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The Best Flemish Béguinages – Islands of Tranquility

Despite its modest size, Belgium has some fantastic UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Aside from well-known tourist destinations like Bruges and La Grand Place in Brussels, there’s also some fascinating Belgian UNESCO sites that are well off the tourist trail. One of our favourites was definitely the Flemish Béguinages, a collection of thirteen separate complexes in various locations around Flanders, in northern Belgium. Let’s have a closer look!

This is a guest post by Joel, the author of World Heritage Journey. Joel will be contributing to a series of posts dedicated to less popular UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Europe. I am very happy, he agreed to share his amazing experience and knowledge with us. All tours and places to stay, however, are recommended by me.

DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of those links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost for you.

Brief history of the Begijnhof

It is unclear when exactly, but the Beguinage was established somewhere in the 14th century to house the Begijnen. These women lived like nuns but were more independent and had more freedom. The Catholic faith was banned in the 16th century. The Begijnhof was the only Catholic institution that continued to exist because the houses were the private property of the women. They did have to give up the chapel. A new, so-called ‘hidden church’ was later built behind the facades of several residences. You can still visit it today.

Cornelia Arens was the most famous Beguine who lived here. She wanted to be buried not in church but in the gutter. Despite her wishes, she was buried in the church. The next morning her casket was no longer in the church but rather in the gutter, as she had wished. This reoccurred several times until it was decided to make her last resting place in the gutter.

The last Beguine passed away in 1971. The houses off the courtyard are still residences but there are no more Beguines here.

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Ancient Beguinages Of Flanders

IN THE KLEIN BEGIJNHOF, THE SMALL BEGUINAGE, IN the Belgian city of Ghent, a child's beach ball drifts eerily back and forth across the deserted courtyard. The courtyard suggests the Flemish equivalent of a New England village green - a similar scale and a correspondent impression of an austere, pretty public space that in certain lights (or certain shadows) hints at the secretive and cloistered. Guided presumably by a breeze that one cannot hear or feel, the plastic ball drifts over the Small Beguinage's cobbled walkways, along the crooked rectangle of whitewashed, stepped-gabled 17th-century houses that surround and enclose the green. For hundreds of years these oddly diminutive dwellings were the homes of the Beguines: women who joined together to devote themselves to prayer and good works, to live apart from the world, but without taking vows to leave the world forever.

A peculiarly Flemish institution, beguinages (begijnhoven, in Flemish) date from the 12th century, when, because of a natural population imbalance combined with the decimations of war, Crusades and other high-risk male endeavors, women greatly outnumbered men, and female virtue and life were (even by history's loose standards) unusually cheap. Unprotected women, widows as well as girls, were considered a surplus commodity, available for the taking, a social liability whose welfare the larger society could hardly afford to guarantee. The Beguines sensibly discovered the safety to be found in numbers, in a reputation for sanctity and in the superstitious awe with which nuns (Beguines wore nunlike robes and coifs) have always been regarded. They must also have enjoyed the pleasures of the contemplative life of devotion, a life of purpose without self-mortification, of simplicity without esthetic deprivation the Flemish beguinages are so strikingly beautiful that William Makepeace Thackeray, a rather skeptical traveler rarely given to hyperbole, called the Ghent beguinage ''one of the most extraordinary sights that all Europe can show.''

Like nuns, the Beguines took vows of chastity, hard work and obedience to a Mother Superior - but their vows were temporary and reversible, and the Superiors were elected for terms of two or three years. Retaining their personal property and preserving some ultimate notion of individual and collective autonomy (the beguinages paid no revenues to the church and emphasized vocational and institutional self-sufficiency) the Beguines remained free to resume their old lives - to leave the beguinage when their husbands returned from the Crusades or when they again felt safe in the world. Meanwhile they made lace and candy, gardened, baked hosts for Holy Communion and - heretically for their times - learned to be self-supporting. Perhaps as a consequence, the beguinages ran afoul of the church and in the 14th century were outlawed by the Pope until the Bishop of the Netherlands interceded on their behalf.

Of the hundreds of beguinages that once existed in Belgium, more than 30 have been preserved and can be visited a few also remain in the Netherlands, Germany and France. Some have been converted to private homes - a glossy interior glimpsed through a window in the Diest beguinage has the puffed-up, moneyed look of layouts in upscale decorating magazines. Many beguinages are used for social services, the legacy of an older tradition Beguines were known for helping the poor and for the courage with which they nursed the sick during plagues. The Antwerp and Courtrai beguinages now provide housing for the aged, in Ghent's Klein Begijnhof is a school for handicapped children.

