1. Origin. Beghards and Beguines are the names applied to certain religious communities which flourished especially in the Middle Ages. The Beguines were women and earlier in origin than the male associations, the Beghards (also called in France Béguins ). As early as the thirteenth century the authentic tradition as to the origin of the Beguines had been lost, so that it was possible in the fifteenth for the belief to gain acceptance that they had been founded by Begga, the canonized daughter of Pepin of Landen and mother of Pepin of Heristal. This belief was supported by several scholars in the early seventeenth century, and approved at Mechlin and at Rome. In 1630 Puteanus (van Putte), a Louvain professor, produced three documents supposed to date from 1065, 1129, and 1151, relating to a convent of Beguines at Vilvorde, near Brussels. The view as to the date of their origin which these documents supported was prevalent for two centuries, and is presupposed in the modern works of Mosheim and of Lea; but the researches of Hallmann proved finally in 1843 that Puteanus's documents were forgeries, probably belonging to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The origin of these communities is now, accordingly, almost universally placed in the twelfth century, and attributed to a priest of Liege, Lambert le Bègue (q.v.).
2. The Early Communities. The scarcity of information about the earliest period has caused the significance of the movement to be underestimated or misconceived. As a matter of fact, the career of Lambert has many points of affinity with those of his younger contemporaries Peter Waldo and Francis of Assisi. Like them, he renounced his property, to endow with it the hospital of St. Christopher at Liege and the new convent of Beguines there. He felt his special mission to be the preaching of repentance, which brought him into conflict with the ecclesiastical authorities when he attacked the vices of the clergy , but had an enduring influence especially on the women of Liége. By 1210 there is contemporary testimony to the existence there of "whole troops of holy maidens"; the ascetic spirit took hold also of the married women, who frequently made vows of continence. Religious excitement did not. fail to produce pathological phenomena; stories are told of visions, prophecies, convulsions, incessant tears, loss of speech, and the like . Probably between 1170 and 1180 some of Lambert's followers, to whom his opponents gave the name of Beguines in mockery, had formed a sort of conventual association on a suburban estate belonging to him. By the analogy of the later Beguinages, they probably inhabited a number of small houses grouped about the church and hospital of St. Christopher, and shut off by a wall from the outer world. The first inmates were mostly women of position, who renounced their property and supported themselves by their own labors.
3. Extension during the Twelfth Century. The religious impulse given by Lambert continued active after his death (probably 1187), and familiarized the people of the Netherlands with the idea of ascetic following of Christ long before the advent of the mendicant orders. Throughout the next century, the need of founding similar institutions for the large numbers of Beguines was felt, first in Flanders and then in the neighboring French and German districts. In France St. Louis showed them special favor, and erected a large Beguinage in Paris, modeled after the Flemish, in 1264; others sprang up, large or small, in all parts of France during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The extension of the system in the other Latin countries was probably considerable, but exact data are wanting. In Germany only a few towns on the lower Rhine, such as Aix-la-Chapelle and Wesel, had Beguinages in the strict sense. Here the usual rule was for women who wished to renounce the world at first to live separately in their own houses or in solitary places; as time went on, they came together in larger or smaller houses put at their disposal by pious gifts, and formed communities of a monastic type. The growth of these convents was remarkable, and continued from the first third of the thirteenth century to the beginning of the fifteenth, by which time the majority of German towns had their convents of Beguines. The statutes varied much in the different houses; the number of inmates was between ten and twenty on an average. There was no uniform dress, but most of the members wore hoods and scapulars resembling a religious habit. Sometimes those who had property retained full control of it; in other cases a portion fell to the convent when they died or left. Celibacy was required as long as they stayed, but they were always free to leave and marry.
4. Relation to the Mendicant Orders. The name of "voluntary poor" which many convents bore, and the regulations of such houses, show the continuance of Lambert's influence in favor of desertion of the world and penitential asceticism; but the Franciscan ideas, very similar in their tendency, which were widely spread not long after, found here a fruitful soil. As early as the thirteenth century a large proportion of the Beghards or Beguines of France, Germany, and northern Italy were under the direction of Franciscans or Dominicans, and so closely related with the penitential confraternities attached to both these orders that the members of these (tertiaries) were commonly known in the Latin countries as beguini and beguinæ--a fact which has caused much confusion in the study of the history of the real Beguines. The disapproval of these latter by the papal authorities brought about, when it came, a still closer identification with the tertiaries; many joined these for protection, and in the fifteenth century numerous Beguinages were transferred to the Augustinian order. While the original Beguines abstained from begging, it became more common among them in France and Germany by the beginning of the thirteenth century. As in the Latin countries the Beguines are found among the extreme defenders of the Franciscan ideal of poverty, so we find frequently among those of Germany the belief that their strict poverty designated them as the true followers of Christ. In accordance with this view, they were apt to withdraw themselves from the teaching of the clergy and listen rather to the exciting exhortations of their "mistresses" or of wandering preachers in sympathy with their beliefs. They developed a system of extreme corporal austerity, and lost themselves in mystic speculations which increased their tendency to see visions and to condemn the ordinary means of grace; even the moral law seems at times to have been regarded as not binding upon them. The impulse of apocalyptic enthusiasm, given by Joachim of Fiore (q.v.) and spread by the "spiritual" Franciscans among the laity, as well as the quietistic mysticism of the Brethren of the Free Spirit (q.v.), found an entrance into their houses before the end of the thirteenth century. Early in the next century, the influx of women of high social position declined more and more, and the new foundations took on more of the modern character of benevolent institutions. By the end of the fifteenth century, in Germany at least, they had almost completely lost their first religious fervor and had forfeited much of the popular respect they had formerly enjoyed.
