Thirteen Flemish beguinages have been listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites

23/07/2019

In their heyday they were a place of great devotion, modesty, not to mention material activity. These days, when crossing the paved streets, squares and grass in most beguinages, you will find beautiful architecture, an enchanting atmosphere and tremendous tranquillity.

The Church suffered a severe crisis after the Treaty of Verdun in 843. Gradual recovery only began in the 11th century. At the same time a new spirituality emerged. Crusaders from the East brought tales of anchorites, hermits leading reclusive lives in remote places. However, many did not return from the crusades, which caused a great surplus of women in our regions. Here lie the early origins of the burgeoning beguine movement. Women inspired by an apostolic and evangelical ideal entered a small cloister, generally adjoining a church or hospice. Food and drink was passed to them through a tiny hatch. Here they were able to focus on religious enlightenment and renunciation.

Medieval society offered few opportunities for unmarried women and widows. In the early 13th century, the cloisters were full and, in the end, there were just not enough of them. Like-minded women gradually looked to each other for support and teamed up, for example in a shared home, where they could dedicate themselves to a charitable cause. They did not wish to forsake the secular state entirely. The Church was suspicious of such unfettered and therefore rather uncontrollable laywomen. In order to prevent a lapse of faith, it issued a ban in 1215, which led to the disappearance of the beguine movement in almost all of Europe. This includes what is now Wallonia, where the movement actually began in the episcopal principality of Liege. However, today's Flanders, or more specifically the old Earldom of Flanders and Duchy of Brabant, escaped such a ban. The movement survived and even flourished. Why? Because the clear urbanisation in these areas had already put an end to the nomadic and unstructured existence of the beguines. Furthermore, the bishops in the Southern Netherlands praised the orthodox nature of the beguines in their diocese. Finally, the loose co-habitation evolved into walled enclosures ‘towns within towns’, as independent parishes with their own rules, rights, possessions, revenue and priest.

Over the centuries, the success of beguine existence fluctuated along with the rhythm of illness, war, economic decline, and periods of peace and prosperity. The Counter-Reformation in the 17th century marked the beginning of the final great flourish, with many court donations and a spectacular rise in the number of new members. Stone houses replaced those made of wattle and daub; many Gothic churches were given an exuberant Baroque interior. Nowadays, most beguinages are used for social-cultural purposes.

In 2013, the world's very last beguine, Marcella Pattyn, died in Kortrijk at the age of 92.

13 beguinages: Brugge, Dendermonde, Diest, Gent (Klein Begijnhof), Hoogstraten, Kortrijk, Leuven (Groot Begijnhof), Lier, Mechelen (Groot Begijnhof), Sint-Amandsberg, Sint-Truiden, Tongeren, Turnhout