The Grand Beguinage of Leuven: a piece of history
On 31 March 2000 the Grand Beguinage of Leuven was recognised as UNESCO World Heritage. This magnificent historic site has a rich history dating back to the 13th century. In what is currently known as the Walloon region, communities of beguines already emerged at the end of the 12th century. A few decades later devout women, who for various reasons had chosen not to join a convent, formed communities on the fringes of society in Flanders as well. They lived piously and had to work very hard to be able to provide for themselves. Nevertheless, the word beguine was somewhat associated with heresy in those days, because at about the same time quite a few alternative religious movements arose which were considered heretical by the Church. The beguines did not take the same vows as nuns and they did not live by the rules of a particular order. Therefore, it was not until the 13th century that the beguine movement was officially recognised. In 1311, however, it was decided that the whole movement should be abolished. The Pope made an exception for Flanders, which explains why the beguinages continued to exist in our parts.
Of all the communities which remained after the abolition, that of the Leuven Grand Beguinage is generally acknowledged as the oldest. It was allegedly founded around the year 1232 and quite soon afterwards the Infirmary as well as the Heilige Geesttafel ran a large farm with tens of acres of land. The number of beguines grew steadily and in 1305 construction began on the St. John the Baptist Church, which still exists today. Around 1700, a flourishing period, a little under 300 beguines resided in the Grand Béguinage, after which the number dropped steadily. The last beguine passed away in 1988. The evolution of the number of beguines reflects the prosperity or adversity faced by our regions throughout the centuries. Particularly after the Ancien Régime the beguinages were the first communities on which the modern ideas had a detrimental effect, which eventually led to their complete disappearance.
From 1800 onwards the larger buildings of the Grand Beguinage were used to house elderly women, widows and orphans, while the smaller houses were rented out to lay families. In 1962 the whole site, except for the church, was sold to the University of Leuven, which promised to properly restore everything. Between 1963 and 1972, in the first phase of the restoration process, the main part of the Grand Beguinage was turned into accommodation for students and professors. A number of larger buildings were given a different purpose, which is how Faculty Club was established.