There are even a few surviving Beguines, all elderly women regarded by their fellow Belgians with the tender, faintly narcissistic affection that cultures feel for nearly vanished anachronisms that seem gratifyingly their own. Of the eight Beguines still in residence in the Beguinage of St. Elisabeth in Sint-Amandsberg (Mont-Saint-Amand), an outlying district of Ghent, the youngest is 75, the oldest 94. Most Belgian beguinages have a plaque or in some cases large blown-up reproductions of newspaper and magazine articles - one gathers that Courtrai's frequently interviewed Sister Laura Deconinck became a kind of media celebrity. Many document the date when the last Beguine died or left the beguinage.

On the day of my visit to Ghent's Klein Begijnhof, the Brussels newspaper carries an article announcing the funeral, in the Dutch town of Breda, of the last Dutch Beguine. And perhaps it's that - in combination with my own suggestibility - that makes me feel such a strong sense of imminence here. Though my husband and two sons and I are alone in the courtyard, the beach ball - red plastic printed with the word ''sante'' (health) - migrates repeatedly and with unnerving precision between two fixed points. When the ball stops at my feet I find I have grown edgy, and when my children ask if they can play with it, I tell them, sharply, to let it be.

Often, in the beguinages, one feels the presence of ghosts. Partly it is because the beguinages are, by definition, enclosed spaces, usually surrounded by high brick walls that seem to have kept the Middle Ages in, the 20th century out. This is even true - perhaps truer - of beguinages like the one in Courtrai, located smack in the downtown center of a no-frills industrial city. When one ducks in through the gate in the outer wall of the beguinage, the traffic rumble disappears the only sound is the tolling of nearby cathedral bells.

Beguinages are very much separate towns within the modern cities they inhabit many are surprisingly large, complex, labyrinthine. One can stroll for half an hour inside the Diest beguinage and keep turning into unexplored alleys whose stepped roofs recall the landscapes and walled gardens in the backgrounds of Bruegel and Van Eyck paintings the unexpectedly lovely street scenes, the details of architecture and masonry produce the momentary disorientation of telescoped history and time. To be inside a beguinage feels strikingly unlike being anywhere else. The scale is slightly miniaturized, there are walls within walls, white-washed brick banded with black and dark green paint, leaded glass windows tinted bottle green, violet or amber and heavy, rounded wooden doors with narrow mail slots and iron grillwork. Each door is marked with the name of a saint: Heilige Rosa, Heilige Ursula, Heilige Teresa. The past has been restored or retouched but never erased or disfigured, and what remains is the shock of encountering an unviolated walled city.

Different beguinages make it more or less easy to conjure up their former inhabitants. Such necromancy is almost unavoidable in the Antwerp begijnhof, which is not only one of the most exquisite of the Belgian beguinages (its garden is particularly well kept and the brick is an especially pleasing blend of ocher and deep red) but among those that feel closest to having remained fundamentally religious. In a chapel in a corner of the garden, a life-size statue of the sorrowing Christ is surrounded by candles lighted in supplication for divine intercession and help marble plaques lining the chapel and sections of the beguinage wall give heartfelt thanks to St. Anthony and the Virgin of Lourdes for favors already granted. At dusk, in the beguinage at Lier, the sun casts a pinkish, almost Adriatic light on the baroque church the deserted square in front of the church facade is particularly conducive to mental travel backward in time.

Other beguinages make it more challenging to play Beguine. Like Flaubert's house in Rouen, the begijnhof at Saint-Trond (Sint Truiden) is now completely surrounded by factories, miles of cyclone fencing and hyperactive smokestacks. Perhaps as a reaction to this visual pollution, the beguinage buildings have been overzealously restored, refurbished to the point of resembling married student housing. And the large and magnificent begijnhof at the Louvain beguinage is academic housing - apartments for students and visiting faculty at the Catholic University. A millstream runs through the Louvain beguinage, wisteria and willows overhang its bridges, and its manicured quads seem closer to a Flemish version of Oxford, Cambridge or some other picture-book-beautiful center of European higher learning than to a retreat where women went to pray and lead a sanctified life.

It's intriguing, too, to consider what the Beguines would make of the Diest begijnhof's relatively recent discovery by artists and craftsmen - printmakers, jewelers and painters whose ateliers can be visited and whose work (somewhat dearly) bought. Diest is the only beguinage in which it's possible to go shopping and eat lunch. One can browse for antiques, homemade candy, books on Belgian art, then stop for waffles or a more substantial Flemish meal (herbed pancakes, beef carbonnade or the rich, creamy, stewed-chicken waterzooie) at the Gasthof 1618, which has been lovingly restored with burnished wood and leaded glass and whose authenticity is belied only by the waitresses' laced bodices and the waiters' knee breeches, a fashion statement directed somewhere between the 12th and 18th centuries. On a Sunday afternoon out of season, one hears only Flemish spoken, and it's fascinating to study the variety of recognizably Belgian faces and to observe the oddly formal ritual of the old-fashioned Belgian Sunday family outing.

