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."

Related articleFull text online

Where God grew stones: a Mani odyssey

Patrick Leigh Fermor's 1958 book on the Mani region of southern Greece helped put Mani on the map. Today it pulls the tourist crowds, yet it still retains a raw appeal. Guest contributor Duncan JD Smith dives deep into Mani to explore the otherworldly landscapes of this arid peninsula.

Related article

An Essex backwater: Discovering Harwich

The old town of Harwich, a port in the county of Essex on England's North Sea coast, is tucked away on the end of a peninsula. Maritime connections have shaped the development of Harwich. It's a place for sea breezes, rock oysters and watching the ferries come and go.