III. Beatrice of Nazareth
III. Beatrice of Nazareth
A. facts of her life and her context
Roger De Ganck is more or less justified in writing that Beatrice of Nazareth is little know outside the Low Countries. She was discovered ( by Leonce Reypens) to be the author of the Seven Manners only in 1925. She is usually not counted as of the stature of a Hadewijch.
Indeed, her own editor (admittedly a Hadewijch specialist), Joseph Van Mierlo, categorized Beatrice in a comparison with "his own author", whom he found "more noble, more poetical and more intelligent" (Reypens and Van Mierlo, 1625). But she does figure in, e.g., Petroff's collection of Medieval Women's Visionary Literature, where she is mentioned under the title "New Styles of Feminine Spirituality - The Beguine Movement" (Chapter IV), along with Marie d'Oignies, Christina Mirabilis, and Hadewijch of Brabant.
The historical, religious context
First we should briefly put Beatrice in her (religious) historical context. The following table is constructed partially on the basis of the one found in De Ganck (1991b, p.7). Some of the figures in bold will be mentioned again in connection to Beatrice. This connection can be direct, as with Ida of Nivelles and (perhaps) Ida Lewis, or indirectly and that to a varying degree. For more information on this religious context, cf. here. Here I will focus on Beatrice.
On this map I have underlined the places in Belgium relevant to Beatrice. (Some places are yet to be added)
The medallion above is taken from this family tree of the female saints of the Cistercian Order. Sitting underneath the tree, reading a book and holding a staff, is Humbelina, the sister of Bernard of Clairvaux. In the tree there are 25 medallions of mysticae from the 12th and 13th centuries. The already featured medallion at the bottom to the right of the trunk shows Beatrice of Nazareth. The medallion at the bottom to the left of the trunk has Lutgard van Tongeren on it, and the medallion directly above Lutgard's shows Ida of Nijvel (both saints are mentioned again below). (painting, oil on canvas, 180x127 cm. Southern Netherlands, 1635. Kerniel-Borgloon. Abbey Marienlof; source: Hogenelst and Van Oostrom, p.134)
But obviously Beatrice became a Cistercian Saint only after a long life - which De Ganck (xix), with regard to the factual surface of it, calls "uneventful". Still, we must take stock of the "outward" events of Beatrice's life in order to place her "internal" experiences. The following story is based on the facts found in the Vita [the number between the square brackets refers to the page in the Vita], I will also refer to Roger De Ganck's "Introduction" to the Vita (1991a, pp. xiii-xxxii), and on the few occasions that I use other sources they will be explicitly mentioned. We must proceed with caution: the Vita is not always reliable, and though I will take note of some of its more doubtful moments, I will take for granted the life as regards the external facts. The point on this page is to tell a story. The problems with regard to the telling, the "teller" and the "tellee" - for instance, with regard to the language just used of "outward" and "inward" - will be approached in essay on the Vita and my study of the Seven Manieren.
The facts of Beatrice's life, and the stages in her spiritual life.
Birth. The Vita Beatricis, like most medieval vitae, does not mention the year of her birth, but the year 1200 was supplied without great difficulty. She was born in the town of Tienen, near Leuven. There was some controversy over the social status of her parents. Roger De Ganck, who has written the most by far on Beatrice, calls them of the middle class: "well-to-do, but not wealthy as has sometimes been asserted" (De Ganck, 1991, xiii). Beatrice was the youngest of six children.
Early education in Zoutleeuw (Lewis): a beguine community and Ida of Gorsleeuw. Beatrice received her earliest education in disciplinis scolaribus  from her mother. But when Beatrice was seven her mother died, or, in the words of the biography: "her venerable mother, through the shortcut of death, migrated to the freedom of perpetual immortality" . Beatrice's father, Batholomew of Tienen, then sent her to the nearby town of Zoutleeuw (or Lewis) to live with a group of beguines, "that she might more freely make progress in virtue" . Beatrice must have found a second home here, for "she never gave even her own parents as much love as she gave her companions at that time. She herself could beloved no less in return by them" . About this community of beguines nothing further is known. Faesen (p.23) writes that one suspects that it kept in close contact with the Cistercian abbey of La Ramee: one of Beatrice's contemporary mystics, Ida of Gorsleeuw (1203/06-c.1273), spent some time in this very same beguinage before going on to La Ramee. Probably Beatrice met Ida at the beguinage at Zoutleeuw, and then again at La Ramee when she came there in 1217 (cf. later), but Ida of Gorsleeuw is mentioned nowhere in the Vita.
