I never thought I’d be in a position to say that I had been to Belgium, let alone that I’d been there “again,” but that’s exactly what I’m here to tell you. My second time in Belgium was this past fall, when I went with my friend Rebecca (Ballyhaunis, Ire.) to visit mutual pal Andrew (Athlone, Ire.) who was studying at the university in Leuven.
Now, Leuven was a town I’d been to before, so I was skeptical that it would hold any new surprises. As usual, however, I was very wrong.
I’m not even going to bother telling you about the Kriek, a cherry beer that will change your world; just get on a plane right now. But I am going to ramble a bit about how infatuated I was with the Grand Béguinage of Leuven (Groot Begijnhof van Leuven for you Dutch readers…J/K, I know you don’t know Dutch, Mom).
The beguines are nothing short of fascinating. I consider it an institutional failure that my fairly expensive Catholic education never brought this piece of history to my attention. It’s almost like the big guys up top said, “Hey, tell them all about the nuns, but don’t mention those pesky beguines, ok?” (Disclaimer: It’s entirely possible I was asleep and/or “sick” when this came up in school.) I’m new to the subject, but to me, the beguines sound like the badass chicks of the 12th century!
They were basically nuns – without all the rules; religious women who lived together, but didn’t take the suffocating vows that the orders did. Just secular women who were united in their mutual desire to live for kindness and service to the poor. The beguines grouped their houses together in little walled-in clusters called béguinages, and in some cases – like the one in Leuven – these béguinages grew to be not so little. Tiny towns, really. Tiny walled towns of women.
It was a time when the Crusades were creating hordes of widows, causing these secular towns of feminine love to flourish in Northwestern Europe. The béguinage in Leuven housed 360 beguines at its largest, but the Ghent béguinage held thousands!
Around this time convents were so full that applications were often rejected and a certain level of economic prosperity was required for admittance. (Translation: Yo daddy got any money?) This inspired many women to turn to the béguinage. Some were full of well-to-do-women, some focused on the poor, and some a mix of both. A single city could have several. But they were all the same in an essential way – each was a place for religious women to join together in a life of spirituality – without the strings. A beguine could have her own house – even her own servants if she had the means. And a beguine could leave the béguinage at any time – she could even go get married if the right fella impressed her on a walk to the market!
The Grand Béguinage in Leuven sits on either side of a river that splits within the walls of the town, creating a tiny island. It was after sunset when we visited (it’s free and open to the public to walk around), but that only contributed to the utter magic about the place. (Unluckily for you, the night mode on my camera is beyond my comprehension.)
For good reason, the Grand Béguinage of Leuven became a World Heritage Site in the 90’s. That makes finding photos better than mine really easy:
Of course the Church thought these gals were a bit heretical and the béguinages faced decline until a slight rejuvenation in the 17th century, followed by more decline. Some béguinages were influenced by different religious orders deemed heretical by the big guy at the top. Hmm, religious women who wanted to live out lives of peace and service without completely withdrawing from the world? Inspired by Satan, surely.
The beguines prayed, cared for the poor and sick (often living near leper hospitals) and did manual labor to make a living. A Grand Dame was elected (that’s right, elected) to supervise the little town, often with the help of a council.
I find the idea of these women quite inspiring. Consider the life of a woman at this time. Independence wasn’t an option on the multiple choice that was life. When society said, “Hey, b****, you can be A) a wife or B) a nun,” the Beguines said a quiet, gentle “F*** you” and found their own supportive sisters in life. I dig it!
What do you think of a mini town full of independent religious women?