Today only Belgium still retains a significant number of beguinages and since 1998 thirteen of them have been classified by UNESCO as world heritage of humanity . There are also two in the Netherlands, Amsterdam and Breda, and one in France, in Cambrai, and some traces in French Flanders. The rest is only a reconstruction of history and cartography.
What we commonly call “beguinage” was established in Flanders (now Netherlands and Belgium) from 1240 as the main community form of beguinal life. It can be proved that where the buguinages have become parishes, they have had more guarantees of continuity. This is one of the reasons why, although the first groups of beguines were born in the diocese of Liège, it is mainly in the Flemish territory of Belgium that there are still important traces.
However, we must remember that the places where beguines had lived were various: near a monastery or a leper house, in contiguous houses on the same street, in nearby hermitages up to solitary forms of life in a cell or within their own family and even a wandering life, quickly forbidden by the Church.
Here we present the historical beguinages. As the state of research is very incomplete, the reality of the beguinal world, still too hidden, is certainly superior to that presented here. For Belgium, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain and Switzerland more information are available underneath. For modern beguines, click on the beguinal movement today.
The most recent works of Pascal Majérus have documented 300 beguinages in Belgium, with different connotations between Flanders and Wallonia
For the most part they have been founded between 1230 and 1280, the XIII century is the golden age of the Beguinal movement. About 30 of them survived the destructions. Of these, only two are in Wallonie (Liège and Enghien), two in the Brussels region (Anderlecht and Brussels) and 26 in the Flemish region as follows:
province of Antwerp (Antwerp, Herentals, Hoogstraten, Ivy, Mechelen (great beguinage and little beguinage) and Turnhout;
province of Limburg: Borgloon, Saint-Trond, Tongeren and Hasselt;
province of East Flanders: Aalst, Dendermonde, Ghent (great beguinage, small beguinage and beguinage of Mont-Saint-Amand-lez-Ghent) and Oudenarde;
province of West Flanders: Bruges, Diksmuide and Kortrijk;
province of Flemish Brabant: Aarschot, Diest, Leuven (Great Beguinage and Little Beguinage), Overijse and Tienen.
Various beguinages, especially in the north, eixsted among which Aire sur la Lys, Arras, Bailleul, Beaune (at the service of the famous hospital founded by Nicolas Rolin), Cambrai, Castelnaudary, Douai, Lille, St. Omer (21 convents with 395 women living there by 1322) and Valenciennes. Laura Swan writes: “ Between 1245 and 1355, fifteen beguinages were established in Douai “ among them Champfleury , with its flourishing hospial, “ that grew to include at list one hundred beguines” (The winsdom of beguines, p.32)
In Paris, the famous “Grand beguinage” was founded in 1260 by Louis IX himself and was closed in 1471. It could accommodate about 400 women, widows or young singles. At that time, Paris also counted dozens of other minor beguinages. Today, in this historic place the Lycée Charlemagne sets up, accessible from the street of the same name. Nearby, the old church of Saint Paul and Saint Louis, already existing at the time of the beguinage. Not far from there, “Place de l’Hôtel de Ville”. In 1310, it was called “Place de Grève” and knew the martyrdom at the stake of Marguerite Porete. Nothing remembers this tragic abuse, if not by chance a café at a corner of the square which is called “Café Marguerite”. .
Going south, there are Belfort and then Narbonne, Digne and Beziers. The only French beguinage preserved today would be that of Saint-Vaast located at Cambrai.
Beginning in the 80s, the historical beguinage presence was rediscovered thanks to extensive studies and a research methodology per spatial sectors promoted by the Federation. This enabled an impressive number of beguinal locations to be identified, as it can be seen in cartography by Frank-Michael Reichstein, presented on the Federation’s website (Kartographische Darstellung aus: Frank-Michael Reichstein: Das Beginenwesen in Deutschland, Berlin 2001).
The Brita Lieb Interview published in Neue Wege 7.8.2018 offers an overview of historical research in Germany and other European countries.