School in Zoutleeuw. At the same time Beatrice's intellectual education was in the hands of teachers in the same town, who taught her the liberal arts . The school was a town school, an example of the twelfth-century development of such schools, in which Flanders (and Italy) led the way (cf. McGinn, 1998, p.3). It was also "co-educational", or mixed, as we can gather from the moralizing digression on the shameless flirting that went on among the students, who "by gestures and nods and immodest glances [...] vomit out signs of the beguiling lechery lurking within them". But Beatrice, "this chosen virgin of God [...] for a whole year and more lived so solitary among so many students that no one could catch her" .
Oblate at Bloemendaal. After more than a year Beatrice was called home to her father - we have no indication of why. At home, Beatrice showed her desire for monastic life, and her father yielded to this desire. He took her to Florival or Bloemendaal (Valley of Flowers), a monastery of Cistercian nuns, where she was "clothed in the wedding garment with solemnity and festivity" . There, at the age of ten, she became an oblate. De Ganck (p.xv) tells us that oblate status was a broad category: some, also adults, joined monasteries as oblates without the intention of becoming a nun or monk; young children entered as oblates when they were still too young to make the responsible choice of becoming novices. The Vita informs us that Beatrice followed classes , but there is considerable doubt about whether this education can be equated with the classical trivium and quadrivium. Gerard Huyghe pointed out that in accordance with a decision of the General Chapter (Statuta 1206,5) nuns were not allowed to educate children (in: La cloture des moniales des origines a la fin du XIIIe siecle, Roubaix, 1944, p.80; mentioned in De Ganck, p. xvi). But it may be safe to say that Beatrice did receive some kind of education at Florival.
From the beguines to the Cistercians. Beatrice's retreat from the world and entrance into the monastic life was therefore initiated very early in her life - compare her to Mechthild of Magdeburg, who was c.63 when she gave up the life of a beguine to enter the monastery at Helfta. As of age ten, then, Beatrice spent her entire life in a Cistercian community. As we can see from their tree (above), the Cistercian community of women boasts some important holy figures, some of whom were "on the rise" at precisely the same time that Beatrice entered and lived there. Below I will mention Ida of Nivelles, and above I have mentioned Ida of Gorsleeuw (who is much less know, and not in the tree). Another important figure was Lutgard of Tongeren. It is highly possible that, at some time in her life, Beatrice came to know of Lutgard. Her biographer probably also knew of Lutgard's biography. Click here for more information on Lutgard.
Novice. After her fifteenth birthday had passed, Beatrice decided to ask to become a novice. She seems to have hesitated about this, and worked hard on her "perfection," before she decided to ask the abbess .When she did so, the abbess and the community would at first not consider it, citing especially her "still tender age, her lack of strength, and her inability to finance the necessary expenses" . It is so that the General Chapter was shifting the officially fixed age for entry into the novitiate back and forth from fifteen to eighteen, but there was no fixed and universal law (De Ganck, 1991a, p.xvi, n.14). Beatrice's determination and constancy eventually prevailed , "and with the consent of all she was clothed in white garments, the garments of joy, that is, the novice's habit" . Perhaps it was as early as this that she started composing her lost "autobiography" (McGinn, 1998, 166). After a year of probation, at some time after 16 April 1216 (De Ganck, 1991a, xvi), Beatrice made her profession.
