The Beguines: Background information when reading Midwinter Break

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Midwinter Break

by Bernard MacLaverty

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty X
Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Aug 2017, 208 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2018, 208 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
Buy This Book

About this Book

The Beguines

This article relates to Midwinter Break

Print Review

In Bernard MacLaverty's novel, Midwinter Break, Stella is intrigued by the Beguines, a lay Catholic sisterhood, and while she and her husband are on vacation in Amsterdam she meets with a spiritual director at the Begijnhof to investigate how she might become more involved.

Amsterdam's Begijnhof was founded in 1346. A hofje is a Dutch word for a courtyard with almshouses around it; hoven is the plural. The Begijnhof's complex of buildings includes two fifteenth-century churches later handed over to English and Scottish Protestants and a wooden house that is the oldest in Amsterdam. It is the city's only courtyard remaining from the Middle Ages; because it is still at the medieval street level, it sits about three feet lower than the rest of the city center. The last Beguine here, Sister Antonia, died in 1971, but the Begijnhof is still home to 105 elderly retired women. As Stella learns, there is an application process and a long waiting list to live there.

Starting in the twelfth century, beguinages, a complex of housing built to house beguines, were set aside as sanctuaries where unmarried women could live together and work to help others, particularly the poor and the sick. They did not take official religious vows, meaning they were free to leave the convent at any time, but they did promise chastity and agree to attend Mass and say prayers daily. By pooling their money, the women were able to be self-sufficient.

The religious reformer Lambert le Bègue (d. 1177), a priest from Liège, is thought by a few to be responsible for the initial drive towards creating begijnhoven in most cities and towns of the Low Countries, including Bruges and Ghent as well as Amsterdam. Each beguinage was independent and set its own rules. The male near-counterpart to the Beguines was called the Beghards. Communities varied in size, with some, as in Ghent, growing to a population of thousands. Douceline of Digne (c. 1215–74) introduced the Beguine movement to France, starting in Marseille.

The Beguines, as a lay organization, offered a middle way between monasticism and secular living, a compromise that sometimes attracted suspicion from both Church and civil authorities. Some Beguines were persecuted for their free-spirited ways, including Marguerite Porete, a French mystic, who was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake in Paris in 1310.

The last traditional Beguine died in 2013. She was 92-year-old Marcella Pattyn: born in the Belgian Congo in 1920, she lived in the Belgian beguinages of Ghent and Kortrijk for decades.

Picture by Massimo Catarinella

This "beyond the book article" relates to Midwinter Break. It originally ran in September 2017 and has been updated for the September 2018 paperback edition.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: In Byron's Wake
    In Byron's Wake
    by Miranda Seymour
    It's tempting to think that our age of celebrity worship coupled with the 24-hour news cycle is ...
  • Book Jacket: The Latecomers
    The Latecomers
    by Helen Klein Ross
    The Latecomers is the third novel written by acclaimed author Helen Klein Ross, following What Was ...
  • Book Jacket: The Inflamed Mind
    The Inflamed Mind
    by Edward Bullmore
    It is common knowledge that depression diminishes the quality of sufferers' lives, but few people ...
  • Book Jacket: The Adults
    The Adults
    by Caroline Hulse
    Things have already fallen apart on the first page of The Adults. The novel opens with an emergency ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Becoming
by Michelle Obama

An intimate, powerful, and inspiring memoir by the former First Lady of the United States.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Golden Child
    by Claire Adam

    A deeply affecting debut novel set in Trinidad, following the lives of a family as they navigate impossible choices.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Uncommon Type

Uncommon Type
by Tom Hanks

Surprising, intelligent, heartwarming, and a must-have for Tom Hanks fans!

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

Tell I T T M

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.