If Diest (at least in the off-season) seems to draw mainly Belgians, the Bruges begijnhof attracts a year-round international crowd. With its white buildings and stepped, red-tiled roofs, its grassy courtyard planted with drifts of white daffodils and narcissus, Bruges' Beguinage of the Vineyard is certainly the most famous and often-visited beguinage. Tourists who might unknowingly breeze past the high walls of the Antwerp or Ghent beguinages rarely miss the Bruges begijnhof, which they enter by crossing an arched stone bridge over a canal and passing through an 18th-century gate of such perfect proportions that it never fails to astonish - even if busloads of travelers happen to be streaming through. For all its popularity, the Beguinage of the Vineyard is not at all commercialized at present it is a convent for Benedictine nuns who, seen from a distance, allow one to pretend that the yard is still full of Beguines. Even at its most crowded, the beguinage offers moments of great visual pleasure - a black-robed nun feeding a flock of white pigeons - and even of great peace: the slow ringing of a church bell heard in a momentarily empty walled garden.

Much the same can be said for all the beguinages: there isn't one that doesn't offer its own considerable rewards and surprises. The unprepossessing Sint Truiden begijnhof possesses an impressive and moving museum of religious art, housed in a church with elaborately painted wainscoting, a trompe l'oeil baroque altar, pillars decorated with charmingly idiosyncratic - and sometimes bloody-minded - 14th-century primitive murals. In Diest, a man selling homemade candy (a Beguine specialty) to raise money for further restoration grows instantly generous and effusive when he senses my interest in Beguine history. ''The Beguines weren't saints!'' he says, as if to disprove the erroneous gossip I have certainly been hearing all over Belgium. '➾guines were the first feminists! The first emancipated women of Europe!'' In fact, one reflects, this may very well be true, though it's also worth noting that the Beguines' bargain (chastity and seclusion in return for protection) is hardly the feminist ideal. Also one wonders: if the beguinages were really feminist institutions, why does the idea of the beguinage seem to hold such strong, sentimental appeal for so many Belgian men, who often unknowingly echo the tone of Thackeray's delighted discovery that 'ɾvery Beguine cooks her own little dinner in her own little pipkin''?

One such enthusiast is the elderly gentleman caretaker of the museum of Beguine life at Sint-Amandsberg, where, as in similar museums in Diest, Courtrai and Bruges, an old Beguine house has been restored and furnished with the artifacts of daily life. The more elaborate beguinage museums include tiled kitchens, beamed, formal Flemish dining rooms, narrow canopied beds, missals, holy pictures, lace-making bobbins, embroidery frames. Often too there is an unwitting element of kitsch: a store-window mannequin cloaked in a Beguine habit and propped at the spinning wheel in a perpetual display of tireless Beguine industry and good cheer.

Nowhere is this element so strong as in the genuinely innocent and genuinely strange museum at Sint-Amandsberg. Here, perhaps through some trick of the light, the most harmless household or votive objects take on the appearance of vaguely grisly reliquaries. In a series of display cases, large dolls have been robed and coifed and arranged in a series of dusty tableaus illustrating scenes from Beguine life. In a way, it goes with the rest: Sint-Amandsberg has its particular beauty, its particular appeal - less the idyllic bourgeois Flemish village than the gloomy, imposing Victorian charitable institution.

It is the old man at the museum who tells me about the eight Beguines still living here at the St. Elisabeth beguinage - their greatly advanced age and extreme frailty, their love for their Mother Superior, their regrettable position as the last specimens of a disappearing species. He tells me that if I ring the bell at a nearby church I may be able to speak to one of the Beguines, but it is also likely that no one will respond. Vandals have been stealing from the church, and the Beguines have begun keeping the door locked during meals and when they are at prayer.

I go over and ring the bell. I ring again. No one answers. Several times, over a period of hours, I return and try the doorbell, each time more hesitant, more conscious that I am disturbing those who have chosen not to be disturbed. Finally I return and tell the old man that no one has answered the door.

He smiles and puts his fingers to his lips in the gesture of silence. '➾st not to bother them,'' he says. ''The Beguines are very busy.''

While a small beguinage usually constituted just one house where women lived together, a Low Countries court beguinage typically comprised one or more courtyards surrounded by houses, and also included a church, an infirmary complex, and a number of communal houses or 'convents'. From the twelfth through eighteenth centuries, every city and large town in the Low Countries had at least one court beguinage: the communities dwindled and came to an end, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They were encircled by walls and separated from the town proper by several gates, closed at night, but through which during the day the beguines could come and go as they pleased. Beguines came from a wide range of social classes, though truly poor women were admitted only if they had a wealthy benefactor who pledged to provide for their needs.

