Girl Power in Medieval Belgium

When these women decided to live a religious life without men, they didn’t want to follow the rules of the church. So this is what they did.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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Beguinage Bruges

The Beguinage Bruges may be the most famous, but here’s the story of why it’s just one of the Flemish Beguinages in Belgium you can visit.

Stepping through the entrance of the Beguinage Bruges, I find tranquility. Maybe it’s the signs at the entrance telling visitors to be quiet, I’m not sure, but there’s almost silence here. Just the sound of the gentle wind.

Bruges as a city is quite peaceful itself, the narrow streets in the historic centre limiting the number and speed of cars and trucks. But it can still get quite busy with tourists and the noise of crowds.

Some of the tourists have followed me in, or were already waiting here. But they are keeping their voices low. It’s out of respect for the residents here… the women of the Beguinage Bruges.

Flemish Beguinages of Belgium

I can’t see any of the residents at the moment, so I look around at my surroundings instead.

White buildings with brown tiled roofs line a central square. Each building, touching each other, is almost identical. Two rows of peaceful windows with a welcoming green door in the middle and a triangular peak at the top.

I look to the central square of the Beguinage Bruges, which is full of bright yellow flowers. They sit in clumps, pointing up to the sky which is momentarily blue as I’m visiting.

The trees around the flowers all seem bent in one direction, perhaps pushed over years by the wind. Or perhaps that’s just how they grow – not straight up, but in the direction that is most comfortable.

Flemish Beguinages of Belgium

In some ways, you could say the same about the women who have chosen to live here over the centuries. They didn’t follow the path that was expected of them. They followed the path they thought was right.

Originally they came to these communes, these sanctuaries, and they bent towards a direction of unbridled faith, not one that was imposed upon them by church leaders. With that, and with each other, they found strength in the Flemish Beguinages.

Are you wondering what all that means? Well, one way to learn more would be on this walking tour of Bruges.

In the meantime, let me tell you about about the Flemish Beguinages of Belgium.

What are the Flemish Beguinages?

When I first saw the name ‘Flemish Beguinages’ on the World Heritage List, I was a bit hesitant.

I don’t like to admit it now, but I had assumed this was going to be one of those boring sites that got onto the list because rather ordinary buildings were associated with extraordinary events (I’m looking at you, Martin Luther Memorials).

I’m pleased to say that I was wrong. The beguinages are both interesting and charmingly beautiful.

Flemish Beguinages of Belgium

So, what is a beguinage?

Rather than give you some kind of official definition, I’m going to explain it in my own way.

It’s basically a commune for single women – either spinsters or widows – who want a religious lifestyle but don’t want to live under the rules of the church. They want to use each other for support and their faith for guidance, rather than having priests or nuns tell them what to do.

Flemish Beguinages of Belgium

The beguinages began to emerge in the Flemish areas of Europe in the 1200s. They were cities within cities – like the small gated communities of today.

Usually each one had a collection of houses with a similar design: a communal outdoor space, indoor gathering spaces and, of course, a church.

Flemish Beguinages of Belgium

Some of the beguinages in Belgium are still inhabited by women who live their lives similar to those ideals – although, of course, the religious authorities today are not as strict as they were in the Middle Ages.

Some of the other beguinages are used for other types of housing now, but they have still retained their architectural heritage… and, it’s probably fair to say, a community feel.

Visiting the Flemish Beguinages in Belgium

At the peak of the movement in the 17th century, there would’ve been about 360 beguinages in Flanders.

Now, there are 13 Flemish Beguinages that have been included in the official World Heritage Site. They are spread across the region and each has its own special attributes.

I have marked on the map below where you can find the World Heritage-listed Flemish Beguinages in Belgium.

You can see all of them from the outside, so in that sense it’s possible to visit each of the Flemish Beguinages. But not all of them have buildings that are open to the public.

I decide to visit four of them, including the Beguinage Bruges, to see a bit of variety.

Grand Beguinage of Leuven

The Grand Beguinage of Leuven is the largest one on the World Heritage List. It’s very easy to visit, just 30 minutes east of Brussels.

I pass through the old stone archway that would once have been a gated entrance. Cobblestone pathways go off in different directions.

To my left is a large church with a grassed garden. To my right are the doorways of small houses.

As I walk through the beguinage, more little streets open up in front of me with even more houses. I cross a small bridge over a river and arrive in a new section – there’s a large grassed area here.

Flemish Beguinages of Belgium

The beguinage here in Leuven is now owned by the local university and it feels a little like university accommodation. Students occasionally ride past me on the bikes.

I see a couple of young families go into their houses with their toddlers, rugged up for the cold weather, waddling in over the threshold.

The residents may not all be single women, as the original ones were, but there is still a sense of community. It would probably seem odd not to have that, considering how the layout encourages it.

Flemish Beguinages of Belgium

Beguinage de Sint-Amandsberg

In the city of Ghent, west of Brussels, there are two beguinages.

The first I visit is on the outskirts of the main part of the city. It is the newest of the sites – but only because it had to move. As development spread in the middle of Ghent, the women were being squeezed out of their space.

Rather than battle with the encroachment of a growing urban centre, they simply created a new community further out in the 1870s, where they had the space they wanted. While it still has the characteristics of the others, the architecture does feel slightly more modern.

Flemish Beguinages of Belgium
Flemish Beguinages of Belgium

Petit Beguinage de Gent

In the centre of Ghent, though, is an original beguinage, established in 1235. It feels much older.

It has a large communal grass square, with bare trees in some parts. Alongside the square is a large and imposing church – the clear focus of the commune. Around the edges are the houses in straight lines, painted in simple colours yet with careful consideration to the design scheme.

If you are interested in seeing the beguinages in Ghent, I would recommend using this customisable tour of the city.

Flemish Beguinages of Belgium
Flemish Beguinages of Belgium

Each of the sites that I visit is just as peaceful as the Beguinage Bruges, where we began this story.

The tranquility is certainly partly from the design. The flowing layout of the buildings, the calming colours, the green spaces – they all help you relax when you’re here.

But I think knowing a bit more about the story behind the beguinages and what those women who lived here originally were trying to achieve – that also adds to the peace.

After all, that’s what they were looking for!

If you are short of time and are interested in seeing a few of the beguinages (plus some of the other heritage in Belgium), then there are a few options for good tours for Brussels that I would recommend:

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This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

3 thoughts on “Girl Power in Medieval Belgium”

  1. I have visited a couple of the beguinages around Belgium during my time living there, but I think you have seen more. The Brugges one was my favourite

    Reply
  2. Thank you for the information you have shared about the Beguines and their places of living. I have just completed a 14 day pilgrimage through Europe focussing on the mystics especially women. I am visiting Bruges on Saturday so I will look out for the places you mentioned.

    Reply

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