The béguinages (French)[begijnhof in Dutch] were communities that began in the 13the century around Belgium, NE France, and the Netherlands. They were communities of women who decided to dedicate their lives to God without actually becoming a nun or leaving society completely. Often they were widows who could not become nuns because they had previously been married or had children, but still wanted to follow a similar religious lifestyle.
They were like abbeys. Cities within cities. Once entering the main gate, you might be greeted by a large and cozy centrally located plaza with houses/apartments surrounding it, some internal streets/walkways to other housing areas, plus probably a garden and a chapel.
I visited two this weekend, one in Kortrijk (pop 75,000), one in Oudenaarde (pop 30,000). At the one in Oudenaarde, the last woman died in 1960 and so there is no longer anyone living there. In both cases they are UNESCO sites. The one is Kortrijk has 40 well preserved houses and is quite beautiful. Only a few women still live there.
|Entrance to Kortrijk Begijnhof|
|Houses on the sides of courtyard|
|Each door is an apartment/house|
|Entrance to Oudenaarde begijnhof|
|An open area behind some houses. Chapel in back.|