Despite earlier posts, here’s my contribution for July’s Carnival of Aces. Belatedly, I realised I had an answer for one of the questions: “Is it appropriate to speculate about the a/sexuality of individuals who lived before asexuality and sexual orientations were a well-accepted concept?” Yes… because I have one possible answer of what life asexual-spectrum women might’ve chosen centuries before the sexual revolution happened and they had, y’know, more of a say in the marrying and sex-having matter.
For the collection of asexual (pre-)history, I wanted to add something that might otherwise be lost because it concerns Christians, women and the Middle Ages. A combination that calls to mind nuns or witch burnings or ladies courted by knights… not industrious single women living celibate lives. The begijnhoven as they existed in Holland, though varieties could be found throughout Western Europe. Much of the material that follows is a summary from several websites and a Dutch paper1 and Belgian paper2 on this topic that are absolutely worth a read.
- Places: begijnhof, plural begijnhoven.
- People: begijnen.
Start of the begijnhoven
The oldest begijnhof, beguinage in English, that remained in operation the longest, was in Breda3. There is also one in Amsterdam4, should you wish to visit one on your holiday. They were small communities of women in urban areas. The first record, in 1267, shows women in Breda being granted land by the lord of that city, and freeing them from any duties to him, making them essentially yeomen rather than vassals, with their own bits of land, an enviable position back then. They were even granted the right to build their own chapel and cemetery, giving them control over their own religious practices and final resting place as well, confirmed by their next patron and the bishop. By this point, they’d apparently already been established for thirty years, having had an infirmary and several small houses from 1240 onward.
Outside of monasteries lived several communities of religious women who wished to remain unmarried and focus on charity work. The begijnen were among them. They took a vow of celibacy, yes, but only for the time they’d live among the begijnen. They took no vow of obedience except to their leader, chosen from amongst the women. They also never relinquished their possessions, though many donated part of what they had and led sober lives in an increasingly decadent society with an increasingly corrupt church.
Life in a begijnhof
Life as a begijn was initially an attractive alternative to both marriage and a monastic life for rich noblewomen and young women from the urban elite. Soon, rich and poor were drawn to it, because it offered a measure of independence while they could supply for their income either out of their own fortunes or by taking a job with a steady income, occasionally supplemented with gifts from richer women.
A begijnhof was both a protected environment and a place of independence. It operated much like a kibbutz or commune, closed communities of up to 300 women. It was a self-sufficient collection of gardens, vegetable patches, its own church, houses. A school or infirmary if many of the women taught or were nurses. Everyone contributed part of their income and did some of the work inside.
They worked and did a lot of charity outside the begijnhof, which was very different from your average monastery. They sought engagement with the world. They became teachers, nurses and worked in the textile industry, where they competed to the point that they were called a women’s guild. Their celibacy gave them an uncommon freedom of movement in the city while out on errands and visiting people.
This life offered a good alternative for women refusing an arranged marriage or not eligible to donate a dowry to a monastery to enter it. But more than that, women entered the begijnen who were plain uninterested in married life, women who wished to move to the growing cities, focus on their work and maintain some independence in their finances, possessions and daily lives. They were also prolific writers, though their often religious works had the second-rate reputation romance novels do these days.
The movement endured for a long time, the last begijn died in 20135, and it flourished in times when women were relatively free, the late Middle Ages and the seventeenth and eightteenth century, while it suffered in more conservative times, the Reformation and the Romantic or Victorian era. It never recovered during the 20th century, likely due to overall secularisation. By then, women were fighting for an independent if not celibate life in other ways.
Why co-opt this as asexual (pre-)history?
I like to think that women make places for themselves, even in cultures where that’s hard. Assuming that asexuality occurs naturally and a significant part of asexual women had little to no interest in sex, romantic love or marriage back then too, they had to build a different life. No doubt many simply remained unmarried and went on to become content spinsters and eccentric aunts. Others would have been forced into marriage and left the unappealing marriage bed once their husbands allowed them, or perhaps entered a monastery. And yet… this alternative seems to have existed too: a way to live a full life without sex, even way back then, in communities of like-minded women. I do not suggest all or even most of these women were asexual, but I think this life might’ve held significant appeal for women who would have been ace-spectrum had they lived in the 21st century.