5. The Male Communities. As to the Beghards or male communities, the question whether the first associations known by this name can be directly connected. with Lambert le Bègue, or sprang up after his death in imitation of the Flemish Beguinages, can not be decided with our present knowledge. They are first met with in Louvain (c. 1220) and Antwerp (1228). The names beguin and begard (Flemish usually bogard; Middle High German begehart and biegger) were given in mockery and are of Walloon origin;, other names are Lollards (probably from the Middle Dutch löllen, to murmur; see LOLLARDS), "voluntary poor," boni pueri, boni valeti, etc. In the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries they spread throughout Germany, into Poland and the Alpine districts, and even into the Latin countries; but their numbers were much smaller than those of the Beguines. As early as the thirteenth century a number of their houses, too, connected themselves with the tertiaries of the two great mendicant orders. Like the Beguines, many of them were partizans of the views of the "spiritual" Franciscans and Fraticelli. They practised begging ostentatiously, frequently had no fixed abode, and wandered about in small groups, begging and winning adherents for their cause. They did not abandon this mode of life even after papal prohibitions were directed against them, but strengthened themselves by the adhesion of sympathizers who were expelled from the convents, and remained in close relations with the Beguines, by whom they were regarded as martyrs to the Franciscan ideal of poverty and channels of mystical revelations. In the Netherlands the fifteenth-century Beghards appear for the most part as regular Franciscan tertiataries, organized from 1443 as a separate Congregatio Zepperensis beghardorum tertiæ regulæ S. Francisci, with the convent of Zepperen, near Hasselt, as their mother house. Internal dissensions later split them into two branches. In the seventeenth century they were united with the Lombard congregation of regular tertiaries, and did not survive the Revolution. The internal organization of their houses corresponded generally to that of the Beguines. The earliest Dutch Beghards were mostly weavers, who continued to follow their trade; later they frequently copied and sold manuscripts. The German Beghards followed a variety of occupations; but at the end of the Middle Ages begging was their main source of revenue. A special inner group was that of the "Voluntary Poor" (also called Poor Brothers, Cellites, Alexians; in the Netherlands Lollards, Matemans, Cellebroeders; see ALEXANIANS), who required the entire abandonment of property by their members and bound them by permanent vows. Their strict organization, their enthusiasm for poverty, their zealous devotion to charitable duties, all point to a tradition reaching back to the beginning of the Beghard system. They are further contrasted with the ordinary Beghards by the fact that they held aloof for the most part from the Franciscan affiliations which have been seen to be so common. In the fifteenth century they associated themselves with the Augustinians. Public opinion, by the end of the Middle Ages, was even more unfavorable to the Beghards than to the Beguines; popular satirists and preachers alike speak of them as hypocritical beggars with a tendency to deceit and immorality; and the Reformation swept away the last remnants of them, in Germany, at least.
