Frankie (my sister) told me about the ‘Begijnhof’ that she visited in Leuven some years ago; sounded interesting so I thought I’d find out a more whilst we are in Belgium …….
The terms begijnhof (used in Flemish part of Belgium) & béguinage (used in French part of Belgium) relate to the areas where women who were part of an early women’s movement lived; there are begijnhofs / béguinages in many Belgian & Dutch towns – many now are major tourist attractions. We visited several and I thought this would make for an interesting blog.
The origin of the Béguine movement is debated, but, around 1150, groups of women (eventually called Beguines) began living together for the purposes of economic self-sufficiency and a religious vocation. The Béguine lifestyle swept across Europe during the 12th & 13th centuries. It is believed to have begun by the widows of the Crusaders. These women resorted to a pious life of sisterhood following the death of their husbands, rather than accept another husband (if indeed one could be found) or return to live under their father’s roof. Some came with their children. Single women also opted to join; some could not find, or perhaps did not want, a husband or to be dependent on their families. All these women sought an independent, secluded existence devoted to charitable deeds, but not bound by formal religious vows.
Around 1230 these holy women had started to be called “béguines”, a term that was most likely initially used pejoratively, but whose original meaning is lost to history (sometimes attributed to Saint Begga patron saint of beggars, but not universally accepted). Some of these groups of women formed separate, walled communities called begijnhofs or béguinages outside the city walls. The biggest béguinages housed thousands of single women, a remarkable feat in medieval Europe.
The Béguines committed to chastity & to live by the rules of the community but they did not commit to poverty and they could leave at any time, unlike those taking religious vows. Many were quite well off, and could support themselves; others worked in order to pay their way and to live independently.
In the beginning, clerical attitudes towards Beguines were ambivalent. The groups were religious and the women were dedicated to chastity and charity, which could not be condemned in any way. The fact that they existed, and existed without men, (except for priests and confessors to lead them) was suspect to the ecclesiastical hierarchy. For this and other reasons, many Beguines came to be known as heretics and were persecuted as such. Though they were never an approved religious order, they were at one point granted special privileges and exemptions customary for approved orders. The Church, however, did not approve of their lack of permanent vows. Women were not supposed to have that much freedom! What is particularly interesting about the Beguines, unlike most who were considered heretics, these women considered themselves orthodox, but still Béguines. Some strongly identified themselves as such and while in court testified to that effect, demonstrating self-identification with the group. Yet the group was diverse and is hard to define. This diversity was due in part to the geographical distribution as well as to the individual autonomy of each community.
The last béguine Marcella Pattyn died in 2013, and with her the movement that had lasted for hundreds of years.
Béguinages, now empty of béguines, still exist in most Belgian and Dutch cities, with their medieval houses, tight alleyways and bleached walls. The béguinages where the béguines lived and prayed – ‘cities of peace with architectural & urban qualities’ – have become centres of tourism, and oases of peace in the heart of bustling cities. Many have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.
Adrian and I have tried to visit the Béguinages in the various Belgian cities we have visited. At each one we see different things and learn more about that particular Béguinage and the life of the women who lived there.
The first major Béguinage we visited was at Turnhout.
Founded before 1340; UNESCO World Heritage site 1998.
You could see that this was originally situated outside the city walls. Unfortunately the area was undergoing major works when we were there, so that the general feeling of the place was affected. Most of the houses here are occupied (general housing) and the Church at the centre is still a focal point. There is a lovely little museum which we visited and got talking to the Chairman of the League of Friends. He was extremely knowledgeable, passionate and welcoming.
The women here decided the rules by which they lived, elected their Mother Superior and supported themselves by developing various cottage industries – laundering the ecclesiastical robes of all the surrounding parishes; making the communion wafers (both large and small) for the area (there was even an estimate of the number they made!); lace making; providing education to local poor children and, of course, caring for the sick.
The béguinage covers quite a large area with a wide courtyard & the Church towards one end. The museum is housed within a pastor’s house & aims to show how the béguines lived, supported themselves and practised their faith. The last Mother Superior died in 2002.
Outside what would have been the mediaeval town walls a network of narrow twisting streets with a convent and Church. Many of the old houses and the convent were being renovated. Lier lace making (cross between embroidery and crochet) was one of the main industries and it is still practised by a local group of enthusiasts.
The béguinage area is a thriving, slightly off beat part of the city! Weekly flea markets take place through the twisting streets and a central attraction is the Het Anker brewery which was started by the béguines in 1369, and was their major form of income! Now brews Carolus beers …. and whiskey!
Ghent – Béguinage of Our Lady at Hoyen
There are 3 béguinages around Ghent. We visited the ‘small béguinage’ – it was huge! Entered through a stone archway off a fairly main street, you come into a large, walled, open, peaceful area. The béguinage was started in 1235.
The oldest part is the courtyard, with baroque Church and surrounding houses & convents with walled front gardens. Streets around this area were added later and have now been renovated for social housing and much work continues.
Beside the kanaal & ‘pool of love’ the béguinage is arranged around a large courtyard with spectacular plane trees & the Church. Unusually there is an order of nuns still living here and they have adopted the béguines’ style of head dress.
A museum is housed in a corner house complete with small cloister and well.
Strange to hear the tourist boats running up & down the just outside the window!