The understanding of women's motivations for joining the beguinages has changed dramatically in recent decades. The development of these communities is clearly linked to a preponderance of women in urban centers in the Middle Ages, but while earlier scholars like the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne believed that this "surplus" of women was caused by men dying in war, that theory has been debunked. Since the groundbreaking work of John Hajnal, who demonstrated that, for much of Europe, marriage occurred later in life and at a lower frequency than had previously been believed, historians have established that single women moved to the newly developed cities because those cities offered them work opportunities. Simons (2001) has shown how the smaller beguinages as well as the court beguinages answered such women's social and economic needs, in addition to offering them a religious life coupled with personal independence, which was a difficult thing to have for a woman.

The Beguine Women's Movement of the 13th century

Wars, crusades, plague, famine, and the rise of mendicant monastic orders lead to an unusual gender imbalance in northern Europe in the late 12th century and lasted all through the 13th century. The feudal system defined strict rules for class and gender and there were few options for women. She could live under her father's roof until wed, then live with a husband until widowed, then with a son. The only other choice for an "honest" unmarried woman was to become a nun. However, there were so many unmarried, widowed, or abandoned women in northern Europe, especially in the area we call Belgium, that the religious orders ran out of room and turned women away or required larger and larger contributions before accepting them. The Cistercians even went so far as to close their Order to women for a time. Out of necessity, a new role and lifestyle emerged for unmarried women who were willing to work honestly and live pious lives. They were called beguines (not to be confused with the Latin rhythm with the same name) or "holy women" and they lived together communally, dedicating themselves to God, prayer, and good works, though they didn't take vows or belong to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. While they were considered laywomen by the Church, in dress, demeanor, and action they appeared to the public as nuns. The name "beguine" may have come from the beige color of their habits, though other theories have been floated regarding their name. The biggest difference between them and nuns was beguines could leave the community to get married with no ill repercussions, but a nun did so only at the risk of excommunication and death.

Mary of Oignies spent many
hours in prayer and fasting.
She wrote books filled with her
visions that influenced many.

At first, homeless women built cabins near each other outside the walls of the towns where they were able to help each other raise children, plant gardens, and sell their handiwork in the market. These ghettos of poor women were easy prey to bandits and worse. The women organized and raised funds to build walls and gates. This naturally gave them a group identity and status. Their walled communities were called begijnhofs or beguinages and some grew so large in the 13th century that they housed thousands of women and were virtual towns with markets, breweries, churches, hospitals, cemeteries, and administration halls. Younger women lived in convent-style apartments and the older or more well-to-do women lived in individual houses. By the end of the century nearly every town in Flanders had at least a small beguinage even if it didn't have a regular convent. Beguines worked hard at many different occupations including such trades as spinning, weaving, and illuminating books. They were not beggars, but did fund-raising and accepted donations for their good work with the poor and infirm.

Since this was an age of religion and the women who lived in the beguinages were all Catholic, religion played a big part in their lives. However, due to the preaching of Mary of Oignies, an early adherent of the beguine lifestyle, the beguines were associated with a mystic form of Christian devotion.

Mystics and Visionaries

Mary of Oignies came from a wealthy family and was well educated in several languages. She was a contemporary of St. Francis and, like him, was so moved by the suffering of her fellow man that she convinced her husband that they should live in chastity and sell all they had to go and minister to needs of lepers in Nivelles and Liège. According to her biographer and friend, Jacques de Vitry she was a true mystic who practiced severe asceticism and displayed gifts of the "spirit" such as deluges of tears, visions, and ecstasies. When Jacques met Mary she already had a large following and had established the first recorded beguinage. Mary was an evangelist (preacher, missionary) who modeled herself after the women of the early church who lived and preached alongside the other apostles and who "spoke as the spirit gave unction." Vita apostolica, a life of evangelizing, was an important component of the early beguine movement. During the Middle Ages women were not allowed to be priests or preachers, but they were allowed to be prophets. Thus Mary was acceptable to the Church due to her chastity, piety, and visions. She also was one of the first women to ever receive the stigmata (12 years before St. Francis). Mary of Oignies died in 1213. Two years later Pope Honorius III give approval for pious women "to live in communal houses and encourage each other to do good by mutual exhortation." In 1233, Pope Gregory IX formally brought "chase virgines in Teutonia" under Papal protection.

