Sometimes as an expat, you want to experience some culture and history in Gent without all the hubbub of the main tourist attractions. For peaceful exploration, I like to visit one of the three Ghent beguinages found right in the city center. They are calm, quiet, and steeped in history.
What are Beguinages?
Beguinages (begijnhoven in Dutch) are enclosed religious communities for women that were established in the 13th century. The women, known as beguines or begijnen, who joined these communities were not nuns, though they sometimes wore the habit. They devoted their lives to God and committed to live apart from the world, but they did not relinquish their worldly possessions and did not take vows. They could live independently and leave the community when they wished. During the Crusades, there were many unmarried women and at the time women’s only options were to be married, live with family, or live in a convent. The beguinage was a safe place where women could live somewhat independently and be self-supporting, often by making lace, tutoring children, or making candy.
What makes a visit to the Ghent beguinages so nice is the way the area is laid out – there is always a church, a green area, and many walled houses that make up the beguinage. In many of the communities, the houses are set along winding whitewashed streets that are so appealing with their hollyhocks and arched wooden doors. The buildings are on a bit of a smaller scale, often with walls within walls, larger outer walls and then lower garden walls that make it seem secretive and mysterious. The arched, wooden doors often have metalwork and each house is named for a saint.
There are about thirty beguinages located throughout Flanders, as well as a few in the Netherlands and France. Thirteen have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites including two in Gent as well as those in Bruges, Leuven, Kortrijk and Mechelen. The three Ghent beguinages are the Small Beguinage Our Lady of Ter Hoyen, the Old St. Elizabeth Beguinage, and the Great Beguinage of St. Elizabeth.
Klein Begijnhof Onze Lieve Vrouw Ter Hoyen
Each of the three Ghent beguinages have a different feel to them, though all are quite peaceful.
The Klein Begijnhof Onze Lieve Vrouw Ter Hoyen (Small Beguinage Our Lady of Ter Hoyen) is located close to Gent Zuid. It was founded in 1235 by the countesses Johanna and Margaretha of Flanders and was rebuilt in the 17th century. Most of what remains is from that later period. It still contains a church, chapel, ninety houses, and other buildings. The last beguine left the beguinage in 2004 because of her failing health, signaling the end of the beguinage as it was meant to be. Today, some parts of the convent and infirmary are used as art workshops and most of the homes are rented as private dwellings.
Oud Begijnhof Sint-Elisabeth
The Oud Begijnhof Sint-Elisabeth (Old St. Elizabeth Beguinage) is located on the other side of the city, closer to the Coupure and Rabot. It was founded in 1242 by Jeanne, the Countess of Flanders. At one time, it was a walled area inside Gent but now the walls are no longer present. It still has a distinct feel though, and meandering along the whitewashed curved walls is a pleasant and mysterious way to spend a bit of time. You can even stay in a B&B within the beguinage. This area is also called The Holy Corner because there are four churches found there: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican.
In the mid to late 1800’s there was some conflict between the Old St. Elizabeth Beguinage and the town administration, hence the Great Beguinage in Sint-Amandsberg was built. Over 600 beguines moved out of their homes to the new, bigger beguinage. The area fell into decay but in the 1980’s there was an influx of artists living and working in the area and then with a renewed push to preserve the beguinage, the residents worked to rejuvenate the area.
Groot Begijnhof Sint-Elisabeth
The Groot Begijnhof Sint-Elisabeth (The Great Beguinage of St. Elizabeth) is located just outside the city in St. Amandsberg and is the largest and the most institutional feeling of the Beguinages. It was built later than the others, between 1873-1874 with the financial assistance of the Duke of Arenberg. It sits on 8ha (20 acres) and includes a large church, eighty houses, fourteen convents, and a communal building. Today you can see cows grazing in the large field outside the church. The field was originally used to dry the laundry, as some of the beguinages earned income working for the large cloth industry which was so critical in Gent. This beguinage, along with Our Lady of Ter Hoyen, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Though the beguinages did not provide women rights in the sense that we imagine them today, they did provide a self-sufficiency that was otherwise unavailable to them during Medieval times. And though walls are often indicative of being “trapped,” the walls of the beguinages provided an enclosed but contemplative space that even today exudes a kind of peace. The gates open daily now as they did throughout history and one can pass through to find an oasis, if only for a few moments.