It also casts an interesting light on modern-day abstinence/celibacy/[preferred-label]. In words, these women’s choice for celibacy matches that of people preaching pre-marital abstinence or those choosing celibacy for religious reasons. In practice, their lives show parallels with people choosing not to have sex for practical or personal reasons. It freed them from living according to the sexual morale of their time. They had no interest in (waiting for) romance and the married life that followed, but prioritised building a life for themselves. It freed up time and space in their lives for other activities, to an even greater degree than it would today. They were socially engaged to the degree they wished, from recluses to women out and about all the livelong day. And most importantly, they found each other, a supportive community that lived as they did.
Last but not least, it’s a boon for Christian women on the asexual spectrum. Enterprising women who managed to express their faith, live in financial independence, hold down jobs and have the safety of close-knit communities with other women even 800 years ago seem good role models. Like an ace-spectrum version of Proverbs 31. Perhaps it could even aid in creating a good discourse for asexuality in the Protestant or Catholic church. An example that, no, good Christian lives don’t ‘naturally’ include sex. And, no, women of faith weren’t just quiet, meek, indoorsy types. And there’s more to the Christian tradition around women than virgins, wives and nuns.
Yeah… let’s just say there’s a hen house and I’m feeling a little foxy.
1. De Begijnen van Breda: een studie over het leven van de begijnen, met de nadruk op hun geestelijk leven, doctorate thesis by Ine Roozen from Tilburg University (PDF)
2. Tussen hemel en aarde: Begijnen in de Lage Landen, by RoSa (PDF)
3. Begijnhof in Breda (website)
4. Begijnhof in Amsterdam (website)
5. Een stad voor vrouwen – Begijnen en begijnhoven in vroegmodern Europa (webpage)
The problem with being a newbie is, you’re a newbie. I’ve been exploring ways to talk about asexuality from a historical perspective, hopefully involving my own country. I wanted to contribute to this month’s Carnival of Aces and I can’t. I do not have the experience to feel the weight of some issues over others, or even to get all the facts straight or set up a proper timeline.
Someone already made a timeline, by the way, it’s very cool. Go check it out.
Rather than broaden the scope so I’m regurgitating material everyone can read on the internet, or pretending I’m the expert I’m not… I’m going to change the approach to suit what I have found. The exploration taught me I need to start getting my facts and words straight by getting up to date with the current literature a bit more. As a cisgender white female, sexuality indeterminate, there’s a great deal I’ve never thought about or questioned.
When you don’t speak up, the nice heteronormative sorting hat puts you in with the silent majority, after all. And I’m Hufflepuff, not Gryffindor.
So yes, I’m going to be starting yet another blog post series, this time exploring those things I’ve been getting wrong by being straight-by-default until very recently. If you want to know how far my thoughts on the subject have developed so far, go read blog posts “Dimensions of Sexual Self, Sexuality and Relationships” and “In search of a lexicon”
Since this means that I’m going to mess up the standard neat model view of sexualities I’ve had in my head so far by adding, y’know, messy reality, we’re going to be calling this series Unstraightening My Facts. Because tacky titles make me smile.
So, this month’s Carnival of Aces took some thought… I didn’t know if I’d have something to contribute. But one question got me thinking:
- What unanswered questions do you have about asexual history that you would like to see addressed?
Well, I’d like to know more about what’s happened in my own country, since I found out about asexuality and demisexuality in a very geeky corner of the internet.
It ties in with an awesome occasion, I think. The Dutch Pride is to be held in a month’s time in Amsterdam, and would make a great event to focus on to see how much visibility and attention we get and what ‘lives’ in Holland.
So I’ll be doing some stomping around and then hopefully making a contribution around that topic at the end of the month.
Aven’s Dutch-language forum’s the place I start. It’s been great connecting with people in my native tongue, the past few days there, after I finally dared to write my first post.
15. Have you ever called in to a hotline, warm line, text or chat support network, etc.? What was your experience like? Can you think of any specific ways it could have been better? Would you recommend the service to other aces?
I haven’t ever called a hotline. When I first discovered the concept demisexuality, I did start googling it almost compulsively, returned to do so again every few days, and in the end created this blog and wrote several blog posts in a single day. It was cathartic.
