Although you might not even have heard of them before, beguinages are some of the most unique places in Belgium—if not in the world. Especially the Flemish beguinages are notable for their historic value, undeniable charm and atmosphere.
Flemish Beguinages – What Are They?
First of all, let’s explain where the name comes from. A beguinage is a place where beguines lived. These beguines were religious women who lived together in a separate community, yet without taking any vows or retiring completely from the rest of the world.
In the Middle Ages, lay religious women used to live in convents, but that kind of life brought with it less freedom and many rules. So, starting in the 13th century, a much more open community type emerged in the Low Countries—Belgium, the Netherlands and northern France. These communities were rather large court béguinages, a collection of simple houses centered on a church, chapel and/or garden and enclosed by a ditch or wall. These béguinages evolved to eventually contain everything from bakeries, hospitals, farms and even breweries. They offered the béguines, who were unmarried or widowed women, a free and independent life dedicated to religion.
The important distinction between convents and beguinages is that beguines were not restricted in their movement. The gates of the beguinage open during the day, they could come and go as they pleased, having the chance to keep interacting with the rest of the town they lived in. (Beguinages were basically a town within a town.)
Nowadays, thirteen Flemish beguinages are protected as UNESCO World Heritage. Spread across Flanders—northern, Dutch-speaking Belgium—these beguinages are so significant because they offer an extraordinary insight into this very typical cultural tradition in the Low Countries of the Middle Ages.
Most historically important towns and cities in Flanders have their own béguinage. In the hustle and bustle of our busy modern-day lives, they continue to provide solitude and reflection. Characterized by cobblestone alleys, charming brick buildings and lampposts, and gardens and trees, these urban areas are among my favorite in Belgium.
Locations of the Flemish Beguinages
The UNESCO World Heritage Site “Flemish Beguinages” is a serial site, consisting of thirteen beguinages in just as many towns. You really don’t have to try very hard to come across one, especially if you’re visiting some of the major Flemish cities.
You can find Flemish beguinages in the following places: Bruges, Dendermonde, Diest, Ghent (2), Hoogstraten, Kortrijk, Leuven, Lier, Mechelen, Sint-Truiden, Tongeren and Turnhout.
Have You Ever Visited the Flemish Beguinages? What Did You Think?