This morning, I happened to turn on Dave Fanning-as-Tubridy on Radio 1 only to hear Esther Rantzen being interviewed (click on Tuesday’s show here to listen). That’s Life was one of my favourite TV programs as kid, and an excuse for being allowed to stay up a bit later on a Sunday school night. Always a consummate interviewer, she was an equally engaging interviewee. Straining to hear above the noise of our wheezing kettle boiling, I could have sworn I heard her mention nuns. An odd coincidence, given that myself and the other Anti-Roomers were only talking about this very subject last night. The reason? This article in The New York Times about Beguinages (love that word), which have been operating in Europe since after The Crusades.
According to the NYT:
“Unlike sisterhoods that required a life spent apart from society under vows of chastity, these Catholic women looked for holiness outside monastic norms. Although they lived and prayed together within an enclave, partly as a form of mutual protection — some historians believe they banded together after losing their men to the Crusades, which left behind mainly criminals and louts — beguines were not confined to the cloister. Many ministered to the poor and sick outside their walls. Lifelong celibacy was not required either. They could leave the order and marry (but not return).”
Rantzen mused about how she might once have considered becoming a nun, and that living in a convent can lead to a long life. She cited the example of a Convent graveyard in Galway where the graves of all the Sisters revealed that they had lived until their late 90s. This, according to Esther, was down to “lots of fresh air, a plain diet, a life of routine and no sex.”
The Beguinages and their model of a female only community seems to offered more than the implied life of service under the aegis of the Catholic Church. They offered refuge, options, peace, independence even. If the set-up in Black Narcissus had been a bit more like this, perhaps Sister Clodagh wouldn’t have lost the plot. Personally? I think the scarlet lipstick pushed her over the edge – literally.