The 13th century saw the creation of communities formed by single women taking active roles in society and in service to their faith. These communities included women who had been widowed as a result of the wars and crusades of the time. They lived in close proximity to each other out of circumstance, mostly in neighborhoods outside of the city center, where they worked with the poor and cared for the sick. They came together to create their own religious communes, or semi-monastic societies. These devout women came to be called beguines, and the community they formed was referred to in French as a beguinage. In Dutch or Flemish a beguinage is known as a begijnhof.
The begijnhof served as a tranquil haven for the inhabitants. Many of the women were able to provide for themselves paying for their necessities with their own funds, though some sought sponsorship from wealthy and influential benefactors. Each community was self-governing, and since the church did not regulate their activities and the women did not take solemn vows, they were not required to take an oath of poverty and remained free to live a life outside of the begijnhof. Some took jobs in the surrounding towns, doing manual labor or teaching the children of area residents. The beguines established their communities in major cities and small towns throughout Northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. The traditional design of these walled communities was that of a miniature medieval city or, in some cases, a simple cloister consisting of row houses built around a central courtyard or churchyard.
In 1245, Margaret of Constantinople, Countess of Flanders, founded the begijnhof in Bruges, a walled community that today remains completely intact. Officially known as Prinselijk Begijnhof Ten Wijngaerde, the community came under the authority of Philip the Fair, King of France in 1299. Since 1927, the begijnhof has been home to the Monasterium De Wijngaard, a priory of the Order of Saint Benedict. The existing whitewashed row houses, thirty in all, date from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Visitors to the community are asked to respect the privacy of the nuns in residence and the tranquility of their neighborhood, which is open daily to the public. Visitors are welcome to tour the Begijnhofkerk and Het Museum “Begijnhuisje”, however photos in some areas within the walls are not allowed.
The small rooms and courtyard garden of the museum are furnished with authentic items of the time and give visitors a view of the simple comforts enjoyed by the previous residents. The museum is located in one of the 17th century row houses of the begijnhof. Admission = €2.
In addition to the residential communities for the beguines, many cities in the Middle Ages also had ‘Godshuizen’ or ‘hofjes’, known in English as almshouses. In the Low Countries, these charitable institutions were similar in design and layout to the begijnhof and consisted of row houses, usually painted white or yellow, built around a central courtyard. Established by wealthy individuals or by trade guilds, the Godshuizen in Bruges served as shelter for widows and the elderly in need, many of whom were indigent and without income.
The city of Bruges had over 40 of these houses, the oldest of which date back to the 14th century.