Known as beguinages, in French, and Begijnhoven, in Dutch, these communities consisted of scores of quaint townhomes built around an open square the size of several football fields placed side-by-side. The open space provided gardens for the women and, in due time, also housed a church building for the Beguines. To provide safety for all the women, a large wall surrounded the entire complex.
In Belgium alone, ten thousand women joined Beguine complexes in the next half century! Most beguinages held several hundred women, but three of them grew to enormous size: Ghent housed 700 Beguines, Liège 1000, and Mechelen eventually holding some 1900 Beguines!
While only a few Beguines still live in Belgium today, more than a dozen of these complexes are preserved as historical sites today.
These medieval women were remarkable in their initiative to form Christian households. Forming such lay communities was virtually unheard of in their day, but that did not keep the Beguines from starting something new. They were determined to have fellowship with likeminded believers and in doing so started a whole movement that lasted strong into the nineteenth century.
We today need to have that same determination in establishing spiritual friendships that will help us grow. It might be meeting with another person one-one-one each week, or it might entail beginning a small group. For some, it could be the establishment of a full-blown community like the Beguines.
An excellent book describing the Beguine movement in Belgium is Walter Simons, Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200 – 1565 (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).
2009 © Glenn E. Myers