The Beguines: A Lost World Made by Women

from If feminism means a desire for independence from patriarchal authority, the beguines — a Roman Catholic laic order that began in the 13th century and branched across northwest Europe — represented, perhaps, the world’s oldest women’s movement.

Unlike sisterhoods that required a life spent apart from society under vows of chastity, these Catholic women looked for holiness outside monastic norms. Although they lived and prayed together within an enclave, partly as a form of mutual protection — some historians believe they banded together after losing their men to the Crusades, which left behind mainly criminals and louts — beguines were not confined to the cloister. Many ministered to the poor and sick outside their walls. Lifelong celibacy was not required either. They could leave the order and marry (but not return).
Each community had its own rules, albeit under the aegis of the church, and several housed mystics who developed ecstatic approaches to worship. Little wonder, then, that over the centuries they suffered waves of distrust and persecution as heretical “free spirits.”
Traces of these remarkable women and their idiosyncratic spiritual ways can be found today in the urban islands of quietness they once called home. Known as beguinages or begijnhofs, several dozen of these compounds are still intact (to varying degrees) from England to Germany. Ten years ago Unesco declared a select group as World Heritage Sites. No country has more beguinages (29) than Belgium, and a trip to inspect a few in three cities seemed like a pleasant way to spend a spring day, especially given the ease with which one moves by train in that convenient nation.
It was promising that the lone surviving example in Antwerp was only a few blocks from my hotel. Even though the high windowless red brick walls at Rodestraat 39 seemed unwelcoming, the impression was dispelled after passing through the main gate and unmanned sentry house.
In its modesty, this beguinage is reminiscent of a poorly endowed college at Oxford. The bourgeois values of peace and tidiness govern all beguinages, elements that look forward to the airy clarity of the Enlightenment rather than back to the Gothic sublime of the Middle Ages.
This ethos is especially apparent in the Antwerp beguinage. Three floors of 16th-century brick apartments look out at a small fenced garden surrounded by a narrow cobblestone driveway. A chapel at one end completes the standard layout. In the cold early hours of my visit, the cooing of mourning doves and the splash of the garden’s fountains were the only sounds to be heard.
Each of the 45 apartments is entered off the courtyard through a tall wooden gate marked with the name of a saint (Heilige Martha) or some Biblical association (Jerusalem). At its peak in the 17th century some 220 beguines lived within these walls. There are now about 100 residents, mainly elderly women but also some retired couples. Officially the apartments are rentable to everyone. But this is still the property of the Catholic Church, and unofficially young singles or couples with children don’t have a prayer of finding rooms there.
The beguinages in Bruges and Ghent operate under different setups. To investigate in person, I hoped to travel by train to both cities and back to Antwerp, and I was pleased to learn from the ticket agent this could be done for the amazingly low price of 11.5 euros, or $18.29 at $1.59 to the euro.
It took about 45 minutes to get to Bruges, and then 20 minutes more to walk to the front gate of De Wijngaard (The Vineyard), as this beguinage is called. The walk along the canals and through winding passageways was its own reward, and it was early enough in the season that the streets were not yet choked with tourists.
As with so many other places in this most popular of Belgium’s medieval destinations, the Bruges beguinage seems to exist to be photographed more than anything else. Hundreds of visitors take out their cameras for the same shots — of the whitewashed buildings and courtyard of poplars and daffodils — every day. I know I did.
Since 1937 it has been a monastery for a small group of Benedictine nuns. About 25 sisters still live there. (Winston Churchill included them in an affectionate painting he did of the place in 1946.) Ordinarily, I would counsel skipping the little museum, with its slipshod displays of lace-making done by the sisters, along with the re-creation of an early-20th-century kitchen. But the 2 euro entrance fee is one of the few sources of income asked from the crowds that otherwise troop over the stone bridge and through the 18th-century gateway free. I paid up and after a cursory tour headed for the exit.
Not to be missed is the nearby Baroque church, an unflamboyant structure that remains the focus of the community. A painting over the altar of St. Elizabeth, patroness of the beguinage, by the 17th-century Bruges master Jacob van Oost the Elder, may be the art history highlight. Worthier of study and contemplation are the dozens of tombstones embedded in the floor under the benches and near the entrance of the nave. The dwindling ranks of the beguines can be charted in the centuries of women who spent their lives here, now mostly forgotten by history. The last person to be buried under these stone slabs died in 1905.
The beguinages were experiments in communal living that worked successfully for centuries. But as the options for many European women multiplied after the 18th century, within the Catholic Church and beyond, the numbers of beguines rapidly declined. Belgium, which once had 94 beguinages, had only 20 in 1856; the members of the sisterhood fell by more than half between 1631 and 1828. Today, according to the Tourist Office of Flanders, Belgium, the order has only one surviving member, 88-year-old Sister Marcella who lives in a Belgian rest home.
Of the three beguinages left in Ghent I had time to visit only two. The Klein Begijnhof (Little Beguinage) in the southwest quadrant of the city had been described to me as perhaps the most atmospheric of its kind in Belgium. This was true only in that it was the saddest I saw. Vandals had broken windows in the apartments, and the church door was padlocked. An air of abandonment prevailed in a once prosperous setting that catered to indigent and lower-middle-class women. Restorations are supposed to be under way.
The Oud Begijnhof (Old Beguinage) in the northwest district can hardly be restored as its outlines are largely gone. Abandoned by the sisters in 1873 for a larger complex outside the city, the area has been gentrified so handsomely that except for St. Elizabeth’s Church and a few houses almost nothing can be seen of its origins.
It’s a distortion to view the beguines as an avant-garde wing of 20th-century feminism. They were a religious, not a secular movement. Nonetheless, for centuries they managed to live independently from overweening male control. Their legacy is deserving of respect and can still be felt in the unusual communities they devised, even as they themselves have all but vanished.

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