I would recommend other demisexual or asexual newbies at least talk to like-minded people a couple of times or lurk on blogs and forums to get a sense of what it’s like to be ace or demi or grey or -romantic.
That first moment of recognition, identification, as well as subsequent issues, they are moments of such urgent discovery of self, of the world. Especially because asexuality isn’t all that well-known, and how to deal with issues arising from it, in relationships and all, even less. It’s good to share.
Here endeth the series Demisexuality and Mental Health.
14. When people tell you something like “you need therapy” or “get help!”—how do you respond? Have you found any particular method that works well for getting people to stop telling you that?
Be odd, but not aggressively. Make an off-colour joke, stare them down, resort to sarcasm, whatever suits your style, really. I’m not a person gifted with good social skills, much confidence or charisma. I’ve learned that putting people off balance, just a bit, provides a moment to push them in another direction.
Here’s an example: I went to buy something in a market and had to negotiate for the price. The guy opposite me named one that was too high. I didn’t know what to say, so an awkward silence fell. As I stared at him, he seemed to hesitate, repeated the price once more. I finally gave up and turned to go. He yelled a much lower price. Heartened, I turned back to stare at him, now holding back a grin. He lowered the price again. I walked away with the item and a big grin on my face.
I had discovered my negotiating strategy, by accident. Act clueless and socially awkward, on purpose.
It’s a power game, if such demands are made or “suggestions” shouted, so the question is, really, how do you take back power, in your personal life or in the work place? Same strategies apply.
12. Who do you turn to for support? Are there any ways they could more effectively support you? If they’re doing a good job, that’s excellent! What are some specific examples of things they’re doing right?
13. Are you a support person for someone else? What have you learned from being in that position? Do you have any advice for others?
My family, and they did an awesome job. See earlier post.
No… I’m not really in a supporting role for anyone other than professionally. That’s what this blog is for, to explore my sexuality and hopefully provide a starting point for others to find some information and comfort in theirs.
11. What are some coping strategies you’ve developed? Whether with or without therapy, with or without being diagnosed with a mental illness, what is it that helps you deal with your struggles?
The only way out of fear is straight through. Sometimes that means doing something, on purpose, that I’m bad at, and repeat it, until either the fear is gone or I become good at it.
Work actively on increasing your comfort zone, so to speak, but in ways that are enjoyable, like writing, or going to an interesting meeting with strangers… starting a blog to talk about your sexuality when you really daren’t yet in real life.
9. Have you ever felt subjected to gatekeeping in the asexual community because of your mental health? […] What can we do to combat that sort of feeling in our communities?
10. Have you ever found that your ability to participate in any kind of asexual community activity […] is limited by your mental health?
I… can’t say? I’m only now getting to know the asexual community. From what I’ve seen so far, people are ignorant rather than close-minded, so information might need to be repeated or researched and confirmed before it is accepted, especially considering how new, for example, the concept of demisexuality is.
Mental health issues made me hypersensitive to being accepted or not. Made me read far more into comments than was there. That ties back into the vulnerability I talked about earlier. It’s a common side-effect.
And, well, people are people. There’ll be cliques and trolls and blunt people everywhere. I think it’s very important that all parts of the asexual community, whether blog or forum or meeting place, ensures it facilitators and moderators work to ensure a good atmosphere and safe environment.
7. Are there any topics not necessarily directly related to asexuality, that you find uncomfortable partly because of your asexuality? […] Can you think of any way they might be handled that would make you more comfortable, or would you prefer that people just not bring them up?
I dread the very thought of dating. It’s taking me a year, and talking about it here, for me to be alright with it.
I still don’t talk at all about NOT having had sex for a decade when the human race in general is at its most sexual, with other people. NOT having had relationships in a time when peers did. I still do NOT like to think what assumptions people have made, if any, about me because they haven’t seen me having any relationships.
What’s been a great comfort? Information and the internet. Other people speaking of their sexuality. See some of my first posts for links…
As for dating, I’m considering trying out Ace dating and mixed-sexuality dating as well as regular dating. There’s a couple of events each year in my country, apparently… Now I just need to find the time…