Search This Blog


A Village of Medieval Strong Women: The Groot Begijnhof

Hello, folks!

The Groot Begijnho is more than just a university residential area, a peaceful spot for a sunny afternoon picnic or a UNESCO World Heritage site. Red brick walls and cobbled roads of the magical village narrate a history of love and resistance—a love birthed in the hearts of numerous medieval women, still pulsating like the waters of the river Dijle.

In the 12th century, various religious movements sprang up, some founded exclusively by women. These pioneering women, known as beguines, established their own communities to live together, committed to a simple life of charity and chastity. They notably supported women seeking escape from forced or abusive marriages (SCHAUS, 2006). Importantly, beguines took no religious vows, maintaining the freedom to leave the community or marry. Initially, life for beguines was fraught with challenges, as they battled accusations of heresy. Even after Pope Honorius III informally endorsed their lifestyle, they faced stigmatization for decades. The hostility culminated in the execution of the French beguine Marguerite Porete, author of "The Mirror of Simple Souls," burned at the stake in Paris.

Though numerous European beguinages faded into history by the end of the 15th century, a select few in Belgium and the Netherlands flourished, standing as testaments to resilience and communal spirit, bolstered by support from urban elites and noble families. In Leuven, for instance, the Arenberg nobility sent their daughters to the Groot Begijnhof for living and learning. From 1630 to 1670, the original wooden structures were replaced with sturdier brick houses, enhancing safety and living conditions for the beguines. Unfortunately, the French occupation ended this prosperous era, as Begijnhof properties were reallocated to a Public Welfare Commission, stripping beguines of their traditional habits. Though they remained in the community, parts of the Begijnhof served as a refuge for orphans, widows, and the financially distressed. In 1962, the area was sold to the University of Leuven, heralding a new chapter for the site.

Globally, historical sites often succumb to demolition or exploitation by unscrupulous developers. Yet, under the guidance of Prof. Paul Van Aerschot and Prof. Lemaire (KU LEUVEN), the Groot Begijnhof's houses were meticulously restored. Today, it houses senior students and international researchers, with its exquisite gardens welcoming the public.

Strolling through the Begijnhof's narrow lanes, one encounters a symphony of languages, a testament to its diverse, harmonious community. In our era of intolerance, the coexistence of global scientists here embodies an act of love and resistance. The last beguine may have passed in 1988, but their essence lingers, a reminder that ideas, unlike bodies, are indomitable.

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

Follow Along

Blog Archive