They Used to Be Places Just for Women. Now They’re UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

By the 13th century, many major European cities had established beguinages, or enclosed communities for women looking to live in relative freedom. What remains of them today?

Illustration of several women (beguines) in white scarves and long blue dresses among trees, with long, three-story white building topped by red roof in background

There were once tens of thousands of beguinages across Europe.

Illustration by Isabel Seliger

Ghent is a city of canals, its bridges studded with bursts of flowers. The Gothic architecture rises against the sky like elaborate sandcastles. As I navigate the cobbled streets, morning commuters whiz by me on bicycles, and the bells of St. Bavo’s Cathedral toll. I have traveled far and woken early to visit this first beguinage, a historic site that once housed spiritual medieval laywomen called beguines.

Our-Lady Ter Hooyen, known as “the little beguinage,” was built in 1234, but what stands today was mostly constructed five or six hundred years later. A classic court beguinage, it is surrounded by a high white wall and has one gated entrance. By the mid-13th century, many major cities in the Low Countries had established beguinages: enclosed communities of adjacent buildings protected by high walls and sometimes moats. This design was intended for privacy, as well as to keep intruders out. Women living, or even walking, alone were vulnerable to assaults by men. Beguinages locked their gates each night and most leaders insisted that their members venture out only in pairs. Although the informal nature of beguinages prevents us from knowing how many total existed, at the movement’s height, there were tens of thousands.

I first learned of the beguines in 2016, when I began attempting to live in closer accordance with my values. I had been in consecutive monogamous relationships from 15 to 35, and though independent and ambitious in my work as a writer and professor, in less visible ways my life had always been defined in relationship to romantic others. I didn’t know myself alone, and over the years had a growing sense that I was missing something. My abstinence began with three months, and I called it celibacy because I didn’t know what else to label it. I extracted myself entirely from any kind of romantic or erotic intimacy. No dating, no flirting, no charged “friendships.”

Before, I had assumed celibacy an experience characterized by deprivation and motivated by asceticism—a prudish, dry impulse. But that time was among the most sensuous and intimate of my life. As it unfolded, I researched female celibacy to better understand my circumstances. I read the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, about the desire for sex, and the pamphlets of radical feminist sects. I studied the Shakers, the religious leader Father Divine—whose followers were committed to abstinence—and the Dahomey Amazons, an all-women regiment that existed in what is now Benin. But no celibate women generated a more kindred feeling in me than the beguines.

These religious laywomen captivated me with their commitment to independence. Rather than submit to the imposed domestic script for women of their time, which supposed marriage, children, and housework, they lived communally, earned their own wages, and dedicated their lives to service. I was so moved by them that I made a pilgrimage to the Flanders region of Belgium, where the largest number of former beguinages exists. Thirteen of them are UNESCO World Heritage sites, “considered havens of tranquility, as they were in the past,” with “simple functional architecture that gives them their particular atmosphere of a utopian setting, in which a sense of community and respect for individuality are finely balanced,” per UNESCO. These beguinages—now mostly residences and monasteries—are today visited by thousands of travelers annually. Some six years later, I have returned.

Inside the walls of this little beguinage is an elegant courtyard framed by lime and beech trees, surrounded by the beguine housing; this is protected by another white wall that connects small green doorways, some adorned with tributes to Catholic saints. The buildings themselves, which now serve as subsidized housing for residents, are red brick with white accents. Through the windows I spot glimpses of the lives inside: neatly stacked dishes, a bowl of fruit.

Harder to describe is the feel of the place. I have arrived at exactly the right moment for the rising sun to spill its light down the cobbled walkways, through tree branches whose shadows it casts along the wall. It is quiet but for the rustle of leaves. I savor my aloneness and imagine how much more precious it would have been 800 years ago. I imagine the woman who would have stood here, having defied social expectation, to live free of children and husband.

My draw to beguines has always felt like an odd preoccupation for a queer memoirist and college professor who has never been religious. Now married, on the heels of publishing my fourth book, I find myself circling back to them. Why still this pull to a medieval order of laywomen? What insights do they offer me now? These questions have driven me here, and the way I feel standing in this courtyard seems like a kind of clue.

Unlike nuns in the Middle Ages, who often came from wealthy families that could afford the dowries required by abbeys, beguines emerged from all backgrounds. Any woman could join. Beguines didn’t take permanent vows but made promises like those of nuns: always of chastity and obedience, others varying by community. These promises could be abandoned or retaken at any time. Women sometimes left beguinages to marry or have children, and they would be welcomed back, though without their families. Sister Laura Swan, a Benedictine nun and author of The Wisdom of the Beguines, told me that joining the beguines was also “a way for a woman to walk away from a husband that she had no need for anymore.”

Marie d’Oignies (1177–1213), the Belgian mystic saint, is often cited as the first beguine, but there is no official founder of the movement, and it is impossible to pinpoint its inception, as communities sprung up in multiple locations around the same period. In addition to the religiosity overtaking Europe and the larger population of men than women, the proliferation of beguine communities was due to the burgeoning European literacy movement: In the early 13th century, two sister countesses of Flanders invested in secular coeducational schools, believing education would benefit the economy. Other European leaders soon followed suit.

Illustration of a few beguines among red-brick buildings

Beguines were still active until the 18th century.

Illustration by Isabel Seliger

As a result, from around 1200 until the 1600s, the beguinal movement spread across northwestern Europe. It’s an apt word—movement—not only because it describes the rapid growth of their communities but also because they achieved what so many subsequent movements of women have sought—independence, social change, and sustainable communal life. Scholars have located 111 medieval beguinages in Belgium alone, many having once housed hundreds of occupants apiece while subsisting independently upon their own business savvy.

Each beguinage operated independently, and its inhabitants frequently held jobs outside beguinage walls. Many communities also ran their own businesses—often in textiles or as launderesses—because financial independence was a priority for beguines; their economic savvy kept them free of clerical rule. Beguines administered to the sick and dying, and they ran orphanages, hospitals, and schools.

The beguines’ primary work was spiritual, too, as they thought everyone capable of a direct relationship with God. At that time, the Catholic liturgy was conducted in Latin and thus only accessible to male clergy and scholars. The beguines believed in unmediated access to spiritual texts and teachings, so they began preaching in the vernacular, writing their own meditations, and translating the Bible into common language—radical enterprises for laypeople, and especially for women. They understood spiritual truth as an encompassing love, one that manifested psychically, somatically, and in the practices of daily life. Influenced by the 12th-century French invention of romantic love spread by troubadours, the beguines adopted that language and often referred to God and divine experience as the female-gendered persona of Love.

I asked another scholar of the beguines, Silvana Panciera, why she was so drawn to them. “Because I felt in them the root of my history,” she said. “The root of feminism . . . they made the first step toward independence.” Silvana has been studying the beguines for almost 30 years. She has written a book, adapted it into a documentary (All Om All), and made all her findings available in multiple languages.

It is harder to research beguines than it is more formalized religious movements. Partly, this is because female monasticism has been largely ignored by male historians, and partly, this is because the beguinal movement was repeatedly stamped out by the Catholic Church, which persistently branded them heretics. Despite it all, the “gray women” as they were sometimes referred to (due to their plain garb of a dark cloak and headdress), lived more freely than most women have throughout human history. They seem to have lived in closer accordance with their own convictions than most people I have ever known.

It is often said that the last beguine, Marcella Pattyn, died in her beguinage in Kortrijk, Belgium, in April 14, 2013. Many, however, including Swan, say that a modern movement is on the rise, with communities thriving in multiple countries, including the United States, Canada, and Germany. But for history, there’s nowhere quite like Belgium.

It is a short train ride from Ghent to Bruges and a 15-minute walk from the station to the beguinage. Due to its beauty, Ten Wijngaerde, a Benedictine abbey since 1927, is one of the most photographed beguinages in the world. The main gate is reached by a stone bridge, and inside the complex are houses built between the 16th and 18th centuries. Throughout the courtyard are posted signs urging visitors to be quiet. In the extensive gift shop, pleasantly grumpy elderly women sell figurines and crucifixes.

I push open the heavy door to the church. I have never attended church regularly, but I have always been moved by the buildings’ interiors. This one is not particularly ornate, but I take a breath as the door eases shut behind me and survey the white ceilings, racks of red votive candles, and flower bouquets that sit before the altar to the Virgin Mary.

Though it is not my place of worship, as I sit in one of the wooden pews in the church, I feel at home. I light a candle and leave a donation. When I step back into the courtyard, the light has sunk, and I begin to make my way back toward the train station. It has been years since I relinquished my vow of chastity, but I sense now that I have kept something of that time: an awareness of belonging not to any one person but to myself and what calls me. I think of my wife and the mutual respect and autonomy that undergird every aspect of our union. Like me, she is an artist and understands the independence necessary to lead fully actualized lives within a partnership. I would not have been capable of such a relationship—not choosing it, nor cultivating it—had I not taken that time to reflect. Had I not taken the time to consider the beguines, whose lives were built upon principles of independence, creativity, service, and love.

It has been years since I relinquished my vow of chastity, but I sense now that I have kept something of that time: an awareness of belonging not to any one person but to myself and what calls me.

After Bruges, I travel to Brussels and meet Graham Keen. An English retiree, he gives tours of beguinages across Belgium, where he lives and is now a citizen. He translated Panciera’s book into English and it is she who introduced us. In one email, she referred to Keen as a beghard—the term for a male beguine; they were of small number and quickly evolved into formal monastic orders. On the train to Mechelen, he mentions his wife and son, and I think perhaps there has been a misunderstanding.

In Mechelen we walk through the picturesque village center to a neighborhood lined with the tall white walls now familiar to me. Like others, the beguinage is a beautifully preserved historic site occupied by private citizens that contains a few commercial enterprises. Keen points out the grand magistra’s quarters and shows me pictures of it before the bricks were painted. We admire medieval doorways and then eat lunch in Het Anker, a historic brewery founded in 1471 by the beguines and purchased in 1872 by the family who still runs it.

Our final stop is the church, whose interior is painted pastel and crowded with wooden prayer desks that the beguines would have used. Standing there, I remember the end of my last conversation with Panciera. “I think you are a person looking for a deep love. Is that right, Melissa?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said and recalled the years I spent looking for it in other people. I had first come here hungry for another kind of love, a connection to myself that has nothing to do with romance. Now, I stand in the church and feel it inside, like some echo of the past that rings in me, a reminder of deep rootedness, an ancient drive to live with meaning and care.

I think that Keen and I might make an odd pair—me, a petite American in athleisure, he a tall British man 30 years my senior—as we stroll back into the village center, where a train will take me to Leuven. We sit for coffee and chat about his children and grandchildren and my students. Panciera wasn’t wrong: Keen embodies the spirit of a beghard. Though he is married, he has cultivated a life devoted to beguine principles. He tends his passions, his good work, as one does a beloved: with careful attention, humility, and consistency.

We walk the final blocks the train station and shake hands before parting. As my train pulls away, I notice that the comfort I feel with him is the same I’ve felt with Panciera and Swan. Our passion for the beguines is a commonness among us, despite our obvious differences. Like the gray women, we have a thirst for meaning.

Later that day, in Leuven, I stand in the Groot Begijnhof. Founded in 1232 and bought in 1962 by the Catholic University of Leuven, it has been carefully restored. The arched doorways are accompanied by plaques announcing faculty lounges and academic departments, and students push bikes along cobbled pathways. It feels correct that these spaces are now where women live, learn, and teach independently.

This time, instead of imagining myself transported to the past, I imagine showing this place to the beguines. As Panciera put it: “They are our history, our roots of emancipation, and independence from a male direction.” I consider how my creative freedom is the legacy of their vision. I write about feminist and spiritual topics and translate histories like that of the beguines for an audience that is unlikely to encounter them otherwise. This, I realize, is the best method of sustaining my connection to them, to that lineage of independence and creativity to which I feel such a sense of belonging.

In The Wisdom of the Beguines, Sr. Laura chronicles the common practice of beguines’ vitae: autobiographical stories, usually recorded by their confessors, in which the narrative and its moral takes primacy. She describes them as “stories of women’s search for a genuine self, seeking to put into language the process of discovering that self, and inviting others to join her in that search.” Reading it, I was startled to find such a perfect description of my work. It reminded me of standing under the trees in that first courtyard, how I expected to feel a stranger and instead found myself at home.

Melissa Febos is the author of four books, including the nationally bestselling essay collection, Girlhood, which has been translated into seven languages and was a LAMBDA Literary Award finalist, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, and named a notable book of 2021 by NPR, Time, the Washington Post, and others. Her craft book, Body Work (2022), was also a national bestseller, an L.A. Times bestseller, and an Indie Next Pick. Her fifth book, The Dry Season, is forthcoming from Alfred A. Knopf.
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