The Court Beguinages of the Low Countries

This blog post by Sarah Moran explores the lives of Court Beguinages, women who lived in religious communitiesHer overview moves from the Middle Ages to today, with particular focus on the early modern period, to trace their fascinating history.  

by Sarah Joan Moran


1. Anonymous, Béguine allant en Ville (Antwerp Beguine habit, worn outside the Beguinage) in Johann Friedrich Schannat, Lettre de Mr. l’Abbé S… à Mlle De G… Beguine d’Anvers, sur l’origine et le progres de son institut (Paris, 1731)

During the early modern period, tens of thousands of women in the Low Countries, a region roughly comprising modern-day Belgium, the Netherlands, and part of Northern France, joined unique communities known as Begijnhoven or Court Beguinages. These were semi-monastic institutions whose members, called Beguines, made the traditional monastic vows of chastity and obedience but eschewed the vow of poverty, meaning that each Beguine was responsible for her own financial needs. Although this excluded most poor women from the Court Beguinages, it also allowed members to maintain control over their personal property, and thus to a great extent over the course of their lives, which they could not have done had they married or joined a convent. Moreover, the Beguines enjoyed a relatively high degree of freedom: unlike nuns, they did not have to spend their time singing canonical hours, and their gates stood open during the day so that they might come and go as they pleased. These factors made the Beguinages enormously popular, with the smaller communities counting around a hundred members, and the largest topping out at over a thousand (the term “Court Beguinage” comes from the architectural complexes, built around courtyards, that were necessary to house such large communities). All but the smallest Court Beguinages also acquired independent parochial rights, making them the only all-female parishes in Christian history.


2. Church of the former St. Christopher Beguinage in Liège, constructed c. 1241-1257

The Court Beguinages’ roots were in the early thirteenth century and the religious revival that was then sweeping Western Europe. Around 1200 the term beguinae appeared to refer to the many women active in the movement. Many of these women, including a number of now-famous mystics like Marie d’Oignies (1177-1213), Margaret of Ieper (1216-1237), and Lutgard of Aywières (1182-1246), embraced an apostolic and itinerant lifestyle. Alongside them, however, the Court Beguinages emerged as highly structured residential institutions, which quickly also became quite well-endowed.


3. Anonymous, Béguine allant à l’Église (habit of the Antwerp Beguines, worn in church and for other formal occasions) in Schannat (see fig. 1).

They built their wealth through pious donations, both from their own members and from their local communities, usually in the form of testamentary bequests that were given in exchange for the Beguines praying for the donors’ souls so that they might sooner be released from purgatory. Since as women the Beguines could not perform the sacraments, each Court Beguinage had to have a priest and, often, several chaplains to perform masses and to hear their confessions. The priests governed the communities together with one or more elected Beguine superiors or “grand mistresses,” who oversaw staffing and financial administration and acted as representatives of the communities to the outside world. A system of internal administrative divisions coupled with the fact that Beguines were responsible for supporting themselves made the institutions financially flexible and that in turn helped make them remarkably stable. So too did their strong, often familial connections to the local secular and clerical elite, which allowed them to escape the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century campaigns of persecution against ‘heretical’ beguinae unscathed to flourish throughout the High Middle Ages.


4. Braun and Hogenberg, Mechelen, from Civitates orbis terrarum (1575)

The Beguines played prominent roles in the dazzling public ritual culture of Low Countries cities under Burgundian rule in the fifteenth century, for example walking in the annual Holy Blood procession, participating in the ‘joyous entries’ of Charles the Bold into Ghent and Mechelen in 1467, and greeting Charles’s new bride Margaret of York when she arrived in Bruges the following year. By the early sixteenth century the largest of the Court Beguinages, the Beguinage of Saints Alexis and Catherine at Mechelen, counted between 1500 and 1900 Beguines along with several hundred employees and boarders. Braun and Hogenberg’s 1575 map from the Civitates orbis terrarum shows the institution’s enormous scale; the Beguinage appears at bottom left on the city’s northern edge.


The Italian expat Ludovico Guicciardini wrote in his Descrittione di tutti Paesi Bassi (1567) that the Mechelen Beguinage resembled an immense walled castle,[1] while other early modern sources noted that this and other Court Beguinages seemed like little cities in and of themselves. Inside their walls Beguines supported themselves in various ways, some working in the institutions’ breweries, bakeries, and washhouses—the Mechelen Beguinage even had its own printing press where Beguines could find employment—while others ran their own small businesses, with lacemaking workshops and small schools being especially popular. Wealthy Beguines, on the other hand, lived on investments in loans and real estate held throughout their cities, and some of them turned that financial experience to use in managing the Beguinages’ vast assets when they served as mistresses.


