"Beguines are pernicious tares sown by the Devil to destroy the order of man and God. It was women that destroyed the order in the Garden of Eden, Lilith refusing to lie beneath Adam, and Eve seducing him into forbidden knowledge. Now they are hell-bent on destroying the very priesthood itself, and with it the Holy Church and all Christendom. They will drag you to hell with them if they can. I caution you not to suffer them to take root here, lest all you hold dear is destroyed and thrown in chaos."Beguines, now aren't they so dang cute?
During the crusades, as we all know, a bunch of European men decided to leave home and go throw a big party in the Middle East. Saracen swords removed many heads and limbs and those the sword didn't kill dysentery and other diseases waded through their ranks bringing weakness and death. Now back home there were not only a shortage of males, due to this misguided road trip to Jerusalem, but also a large number of women and children without means of support. The Middle Ages was a male based society and women were expected to live under the guardianship of a man. So a recently widowed woman had a choice to join a nunnery, which if you have kids that is out, or find some man who finds you useful for his bed or at least as slave labor in his fields or kitchen. In the later part of the 12th century, but with gaining momentum in the 13th and 14th century these women banded together and formed beguinages.
Need breeds necessity, but still I can't express how impressed I am with the ingenuity of these women to do something so daring that truly embraces the concept of Carpe Diem
They made their living weaving and tilling the soil. They lived a pious life without vows. They could leave at any time. In this book they have a leadership paradigm in place, but as I found after some research many of the beguinages existed as a much looser confederation of like minded individuals. I'm of the opinion, after working with unions and other organizations, that eventually it is the natural order that leadership will emerge in nearly every situation simply because someone must organize the best use of labor. Servant Martha has lead a group of adventurous souls from a beguinage located in Bruges to start a new sanctuary in England. Every woman that enters the beguinage is given a new name of a saint. If they move up to the leadership counsel they will be given yet another name designating their responsibility with the name Martha, for instance Gate Martha, Merchant Martha, Healing Martha etc.Bruges Beguinage that still exists in Belgium although at some point it was taken over by Benedictine Nuns.
Servant Martha is really the glue that holds everything together. She is taller and more vigorous than the average woman and is strong willed with defined opinions all traits that make her a natural leader. As one of her followers describes her: "If Servant Martha had lived in the time of Noah and God had told her that HE was going to send a flood to destroy the world, she would have simply said, 'Nonsense.' And he wouldn't have dared to do it.
Things are going well for the beguines. They are prospering. The crops have done well and the goods they sell at market have found ready buyers. They have more than enough to sustain themselves. Times have not gone so well for the villagers. An anthrax based virus has infected their hogs and to keep the contagion from spreading the King's men have killed all the hogs. The crops have been flooded. The Lord of that region and the church and the local Owl cult each have demanded their share of tithing from the village leaving them on the verge of starvation. The beguines begin to share their food and provide healing for the poor at no charge. Whoa, whoa wait a minute at no charge?!
Father Ulfrid thought he had problems before the beguines showed up. He has been booted to this hamlet over a bit of scandal involving a pretty young lad and the bishop has him on a short leash. He has bumped heads with the Owl Cult and found that forming an alliance with them will maybe insure his ability to keep breathing will continue. Besides the problem isn't with the over burden of tithes or natural disasters, but with those damn beguine witches. Why have they prospered while everyone else has suffered? Why are they taking care of the poor and disaffected taking money away from his church coffers?
Fear is instilled and the superstitious nature of the village starts to erode the relationship between the beguines and the people they only wish to help. "Now, you listen to me, my lad, your father would flay the hide off you if he knew you were messing with those hags. You don't know what goes on behind those walls of their; if they got hold of a lad like you, like as not you'd never be seen again. All those women together like that can do things you wouldn't dream of, lad. They can make your nose rot off your face and your cock shrivel up like a worm. So mind you stay well out of their way."
That shriveling cock threat gets a guy every time.
Servant Martha is under attack from the church with threats of excommunication and the Owl Cult continues to step up their harassment as well. Servant Martha finds herself in a desperate struggle with the supernatural...or is it? "It was huge, bigger than a bull. It had the head of a bird of prey, with a black hooked beak, as long as a man's hand. Huge round eyes blazed unblinking out of the feathered face, the deep black pupils ringed with read flame. The creature was staring straight at me. But it wasn't a bird. It couldn't be a bird...between its great wings, the broad chest was not covered with feathers, but bare wet skin that glistened bone-white.Owl Man...not a superhero
There are many more elements to the story than what I have chosen to reveal today. The story is told through the eyes of the participants. Karen Maitland also included these wonderful tidbits about saints between the chapters. Here is an example:
St. Diuma's Day: Seventh-century Irish Bishop who was famed for converting the pagan Mercians in England to Christianity, but after the Bishop's death it was widely claimed that the pious Diuma or Diona was in fact a woman.
I enjoyed Karen Maitland's first book Company Of Liars more than I did this one. It has a Chaucerian feel to it coupled with a twisty plot that kept me guessing the whole time. This books main value to me was introducing me to the beguines. What a wonderful concept that provided security to women that were otherwise at the mercy of the Church or the local Lord or a drunken lout. If a woman didn't have something those entities wanted than she had no bargaining power and; therefore, little worth. The concept of giving freely to those in need and challenging the concepts of the church landed many beguines in trouble. They were burned as heretics, ordered to disband, and considered a threat to the natural order of things. Woman are just so dangerous when they have choices.
I will leave you with one last thought from Servant Martha. "How easily we forget that we have chosen what we are and can choose what we will become."