The Begijnhofs

So here’s another cool feature about the Low Countries that I want to share with you.

Those would be the Begijnhofs. Until the eighteenth century, most cities and large towns throughout Holland, Belgium, and northern France had a least one begijnhof. The Beguines (the French word for begijnhof is béguinage) were lay religious orders of the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. These women were not nuns, and the communities they lived in were not convents. They did not take vows of poverty — some of them had servants. They did not marry while they lived in community, but were free to leave at any time. They supported themselves by teaching or by working as labourers. And they lived in houses surrounded by a walled courtyard (hof is Dutch for “court”). The gates were locked at night, and the community usually included a church and sometimes an infirmary.

One of the reasons these communities came about was simply due to the demographics in Europe at that time: there were more women than men. But also, living in community like this offered these women freedom and independence and choice in how they lived — basic rights that today we all take for granted.

I was introduced to the Amsterdam Begijnhof a long time ago by my Dutch cousin. Amsterdam is full of hofjes, most of which are private, but this one — one of the city’s oldest, dating back to the fourteenth century — is open to the public.

The Begijnhof was allowed to continue to exist as a Catholic institution during Calvinist rule because the homes were private property. The Beguines lost their chapel, however, and today it is the English Reformed Church. Later, they built a “hidden church.” (For the period of time when Catholic churches were banned in Protestant Amsterdam, Catholics built their churches behind the façades of regular houses. From the outside, they look like ordinary houses, but on the inside, they look just like a church.)

One curious fact about the Begijnhof: it is at medieval street level, which is about a metre below the rest of the city. What I also find particularly curious is how its entrance backs onto the Kalverstraat, one of the city’s busiest shopping streets. The last Beguine died in 1971, but the Begijnhof continues to be occupied by about 100 women.

It was my familiarity with the Amsterdam Begijnhof that led me to explore the ones in Belgium. The Prinselijk Begijnhof Ten Wijngaerde (Princely Beguinage of the Vineyard) is located next to Brugge’s Minnewater. Dating back to the mid-thirteenth century, it is one of the best-preserved begijnhofs in the country. You enter it through this gate.

It contains a church and about 30 white painted houses.

For the last 90 years, it has been the residence of a community of Benedictine nuns.

The Oude Begijnhof in Gent, also built during the mid-thirteenth century, is no longer walled. During the French Revolution, the city acquired property rights to the Begijnhof and then, in the eighteenth century, it wanted to take it over to use as housing for labourers. The Beguines moved to a new purpose-built begijnhof in the suburbs. The houses in the original begijnhof became worn and run-down, but were eventually restored in the twentieth century.

None of the original medieval houses are still standing in any of the begijnhofs throughout Belgium and Holland, although the layout of the communities remains essentially the same. Wooden houses were rebuilt in brick or stone from the sixteenth century onward. An exception is the single wooden house in the Amsterdam Begijnhof (the oldest wooden house in the centre of Amsterdam and one of only two still standing).

What I find fascinating about the begijnhofs is the witness they bear to a long tradition of women living independently in times when few were permitted to do so. As communities, they developed an architectural style of their own, which fortunately has been preserved.

And for the tourist overwhelmed by the chaos of central Amsterdam or on a whistle-stop tour of Belgium, they are a welcome oasis from the hustle and bustle of a tourist-overrun city.

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