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8.6.18

A Village of Medieval Strong Women: The Groot Begijnhof

Hello, folks!

The Groot Begijnhof, as it's called in Dutch, is more than a university residential area, a peaceful place for a sunny afternoon picnic or a UNESCO World Heritage. The red brick walls and cobbled roads of this magical village tell us a history of love and resistance. A love that was born in the heart of dozens of medieval women and it remains there, running and pulsing as the water of the river Dijle. 

At the beginning of the XII century, many religious movements started to emerge, some of those were exclusively created by women. Those brave women, later being called beguines, built their own communities to live together. They were keen on living a simple life, dedicated to charity and chastity. They were also known to have helped women who wished to flee from an arranged or abusive marriage (SCHAUS 2006). However, the beguines took no religious vows, they were free to leave the community and to get married. Life wasn't easy for the first beguines, they had to constantly fight against the accusation of living in heresy. Even after the Pope Honorius III had informally approved their lifestyle, they kept being negatively stigmatized for many decades to come. The wave of hate against them was so strong that it led to the execution of French beguine Marguerite Poetre, author of the book "The Mirror of Simple Souls", she was burned at the stake in Paris.

Many of these communities in Europe, called beguinages, did not survive the XV century. Yet many flourished in Belgium and in The Netherlands. Here the communities got the support of the urban elite and noble families, as for example in Leuven: the Arenbergs. The upper class of Leuven even sent their daughters to live and to be educated at the Groot Begijnhof. Between 1630-1670 the old wood houses were demolished and new beautiful brick houses were built, in order to offer better and safer space for the beguines to live and work. Unfortunately, this glorious years came to an end, during the French occupation the Begijnhof houses were transferred to a Public Welfare Commission and the beguines could no longer wear their habits. Although they could keep living in the community, part of the houses started to be used as a shelter for orphans, widows and people that could not afford to pay rent. In 1962 the Welfare Commission sold the area to the University of Leuven, a new bright destiny will be given to this area.

In many places around the world, historical sites are demolished or passed to the hands of toxic real estate agents. However, the most part of the houses of the Groot Begijnhof where carefully restored under the leadership of Prof. Paul Van Aerschot and Prof. Lemaire (KU LEUVEN). The Groot Begijnhof is now home to senior students and international researchers, and its lovely gardens are open to the public.

If you walk through the Groot Begijnhof's narrow lanes you will hear so many different languages from its inhabitants, and for me this is magical. In a world of intolerance and hate, having scientists from all over the word co-living in harmony is an act of love and resistance. The last beguine died in 1988, but somehow all of them are still present there. A body can be burnt at the stake, but an idea is immortal.

* Watch the video below and discover more about this place ;)

SCHAUS (2006) Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia.
KU Leuven - The Leuven Grand Beguinage


The Groot Begijnhof


Watch the video and discover more details about this wonderful place


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