5. Detail from fig. 4 of St. Catherine’s Beguinage outside the walls, which was destroyed in 1578-1580

Just one year after Guicciardini’s book was published, however, growing political discontent and Protestant beliefs erupted in a wave of iconoclasm across the Low Countries, and most of its provinces declared open rebellion against Spanish rule. From the late 1560s into the 1580s the Court Beguinages, along with other Catholic religious institutions, were decimated by iconoclasts, soldiers, and Protestant municipal governments. When Spain regained control over the Southern provinces in 1585, many Beguinages, including the Large Beguinage at Mechelen, had been utterly destroyed, while others had sustained major damage to their architectural complexes, property portfolios, and population numbers. In the Northern provinces, which became the independent and Protestant Dutch Republic, all of the Court Beguinages except those at Amsterdam and Breda were shut down outright or prohibited from admitting new members, so that by the 1670s the communities died out.


6. Anonymous, St. Begga as the Patron of the Beguines and the Begards. From Joseph Geldosph Ryckel, Vita S. Beggae ducissae Brabantiae, Andetennensium, begginarum, et beggardorum fundatricis: vetus, hactenus non edita, et commentario illustrata. Adjuncta est Historia Beginnasorium (Leuven, 1631) 

In the South, by contrast, most began to rebuild, and as they did, the Low Countries’ bishops took steps to bring the Beguines more tightly under Church control. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries their lack of enclosure had helped make them a target of anticlerical and misogynist criticism, and they had also been a source of anxiety for the Church, who feared that they might cause scandal through sexual misbehavior. But in the early seventeenth century the Tridentine reformers decided to turn the Beguines’ freedoms and liminal status to their advantage, by making them into model Catholics who could help spread the Counter-Reformation’s messages to the laity. In order to improve their image the Beguines were given something of a ‘monastic makeover,’ so that they would be more closely allied with the traditional virtues of nuns—most importantly religious chastity. Clerical scholars “discovered” the Beguines’ historical founder in the seventh-century abbess and duchess of Brabant St. Begga of Andenne (we know today that Begga had nothing to do with the Court Beguinages, but this was only established in the twentieth century), which made them seem more like a regular order, as did the fact that the Beguine habit was now standardized for the first time.


7. Frederick Bouttats II, Frontispiece of Het wonder-baer leven van Joanna Dedemaecker… (1662)

The bishops instituted more frequent visitations to ensure that the Beguines were, in fact, behaving themselves, and they asserted the Court Beguinages’ rightful, if idiosyncratic and local, position within the ecclesiastical hierarchy as places where women who for whatever reason were unsuited for a convent could pursue a more spiritually perfect life. In published biographies, like those of Anna van Schrieck and Joanna Dedemaecker, and the nearly 700-page Het Leven van de seer edele en doorluchtigste H. Begga met een cort begrip van de levens der salige, godtvruchtige en lof-weerdige Beggijntjes der vermaerde en hoogh-gepresen Beggijnhoven (1712), exemplary Beguines were presented as models of

8. Philibertus Bouttats, Frontispiece of Cort begryp van het godtvruchtigh ende deughtsaem leven van Señora Anna van Schrieck (1698)

orthodoxy whom any good Catholic should emulate. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century the Beguines were also major patrons of religious art and architecture, building massive churches filled with images that communicated orthodox Catholic messages. The Court Beguinages were thus essential components of the social fabric of early modern Low Countries cities, playing important social, economic, and religious roles and from the early seventeenth century onwards also acting as agents of the Counter-Reformation.


9. Anonymous, Beguinage of St. Amandsberg, Ghent, postcard, late 19th century

The end of the eighteenth century, however, saw the first major disruption at the Court Beguinages since the Dutch Revolt. In the 1790s the French Republican Army under Napoleon swept through the Low Countries and annexed the region, and most Beguinages saw their property confiscated. In the early nineteenth century most of the Beguinages regained at least some of their property, rights, and privileges, and they experienced a limited Renaissance. With the establishment of the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830, the Beguines further became romanticized symbols of a particularly Flemish heritage, appearing in impressionist paintings and, later, thousands of photographic postcards.


