When in Belgium or the Netherlands, it’s always worth popping into a begijnhof or two. William Makepeace Thackeray put it nicely in 1840…
“Before you is a red church with a tall roof and fantastical Dutch pinnacles, and all around it rows upon rows of small houses, the queerest, neatest, nicest that ever were seen (a doll’s house is hardly smaller or prettier).’’
Ghent’s Begijnhof is still as queer, neat and nice as ever, and now has UNESCO world heritage listing to boot.
The Recommended Walking Route in any decent Belgian town, and lots of Dutch ones too, always includes the local begijnhof. Visitors who take the trouble to pass through the arched gate in the wall find chocolate box photo opportunities everywhere.
The Begijnhof is the community of houses where the Beguines formerly lived. They were devout single women who took vows of obedience and chastity but, unlike nuns, didn’t renounce worldly goods, and brought their own possessions to the begijnhof. Not all were needy. Some well-to-do women joined the movement, with the prospect of living in one of the better houses of the complex, and maybe being elected ‘grootjuffrouw’ or ‘grand-dame’ of the place. Vows were temporary, and beguines were free to leave if ever they decided they’d had enough of it all. They were thus not totally or permanently withdrawn from the world.
Predictably, independent women were not always flavour of the month with the established church. Beguines were regularly threatened and persecuted, but it was hard to justify opposition to these devout women, and they often found powerful sponsors to protect them. Moreover, by working together, particularly in the textile trade, the beguines could achieve a measure of financial self-reliance.
Today there are very few beguines still alive, and beguinages have been turned over to other uses – student accommodation in university town Leuven, a centre for those with mental disabilities in Diksmuiden, and the Begijnhof in Turnhout now mostly houses the elderly.
Visitors are welcome on weekdays but residents get a break from the tourist trickle at weekends. We like the little churches and gardens, but also the sense of community and shared space. When we’ve enjoyed a little quiet time out, like the beguines of old, free to leave at any time, we step under the arch and go back to the real world.
World Heritage-listed Belgian beguinages are in the towns of Hoogstraten, Lier, Mechelen, Turnhout, Sint-Truiden, Tongeren, Dendermonde, Ghent, Sint-Amandsberg, Diest, Leuven, Bruges and Kortrijk.