Marie of Oignies was born to a noble family in Nivelles in 1177, and showed early signs of holiness. She disdained worldly goods, and longed for the religious life. In dismay, her parents married her off at the age of fourteen to John, a man from Nivelles. Shortly after the nuptials, however, Marie managed to persuade her husband to take up a chaste union. After divine inspiration, John also agreed to the disposal of all the pair’s worldly goods and they moved to the nearby Willambroux, serving the poor in extreme humility.
Due to Marie’s divine knowledge and extreme holiness, she was constantly sought out to offer counsel and spiritual insight. Such was the demand that at times she had to hide in fields and forests to obtain some peace from her followers. Ultimately, such temporary escape was not sufficient and she was forced to move to a more isolated location, Oignies, in around 1207. Marie spent her time in Oignies peacefully, experiencing ever more intense bouts of ecstasy until reuniting with the Lord in death in 1213. Two years later, Jacques of Vitry – who benefited directly from Marie’s spiritual tutelage – composed a vita or spiritual biography chronicling the holy woman’s life.
Marie’s biography was widely disseminated throughout the medieval period, and became one of the most widely circulated biographies of a holy laywoman from her time. Her vita is hailed as the earliest extant document offering details of an innovation in female piety that emerged in the 13th century: the beguine lifestyle, in which women practiced their religion dynamically in the world, attaining a level of holiness heretofore associated with monastics. Hallmarks of this lifestyle include staunch commitment, episodes of ecstasy, intense devotional practices, and punishing ascetic regimes.
Marie of Oignies is routinely described in modern scholarship as the ‘prototype’ or ‘first’ beguine, one of the religious movement’s ‘founding mothers.’ Jacques of Vitry certainly suggests that Marie is the figurehead of the new phenomenon in his prologue to her vita. This phenomenon tends to be described in modern scholarship as the ‘beguine’ lifestyle. However, Jacques never uses the term ‘beguine’ to describe Marie herself, largely due to the problematic connotations of the word ‘beguine’ in the era. The ‘primacy’ of Marie’s biography – the fact that it is the earliest extant witness to the beguine movement in Liège-Brabant – therefore means it has had a profound impact on the way in which we conceptualise the totality of the beguine lifestyle.
‘Beguine’ is often used in modern scholarship as an ‘umbrella term’, encompassing any woman practising an innovative form of religion in the 13th century, whether or not the woman herself – or those in her community – would necessarily have used this label. Modern scholars have routinely conflated Marie with all beguines and the entire religious movement, making her ‘Marie of the Beguines’ as it were. However, Marie of Oignies does not represent every beguine, nor necessarily most beguines that came after her, particularly ‘institutionalised’ beguines who lived in beguinages. This nuance, however, does not erase the fact that Marie of Oignies’ spiritual praxes made a big impact, inspiring women in her homeland and beyond to take up their own form of the ‘beguinal’ lifestyle and offering enthusiastic readers a version of the new religious lifestyle for women being developed in Europe.
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