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BRUGES : The Beguinage (Begijnhof)
 
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Just behind the Minnewater lies the Beguinage 'De Wijngaard' (= the Vineyard). It is one of those typical areas in Bruges where one can find more peace and quiet than in the sometimes busy and overcrowded streets of the town center. The Beguinage is a group of houses around a little garden covered with large poplar trees. It was here that during the last seven centuries lived the beguines of Bruges. In 1937 the beguinage became a monastery for the Benedictine sisters who still live here now.

The Beguinage of Bruges was founded in 1245 by the Countess of Flanders, Margaretha of Constantinopel, daughter of Count Baldwin who conquered Constantinopel (now Istambul) during the crusades. In 1299, Philip the beautiful of France, placed the Beguinage under his own rule, thereby withdrawing it from the influence of the town magistrate.Visitors enter the place via a bridge over the canal. The entrance gate bears the date 1776. A lot of houses, however, are much older than that. Most date from the 17th and 18th century. Some houses were built in the 19th century in neo-gothic style. In the southern part is a little dead end street where still some houses of the 15th-16th century can be found. The largest and most impressive house is situated in the left corner behind the garden. It was here that the 'grootjuffrouw', or 'grand-dame' lived. It was she who ruled over the beguinage. The original church of the 13th century was destroyed by a fire in 1584. It was rebuild in 1609 and later again renovated in late baroque style.

What is a 'Beguinage' ?

brugge-begijntjes.jpg (11606 bytes)In the rapidly changing world of the 13th century, some people became more attracted to a purer and more mystical form of religion as a reaction to the growing material and formal aspirations of the regular clergy. The example to be followed had been shown by the apostles : poverty, simplicity and preaching. People from both sexes decided to follow this new movement, which resulted in the creation of numerous new religious orders and movements.

The official religious institutions distrusted these new orders, so that they were very often persecuted or forbidden. In the Low Countries, however, the female followers of the mystical movement were tolerated in the form of the 'Beguine' movement. They were allowed to live in separate parts of the cities, in the so-called Beguinages. In this way, the religious authorities could control and supervise them. The beguines lived like regular nuns, but did not make the same binding vows that nuns normally made. Beguines usually made the vows of obedience and chastity, but not the vow of poverty. Moreover, they could at all times break their vows and leave the beguine community.

In the early middle-ages most beguines worked in the textile industry of the cities. It was not a religious movement exclusively for poor and needy women. Very often, girls from rich and noble families joined the beguine community. They were then very often chosen to become 'Grand mistress of the Beguinage' and they lived in the nicest houses, whereas the poorer beguines lived in the 'convents' which were houses were several sisters lived together.

Most still-existing beguinages are situated in the Northern part of Belgium. Although, now, there are practically no beguines alive anymore , their beautiful beguinages still exist as museums, cultural centers or houses for elderly people. The most important beguinages in Belgium are situated in the following cities: Bruges, Kortrijk, Gent, Lier, Turnhout, Dendermonde, Hoogstraten, Leuven and Diest.
 


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