Other famous mystic beguines were Beatrice of Nazareth (1200&ndash1268), Mechthild of Magdeburg (1212 &ndash1282), Hadewijch of Brabant, and Marguerite Porete (d. 1310). They all wrote books in the common tongue about having a personal relationship with Jesus and how it was attainable by all. Beatrice was especially devoted to the Eucharist and demanded to partake of the Mass daily as a way of experiencing the presence and the body of Christ. This was unusual at the time since most people rarely were allowed to participate in the Mass and only watched priests perform the rite from behind a carved wooden partition. Mechthild (Matild) and Hadewijch (Hedwig) saw themselves as weak vessels called to prophesy "because God chooses the weak to confound the strong." According to Abby Stoner, in Sister Between: Gender and the Medieval Beguines, "both women displayed a creativity and freshness of style that reflected their spiritual freedom as Beguines their sense of self-confidence, divine authority, and personal intimacy with Christ often surpassed that of nuns, yet their contact with the secular world imbued their works with emotional immediacy."

Hadewijch wrote of God as Love, which in Flemish is minne, and wrote many allegorical dialogues between Soul and Minne in the style of the courtly love poems of the French troubadours or minnesangers. Since minne is a feminine noun, "under the name of Minne, the Beguine mystics had a powerful feminine metaphor for God (Knuth). Mechthild was the first German mystic on record to have composed her works in the vernacular and thus is considered one of the founders of Die Deutsche Mystik, or German Mysticism. Her visions and dialogues were recorded by her followers in the Flowing Light of the Godhead.

By the end of the 13th century, social upheaval lead to widespread religious ferment. Cults, heresies, and offshoot religions sprang up all over Europe. One of these that was often confused with the beguines was the Free Spirit movement. Whereas the beguines spoke of freedom, equality in Christ, and the Holy Spirit, the Free Spirits believed that if one was touched by they Holy Spirit then nothing they did from then on was sin. They could do whatever they willed believing it was encouraged by the Holy Spirit, and therefore couldn't be a sin. The beguines said that a life guided by the Holy Spirit would not be urged to sin. The difference between the doctrines was important but subtle enough to be exploited by those in the clergy that wished to further their careers by persecuting the powerful beguines as heretics.

The Catholic Church cracks down

One especially thorny beguine from France was Marguerite Porete. She was pointedly more anti-clerical than her predecessors, claiming to have knowledge of an invisible, ideal church in the spiritual world made up of "free and simple souls" who were called to judge the "little church" established on Earth. Even more troubling was her habit of traveling around Europe, preaching and disseminating pamphlets of excerpts from her book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, and condemning the excesses of the clergy. Marguerite was called before the Inquisition. The friar in charge of her case took parts of The Mirror out of context and sent them to Paris for review. They were declared heretical and she was pronounced a heratic. Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake in 1310. Mechthild and Hadewijch both eventually left their beguinages and joined regular convents to avoid persecution. In 1312, Pope Clement V censured the women "commonly known as Beguines" who took no vows of obedience nor followed an approved rule yet wore a special habit. He went on to accuse them of spreading opinions "contrary to the articles of faith and the sacraments of the Church, leading simple people into error." The authorities began dissolving beguinages all over Europe. The women were either forced to leave and marry, join other approved orders, or suffer Marguerite's fate. In 1318 Pope John XXII allowed that beguines who lived quietly and didn't preach or discourse on the Trinity, could resume their way of life in the beguinages. By 1320 the vita apostolica movement was all but over and the numbers of beguines slipped into steady decline. The beguinages were eventually converted to Catholic convents, universities, old people's homes, and artist colonies. Of 96 Belgium beguinages, 20 still exist and many are now official UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Beguines in their habits
looked like nuns.

Medieval Women's Movement

The beguines have been called the first women's movement in Christian history and attracted attention from feminist writers in the late 20th century who framed the history of beguines as a gender struggle with misogynistic authority beating down feminine reason. I see a different dynamic at work. Certainly persecution played a part but something more basic than fear halted the spread of the beguine movement. The end of the Crusades, an improving economy, and a temporary gap between major outbreaks of the plague restored the balance in numbers of marriageable men and women. Fewer women turned to a life of chastity in a beguinage because they had more attractive alternatives. Those who were beguines had fewer reasons to stay after their friends and sisters left to marry or passed away. Since the population in the beguinages was not sustained the normal way&mdashby childbearing&mdashevangelizing and proselytizing were the only ways to maintain their numbers. Since theirs was a movement with no vows, rules, constitutions, or commitments&mdashonce they stopped preaching and living the vita apostolica&mdashthe glue that held it together was gone. However, it left behind a people who believed in freedom of worship and the possibility of a personal relationship with God. This ember of mysticism was not extinguished by the persecution, but continued to smolder in Germany, France, and Belgium until it finally burst into flame as the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

Michael Turtle

Honestly, I thought this (multi property) site would be a bit boring but I actually really enjoyed visiting a few of the places included in the listing. Not only do the beguinages have a really interesting history - they are actually quite photogenic!

