important source of income in the beguinages of Ghent. Other occupations were the teaching of children and nursing. Their clothing was usually black, with a white linen headcloth under which they wore close-fitting caps. Two Catholic beguinages had been preserved in 1933 in the Netherlands, one at Amsterdam with 13 inmates, and one at Breda with 46.

Ludwig Keller (Reformation, 32 ff.) supposed that the beguinages were identical with the almshouses of the Waldenses, who erected similar "houses of God" beside their churches where persons not belonging to their brotherhood were given a living. In this way the Waldenses did an enormous amount of social service. Very early the name "Beghard" was applied to the "apostles" they sent out, who founded these almshouses and were the spiritual advisers of the poor. It is a known fact that where the Waldenses were most numerous, there were more beguinages; and that the occupations most frequently found among the Waldenses were also the occupations of the beguinages. In the records of the inquisition in Toulouse, 1306-1323, it is at once evident that the heresies confessed by the Waldenses coincided to a surprising degree with those charged against the Beguines.

Ernst Müller (Berner Täufer, 65) agreed with this conclusion, when he said: "The benevolent convents of Beghards and Beguines were the nurseries of Waldensian heresy and are interwoven into Waldensian activities."

Keller found in the literature of the Beghards and Beguines much that coincided with the writings of the Waldenses and the medieval religious orders related to them. It was, indeed, very likely that there was a certain contact between the Waldensian "friends of God" and the Beghards and Beguines, to whom Nikolaus of Basel (burned in Vienna in 1395) belonged. But this cannot be asserted as a fact, without further investigation. Research by Greven, van Mierlo, and Lindeboom proved that Keller attached too much importance to dubious connections with the Waldenses. The movement of the Beghards and Beguines was rather Roman Catholic and had more to do with the Franciscan Tertiaries than with the Waldenses.

Keller's idea that the Moravian Anabaptists based their communities on the old beguinages was hardly well founded. He assumed that there were connections between them, and that the Anabaptists wrongly forced all of life into this antiquated form, thus degenerating into a stunted sect. Thus he considered it to have been an effect of Beguine tradition, that the Hutterites, in complete misunderstanding of the intentions of their ancestors, applied the beguinage regulations to church life, and were thus led to an exaggerated severity of church discipline, which by means of numerous disputes and divisions weakened them more than the persecutions. This can hardly have been the case.


Greven, Joseph. Die Anfänge der Beginen: ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Volksfrömmigkeit und des Ordenswesens im Hochmittelalter. Münster i. W. : Aschendorff, 1912.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 153.

Keller, Ludwig. Die Reformation und die älteren Reformparteien : in ihrem Zusammenhange dargestellt. Leipzig : S. Hirzel, 1885.

Lindeboom, J. Stiefkinderen van het Christendom. 's-Gravenhage : Nijhoff, 1929: 97-107.

Mierlo, J. van. "De bijnaam van Lambertus li Beges en de vroegste beteekenis van het woord begijn." Verslag en Mededeelingen van de koninklijke vlaamsche academie (1925): 405-447.

Mierlo, J. van. "Lambertus li Beges en verband met de oorsprong der begijnen beweging." Verslag en Mededeelingen van de koninklijke vlaamsche academie (1926): 612-660.

Author(s) Christian Neff
Date Published 1953

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Neff, Christian. "Beghards and Beguines." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 27 Feb 2024.

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Neff, Christian. (1953). Beghards and Beguines. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 27 February 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 264-265. All rights reserved.

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