Blog Archives

Carnival of Aces: Begijnhof

BegijnhofAmsterdamEurope 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

Begijnhof-Breda-mei-2011-MH-verkleindThe 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. fox-gurading-the-hen-house

Further reading

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)

Carnival of aces
Call for submissions for July is here if you want to contribute, or go here to the Asexual Agenda if you want to read stuff from earlier months.

Images
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bd/BegijnhofAmsterdamEurope.jpg
https://dichtbijbreda.nl/files/2011/10/Begijnhof-Breda-mei-2011-MH-verkleind.jpg
https://averagejoenewsblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/fox-gurading-the-hen-house.jpg

Advertisements

My Sexuality, Today

The best part of growing up now, especially as a woman? It is alright to have whatever life you want, as long as it does more good than harm, and we grow up with parents who live like that too. Our dads read bedtime stories. Brothers and sisters share equally in household chores. All that can, can go to college, have a career. We can explore what sex we want to have and have what we want.

The sexual revolution…

…didn’t give women the freedom to have sex. It gave women the freedom of consent. I spoke to a lady who regularly travels to Africa, and the miracle she brings to girls there, when she gives sex ed, isn’t that white women have sex outside of marriage. It’s the idea that women say no to men unless they reciprocrate the sexual desire. That to have gone through puberty isn’t an open invitation for any and all to take advantage. That nothing is owed. That their body is theirs. Before and after marriage.

Sexual freedom…

…takes on another meaning when you are asexual, demisexual or not sexually active for other reasons. It is socially accepted to have sex. I’m also happy I live in a country where it is socially accepted that one can have sex with either gender, since part of not really having a sex drive during adolescence was that it was rather open-ended what sexuality I’d turn out to have if I ever did start wanting to have sex. It took away some of the angst. If you are not sexually active, though, you are invisible. I’ve rarely talked about the not-having with friends. I don’t even really know why. I’m lucky I can talk to my family. That I have, at the very least, the fundamental right to determine that I have sex, is important, in the face of that.

Sexual consent…

…was something I took for granted until I travelled outside the western world. I wasn’t in love, so I was not in a relationship. I was not in lust, so I did not have sex. It was that simple to me and to my family. It is that simple to most of my friends, I am happy to say. I hope it’s that simple for you too. Not so in other countries. There, women my age (twenty, at the time), felt the same pressure for marriage, and thus sex, that I only experienced when I thought about getting a job. Growing up, earning a living, being independent was enough pressure. I shuddered to feel the same pressure to find a partner. But then, returning to the western world with open eyes, it seems like there is that same social pressure, not to marry, but to have sex, definitely. And it startled me how hard it was for women to refuse without being ridiculed, once I started paying more attention.

Sexual attention…

…seems alien. I cycle past a giant bill-board of larger-than-life six-pack abs and all I think is, “geesh, photoshopped, much?” I look at Thor, and agree he has dreamy biceps, but not until the third time I’ve rewatched the movie, and I thorougly approve of his character. I can’t tell at all if I am attractive to people. I’m guessing not, because I’m rarely cat-called and I do not reflect the aesthetic ideal one bit. I was stared at, when I travelled, but I’m still not sure whether that was because I was white or because I was a woman. Since I’m not able to objectify anybody sexually until I know them well personally I never really understood how anybody else could. I know it’s possible, but I’m able to understand four-dimensional reality better than sexual objectification.

Body image…

…is as much an issue for me as it is for the general population. Sorry guys, the pressure to be thin and diet and hatred of yourself and seeing yourself through the eyes of a virtual onlooker… nothing really sexual about that. Just pop-culture brainwashing. That’s why eight-year-olds get as insecure about their bodies as adults do. How do I know? Been there, done that, with zero sexual drive. Been there, done that, with the sexual drive online. Been able to accept my body, without changing it a whit, with the sexual drive online too. Exactly because I started exploring myself and owning my sexual identity. Because I’ve felt the difference between leafing through a magazine and walking around an exhibit of half-naked women painted in the seventeenth century. The first was depressing. The latter was empowering.

Women’s rights…

…are so important and I came across it a lot during my search for what other women do when it comes to sex. I think it’s very important that women do not legally become like children when they marry (since 1950s) and rape is illegal even inside marriage (1980s) and sexual slavery is forbidden (since 2004, in the US). I think it’s very important that I can do with my body what I like, especially since I started wanting sex long after I would have had to marry in earlier centuries and other countries. I love that there’s more attention for the exploration of female sexual body parts, because stimulating my clitoris works, my vagina doesn’t do anything for me. Wouldn’t have known to try that, a decade or two ago. I like that there’s way more female writers who produce good sex, romance and erotica, and the female audience that demands it, since I need emotion to go with my sex, in fiction, and that just very often doesn’t happen in porn. I like that there’s more women in fiction, because reading early science fiction books where women just… don’t exist… is deeply creepy.

Feminism…

…is very important for one reason for demisexuals, specifically: genders mix much more. I am able to meet and know guys socially and professionally in ways I wouldn’t have a hundred years ago. It’s alright to be in a room together, because you’re all able to treat other people as people. Since genders mix, men and women are much more comfortable in each other’s company. Less posturing, less rules, less bullshit. Much more that you’re able to do in your life in general. This way of living, meeting and mixing as people with little regard as to whether you’re a man or a woman… that’s how the world is when you’re demisexual. People are just people. Gender is as relevant as someone’s choice of shirt, 99% of the time.

Until I know someone personally, sexual attraction doesn’t even really register, and that goes much deeper, and has much more fundamental consequences than just not wishing to have casual sex. I hope I’ve been able to show what that’s like, just a little.

A Space For Me

Sometimes, I have a lot to say

God Be With Us, Asexuals

Through the bible in 3 years as queer.

The Realm of Asexual Possibility

Ace reviews of five seasons of The X-Files

DemiConsensual: Gender, Sexuality, and Feminism in the Modern World

Making sense of all things gender, sexuality, identity, and feminist in our current culture.

Asexuality New Zealand Trust

Educating New Zealanders about asexuality.

The Ace and Aro Advocacy Project

Advocating for asexual and aromantic spectrum people in DC, Maryland, Virginia, and beyond.

Aceing It

Just an asexual college student navigating through life and sharing the ups and downs. Occasional rants included.

God zij met ons, aseksuelen

In 40 weken door de bijbel met een aseksuele orientatie

Aut of Spoons

A Self Advocate Fights Oppression