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Begijnhof in Brugge

As early as the 13th century, beguines inhabited the Princely Beguinage 'Ten Wijngaarde'. Unmarried women lived together in a closed community and led a fairly independent and emancipated life there. In 1998, UNESCO recognised the Bruges beguinage, along with 12 other Flemish beguinages, as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Today, the white houses surrounding the charming courtyard garden are still inhabited by a few nuns and by women who choose a serene lifestyle. You can visit this unique piece of World Heritage freely, but at dusk, the gates continue to be firmly closed.

The beginnings of the beguine movement

Between the 11th and 13th centuries, women began to band together to meet their spiritual and material needs. Thus was born the beguine movement.

To the dismay of the Church

Although the beguines led a pious and celibate life, ...

  • ... they did not follow an established rule of life from the Roman Catholic Church;
  • ... they did not take a vow of poverty;
  • ... they were allowed to keep their properties;
  • ... they were not bound by formal 'perpetual vows'.

Beguines had an independent and freer existence than nuns. The then-male church leaders did not like to see all this happen. Pope Clement V even declared the beguines heretics in 1311.

Mainly in Flanders

Despite fierce resistance, beguines spread throughout Europe. In the Low Countries, they organised themselves autonomously, settled in a gated community and had their own governance. Here, the nobility and some religious orders favoured the beguine movement. They could count on support there. As a result, Belgian beguinages were mainly located in the powerful County of Flanders and in the Duchy of Brabant. In Bruges, the beguines enjoyed the protection of Countess Joan of Constantinople, and in 1299, the French king Philip the Fair took the beguinage under his jurisdiction. That explains the name 'Princely Beguinage'.

The Bruges beguinage past and present

  • 1242: first written mention of the Bruges beguinage
    Before that, beguines probably lived scattered around the city.
  • Mid-13th century: De Wijngaard
    The beguines settled on the outskirts of the city, just outside the first city walls. Their beguinage was located on a low-lying piece of grassland ('gaard') that was enclosed ('wijn'). Hence the name 'Wijngaard'.
  • 15th century: flourishing
    As many as 152 beguines lived there at the time, divided into 11 convents. Each convent was governed by a mistress, while the grand mistress had the entire beguinage under her care.
  • 1927: the last beguines
    In the 19th century, the income of the beguinage decreased dramatically, as did the number of beguines. The last four beguines joined the ‘Filles de l'Église’ community in 1927, following the Rule of Benedict. From then on, there were no longer any beguines living in the Bruges beguinage, but instead convent sisters.

The Beguines

The first beguines were of humble origins and deliberately chose a form of living together in convents. They were emancipated women who dedicated their lives to God, without withdrawing from the world. They performed useful work caring for the sick, in education and textile processing.

Way ahead of their time

Unlike the strict monastic orders, beguines retained their personal property and rights. This gave them freedom in their daily lives and religious practice. Entry or exit was possible at any time. For example, some joined only when they were widowed.

Why live in a beguinage?

Each beguine had her own motivation. Some of the possible reasons:

  • the private beguine society offered protection and security;
  • pious or mystical women sought a more personal relationship with God, outside the church structure;
  • as a woman, you could choose between getting married or a strict monastery. The beguinage offered more freedom and independence.
Twee zusters wandelen door begijnhof
Two nuns stroll through beguinage City of Bruges | photography unit (Jan Termont)
Still inhabited

For centuries, the Bruges beguinage has been inhabited continuously. Today, some nuns from the Order of Saint Benedict live there, as well as single women from Bruges.

Architectural ensemble

The Bruges beguinage consists of

  • 37 residential houses
  • a monastery
  • a church
  • outbuildings
  • green spaces

This architectural ensemble is organised according to a spatial concept of urban or rural origin and built in styles specific to the Flemish cultural region.

Visitors welcome

The beguinage is open to visitors. Be sure to walk in, because

  • the 18th-century main gate will make for an impressive entrance. Saint Elizabeth is depicted above the gate – the patron saint of the Bruges beguinage. The word 'Sauvegarde' indicates the protection of the Countess of Flanders, Joan of Constantinople. There is also a second gateway at the Lock-Keeper's House. Both are closed at night.
  • the large courtyard garden with terraced poplars and lime trees, and the surrounding white houses, are particularly impressive. In spring, daffodils and the wild wood hyacinth bloom successively. Along with the rare orchids, they further enhance the unique nature of the beguinage.
  • in the church you will find, among other things, the oldest sedes sapientiae (Mary with Infant Jesus) in Bruges. It is a statue of Our Lady of Spermalie from 1247. The 13th-century church was originally Gothic, but almost completely burned down in the 16th century due to a fallen candle. Some baroque interior elements were added during reconstruction in the 17th century.

Also look for

  • the grand mistress' house at number 30. Of all the white houses around the courtyard, this is the only one with Baroque façades. The grand mistress had the largest house, for here was also the administrative headquarters, the infirmary and a chapel.
  • the 'steert' (tail), a dead-end street with a few homes. Are you entering or leaving the beguinage through the gate near the Lake of Love? Then you will walk through it in any case. In some beguinages, the dwellings are grouped around a courtyard. Others follow a street pattern, like a small village. The presence of the 'steert' makes the Bruges beguinage a mixed type.
  • the religious and liturgical centre at number 4. You can buy books, candles, rosaries, postcards, statues of saints or any other memento there.

Exceptional universal value

The Bruges beguinage received UNESCO recognition as a World Heritage Site in 1998, along with 12 of the total 26 beguinages in Flanders. Upon recognition as a World Heritage Site, the appropriate committee always approves a 'Statement of Outstanding Universal Value' (SOUV). As a series, the 13 Flemish beguinages were inscribed on the World Heritage List and naturally have a SOUV too.

These are the main points as to why the recognised beguinages have outstanding universal value according to UNESCO:

  • Witness to the beguine movement
    Beguinages show the way groups of independent, religious women (unmarried or widowed) chose to live together without completely withdrawing from society.
  • Typical enclosure by walls or moats and gates
    To this day, beguinages form clearly defined wholes and oases of tranquillity within the city.
  • Balance between community and individual
    The recognisable architectural ensembles in which houses, church, outbuildings, etc., were organised around streets, squares and green spaces still reflect a way of life in which a sense of community and respect for the individual seem to be perfectly balanced, as are spiritual life and the material needs of everyday life.

Authentic and living place (of quiet)

The Bruges beguinage in particular scores highly in terms of authenticity and integrity:

  • the whole place is in good condition
  • it is still one property
  • there is still a religious experience by the nuns present
  • after many centuries, it is still inhabited exclusively by women
  • the gates still close every day at dusk
  • it is a unique 'place of silence' in the city centre.
Begijnhof in Brugge

As the owner, the City of Bruges ensures that the beguinage remains a living place, which cherishes and perpetuates its outstanding universal values. Every visitor is expected to be respectful of this site's unique values.

Beguinage in 360°