6. Persecution as Heretics. The persecution of Beghards and Beguines as a heretical sect began in the second half of the thirteenth century, probably as a consequence of their relation to the "spiritual" Franciscans (see FRANCIS, SAINT, OF ASSISI, AND THE FRANCISCAN ORDER). By 1300 the name beguinus was commonly used in the Latin countries as the accepted designation for the heretical "spiritual" party and Fraticelli, which naturally prejudiced the general opinion of the orthodox convents of Beghards and Beguines. Still more damaging was the fact that the German bishops, about the same time, assumed that the pantheistic heresy of the Brethren of the Free Spirit (q.v.) found its chief support in their houses. Though, as a matter of fact, this was probably true only of a small section, the name of Beghards was commonly adopted in Germany for the adherents of that heresy. During the fourteenth century the belief spread that in some convents of Beghards and Beguines there existed an inner circle of "the perfect" who were alien from the doctrines of the Church and the laws of morality, to which the younger members were admitted only after years of probation. Whether or not these accusations were true, which it is now next to impossible to determine, the bitter hostility shown against the Beghards and Beguines probably finds its simplest explanation in the conflicts which arose at the end of the thirteenth century between the episcopate and the secular clergy, on the one hand, and the mendicant orders, especially the Franciscans, on the other, since these latter gained their lay following largely through the numerous houses of' Beghards and Beguines. Several German provincial councils (Cologne 1306, Mainz 1310, Treves 1310) passed strong measures against them, and the Council of Vienne (1311) struck at them even harder, undertaking to suppress them entirely on the charge of spreading heretical doctrines under a cloak of piety. The execution of these decrees of suppression, which took place under John XXII, caused great confusion in the Church of Germany, the mendicants and sometimes the magistrates attempting to defend the Beguines. Since their total suppression appeared impracticable, John XXII compromised by making a distinction and granting toleration to the orthodox Beguines. Persecution did not, however, cease; and with the powerful support of the Emperor Charles IV, it was taken up once more by Urban V and Gregory XI. Without regard to the varying senses of' the names, all Beghards and Beguines alike were condemned as heretics, excommunicated, and outlawed. Their property was to serve for pious purposes, for the support of the inquisitors, or for repairing city walls and roads. Between 1366 and 1378 remorseless persecution raged against them throughout Germany; but even then they found advocates, especially among the secular magistrates, and Gregory XI was finally prevailed upon to repeat the distinction between orthodox and heretical Beguines and Beghards, and to tolerate the former. About 1400 another storm broke out, aroused by the attacks which the clergy of Basel, especially the Dominican Johannes Mulberg made upon the Beguines of that city. By 1410 the Beguines in the dioceses of Constance, Basel, and Strasburg were driven from their convents. At the time of the Council of Constance (1414-18), which showed itself well disposed toward them, they won a victory of some importance when they secured the condemnation as heretical of a treatise directed both against them and against the Brethren of the Common Life by the Dominican Matthaeus Grabo. Attacks were still made upon them, none the less, and that a general feeling inspired such attacks is shown by the fact that the name "Beghard" continued through the fifteenth century to be applied to the most various heretics, until it adhered permanently to the Bohemian Brethren or Picards.
7. Surviving Beguinages in the Netherlands. In what is now Belgium and Holland, the example of Lambert's first followers was widely followed, as has been seen; here the Beguines flourished most, and here they have maintained their existence to the present day. A long series of accounts of mystical visions, hysterico-ecstatic phenomena, and extreme austerities shows that the strong religious impulse of the beginning remained operative until after the Reformation. Heretical mysticism was not without its adherents: in 1310 Margareta Porete, a Beguine of Hainault and the author of a book of apparently pantheistic libertinism, was executed in Paris, and the mystic Hadewich Blommaerdine (q.v.) of Brussels (d. 1336) found adherents among the Beguines of Brabant and Zeeland. The bishops and princes, however, protected the communities in times of persecution. In the fourteenth century the contemplative life was largely given up in favor of diligent work for the sick and poor, and later for the education of girls. The French Revolution deprived these institutions of their religious character, which they regained in 1814. At present there are fifteen Beguinages in Belgium, only two of which are of any size, both at Ghent, numbering 869 inmates in 1896. The larger one, transferred in 1874 to St. Amandsberg just outside the city, is a complete model of a small town, with walls, gates, streets, and gardens. The total number of Beguines in Belgium was 1,790 in 1825, 1,480 in 1866, and about 1,230 in 1896. In Holland two houses have survived, one at Amsterdam with thirteen inmates and one at Breda with forty-six.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: E. Hallman, Die Geschichte des Ursprungs der belgischen Beghinen, Berlin, 1843 (perhaps the best book on the subject); J. L. von Moscheim, De Beghardis et Beguinabus, Leipsic, 1790; F. von Biedenfeld, Ursprung. . . samtlicher Mönchs-und Klosterfrauen-Orden, Weimar, 1837; G. Uhlhorn, Die christliche Liebesthatigkeit im Mittelalter, Stuttgart, 1884; H. Haupt, Beitrage zur Geschichte der Sekte von freiem Geiste und des Beghardentums, in Zeitschrift fur Kirchengeschichte, vii (1884), 503 sqq.; H. C. Lea. History of the Inquisition, ii, 350-517, Philadelphia, 1888; P. Fredericq, Les Documents de Glasgow concernant Lambert de Begue, in Bulletins de l'academie de Belgique, third series, xxix (1895). 148-165, 990-1006; Heimbucher, Orden und Kongregationen, i, 501, ii, 422-425; A. Neander, Christian Church, iv, passim, v, passim; W. Moeller,. Christian Church, ii, 475 478.