There are 13 properties in the site and I don't feel like you need to see them all to get a good sense of the overall WHS. (Having said that, each is a bit different so you wouldn't get bored if you did want to visit every one of them.)

My favourite - and I would suggest not to miss it - is the Beguinage Bruges. The flowers and the trees in the central courtyard (see my photo) are really beautiful and it's a nice tranquil escape from the tourist crowds in the other parts of Bruges. mainly because there are signs telling people to keep their voices down! :)

If you're wondering which other beguinages to visit, I would suggest the one in Leuven, which is the biggest of them all. There are different streets you can walk down to see different elements of the complex and it's quite a different feel to the smaller ones.

I would also recommend heading to Ghent where there are two beguinages you can see. The older one in the city centre is much more picturesque, though.

As I said, I enjoyed see these more than I thought and, if you're travelling through Belgium to see other WHS, it's not that hard to visit a few of them on your way or with very little detour. If I was to go back and had a car (I was using public transport) I would probably try to even see a few more of them and learn a bit more about some of the personal stories from the earlier days.

Read more from Michael Turtle here.

The Grand Beguinage of Leuven, Belgium

On the central square in Leuven, Belgium (Bob Sessions photo)

In Leuven, Belgium, the Grand Beguinage preserves a nearly forgotten but important part of Christian history: a community of women who pioneered a new type of communal spirituality beginning in the twelfth century.

If you’re a beer lover, you may already have heard of Leuven, which prides itself on being the Beer Capital of Europe. I found it totally charming, with its cobblestone streets, cozy pubs, and Oude Markt (old market square). But what really captured my heart, to the point of wanting to move there, was a portion of the city known as the Grand Beguinage.

During the Middle Ages, a movement began of lay women who lived in loosely structured religious communities while serving the poor and sick. With many men killed in the Crusades or lost to the myriad dangers of medieval life, there were a lot of unattached women in Europe.

In the Low Countries of Holland and Belgium in particular, hundreds of Beguine communities formed. Their members did not make permanent vows and were not affiliated with any monastic order, but instead pledged more flexible vows that typically involved piety, simplicity, chastity and service to others. Some eventually left their communities, while others spent the remainder of their lives as Beguines.

A painting of Beguines by the Belgian artist Louis Tytgadt (Wikimedia Commons image)

These communities varied greatly in size, with some Beguines living alone and others residing in walled neighborhoods that housed a thousand or more women, typically in close proximity to a church. Those who did not come from wealthy families supported themselves by manual labor or teaching.

The Beguine movement flourished for centuries in Europe, despite drawing at times the ire of the official church. During an era when single women were highly vulnerable, these enclosed communities provided a safe haven as well as spiritual sustenance.

The Grand Beguinage in Leuven

The more I learn about the Beguines, the more I want to revive the order. What a splendid model they created, a kind of halfway point between monastic and secular life (I also love what the elected leaders of each community were called: The Grande Dame). Now there’s a title to aspire to.

And when I saw the digs these women had in Leuven–well, I was ready to sign up on the spot.

Even in a city full of picturesque neighborhoods, the Grand Beguinage of Leuven seems like it belongs in a fairy tale. The community was founded in the early-thirteenth century and at its height housed 300 women. Though their numbers gradually dwindled, Beguines lived here until the 1980s.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the enclosure is maintained by the University of Leuven, which uses it as a residence facility for students, professors and visitors. Thankfully, the public is welcome to stroll through the area, which is exactly what we did on a brisk November afternoon, marveling at its canals, foot bridges, small brick homes with steeply pitched roofs, and winding cobblestone streets.

Where I daydream of living in the Grand Beguinage of Leuven (Bob Sessions photo)

My new home is pictured above. In the event that my husband goes off to the Crusades (unlikely, I realize, but one never knows), I daydream of moving into this little cottage by the canal, a block away from an equally charming church and hopefully with a group of like-minded women friends. It’s not that I don’t like men-–some of my best friends have a Y chromosome-–but I think it must have been a wonderful existence for those Beguines.

Living in community, supporting each other, and serving the poor, they always had someone to talk to and someone to care for them. And while I haven’t been able to find historical evidence for this, I’m almost certain that many of them kept cats. Certainly the neighborhood is made for them.

Let me leave you with part of an obituary that The Economist published on Marcella Pattyn, the last Beguine, who died on April 14, 2013:

In her energy and willpower she was typical of Beguines of the past. Their writings—in their own vernacular, Flemish or French, rather than men’s Latin—were free-spirited and breathed defiance. “Men try to dissuade me from everything Love bids me do,” wrote Hadewijch of Antwerp. “They don’t understand it, and I can’t explain it to them. I must live out what I am.”

