The formerly married single woman - in other words, the widow - has always been difficult and all the more so if she had dependent children. No longer virginal, a woman with sexual experience, and, once post-menopause, frequently seen as sexless. Now if this woman was not submissive and self-effacing and 'modest', she might be seen as dangerous, as a troublemaker, and - in some periods of history - a witch.
So what to do with such women? It is only in the last fifty years that most of us have controlled our fertility sufficiently to establish true independence - personal and economic. Prior to that, our biology was a factor in our dependency on the male of the species one way or another and a factor in the male ability to control women.
As an older woman, a widow, I have often thought of what it might mean to live in an intentional community with other women like me for mutual support. The sort of thing I have in mind would be be living independently in a building suitable for the purpose but having communal periods and, because we would be an intentional community, able to give our energies to projects that we were unable to carry out individually.
However, there are few totally new ideas in this world. No new thing under the sun, Ecclesiastes 1:9 says. Because, dear Reader, in medieval times someone actually thought of that and did it.
All those blokes, well probably the best of the blokes, went off to the Crusades and left the women at home - widows in every meaning of the word except death of husband although that might have happened and the news not yet arrived. Some women were single and could not marry because of the lack of men and some were deserted while the men did their "spiritual" duty. Out of this social milieu, came the Beguines. They were later to be followed by a male equivalent, the Beghards but, in this instance, the women led the way.
I was reminded of this when dipping into the Travel section of The New York Times and found this beautiful piece: A Lost World Made By Women. Sadly, the Beguines have gone from among us and their buildings live on as relics of an anachronistic idea.
But, you see, I don't think the idea is anachronistic. I think the idea could become a contemporary ideal for many women bearing in mind the words of the the Franciscan Friar Gilbert of Tournai in 1274:
There are among us women whom we have no idea what to call, ordinary women or nuns, because they live neither in the world nor out of it.
The Beguines and their story/ies give us much food for thought. Their ideal need not and should not be lost to us. But we need to learn lessons from their experiences:
- recognize how easily independent, autonomous women threaten male hierarchies, particularly clerical ones;
- provide structures for ourselves of ourselves that ensure we can act in a way that is true to ourselves so that we are susceptible neither to co-option nor marginalization;
- discover what beautiful intellectual structures we can build for ourselves when our own feminine leanings and desires are given free rein.