Thus there arose in the Netherlands the Beguines and Beghards,.
The lay societies of the Beghards and the Beguines (for men and women respectively) date from the end of the 12th century, and soon became extremely popular both in the Low Countries and on the Rhine.
A peculiarly fruitful soil for mysticism, and, in connexion either with the Beguines or the Church organization, a number of women appear about this time, combining a spirit of mystical piety and asceticism with sturdy reformatory zeal directed against the abuses of the time.
In the 15th century a legend arose that both name and organization were traceable to St Begga, daughter of Pippin of Landen, who consequently in 1630 was chosen by the Beguines as the patron saint of their association.
In 1630 a professor of Louvain, Erycius Puteanus (van Putte), published a treatise, De Begginarum apud Belgas instituto et nomine suiragium, in which he produced three documents purporting to date from the i ith and 12th centuries, which seemed conclusively to prove that the Beguines existed long before Lambert le Begue.
It is now universally admitted that both the institution and the name of the Beguines are derived from Lambert le Begue, who died about the year 1187.
About the year 1180 Lambert gathered some of these women, who had been ironically styled "Beguines" by his opponents, into a semi-conventual community, which he established in a quarter of the city belonging to him around his church of St Christopher.
The district was surrounded by a wall within which the Beguines lived in separate small houses, subject to no rule save the obligation of good works, and of chastity so long as they remained members of the community.
The Beguines did not beg; and, when the endowments of the community were not sufficient, the poorer members had to support themselves by manual work, sick-nursing and the like.
The Beguines wear the old Flemish head-dress and a dark costume, and are conspicuous for their kindness among the poor and their sick nursing.
The situation was embittered by the hatred of the secular clergy for the friars, with whom the Beguines were associated.
Similarly, John XXII., in his bull Sancta Romana et Universalis Ecclesia (28th of December 1317), condemns vaguely those "profanae multitudinis viri commonly called Fraticelli, or Brethren of the Poor Life, or Bizocchi, or Beguines, or by all manner of other names."
Richardson the novelist, in Sir Charles Grandison, wishes there could be a Protestant nunnery in every county, " with a truly worthy divine, at the appointment of the bishop of the diocese, to direct and animate the devotion of such a society "; in 1829 the poet Southey, in his Colloquies (cxiii.), trusts that " thirty years hence this reproach also may be effaced, and England may have its Beguines and its sisters of mercy.
Matters came to a climax at the council of Vienne in 1311 under Pope Clement V., where the "sect of Beguines and Beghards" were accused of being the main instruments of the spread of heresy, and decrees were passed suppressing their organization and demanding their severe punishment.