Prous Bonnet saw Christ, the mystical bridegroom of all Beguines, opening his heart to her like rays blazing from a lantern. But a Beguine who was blind [as was Pattyn] could take comfort in knowing … that Love’s light also lay within her…

When she was known to be the last, Marcella Pattyn became famous. The mayor and aldermen of [her home city of] Courtrai visited her, called her a piece of world heritage, and gave her Beguine-shaped chocolates and champagne, which she downed eagerly…The story of the Beguines, she confessed, was very sad, one of swift success and long decline. They had caught the medieval longing for apostolic simplicity, lay involvement and mysticism that also fired St Francis but the male clergy, unable to control them, attacked them as heretics and burned some alive. With the Protestant Reformation the order almost vanished with the French revolution their property was lost, and they struggled to recover. In the high Middle Ages a city like Ghent could count its Beguines in thousands. At Courtrai in 1960 Sister Marcella was one of only nine scattered among 40 neat white houses, sleeping in snowy linen in their narrow serge-curtained beds. And then there were none.

Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.

Case Studies - Beguinages - The Netherlands

Case study: Begijnhof, Sittard, The Netherlands

Type of institution for collective action

Name of city or specified area

Further specification location (e.g. borough, street etc.)

The beguinage was destroyed during the eighteenth century, and its exact location is somewhat of a debate. Probably it was situated on the south end of the Begijnenstraat, on the west side, cornering the Limbrichterstraat and the Begijnenhofstraat.

For location on Google Maps, click here.

Foundation/start of institution, date or year

Foundation year: is this year the confirmed year of founding or is this the year this institution is first mentioned?

Description of Act of foundation

Year of termination of institution

Before 1584? See also underneath.

Year of termination: estimated or confirmed?

Act regarding termination present?

Description Act of termination

Recognized by local government?

Yes one of the benefits the beguines received was the exemption of city taxes, as mentioned in their foundation act. The city council thus seemed to have protected the ladies of the beguinage.

Concise history of institution

From the founding act of the beguinage it becomes clear that the beguines were living in a house ( domus ) at the time of their first official mention. The beguinage, therefore, was quite small, and the ladies must have shared their living areas.

There is no further mentioning of the beguines during the sixteenth century. Only in 1584 there is a mention of the beginhauss which, at that time, is no longer an actual beguinage. Van Luyn draws the conclusion that the beguinage must have kept some of its function during the sixteenth century, by offering a habitat for unmarried women, orphans and widows.

Special events? Highs and lows? Specific problems or problematic periods?

  • 1276: Founding by lady of Montjoie
  • 1329: First beguine is mentioned by name: Mechtild. She had an income from a rent placed on a house on the market square in Sittard. This rent went to the chapel after Mechtild passed. Fifteen years later another rent was granted to Mechtild, which was also inherited by the chapel.

Numbers of members (specified)

Membership attainable for every one, regardless of social class or family background?

There has been mention of a second beguinage, founded in 1411, one that was set up for poor beguines . The municipal council received an inheritance from Lord Huprecht and his wife Kathrijne who left their house and a rent-charge as an inheritance for five poor beguines . These women would be appointed by the mayor, the aldermen, and the master of the hospital of Sittard, in accordance with the pastor. The difference with the earlier mentioned beguinage is that the authorities had much more to say about this one, and that the beguines that were professed were poor.

The Obituarium , or the death records, mentions three beguines by name this is an indication of their relative wealth, because being mentioned in an obituarium was something reserved for benefactors of the beguinage.

Specific conditions for obtaining membership? (Entrance fee, special tests etc.)

The beguines were obliged to contribute to the beguinage, which indicates that they had to have some estate.

Specific reasons regarding banning members from the institution?

When a beguine was living her life in a promiscuous way (‘mit offenbare fame mit mannen’), she could be expelled.

The communal life would have entailed some benefits for single women in the Middle Ages. The fact that their estate was left in their own possession made the beguinages an attractive option compared to convents.

The foudation act contained the statutes of the beguinage:

  • Relatives of the beguines could only be allowed to enter the beguinage after consulting with the other beguines the mistress ( magistra ) and the convent needed to grant permission.
  • If a beguine wanted to leave the beguinage she could no longer have part in the beguinage or anything that belonged to it. Also, any contributions she had made to the maintenance of the house would not be returned.
  • When a beguine knew she would pass away within a short period, she was not allowed to leave her house – mansion – to another beguine without the permission of the mistress and the convent of the house.
  • Furthermore, the women had to take a vow (temporary, not eternal) of obedience to their mistress and a vow of chastity.
  • Van Luyn, P.B.N., 1995. Begijnhuis en Begijnstraat. In: Historisch Jaarboek voor het Land van Zwentibold , ed. Stichting Historisch Jaarboek voor het Land van Zwentibold, 14-36.
  • Euregionaal Historisch Centrum Sittard-Geleen
    • Bestuursarchief Gemeente  Sittard, 1243-1794,   t  o  e  g  a  n  g 163, in     v. nr. 1238: Foundation act with statutes.
    • Archief van het Kapittel van Sint Pieter te Sittard, toegang 14B004, inv.nr. 7: Cartularium, regest 16.

