A NASA Historical Contribution


The Beguine Penguins of Belgium



Abstract for the 27th Australian Conference on Mystical Events in Medieval Literature.

The Beguine Penguins of Belgium

Des Pensable*

In the late 13th century an interesting movement started when a small number of generally well-educated women chose to live communally in rural villages in Belgium and the Netherlands rather than get married. They lived a mystical life of spiritual inquiry but remained unfettered by the bureaucracy of the church. They swore vows of chastity and poverty and generally made a meagre living producing cloth and lace. These woman were known as beguines.

Interestingly few clues can be found in the historical literature as to how and why the movement started. A strong clue has now emerged from recently translated Dutch trading documents from the period (1). It appears that the movement may have started because of penguins. While this proposal at first might seem at the best whimsical, humorous or even absurd. The evidence from the documents suggests otherwise.

It seems that in ca 1210 a Belgium expedition was sent to Greenland by the then Bergermeister of Brussels, Ernst von Lacengarter, to foster new trade with the region.  The mission was not overly successful according to the captain’s log of the time as the ship was continually lost in fog and the crew nearly mutinied when their customary rum ration was halved. They did however manage to secure a number of penguins that they expected to trade when they returned.

It seems that Belgians of the time had a fondness for penguins as they jokingly called them little nuns that had fallen out of favour with the head of their church. Lacengarter’s trading mission duly returned with their stock of penguins and proceeded directly to the local inns at the port in Brussels where they met an influential Dutch trader Hands Eelsberger. Being a religious man and never having seen a penguin before he believed the story about the nuns being turned into penguins by the leader of his faith.

Captain Eelsberger purchased the complete stock of penguins (2) and sailed directly back to his home port with them with the intention of petitioning the church hierarchy  through his local church to pardon the nuns for their misdemeanours and having them transmogrified back to their original human forms. On showing his wife and daughters the penguins they were horrified that their church should treat their nuns in such a terrible way and the Elsbergers went on strike refusing to go to their local church until their leader pardoned the nuns.

The protest movement was originally called the Transmogify the Belgium Pengin movement (3). This was later shortened to the Transmogrify the Belguine movement (4) and finally just the Beguine movement. That the church would turn faithful nuns into penguins so horrified the Dutch and Belgium gentry that they went on strike vowing celibacy until the Holy Church of the Belgians changed its policy.

The Holy Church responded to the Beguine movement by excommunicating them. The head of the Holy Church stated that anyone so stupid as to believe that he would turn his devoted nuns into penguins were not welcomed in the church. Curiously this only stimulated more women to join the movement.

It was believed that the Holy Church was not unduly worried about the movement as the woman vowed to be celibate and consequently they believed the movement would eventually die out. It is speculated by the author that they may have been much more worried if the movement had vowed to have masses of offspring rather than remain celibate.

  1. Collected memoirs of the travels of Hands Eelberger 1205-1229. Translated from the original documents by the author.
  2. Hans Eelberger trade documents 1211. Translated op. cit.
  3. Archives of the Amsterdam Council. 1215. as translated by the current author.
  4. Archives of the Belgium Society of  Freemasons. ‘An essay on trasmogrification practices of the 13th Century Roman church. Translated into English  by Father Washardt. 

* The author is the recipient of the 2009 Golden Bull Award of the Belgian Union of Literary Licentiates.

NOTE: While the beguine movement was genuine all other people penguins and organistions are ficticional.

Last updated 16th August 2015

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