Begijnhof Diest.

In the early 17th century the old loam houses of the Diest béguinage were replaced with stone houses. The béguinage in 2021 | Evelien Impens

Meaning & Religion
13th century
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Women Join Forces

Today béguinages (begijnhoven) are oases of calm in many towns. The oldest date back to the 13th century. From the late 12th century on groups of unmarried religious women, called béguines, started to live together in towns. First in a collective dwelling called a convent, later also in houses around a courtyard. Convents were found everywhere in Western Europe, béguinages mainly in the Low Countries.

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Up to now some thirty béguinages have been preserved. Most are still recognisable in the urban tissue, since they have kept their walls and medieval ground plan. The preserved houses date mainly from the 17th century. You no longer find béguines in them today. The last Flemish béguine lived in the béguinage of Kortrijk until 2005. Béguinages now have a social function, housing museums and other cultural institutions and offer residents and visitors a quiet space in town. In 1998 UNESCO recognised the béguinages of Bruges, Dendermonde, Diest, Ghent, Ghent Sint-Amandsberg, Hoogstraten, Kortrijk, Leuven, Lier, Mechelen, Sint-Truiden, Tongeren and Turnhout as world heritage sites.

Augusta Seurynck.

Stad Kortrijk

Superintendent Augusta Seurynck (1895-1979) was in charge for a while of the béguinage in Kortrijk, 1974.

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Women Join Forces

In the late Middle Ages many people looked for new ways of professing their faith. From the end of the 12th century unmarried women and widows settled near a church or monastery to work and pray together. They followed the example of a few well-known, charismatic women, who tried to live simply and piously, ‘in imitation of Christ’. The key figures in the movement were often rich, cultured women, but there were also poorer béguines. They earned their living through manual labour, in the textile sector or as washerwomen. Béguines also worked in hospitals and orphanages.

A thriving economy led to the growth of the European urban centres. More and more people, including many unmarried women, moved into the towns. In the béguinages single women found a safe, attractive and socially accepted workplace, without losing their economic independence completely. Béguines were not nuns. They did not take vows of poverty, though they did pledge chastitysexual abstinence. and pietyreligious faith. . They kept their possessions and could leave the béguinage, for example to get married.

A béguinage was managed by mistresses, elected by the béguines. But the priest, the bishop and the town authorities deliberately limited the freedom of the béguines, out of distrust of these communities.

Focal points

Minderbroeders Sint-Truiden.

Greet Polleunis

In 2019 the fratres minores (Franciscans) left their monastery in Sint-Truiden after 800 years.

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New Forms of Faith

Béguinages were part of a wider movement of a religious return to the sources. From the 12th century on various new, and sometimes dissident religious ideas reared their heads. We know little about those divergent Christian voices, but we do know that they were often critical of the clergy. They felt that clerics behaved in an undignified way and neglected their religious duties.

The new begging ordersreligious orders that emphasise poverty and living on charity. , such as the Franciscans, Dominicans and Carmelites, were popular. They preached in the vernacular. In public spaces in the towns they reached hundreds of people at once. They spoke of sin and remorse and of how Christ’s suffering served as an example. Sometimes they also touched on delicate social topics.

The new views fell on fertile ground in the economically prosperous southern part of the Low Countries. Geographic mobility, population growth and thriving towns ensured the rapid dissemination of ideas and movements. Prosperity also meant better educated laymenpeople who have not been ordained into the Christian church. . They were critical of the monopoly of priests and monks in the field of religion. From the 12th century onwards the idea of the ‘imitation of Christ’ became increasingly popular. That meant that a layman could also try to follow the example of Christ. The religious experience became more democratic.


Ghent, University Library, 941, fol. 49r

Page from a 14th-century manuscript containing the mystical love songs of Hadewijch.

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The Mystical Tradition

An important source of inspiration for many religious renewal movements, such as the béguines, was the French abbot and mystic Bernard of Clairvaux. At the beginning of the 12th century with his new monastic order, the Cistercians, he wanted to return to a strict and simple communal life and a direct link with God. Women mystics like Hadewijch showed that for women too a personal religious experience and relationship with God was possible. Almost nothing is known about that 13th-century Brabant mystic. In her writings she encouraged her followers to live a life of complete surrender to the love of God.

Hadewijch and other women mystics wrote in the vernacular on the Bible and the mysteries of faith. The fact that they stressed the direct relationship of the Christian with God, if necessary without a priest, aroused the suspicions of the church authorities. This led to persecutions. Even the béguines were accused of heresy. Suspicion of them led in 1312 to a prohibition: Pope Clemens V ordered the dissolution of the beguine movement. As a result the béguines disappeared from many places in Europe. However, in the Low Countries the bishops pleaded for their retention: the béguinages were subject to stricter rules and greater control by priests, but they were allowed to continue existing.

Around 1380, Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, 19, 295-97, fol. 2v

This miniature shows Jan van Ruusbroec (1293-1381), while inspired by the Holy Ghost (represented as a dove), writing his texts. Ruusbroec is one of the most famous mystics in world literature. He spent a long time in the priory of Groenendaal (today a sub-district of Hoeilaart).

Werkzaamheden Mechelse begijnen.
Activities of the Béguines of Mechelen, 1578, Mechelen, Museum Hof van Busleyden

This painting shows in 45 scenes the activities of the béguines, accompanied by devotional texts. In addition, it affords a view of the Great Béguinage of Mechelen.

Lutgardis van Tongeren.
Antwerp, Convent of the Zwartzusters-Augustinessen

Gaspar de Crayer, Christ on the Cross Appears to St Lutgardis, 1653. The 13th-century mystic Lutgard of Tongeren (1182-1246) joined the Cistercian nuns in the French-speaking convent of Aywières. According to the legend, she asked the Virgin Mary as a mercy gift never to be able to learn French, so that she would not have to become an abbess and could devote herself completely to a life of contemplation. For that reason in the 19th century she became the patroness of the Catholic Flemish movement.

Goetsbloets Begijnhof Brussel.
Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, Pierre Goetsbloets, 1795, MS II 1492, vol. III, fol. 176v

The French revolutionaries closed the béguinages and confiscated their possessions. The béguinage in Brussels never recovered from the blow. The last béguine there died in 1834.

Kantklossen Aalst.
Aalst, Stadsarchief,, Vincent Borreman.

Lace-winding in the béguinage of Aalst in 1926. Making lace is an old decorative craft which probably originated in the 16th century. For centuries lace was a luxury product. The lacemakers themselves often lived in poverty. Today lace-winding survives as a hobby and in the tourist industry.

Begijnhof Herentals.
Herentals, Erfgoedcel Kempens Karakter, Schenking Steven Anthonis.

Many béguines suffered under the religious wars. The béguinage of Herentals (then part of the duchy of Brabant) was completely demolished for military reasons in 1578, and only later in the 17th century rebuilt elsewhere within the town walls.

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Verbeeck Lydia

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Verbeeck Lydia

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