Flemish Beguinages (World Heritage)

The Beguines were members of a lay movement of women who dedicated their lives to God and charitable work. 13 Flemish beguinages in Bruges, Tongeren, Mechelen, Lier and Kortrijk, among others, are on the World Heritage List. The oldest originated in the 13th century, some were inhabited by beguines until the 20th century.

Flemish beguinages: facts

Official title: Flemish beguinages
Cultural monument: Beguinages in Hoogstraten, Lier, Mechelen (Great Beguinage) and Turnhout (all Province of Antwerp), Sint-Truiden and Tongeren (Province of Limburg), in the Province of Oost-Vlaanderen in Dendermonde and Gent (Small Beguinage and Beguinage of Sint-Amandsberg), in Leuven (Great Beguinage) and in Diest (Province of Vlaams-Brabant) as well as in Bruges and Kortrijk (Province of West-Vlaanderen)
Continent: Europe
Country: Belgium, Flanders
Location: Hoogstraten, Lier, Mechelen, Turnhout, Sint-Truiden, Tongeren, Dendermonde, Gent, Leuven, Diest, Bruges and Kortrijk
Appointment: 1998
Meaning: Examples of a community of pious women mainly found in the Netherlands

Flemish Beguinages: History

1242 Foundation of the beguinage in Kortrijk
1259-1578 Large Mechelen Beguinage outside the city walls
1288 Foundation of the St. Alexius Beguinage in Dendermonde
1311 Prohibition of the Beguin Movement by Pope Clement V.
1318 Revocation of the ban by Pope John XXII.
1340 first written mention of the Turnhout beguinage
1372 by decree of the Duchess Maria von Brabant exemption of the beguines from all encumbrances
1798 Dissolution of the beguinages
1873-75 Construction of the neo-Gothic beguinage in Sint-Amandsberg
1960 Restoration of the Great Beguinage of Leuven begins

Wash, bleach and pray

Wishful thinking or truth? To this day it is doubtful whether the »religious women’s union« of the Beguines – established in the 12th century to distinguish it from the nunneries – can actually be traced back to St. Begga, who founded a monastery in Andenne as early as 961. If you go through the entrance gates of the beguinages of Lier and Kortrijk, you will, however, pass by the stone-carved holy Begga. Some experts, however, derive the name of this women’s community, which was founded in the Middle Ages, from the originally beige clothing of the beguines. In many cases, the name is also understood as a mockery and insult that heretics were given. It can be ruled out – despite the sound of words – that a mendicant order came into being here: the Beguines were often very wealthy.

They were an extraordinary community of women: widowed and single women came together – at times even without papal blessings – to form a religious community. Initially scattered across the cities and living in their own houses, they only met for common prayer. In addition to a vow of obedience, the Beguines committed themselves to chastity – it is remarkable that these obligations could be withdrawn at any time. In contrast to the customs of monastic life, the beguines were allowed to live outside the beguinage or to leave the women’s association entirely in order to return to a bourgeois life. If a Beguine wanted to marry at all, she could do so without social ostracism.

The doors of the houses and the gates of the beguinages were open from sunrise to sunset. Even today, if at all, the gates of the beguinages, which are now used as residential facilities for the elderly and the socially disadvantaged or, as in Leuven, as part of the university, are only closed at night.

Beguines were free to dispose of their belongings, including any land. A vow of poverty was alien to them; rather, they sought to make a good living. So they wove linen, made bobbin lace and crocheted lace, washed and bleached laundry. They also taught the girls entrusted to them, the so-called “residential children”. Relief for the poor and nursing the sick were also among their chosen tasks. Each beguinage was sovereign and had a headmistress elected from among the beguines, called “Grande Dame” or “Groote Juffrouw”; larger courts such as the Great Beguinage in Leuven even had four grandes dames.

The respective courtyards consisted of the residential houses of the beguines, the convent for the new beguines, the residence of the grande dame, the infirmary for the nursing of the sick and the “panel for the Holy Spirit”, which served to care for the poor. In addition to the typical courtyards around a church – as in Lier and Tongeren – street beguinages were designed. The Beguines were well known not only for their extensive “good deeds”; They have also found their way into literature thanks to Felix Timmermans, the “local poet” from Lier, who described the beguinages as a romantic idyll. According to programingplease, there are now no active beguines in Belgium, where the beguines were ecclesiastically organized. The last Beguine died in 2013 in Kortrijk in an old people’s home. However, as part of the women’s movement, various modern “beguinages” were founded as a form of self-determined coexistence in women’s communities. They tie in with the social model of the Beguines, but without emphasizing the Christian-religious aspect.

Flemish Beguinages (World Heritage)