Rameya (La Ramee): writing manuscripts. Beatrice was intellectually bright, but also artistically gifted. Shortly after her profession, in 1216, her abbess sent her to the Cistercian community of La Ramee or Rameya, "to learn the art of writing manuscripts", particularly choir books .
Ida of Nivelles. At La Ramee Beatrice met and developed an intimate friendship with Ida of Nivelles. The Vita informs us that one of Beatrice's blood sisters was also a nun there , but she is not mentioned. Ida too is one of the holy Cistercian nuns featured in the above family tree (the medallion in the following box is taken from that painting). Ida was only three years older, but much more advanced in spiritual and mystical matters than Beatrice, and when they met Ida was already well known and respected. Ida came to occupy an important place in the latter's life: "from their close friendship together a certain alliance of spiritual love was contracted between them which, even afterward, remained intact as long as they lived" . Beatrice's biographer definitely knew the biography of Ida of Nivelles, as can be gathered from his explicit references to it . Who was this Ida?
First mystical experience. Thus Ida's guidance and friendship helped Beatrice's own spiritual growth, and played a large role in Beatrice's first mystical experience in early January 1217 (De Ganck, xvii).. Ida, the biographer tells us, had "learned by revelation of the Holy Spirit that our Beatrice would surely be taken by the Lord as his special spouse, and that the fullness of his grace would be poured superabundantly into her soul". For this reason Ida devoted much time, love and advice to Beatrice, who in turn loved Ida as a mother, a leader, a teacher. But Beatrice was amazed at Ida's attention for her, and one day asked Ida the reason for it. Ida's reply is: "I see for certain you will be raised up in the future by the Lord [who...] will choose you for his own most faithful spouse" . This urged on Beatrice's desire for God, and she asked Ida to pray the Lord for strengthening her. Ida replied: "Be prepared on the day of the Lord's holy birth when the good Lord will irresistibly fulfill the desire of your heart, granting you the grace you ask for" . On Christmas Beatrice waited for the promised infusion of grace, but it did not take place. She thought that it are her sins that kept the Lord from visiting her, and bemoaned this with Ida. The latter comforted her, explaining that Beatrice's hopes would be fulfilled before the octaves would finish.  The biographer then devotes Chapter 11 to "Her rapture and the heavenly vision shown to her in spirit" [54-59]. When singing for compline before dusk with the other nuns, there came to her mind the antiphon "Because of the surpassing charity with which he has loved us, God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to save all" . But it is the opposite direction that lead Beatrice to her mystical union, for "Beatrice, with devout meditation, praise, thanksgiving and all humility followed the Son as he ascended right up to the Father's presence" . Strangely enough this is not the highest point on her ascent, for "when she had arrived there", the responsory sung at Easter, "And David with the singers played the harp in the house of the Lord" (Ps. 150:3) brings her even higher: "she immediately leapt up there, seized in an ecstasy of mind" . There she is given a vision - seen "not with bodily but with intellectual eyes, with eyes not of the flesh but of the mind" - of the Trinity. She also saw David with his singers in the heavenly Jerusalem, and "the throngs of holy spirits, the orderly array of supercelestial powers who gazed ceaselessly on the supreme Godhead" . Another nun, though, thinking she was dozing, made her "return to her outer senses" . The same nun then comforted Beatrice's sobs at having been "recalled from heavenly delights to the miseries of the human condition" .
Miracles? This is also the occasion of the first "miracles" associated with Beatrice. First, when she had taken to her bed in the dormitory, Beatrice "from an abundance of tears" restored to perfect health", which was certainly "outside the natural order of things" . Secondly, she wished to hide from the other nuns "the madness in her heart" and her immoderate laughter from sheer gratitude, and immediately the lamp that lit the dormitory fell to the floor and went out. The nuns were then also divinely warned to withdraw from Beatrice, so that she could be alone to "busy herself delightfully in the sweetness of this new grace" . Much later in the Vita, in Book III, Chapter 13, the biographer admits that Beatrice's "miracles" are not a lot to be wondered at, at least not compared to "the miracles worked by signs and acts of power so copiously and superabundantly by the saints of old". Yet, the biographer responds, "with all due reverence to the saints, I prefer Beatrice's love to many miracles and signs, of which it is said elsewhere: 'Signs are given not to believers, but to unbelievers'" (1 Cor. 14:22).  If one has read the Vita, he writes, and "like a wicked and perverse generation has sought for signs [Dt. 32:5], even if he does not perhaps find corporal miracles, which are to be esteemed of little worth, he will plainly find that Beatrice abounded in spiritual miracles" . Cf. my study of the Vita.
Back to Bloemendaal: the seductions of the devil. Shortly after that Beatrice was recalled to Bloemendaal . There her community saw that a visible "excellence of conduct and maturity of life began to shine in her whole behavior" and that it was definitely "in the school of the Holy Spirit" that she had received this . She began receiving signs of esteem, but "she immediately began to be immoderately afraid of a fall and terrified lest she become delighted with this veneration and fall into the pit of vainglory" . I.e., she was afraid. as we would say, that the praise would "go to her head". So she resolved to restrain her devotion, outwardly at least, thinking "it more holy to incur the loss caused by a little negligence for a time". But the biographer diagnoses this as a "carefully thought-out trick" of the "the envious enemy of the human race" , and sure enough, soon Beatrice's true devotion began to lag. In her sloth Beatrice even abstained from taking the Eucharist, and even from confession . A divinely inspired nun persuaded to take the Eucharist, even without the preparation of confession, and in fear Beatrice approached the altar. But God took pity on her: in one side of the story He made her see sense [62-63]; in another side: "her facial cataracts were opened and copious tears began to flow"  - this is one of the many occasions on which the biographer stresses Beatrice's tears (cf. my study of the Seven Manieren). Besides her own insight, God's intervention, and a nun's intervention, Beatrice was also helped by Ida, to whom she wrote about these troubles - according to De Ganck, sometime after 14 September 1217 (De Ganck, 1991a, xvii). Also Ida urged her to take the Eucharist and to confess .
Her father, Bartholomew, and her siblings. In the meantime Beatrice's father, Bartholomew de Vleesschouwer (the Butcher), had become a lay brother at Bloemendaal, where previously - also in the time when he first brought Beatrice there - he had been general manager , which probably means that he was the collector of rents and fiscal revenues for the monastery. The biographer of the Vita makes him out to be much more important than just a manager. At the beginning of the Vita it is written that Bartholomew was "of the middle class", but on that same page, and on several other occasions, we learn that he was "indeed, the founder of three Cistercian monasteries" [all: 8]. These were the three monasteries where Beatrice lived out her life: first Florival, then Maagdendal, then Nazareth . The histories of these communities do not quite support Bartholomew's claim to such an important role - or rather, the biographer's claim to Bartholomew's role. De Ganck writes that it is a "questionable" assertion that Bartholomew founded the three nunneries (De Ganck, 1991a, xiii). McGinn without ado accepts Bartholomew's triple founding role (1998, 167), probably following Simone Roisin, who (solely on the basis of the Vita Beatricis) calls Bartholomew "le riche bourgeois" (1943, p.369). In any case, at this point also Beatrice's brother, Wicbert, joined his father at Bloemendaal as a lay brother (her oldest brother had entered the Praemonstratensian Order). Also her sisters, Christine and Sybille, joined, in 1215. This gave Bartholomew great consolation, for the biographer quotes him as saying that "divine revelation has given me the certainty that all my children of both sexes are eternally predestined. He has shown me by indubitable signs that I will enjoy their company in eternal bliss" . Christine by the way was the blood sister who survived Beatrice and who supplied the latter's biographer with information. When Bloemendaal founded and completed, in 1221, the daughter house at Maagdendaal (Vallis Virginum, Valley of Virgins, Val-des-Vierges), near Beatrice's birth town of Tienen, Bartholemew and Beatrice's her brothers and sisters went there.
