A beguinage (from the French béguinage) is an architectural complex which was housing beguines. They were mainly built in Flanders and the Netherlands, but there are few in North-East France and North-West Germany.
History and structure of the beguinages
Entering a beguinage is like stepping back in time. The original atmosphere is often the same as many centuries ago, when they were still in use.
A beguinage usually included an inner court, houses facing this garden and a church, or a chapel. There were often walls surrounding the entire complex, separating it from the rest of the town and one or two gates to get in. Some would also include a convent or an infirmary.
Beguinages were built around the XIII century and generally abandoned in the XIX-XX century. They are are nowadays almost always UNESCO sites, Their maintenance and look is protected and conserved as pieces of art. And their houses are often considered trendy areas where artists live.
Who were the beguines?
The term beguine has an uncertain etymology. It could come from the enemies of a priest from Liege, or from the daughter of a nobleman of Landen, or again from the word beggen.
It was surely used to address those ladies that lived in a beguinage.
Wars and military campaigns in the middle ages were causes of a disparity between men and women in many European countries. Widows and unmarried young ladies found themselves in the difficult situation of being without a family which could take care of them. It seems that for this reason the movements of the beguines started. These women though, were not part of a religious order like nuns. They were catholic but they would serve the church without taking vows.
Beguines could come from every social background, even though most of them belonged to the poorest classes. The few from the middle class or from rich families could live in a house that could be small but it was just for themselves. The others, usually funded by a patron, lived in community, sharing the houses and the daily life.
Many beguines worked to support themselves. They could teach or do some manual work like knitting or cooking. The rest of the time was dedicated to prayer and life in common with the other women.
Beguinages in Flanders and the Netherlands
The most famous beguinages are in the Netherlands and in Flanders, in the north of Belgium. Here, every single town has, or had, at least one. For those who are visiting Bruges, Leuven, Ghent, Amsterdam or Antwerp, beguinages are a must see!
The 3 beguinages of Ghent
Ghent has two beguinages in town and another one in the hinterland. The Old Beguinage of Saint Elizabeth (Oud Begijnhof Sint-Elisabeth) has lost its original walls; it’s now one thing with the rest of the city even though it kept its typical look with white brick houses. In 1873, beguines moved outside Ghent in the new bigger beguinage of Saint Elizabeth (Groot Begijnhof Sint-Elisabeth). This second beguinage managed to host 600 women at the same time! The third one, the Small Beguinage of Our Lady ter Hoyen (Klein Begijnhof Onze-Lieve-Vrouw ter Hoyen), is almost on the way from the train station to down-town, but slightly out of the classic tourist itineraries. Built in 1235, It’s a UNESCO world site beautifully maintained within the original walls. Quiet and peaceful, I think it deserves a visit!
The most visited beguinage: Bruges
This one is probably one of the most famous, thanks to a perfect location close to both all the touristic attractions and the Bruges train station. Well preserved despite the amount of daily tourists, it has a central court and a church. All the houses face this inner garden and in one of them a house-museum is beautifully set up. For a couple of euros you can visit a few rooms prepared as if a beguine was still living in them and an exhibition of daily life objects.
Bruges beguinage is nowadays inhabited by nuns.
The smallest beguinage: Bruxelles
The beguinage in Bruxelles is made up of two houses from the XVI and XVIII century, facing a courtyard and with a view on Saint Peter and Saint Guidon. Eight beguines lived in this place and the museum shows the daily life of these women.
Isolation: the beguinage of Amsterdam
As famous and visited as the one in Bruges, Amsterdam beguinage is an architectural jewel. It was originally surrounded not only by walls, but by the canals too. The entrance used to be a bridge, but nowadays there’s a more handy gate to give access to the inner garden and the church.
This beguinage has an interesting history. In 1578, when Amsterdam turned Calvinist, practicing any other religion was forbidden. But since its houses were actually private properties, the beguinage had a special status of freedom. Its real churchwas officially closed down, but in 1671 two of the houses were reshaped into a chapel. It perfectly worked as a well hidden underground church thanks to the fact that all those buildings had no windows towards the city but only to the inner courtyard. .
The last beguine: Kortrijk beguinage
Kortrijk has a small beguinage in the heart of the old town. Here lived Marcella Pattyn, considered the very last beguine. She died in 2013 when she was 92 year old.
The peace of the beguinage: Antwerp
Not far from the old city centre, the huge beguinage of Antwerp has a beautiful garden with plenty of trees. Like in many other, within the walls you’re required to keep fairly quiet. But in Antwerp, in this garden, it’s even forbidden the use of mobile phones!
Manteinance of a beguinage: Mechelen
It’s complicated to maintain an ancient and extended complex, daily visited by many tourists. Beguinages are often protected by rigid rules, sometimes even international rules, if the site is under UNESCO control. Some have been renovated in the past, privately or with public funding. Others are waiting for permits. Keeping the traditional old look of the place it’s an expensive and it also needs a consistent local and national intervention plan.
Mechelen beguinage has been one of the first to receive public money and it’s been largely renovated. Not far from the centre of the town, it definitely deserves a visit.
The unexpected: Lier beguinage
Lier is a small town, mostly unknown to most tourists that travel to Belgium. I think it deserves better fame because, besides the fact that it comfortably sits a few minutes train trip from Antwerp, it’s really pretty. It’s a perfect day-trip destination for Belgian tourism off the beaten path.
For such a small town, Lier beguinage is surprisingly big and perfectly kept. It has two gates, a church, a convent (which had also functioned as an orphanage), two main streets and many as 162 houses.