History of the grand beguinage

History of the grand beguinage

History of the Grand Beguinage

On 31 March 2000, the Grand Beguinage in Leuven was inaugurated as UNESCO World Heritage. This lovely historic site has a rich history dating back to the thirteenth century.

Communities of beguines formed as early as the end of the twelfth century in what is now Wallonia. A few decades later God-fearing women, who had decided for a variety of reasons against life in a convent, started living together on the margins of society in Flanders too. They lived piously and had to work hard to make a living. Nonetheless, the word ‘beguine’ had somewhat heretical connotations in those days, as a lot of alternative movements that were considered by the Church to be heathen emerged at approximately the same time. And after all, the beguines did not take the same vows as nuns and they did not live by the rules of a founder of an order. It took till the mid-thirteenth century before the beguine movement was given an official statute. Then, in 1311, the decision was taken to abolish the whole movement. The Pope made an exception for Flanders, which explains why the beguinages have remained in this part of the world.

Of all the communities that survived the abolition, the one in the Grand Beguinage in Leuven is acknowledged to be the oldest. It is said to have been founded round the year 1232, and very soon the Infirmary and the Heilige Geesttafel were running a large farm with dozens of hectares of land. The number of beguines grew steadily, and in 1305 work started on the construction of the St John the Baptist church, which still exists. Around 1700, a period when it was thriving, nearly 300 beguines were living in the Grand Beguinage. After that the population gradually declined, with the last beguine dying in 1988. The evolution in the number of beguines reflects the prosperity and adversities that our regions have experienced through the centuries. After the Ancien Régime, in particular, the beguines were the first to suffer as a result of modern ideas. Eventually this led to the complete disappearance of their communities.

After 1800 the larger buildings forming the Grand Beguinage were used to accommodate older women, widows and orphans, while the houses were let to lay families. In 1962 the whole site, with the exception of the church, was sold to the university, the KU Leuven, which promised thorough restoration. During a first phase, from 1963-1972, the largest part of the Grand Beguinage was restored and converted into accommodation for students and faculty. Some of the bigger buildings were given other functions, and that is how the Faculty Club was founded.

If you would like more detailed info about the history of the Grand Beguinage, a pamphlet is available from the reception of the Faculty Club.

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