Virgin at Maagdendal. The sources seem to conflict on when Beatrice moved to Maagdendal. Faesen (p.21) writes that she made the move in 1221, together with her family. De Ganck on the other hand writes that "from 1221 till 1236 Beatrice remained in Bloemdendaal", but I think he actually means "Maagdendal", for it is at Maagdendal that he places Beatrice's consecration as a virgin, the consecratio virginum, by a bishop [described in the Vita, 76-77], just as Faesen does, in 1225 (p.21). The move is not mentioned in the Vita. In any case, Maagdendal today is near the little town of Oplinter. Oplinter has quite a nice website, part of which is devoted to the abbey and to Beatrice. You can visit it at: http://www.ping.be/oplinter/maagd.htm. The site is in Dutch, but I have translated some passages from it here, where you can also find extra biographical information on Bartholomew.
Last post: Nazareth. The Vita devotes Chapter ten of Book III on the founding of the monastery of Nazareth and Beatrice's election as prioress of that community. Bartholomew, the story goes, by "divine grace and mercy, conceived in his mind a desire and will to build that third monastery, called Nazareth" . He did not immediately act on his desire, but asked Beatrice for advice. The latter prayed for "a sure signal" from God, which she received, and then she urged her father to go ahead, and her brother, Wicbert, to help him. The abbess of Maagdendal consented. On All Saints day, 1 November, of what must have been the year 1235, Wibert and his father set out to Lier, which place assigned to them a patch of land, which the Vita calls "quite suitable for their purpose" - but we know that the first site was too swampy, and the community was moved to a higher, better location on the other end of Lier in 1245 (the picture is of a 17th century engraving of the Abbey; source: Ruh, 1990, p.141). Back in 1236, during the construction of the buildings, which took the men six months , Beatrice was busy copying the choir-books that would be needed by the new community . Then she, her two blood sisters, and some other nuns transferred to Nazareth , and that must have been in May of 1236. There they "soon began to gather a numerous group of virgins form the local neighborhood" and Beatrice was in charge of teaching them, and "in a short time she made them followers of herself". This seems to be the first time she had such a task, for "with joy she consecrated to the Lord this very pleasing offering of her first fruits" [230; my italics]. Nazareth was accepted into the Cistercian Order. Beatrice may have been an interim superior, but she and her sisters soon elected an abbess and other officials. Beatrice herself was elected as prioress. The Chapter goes on to describe how this office was hated by her, "because she could not accept other people's veneration [... because] she thought herself so much more vile". Still, it was an office she carried out "very fittingly" for more than thirty years, until the end of her life.  It is especially now that the Vita explicitly makes Beatrice into an example - cf. my study of the Vita and the Seven Manners - and is contrasted to “those who mount the steps of ecclesiastical dignities […] by vice of ambition” and who are “unworthily promoted to the rank of prelate” .
† in 1268. It was in Nazareth that Beatrice wrote her Seuen Manieren van Heilige Minnen. Around Christmas, 1267, Beatrice became critically ill. Her "passage" is described in chapter 16 of the Vita. On 29 August 1268, "anointed with the oil of the Extreme Unction and fortified beforehand with the viaticum of the life-giving Sacrament, Beatrice gladly surrendered her blessed spirit into the arms of her spouse whom we presume no one doubts to have been present". Many seem to have been present: "rejoicing angels and the holy throngs of all the blessed, with the nuns of the same place standing around together with seculars of both sexes, gathered from neighboring places, persons who trusted firmly that they would be helped by her patronage" . Beatrice was buried "on the fourth of the calends of August in the year one thousand two hundred and sixty-eight of the Lord's Incarnation", in the ambulatory of the cloister between the church and the chapter" . (Portrait of Beatrice in stained glass - source: front cover of De Ganck, 1991a)
It was probably the community at Nazareth that ordered the Vita Beatricis. Beatrice is "Blessed Beatrice" (I am still investigating the conditions of her sanctification), and her day is 29 July. A short life of her is included in the "Lilia", written by the same Henriquez who chronicled Ida of Nivelles's life.
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