The Wisdom of the Beguines for Safety

The Wisdom of the Beguines for Safety

Last time I was in Europe I ran workshops at Groot Begijnhof, a beguinage in Leuven. It was here I was able to experience the community structure and wonderful history of the early 13th century feminism. Beguines were semi-religious women who gathered together in community as an alternative to the masculinist power of the orthodox church. They were not an order nor nuns but women who spoke to masculinist power and corruption by NOT affirming or joining the church system ( ).

It is hard to imagine just how vulnerable women were made in the 13th century. There were no social structures to support women in a society in which everything was loaded against them.

The beguines emerged from the demand for safety and security from exploitation, manipulation, rape, prostitution, economic exploitation, patriarchal power and misogyny. How absurd to think in the 13th century that a woman could live apart from the guidance and power of a father, husband or cleric! Back in the 13th century if you raped a woman she had to marry you.

The beguines started by stepping outside of the structures and confines inflicted upon them by the church and prevailing culture. In some ways, the beguines serve as forerunners of the union movement, discovering power in collective action. As such, any movement away from orthodoxy and masculinist power was perceived as a threat. The mythology that one can stay in an institution and reform it is pure historical nonsense. History shows that reform never comes from within, such is the power of institutionalisation (Weber).

The beguines established themselves and their identity through ethics. This was in a time when the unethical conduct of a masculinist church was out of control. What started slowly quickly evolved into a movement of thousands of beguinages across Europe. Such a movement modelled by distinction and difference what an ethical life should look like.

Beguinages operated on informal democratic governance. They elected their own councils and leaders, built their own buildings, were sharp at business and had a powerful presence in society. They proved very quickly that they could do anything a man could do, even better, without needing to join the man-centric system.

What has this got to do with safety?

We were reminded recently by the iconography and semiotics of the Women’s Network in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet that not much has changed for women. (See logo at Figure 1. Women’s Network)

Figure 1. Women’s Network


Here we are in 2022 after the rape of Brittany Higgins in Parliament, the sacking of Christine Holgate, the brutalising of women in politics, Grace Tame’s campaign against abuse, a domestic violence epidemic and the Department chose a logo for a Women’s Network designed as a penis ( ;, ).

No wonder women have joined together as a powerful force for change . And what do these women want? Safety, respect and equity. Sound like the beguines? Sure does. And what these women know is that the change that is required cannot come from within the institutions that thrive on masculinist power. Compliance to masculinist power doesn’t work, a new model and movement outside of orthodox institutions has to be set. Nothing changes from within until there is a threat from without.

Move forward to the Women in Safety group (with an icon of a stiletto, the ultimate icon for patriarchal power) and work out what is different? If ever there was a time for a feminist understanding of risk and safety ( ) it is now. If ever there was a time to speak truth to masculinst power in an industry fixated on the brutality of zero, it’s now (BTW Women in Safety endorse zero ideology). If ever there was a time to speak a feminist perspective ( ) to a masculinist industry it is now.

We studied the semiotics of the stiletto in our semiotics module ( ) and summarised the icon of the stiletto and what it says about safety. The stiletto is the symbol of unsafety. See Figure 2. Semiotics of the Stiletto.

Figure 2. Semiotics of the Stiletto.


The beguines shook the world with their vision, competence and differance (Derrida) and their wisdom serves as a lesson for how to move away from the brutalism of zero so that safety can improve ( ).

Of course, this can’t be realised by keeping within the confines of the institution of safety. Unless one steps outside of the confines of safety orthodoxy one will not be able to envision risk ( ) as the beguines did.

Swan, L., (2014) The Wisdom of the Beguines, The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement. Bluebridge. New York.

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