Faculty achievement

Professor publishes book about 13th century women’s religious movement

Tanya Stabler Miller
Tanya Stabler Miller

Congratulations to Assistant Professor of History Tanya Stabler Miller on the recent publication of her book, The Beguines of Medieval Paris: Gender, Patronage, and Spiritual Authority

The book focuses on a 13th century religious movement in Paris, France that connects female spirituality and labor. Professor Stabler Miller discusses her book in response to the following questions.    

How did you come to write your book?

TSM:    The book came out of my PhD research on laywomen known as beguines. These were women who took personal, informal vows of chastity and pursued a life of contemplative prayer and active service in the world. They constituted, as one prominent scholar of medieval history has termed, a “Women’s Movement” because they themselves took the initiative to form communities of like-minded women, communities that eventually gained the recognition and support of local religious and secular authorities.   

 I became fascinated by their way of life when I took a course on medieval women when I was an undergrad. Although medieval women were constrained in many ways, beguines somehow managed to live a life of prayer and service in the world (unlike nuns who tended to live cloistered lives). When I started graduate school, I was surprised to find that no one had researched the beguine community of Paris, in spite of the city’s political, economic, and cultural importance. 

How would you summarize your experience in writing it?

TSM:    The bulk of my research was done in Paris. Almost nothing on the Parisian beguines is published, so I worked with manuscripts housed in archives all over Paris. I mainly worked at the Institut de recherche et d’histoire des textes (a research institute), the Archives de l’Assistance Publique (an archive devoted to the records of Parisian hospitals and confraternities); the Archives Nationales (a central repository of social documents such as wills, property records, etc.) and the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris (which specializes in literary sources, religious texts, sermons).

In 2010-2011 when I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Medieval Institute at Notre Dame, I was able to establish heretofore previously unnoticed connections between these women and the University of Paris, an institution thought to have nothing to do with women.  The postdoc also afforded me the time I needed to write a book that relies so much on manuscript sources in Latin and Old French.

From your perspective, what is the primary message/knowledge your book advances?

TSM:     I think the main point is that, by researching women, we can vastly enrich our understanding of the past. The prevailing scholarly belief about medieval beguines is that these women were marginal, poor and— if noticed at all—persistently harassed by ecclesiastical and lay authorities.

My book challenges this portrayal, demonstrating that the beguines of medieval Paris were supported by the French kings for over 200 years, respected by influential men such as Robert of Sorbonne (the founder of the Sorbonne) and admired by many university clerics, who preached to and about these women and even quoted the sermons of the mistress of the Parisian beguinage in their own sermon collections.

Moreover, my book shows that some Parisian beguines owned successful silk shops and were significant contributors to the city’s growing industry in luxury textiles, cultivating important networks and relationships as a result of their work. By studying beguines, I think I’ve made some important contributions to our knowledge of this important medieval city.