Can 800 years of Western History — can the history of all human experience — find a home in a single life?
If so, then that life belonged to Marcella Pattyn, last of the Beguine, who died on April 14 and for whom an obituary was published in The Economist.
The Beguines were trying to be modern women long before there were modern women.
Their communities appeared in the Low Countries during the early 1200s. The Beguines were expected to commit themselves to chastity, faith, and charitable service, although they were not nuns and took no vows. They were also expected to read, study, support themselves through profitable labor, and choose the rules they would follow in their communities.
The church and the men of the time didn’t like women outside their understanding or control, and sought to bring them under thumb, using tools that included prosecution for heresy and the stake.
So the Beguines were an early example of the great program of human freedom, agency, and independence which as has been the work of the West, fitfully and all too imperfectly, for centuries as well as the inspiration for a typical opposition to that freedom.
As a young woman, Marcella Pattyn wanted to devote herself to the service of her Christian god, but no order of nuns would take her because she was nearly blind and the first Beguine community she tried sent her home after a week. The Economist reports Marcella still wept over these rejections in her old age. Some wounds are so deep we carry them for life.
But Marcella did find a Beguine community that accepted her, and there she showed an irresistible determination to pray, to be useful, to comfort the sick (which she often did by playing the banjo and accordion), and to live with an exuberance that did not consult the tastes or expectations or opinions of the world.
It seems to me Marcella’s wounds and her exuberance were paired; that her pain and joy were equal blessings, and that they must be praised and embraced equally or not at all.
At the end of her life, she was alone — a condition both emblematic and universal — although she was celebrated by the town in which she lived for being the last of her kind. Now she’s gone and Marcella lives only in memory. When those memories die, too, what will become of Marcella then?