Anonymous, Beguine of Ghent’s St. Amandsberg Beguinage Making Lace, postcard, early 20th century

But by the first decades of the twentieth century the Court Beguinages were in a final and irreversible decline—as women gained equal legal and economic rights the institutions simply ceased to fill the social and gendered needs that had made them so popular for so long. A few kept functioning as schools into the 1970s, but as new professions dried up these too shut down. Today the Court Beguinages are, architecturally, in various states of preservation. About two dozen are substantially intact, with most of their structures dating to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in 1998 thirteen of these Flemish Beguinages were named as World Heritage sites by UNESCO.

The Beguinage of Hasselt is one of those not under UNESCO protection, and the city has recently approved sale of part of it for commercial development. If you’d like to protest this action, please fill out this petition. It’s in Dutch, but all you need to do is fill in your name, location, and email address on the right side and click on the “Onderteken” button. You’ll then get an email and you need to click the link under “BEVESTIGEN” to confirm your signature.


Further Reading

Aerschot, Suzanne Van, and Michiel Heirman. Les Béguinages de Flandre: Un patrimoine mondial. Brussels: Editions Racine, 2001.

Coomans, Thomas. “La plus ancienne église médiévale du mouvement béguinal.”Bulletin monumental 164, no. 4 (2006): 359-376.

D’Huys, Bert, et. al., Werken en kerken: 750 jaar begijnhofleven te Gent, 1234-1984. Ghent: De Stad, 1984.

De Moor, Tine. “Single, Safe, and Sorry? Explaining the Early Modern Beguine Movement in the Low Countries.” Journal of Family History 39, no. 1 (2014): 3-21.

Grieten, Stefaan. “Een heilige verbeeld: iconografie en ideologische recuperatie van de heilige Begga.” Jaarboek van het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (1994): 89-183.

Eck, Xander. Van “Between Restraint and Excess: The Decoration of the Church of the Great Beguinage at Mechelen in the Seventeenth Century.” Simiolus 28, no. 3 (2000): 129-162.

Majérus, Pascal. Ces femmes qu’on dit béguines… Guide des béguinages de Belgique. Bibliographie et sources d’archives. Introduction bibliographique à l’histoire des couvents belges antérieure à 1796, Vol. 9. Brussels: Archives générales du royaume et archives de l’Etat dans les provinces, 1997.

Moran, Sarah Joan. “Of Locked Doors and Open Windows: Architectural Strategies at the Court Beguinages in the Seventeenth Century.” Chicago Art Journal 20 (2010): 2-27.

Simons, Walter. Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.


[1] “Congiunto alla citta allato alla porta di santa Caterina verso Anuersa, è un’degnisimo, & memorabil’ munistero, quasi a guise di castello, con le sue mura attorno attorno, per amplisimo spatio, oue e una bella chiesa dedicata a Sant’ Alesso […].” Ludovico Guicciardini, Descrittione di tutti i Paesi Bassi, altrimenti detti Germania inferiore (Antwerp: Guglielmo Silvio, 1567), 153.


Sarah Moran has taught at the University of Bern and will be joining the faculty of Art History at Utrecht University in January 2017. Her primary research interests center on cultural production in the Counter-Reformation Southern Low Countries, with foci on women’s patronage, material culture, religious art and architecture, public performance, authorship, and image theory. For more on the Court Beguinages (especially in the seventeenth century) you can check out Sarah Moran’s page and keep an eye out for her forthcoming book Unconventual Women: Visual Culture at the Court Beguinages of the Habsburg Low Countries, 1585-1794


7 thoughts on “The Court Beguinages of the Low Countries

      • Actually ‘hofjes’ are something a bit different, though they served largely the same functions. They were charitable institutions set up for older, often widowed women. In some Dutch cities ‘hofjes’ replaced the begijnhoven that were shut down by the municipal leaders. I *think* that they were all Catholic, at least to begin with, but I’m not sure – I don’t think there’s been any real studies of them as a group though I might be wrong.


  1. thank you for an enlightening article on a shadowy subject. Can you tell me why, in the case of Mechelen, and maybe other cities, there was a small and a great beguinage?


  2. Good question! It’s actually quite simple: in the larger cities there was so much demand for this kind of lifestyle that there would be 2 or 3 Beguinages founded rather than just one. So the biggest one ends up being called the ‘Grand Beguinage’ and the smaller one the ‘Small’; if there’s a third it’s often named after the founder, location, or patron saint.


    Liked by 1 person

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