At the start of the 12th century, some women in the Low Countries lived alone and devoted themselves to prayer and good works without taking vows. At first there were only a few of them, but in the course of the century, their numbers increased. Due to the structure of urban demographics and marriage patterns in the Low Countries, in the Middle Ages there were more women than men. These women lived in towns, where they attended to the poor. During the 13th century, some of them bought homes that neighbored each other, and finally formal living spaces for many women formed a community called a béguinage. Beguinages tended to be located near town centers and were often close to the rivers that provided water for their work in the cloth industry.
Beguines were not nuns; they did not take vows, they could return to the world and wed if they chose and did not renounce their property. In many cases, the term “Beguine” referred to a woman who wore humble garb and stood apart as living a religious life above and beyond the ordinary practice of ordinary laypeople. It has been disputed that Marie of Oignies is perhaps the earliest beguine.
While some women joined communities of like-minded lay religious women, adopting the label “beguine” by virtue of entering a recognized community called a beguinage, many women lived alone or with one or two other like-minded women. Beguines engaged in a range of occupations to support themselves. Women in the Low Countries tended to work in the cities’ lucrative wool industry. Parisian beguines were important contributors to the city’s burgeoning silk industry. Beguinages were not convents. There was no overarching structure such as a mother-house. Each beguinage adopted its own rule. The Bishop of Liège created a rule for beguines in his diocese. However, every community was complete in itself and fixed its own order of living. Later many adopted the rule of the Third Order of Saint Francis. These communities were varied in terms of the social status of their members; some of them only admitted ladies of high degree; others were reserved exclusively for persons in humble circumstances; others still welcomed women of every condition and these were the most densely peopled. Several, like the great béguinage of Ghent, numbered their inhabitants by thousands. The Beguinage of Paris, founded sometime before 1264, housed as many as 400 women.  Douceline of Digne (c. 1215-74) founded the Beguine movement in Marseille; her hagiography, which was composed by a member of her community, sheds light on the movement in general. This semi-monastic institution was adapted to its age and spread rapidly throughout the land. Some beguines became known as “holy women” (mulieres sanctae), and their devotions influenced religious life within the region. Beguine religious life was part of the mysticism of that age. There was a béguinage at Mechelin as early as 1207, at Brussels in 1245, at Leuven before 1232, at Antwerp in 1234 and at Bruges in 1244. By the close of the century, most communes in the Low Countries had a béguinage; several of the great cities had two or more.Beghards
A widespread religious revival inspired several societies for men which were kindred to the Beguines. Of these, the Beghards were the most numerous and the most important.
The Beghards were all laymen and, like the Beguines, they were not bound by vows, the rule of life which they observed was not uniform, and the members of each community were subject only to their own local superiors. They held no private property; the brethren of each cloister had a common purse, dwelt together under one roof and ate at the same board. They were for the most part men of humble origin—weavers, dyers, fullers and so forth—they were closely connected with the city craft-guilds. For example, no man could be admitted to the Beghards’ community at Brussels unless he were a member of the Weavers’ Company. The Beghards were often men to whom fortune had not been kind—men who had outlived their friends, or whose family ties had been broken by some untoward event and who, by reason of failing health or advancing years, or perhaps on account of some accident, were unable to stand alone. If “the medieval towns of the Netherlands found in the beguinage a solution of their feminine question”, the growth of the Beghard communities provided a place for the worn-out working man.
The men had banded together in the first place to build up the inner man. While working out their own salvation, they remained mindful of their neighbors and, thanks to their connection with the craft-guilds, they influenced the religious life. They are credited with shaping the religious opinion of the cities and towns of the Netherlands for more than 200 years, especially for the peasant.
Relation to the Church According to John of Ruysbroeck, Beguines’ religious and political opinions were similar to those expressed by anarchists of later centuries. Religious authorities believed their members had heretical tendencies and sometimes tried to bring disciplinary measures against them. The Synods of Fritzlar (1259), Mainz (1261) and Eichstätt (1282) brought measures against them and they were forbidden as “having no approbation” by the Synod of Béziers (1299). They were condemned by the Council of Vienne (1312), but this sentence was mitigated by Pope John XXII (1321), who permitted the Beguines to resume their mode of life after reform.
The Beghards were more obstinate; during the 14th century, they were repeatedly condemned by the Holy See, the bishops (notably in Germany) and the Inquisition. The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges that men of faith and piety were found among the Beghards. In their behalf, Pope Gregory XI (1374–77) and Pope Boniface IX (1394) addressed Bulls to the bishops of Germany and the Netherlands. The doctrine of Quietism is believed to resemble the stance of these community members.
Decline Before the close of the Middle Ages, Beghard communities were in decline. Their numbers diminished with the waning of the textile trade and, when that industry died, gradually dwindled away. The highest number of such medieval foundations in Flanders and Wallonia was 94, but in 1734 they had been reduced to just 34 and in 1856 to 20.