Where: Flanders region of Belgium
When: Existed from 12th through to the early 20th century
History: Houses of a religious order of unmarried or windowed women, formed after the holy crusades
Who Were the Beguines?
The Begijnen (Beguines) were a Catholic order of unmarried or widowed women founded in the twelfth century in the Low Countries because of the gender imbalance caused by the Crusades to the Holy lands, which many men left but were never to return to.
Beguines were ordinary women who lived in seclusion in simple, convent-like homes. They made no monastic vows and could leave if they wished, but preferred to devote themselves to religious worship and charitable work.
There are still several former Beguine houses, known as begijnhoven, in all styles across Flanders. They’re clusters of small houses surrounded by a protective wall and built around a central garden and church. Two of the most beautiful ones are those of Bruges and Leuven.
Visiting a Begijnhoven Today
These days there are no Beguine women left anywhere in Flanders. Although the order lasted many centuries, the last woman died in Bruges in 1930. There are pretty and quaint begijhoven in many Flemish cities; the most beautiful ones are in Bruges. Most begijnhoven, like those in Bruges, now house young families, artists or nuns.
Map of existing Begijnhoven and links to resources.