In the 12th century, the first Beguines came into existence for unmarried women who wished to dedicate their lives to God. They lived together in small communities, spread over dozens of towns in the former Netherlands, which then included Flanders. They lived in beguinages, which were small communes usually located on the outskirts of the city. They lived together, but were totally independent. Instead of being subject to the Church’s authority, they followed their own rules, norms and values. They even worked to earn a living. They were fully independent, and true examples of girl power before it had even been invented.
Through the centuries, these women lived primarily in beguinages, which still exist today in some 30 Flemish cities, in fact the last Beguine died only in 2012. These dwellings are usually situated on the outskirts of the city and come in a few different varieties. There is the city variety of beguinage, which is closely integrated into the medieval street planning, with its chequerboard design. Elsewhere, there are square beguinages, where all the little houses are built around a central square or park. The third possibility is the mixed variety. They’re usually based around a central square, with a double row of houses added, and sometimes a handful of streets.
The beguinages are a unique slice of heritage, something that has been confirmed by UNESCO. 20 years ago, 13 Flemish beguinages, half of the total number of beguinages in Flanders, were recognised by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. Each one of these unparalleled havens of serenity is worth a visit in its own right. Take the Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaerde in Bruges, for example, with its quintessential white-painted houses, centred around a pretty garden. It was established in 1244 and remains one of the quietest spots in this medieval city. One of the houses is now a museum where you can discover how the Beguines lived in the 17th and 18th centuries. The centuries old, Early Gothic church is another of Bruges’ treasures.
Another beautiful location is the beguinage in Lier, a 15-minute drive from the centre of Antwerp. This typical street beguinage was established in 1258 and has 92 small houses. These houses have names such as ‘The Stall of Bethlehem’ and ‘Vineyard of the Lord’, as house numbers didn’t yet exist. You enter this fully walled beguinage through the pretty Baroque gate. Antwerp also has a beautiful beguinage complex near the university. Enjoy a peaceful walk on the cobbled streets, through the beautiful courtyard and past the orchard and pond. Another 30-minute drive is the Large Beguinage in Mechelen.
This beguinage was completely destroyed during the Beeldenstorm, in the mid-16th century. Afterwards, the Beguines searched for a new place to settle and re-established the beguinage within Mechelen’s city walls. This gives the Mechelen beguinage a unique character compared to Flanders’ other beguinages.
The historic and trendy Ghent has two beguinages, one large, and one small. Both are just a stone’s throw away from the medieval city centre. The large beguinage is located on 20 acres of land. It has three squares and plenty of green space. The small houses are inhabited, as are most of the old beguinages. However, the residents are no longer Beguines. In Antwerp and Bruges, there are also people living in these historic buildings. In Leuven, a major student city, the complex is owned by the university. You can stroll alongside students and visiting professors through the fully restored beguinage, which is idyllically intersected by the river Dyle.
Most beguinages are used as private homes or social housing, although there are others with different functions. Take, for example, the St Alexius Beguinage in Dendermonde, a short drive from Ghent. There you will find a typical beguinage with a trapezium-shaped courtyard, surrounded by 61 small houses and a church. Today, the beguinage accommodates a Beguinage Museum, and a Folklore Museum, which give you an insight into 19th century life. After visiting the museums, you can stroll through the beautiful ornamental and herb garden. The bustling city of Kortrijk, half an hour from Ghent, has a brand-new coffee bar nestled among its houses, which is certainly worth a visit.
Flanders’ 26 beautiful beguinages have not lost an iota of charm through the centuries. They’re a dream destination if you're looking for some peace and quiet, perhaps with a fresh cup of coffee.