hidden europe 12

Communal living: béguinages

by Nicky Gardner


In Belgium, as elsewhere in northern Europe, there are some remarkable béguinages - reminders of an important social movement dating back to the 13th century. Today, these courtyards are havens of quiet that attest to the capacity of women in the mediaeval period to take control of their own lives.

Tucked away in the Low Countries are the remnants of an urban code and practice that somehow bucked all convention in the settlements it spawned. In many towns in Belgium, and more widely in northern Europe, one finds at their core perfectly planned ‘villages' that have, over the centuries, been assimilated into and preserved in the modern city. Like an insect caught in amber, these are traces of another world. Mediaeval communities in places like Bruges and Gent gave new contours to female piety and created a social order that presaged, in some of its thinking, the dialogue of feminism that was to emerge only many centuries later. And, along the way, it created some of Europe's most remarkable urban settlements. These are the béguinages (in Flemish known as begijnhoven), the onetime precincts of the béguine communities that were, in the late thirteenth century, an important social movement in parts of the Low Countries.

When the thirteenth-century Franciscan friar Gilbert of Tournai was asked to report to a Church Council in Lyons on the state of affairs in his native Flanders, he was perturbed to have to report that: "There are among us women whom we have no idea what to call. They are neither ordinary women nor nuns. They live neither in the world nor out of it."

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