    Links to further information on case study:

    Data collection: Aart Vos, Municipal archive (Stadsarchief) 's Hertogenbosch

    Grand Béguinage

    The Grand Béguinage of Leuven is a well preserved and completely restored historical quarter containing a dozen of streets in the south of downtown Leuven. With some 300 apartments in almost 100 houses, it is one of the largest still existing beguinages in the Low Countries. It is owned by the University of Leuven and used as a campus, especially for housing students and academic guests.

    As a community for unmarried, semi-religious women (Béguine), this béguinage originated in the early 13th century. The oldest written documents date back from 1232. A Latin inscription on the church mentions 1234 as founding date. The community is presumably a few decades older. Local historians from the 16th century, including Justus Lipsius, mention 1205 as founding date. Just like other béguinages in Flanders, the béguinage in Leuven had a first golden age in the 13th century, and difficult times during the religious conflicts in the 16th century. One of the priests of this béguinage was Adriaan Florensz Boeyens, spiritual tutor of the infant Charles V and later known as pope Adrian VI.

    From the end of the 16th century, and especially after the Twelve Years&apos Truce in 1621, the Béguinage had a second flourishing period, culminating near the last quarter of the 17th century and continuing afterwards, albeit in a gradual decline, until the invasion of the anti-religious French Revolutionarists. The peak in entries occurred in the period 1650-1670, when the number of beguines reached 360. Near 1700, the number had already fallen back to 300, due to Nine Years War and diseases. By the mid of the 18th century, the number of béguines was further reduced to approximately 250. The sudden increase in entries, followed by a long period of gradual decline, explains the homogeneity in the architectural style of the houses, most of which were constructed in the years 1630-1670.

    After the invasion of the French revolutionaries, the béguinage of Leuven was not sold as bien national, as happened with most monasteries and abbeys. The properties of the community were, however, confiscated and attributed to the local welfare commission and reorganised as civil almshouses. Beguines were allowed to continue to live in their houses but free rooms were rented to elderly and poor people. Some former clerics lived on their mandatory pension in the béguinage, among them the last prior of the abbey of Villers.

    The last priest of the Beguine community died in 1977 at the age of 107. He is buried in the graveyard of Park Abbey. The last Beguine died in 1988.

    After more than 150 years in use by the local welfare commission and being inhabited by people not financially able to maintain the dwellings, the place was in deplorable state in 1960. The restoration proceeded in two phases. The majority of the streets were restored in the 1960s and 1970s. The church and the street next to it were restored in 1980&aposs. The large scale restoration project of an entire quarter, and according to the principles of the Venice Charter was an important momentum in the popularity of béguinages and traditional architecture in general. In 1998, it was officially recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

    The Grand Béguinage of Leuven has the appearance of a small town on its own, with houses planned along a network of narrow streets and small squares. This is in contrast to the béguinages of Bruges and Amsterdam, where all houses face a central courtyard. The only large greenyard, on the left river bank, resulted from the demolition of some houses in the 19th century. Five houses date back from the 16th century, three of which still show timber framing. The house of Chièvres was built in 1561, in accordance with the will of Maria van Hamal, widow of William de Croÿ, duke of Aarschot and advisor in political affairs of Emperor Charles V. The characteristic tented roof with the onion-shaped top, refers to the two towers of the duke&aposs castle in Heverlee (today known as Arenberg Castle).

    The majority of the houses dates back from the period 1630-1670. They were constructed in the local, traditional architecture, enriched with some sober, baroque elements. The facades show red bricks with sandstone cross-bar frames for windows and doors. A typical element in the beguinage of Leuven are the numerous dormers, often elaborated with crow-stepped gables and round arched windows. Many houses have strikingly few and small windows on the ground floor. The beguines were keen on their privacy. Houses with large windows on the ground floor used to be hidden by an additional wall, as is still the case in other beguinages.

    The church is an early Gothic basilica with Romanesque elements. As usual for mendicant orders or women&aposs congregations, it has no tower, only a flèche. Since 1998, this flèche has carried a small carillon, which plays a béguine-related melody every half an hour. The east end of the church has a strikingly tall 14th century quire window, whose upper part illuminates the attic above the groin vault constructed in the 17th century. The arcades separating nave from aisles carry Baroque statues of the twelve apostles, Mary and Saint Joseph with the holy child.

    Watch the video: Leben als Begine: Gemeinsam unabängig. Man Müsste Mal (January 2022).