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)