In Turnhout, a large Belgian town near where I live, if you walk a little way from the busy marketplace you will find a gate, and through that gate a green edged with cobbled streets, a church and pretty little old houses with painted shutters. It is a begijnhof, a feature of many Belgian towns (begijnhof in Flanders or béguinage in French-speaking Wallonia). One of the earliest is that of Mechelen, founded in 1207. Until recently, they were the homes of semi-monastic communities of women called begijnen or beguines.
(The begijnhof in Turnhout; photograph from here)
Begijnen (begijn in the singular) were usually unmarried women or widows who gathered together to devote themselves to prayer and pious works, such as helping the poor. They underwent a novitiate with their Grand Mistress but, unlike nuns, they took no vows, were able to keep their own property and could leave the community at any time. Those without private income supported themselves, perhaps through teaching. Some had servants; all had their own homes. Some communities restricted the social status of their members, allowing in only wealthy ladies or those in humble circumstances, but the largest begijnhoven admitted women from any social order. The movement spread through northern Europe, but started and was strongest in the Low Countries; it survived accusations of heresy, suppression and the onslaught of the Protestant Reformation. You can read more about it on Wikipedia here.
On this day last year, the last begijn, Marcella Pattyn, died, and with her ended a religious tradition which stretched back more than eight centuries. The begijnhof offered women a life of purpose outside the family, a combination of socially useful activity and spiritual contemplation, in times when they had few options outside marriage. It is easy to romanticise the begijnhof – easy for me, anyway – as a less intense version of a convent, one which encouraged a sense of sisterhood and vocation but with a great degree of self-determination, and I wonder what it was really like. Improvements in the lot of women have made redundant many of the functions of the begijnhof, but there seems a spaciousness and beauty around such a life which I do not think have been replaced, at least not yet.
(Marcella Pattyn reading braille; from here)