Three traditions of “beguinal life” are present in the Italian context: in the North, the Humiliate (especially in Lombardy); at the Center (especially in Umbria) a multiplicity of spiritually committed secular life expressions that are grouped under the term Bizzoche or Pinzocchere. We owe to the scholars Romana Guarnieri and Mario Sensi the production of numerous historical researches on these realities. Finally, in the South, especially since the 16th century, a particular form of beguinal life called “monache di casa” (house nuns who lived in the family or alone) develops. These women insisted to express their choice of voluntary celibacy through “religious” clothes. The “house nuns” will then be distinguished in “bizzoche professed” and “ bizzoche non-professed or devotional ones”. Others, called “monache di conservatorio“, live together in institutions of social aids, under a civil or an ecclesiastical jurisdiction. (See the works of Gabriele Tardio, Adriana Valerio and Giulia Boccadamo)
Walter Simons, in his magnificent book Cities of Ladies, points out that in the years 1240-1280 communities of beguines were established in about one hundred places in the Netherlands. (cited by E.Wagenmakers, https://www.begijnhofbreda.nl/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Wagemakers-inleiding-Frans.pdf)
The gradual disappearance of these enclosures is due on the one hand to the abandonment and destruction caused during the Dutch revolt against Spain (1565) and on the other hand to the devastation wrought by the Calvinists during the wars of religion. Only two very beautiful beguinages remain today: Amsterdam and Breda, which have been protected by the Orange-Nassau family.
Amsterdam is the destination of many tourists who visit it daily and it is a reference point for Catholics who live in the historic center. According to the statutes, its houses must be intended for single women, preferably Catholics. (From an interview of May 5, 2012 with Van Heyst, rector of the beguinage, published by Paola De Groot-Testoni)
Breda is small and harmonious. Its central lawn was originally used for washing fabrics and wool and later become “hortus sempliciorum” for the cultivation of medicinal and aromatic plants. The beguinage maintains its original function as a place of residence for the women. It also has an important museum function. (www.begijnhofbreda.nl)
There are documents that attest both in Sweden and in Denmark to the presence of beguines, who however lived preferably outside the cities and near male monasteries. Also in these countries they organized infirmaries for the poor. Thanks to the works of Laura Swam, we have traces in Denmark: beguines were present in Roskilde from 1260 onwards, in Copenhagen from 1270 and in Ribe (on the North Sea) from 1290.
In Sweden, Ingrid of Skänninge (+1282) was part of a group of beguines who then embraced Dominican spirituality. In 1388, Bishop Nicolaus Hermansson of Linköping agreed that the Beguines of the surroundings of Vadstena continue their lifestyle. However, in 1412 they were condemned by the bishop Johan of Uppsala and in 1506 pushed off from the Bridgettine Order’s monks who wanted to expand on their lands.
Thanks to the Women’s Research Center of the University of Barcelona we have information on the beguinal movement in Spain and particularly in Catalonia, with the “Reclusorio de Santa Margherita”.
Furthermore, the works of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, in the framework of the research project on female spiritual authority in Castillia, review in the “Catalogo de santas vivas” different profiles of mystical beguines.
According to the medievalist Hans Joachim Schmidt, professor at the University of Freiburg, there were beguinages in the towns of Freiburg (in Romon near Freiburg ” béguines street”), Einsiedeln, Lausanne, Zurich, Berne and Basel, the better known, with 22 houses of beguines in the middle of the XIVth century. It seems that there were even some in the rural places, but historical research is difficult.
(Source: “A vue de l’Esprit” programs, RSR, Swiss-French radio, by Bernard Litzler, from 23 to 27 January 2012).
For further informations, here the very interesting paper Beguines in Switzerland presented by Brita Lieb during the Beguinenreise 2018 in Switzerland (transaltion by Gabi Bierkl) and the text of Martina Wehrli-Johns Beguines and Beghards in the Historical Dictionnary of Switzerland.
Beguinages are also metionned in Austria, England, Hungary, Luxembourg and Poland.
Although survival beguinages have similar spatial features, each one of them has a style of its own. In the smallest one in Anderlecht, next to Saints Peter and Guidon’s church, were lodged eight Beguines. In the largest ones, such as the Ten Hove in Leuven or the Saint Elizabeth’s in Gent, hundreds were lodged. The closeness of a river made textile and wool washing easier.
The spatial model of the beguinage is square or in regular echelon or a combination of both; it is circled by a wall and in some cases also by a moat.
At the main entry, a doorkeeper Beguine controls the access. At closing time all the Beguines have to be in and all visitors out. The statue of the patron or patroness of the beguinage is usually placed above the main door; at the centre is the church. All around there are one-storey dwellings with a small garden and devotional decorations to give the entrance a personal flavour. The convent is the communal dwelling of those who have no property, and the house of the Grande Dame is generally prominent.
One can also find an infirmary, the Table of the Holy Spirit (sharing food and other goods) and several elements of devotion scattered here and there: small chapels, Pietà, statues, Calvary, to create an atmosphere of concentration and prayer. If the beguinage makes its living out of agriculture, then sheds and other related buildings can also be found.
Their burials found place in the church or around it.
Today visitors of a historical beguinage feel a sense of interiority, calm and rest, due, among other things, to the construction standards that made them the first places of concerted urban planning. But if even the stones have a memory, then it is also the spirituality of these women that will survive through these vestiges.