Beguines – One of the Oldest Women’s Movement

I learned about Beguinages for the first time last year while visiting Delft, Netherlands. It wasn’t called a Beguinage, rather Klaeushofje in Dutch (a courtyard of 12 houses for Catholic single women), established in 1605. I had no idea that it was part of an order, or something important in world history. The courtyard was not a large one but it had small apartments surrounded by gardens that are open to public. I was just thrilled to visit a courtyard that was originally built in 1605 and still retained the ancient essence of that era.

Klaeushofje in Delft

Cut to 2021 – we made a day trip from Brussels to another ancient city in Belgium – Leuven, just 26 kms away. As I always research a bit before a trip, Leuven seemed to be insistent on a visit of the Grand Beguinage (Groot Begijnhof). Intrigued at having learned a new term, I looked up Beguinages on the internet. The extent of history that came up is stunning and awe-inspiring.

The Beguine movement started in the 12th century when single women (unmarried/widowed) decided to form a community and live in a semi-religious environment. Women were supposed to live and be cared for by their father/brother, husband or son. The only other choice they had was to become a nun. Doesn’t the first part sound pretty familiar even in the 21st century in most parts of the world? However, at the beginning of the 12th century, single women in the ‘low countries’ (Netherlands, Flanders, Belgium) had few options to survive in the patriarchal society. The convents were mostly full and could not accommodate most of them. They started to devote their life to serve the poor and work for the society without taking religious vows. A new lay religious order was created under Christianity, termed Beguines. They were pious and religious but weren’t bound by the rules of the convent. The Beguines could leave the order at any point of time and get married to start a family. It was more of a spiritual order than a religious one. Some Beguinages were built by the local town officials while others were built by the Christian authorities to house these women. The Beguinages are a beautiful example of communal living by, for and of women. They were architectural marvels as well. The structure included huge open spaces, gardens and cobbled pathways around each house/apartment. The houses were very similarly constructed to each other to impart that community vibe. Bit of utopian socialism in the 13th century, eh? But like every other movement, the Beguines declined since the Council of Vienne by the Catholic church in 1312. Their ambiguous religious status created confusion in the society and in some regions, Beguines were termed obnoxiously religious as well. Marguerite Porete, a mystic Beguine was burned in Paris in 1310 on charges of heresy. Most Beguine orders were absorbed into Christianity hence but some of them survived, especially in Belgium and Netherlands. The last traditional Beguine passed away in 2013 in Kortrijk, Belgium.

We made it a point not to miss the Grand Beguinage in Leuven. It was established in 1232 and is one of the oldest Beguinages in Western Europe. The gate mentions the date it was built and leads to the St. John’s the Baptist Church post the entrance.

Gateway to the Grand Beguinage

None of the oldest houses exist in the Beguinage now. They were demolished and rebuilt in the 16th century during the religious upheaval. There are around 100 houses nestled within 12 alleyways that surround them, including bridges on a narrow portion of river Dijle. It is almost a little town in its own right. I particularly love the local and traditional Flemish Baroque architecture from the 16th-17th century, that is evident in these houses. There are hand pumps and wells from bygone eras that remind of the life Beguines had.

Baroque houses from 16th century
Hand pump

This Beguinage was in dire state in the 196os as the inhabitants couldn’t maintain the ancient houses in their deplorable financial state. The Catholic University of Leuven purchased the property and restored the houses. They turned quite a few apartments into housing for students and visiting professors. The premise is accessible for public viewing but most of the houses are private now. The site was announced as a U|NESCO World Heritage site in 1998.

One of the old houses

Did you know? One of the most famous personalities of the Beguine order was Dorothy Day, the American journalist, anarchist and activist?

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon