"The Most Beautiful City in Belgium"

"The Venice of the North"

(Terms used to describe the city by a couple I met in Brussels.)

Part 1 of 5

This visit took place the last day of March, 2001.  I was on business in Brussels, 3 full days of meetings, and gave myself one day to play.  So I chose to visit this place, again.

Again?  Why, when there is much else to see within an hour or so of Brussels, or even in that city itself.  Because it is where there is a wonderful, peaceful place to which I am easily drawn, the Beguinage, of Begijnhof.  It is a little square, surrounded by a wall, with little white houses and a central area of trees and green grass punctuated more often than not by flowers.  The official literature boasts that once can feel a special peace in this place, a refuge for hundreds of years.  I can attest to that.

Here is a first look at it as you see it coming through the gate that lies behind a bridge over what was the moat in Medieval times, and is just part of Brugge's canal system now:

So what is this Begijnhof or Beguinage all about?  I can give you the short-short answer, the short-story answer, or the long history answer.

SHORT-SHORT:  Sometime prior to the 12th century, women who were not able to or chose not to pay the dowry required to enter a recognized order, or who wanted to be able to change their minds later, might still feel themselves called to the religious life.  They would live a self imposed life of celibacy and service, perhaps in their own home.  Such women banded together and created a loose federation of lay, yet religious, women.  This went against the adage of the time that the woman had two legitimate life choices starting with "m" (in French) "mariage" or "maur"  Marriage or the wall, meaning the wall of a cloister.

This was a third choice, a temporary life behind a wall, that could be left and returned to.  It fostered a bloom in spirituality and spiritual accomplishment among women, and was quickly brought under control and dissolved in most places where it flourished, but it lasted a very long time in the Rhineland and the Low Countries under local ecclesiastical and royal protection.  The last Beguine left Brugge in 1927, with Benedictine sisters taking over their place as well as their style of devotional living to a large extent.  I have heard another Belgian Beguinage saw its last Beguine die in the mid 1960's.

After hundreds of years of success, theirs days came to an abrupt halt with the French Revolution and other revolutionary actions that took away properties from religious orders, with which the Beguines were lumped by the unwashed revolutionary tribunals.  For a while in Bruges (Brughes when I was younger) they rented their own place and doggedly pursued survival, but over time the order could not make ends meet and slowly petered out.  But its legacy in mystical, revelatory insight was phenomenal and lives with us still, as I attempt to document in my Long-History (see below).

To me, the peace they achieved within these walls, and the refuge they offered all who needed refuge (a place of safety recognized by the civil authority in the Middle Ages), sank deep into these grounds, and the feeling of safety and peace is palpable there still.

SHORT-STORY:  In my main website I have a fictional piece about a teenage girl who finds herself a Beguine, or Begijn.  Click on the previous, underlined  sentence and you will go there.  That story will give you the romanticized version of what this order of pious women was all about.

LONG-HISTORY:  If you are into the mystics of the High Middle Ages and their messages, and want to know how the Beguine/Begijn order played a part in nourishing and fostering that phenomenon, read my four part treatise by clicking on this paragraph, and don't expect to be able to agree with me on everything I say in that tome.

But, before we devote all our effort to trying the impossible, to give a feeling of peace and safety through pictures, let's explore what makes this city so attractive to people who are not particularly attracted to evidence of there having been a Mediaeval Women's' Movement.  Let's visit the city!

First there is the central square, the Grand Place or Grote Markt depending again on your language persuasion.  Since Brugge is solidly in the Dutch speaking part of Belgium, I'll dispense with the French equivalents of the  place names from now on.

So this is the way you enter the Grote Markt from the main street of the city:

And once fully in the square, this is the view in four directions.  First straight ahead,

Then turning left from there,

A bit closer to that colorful row of shops/restaurants,

Turning left some more,

And finally looking at the city hall, the dominant tower of downtown:

The gate at the bottom of the tower looks like this,

and to my surprise and delight, take the stairs to the right and after paying a small price it is possible to climb its winding narrow stairs to the top for a view onto the square we just left:

But, that is enough of that square, isn't it?  Delightful as it is to see, to visit, and to have a snack in, there is more to the city than the square at its heart, as we shall see in the next pages.

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