Case Studies - Beguinages - Belgium

Begijnhof, Diest, Belgium

 

Type of institution for collective action

Beguinages

Name/description institution  

Begijnhof 

Country 

Belgium

Region

Flemish Brabant

Name of city or specified area

Diest

Further specification location (e.g. borough, street etc.)

 

The beguinage of Diest is integrated into the city, and is situated in the North-Eastern part of the old city.

 

For the exact location of the beguinage of Diest, see the world heritage website of Unesco.

Patron saint

Saint Catherine.

Foundation/start of institution, date or year

Before 1245.

Foundation year: is this year the confirmed year of founding or is this the year this institution is first mentioned?

Exact date of foundation is not clear, but the beguinage is mentioned for the fist time in 1245. In that year Pope Innocentius IV documented his ward, guaranteeing the beguines his special protection, over the beguines of Diest.

Foundation act present?

See above.

Description of Act of foundation

See above.

Year of termination of institution

The French government issued the closure of all clerical institutes in 1796, which led to substantial changes for the beguinage of Diest in the period that followed but managed to survive. The last two beguines left in 1928.

Year of termination: estimated or confirmed?

See above.

Act regarding termination present?

No.

Description Act of termination

N/a.

Reason for termination?

Leaving of last two beguines in 1928.

Recognized by local government?

The beguinage was acknowledged by the Lord of Brabant, Hendrik I, on the 31st of May, 1253, when he granted the beguines the same rights as the other inhabitants of the city of Diest. Effectively, the beguinage became part of the city.

Concise history of institution

In 1245, when the beguines were first mentioned, they lived outside the city walls of Diest; they leased a plot of land from the abbey of Saint-Gertrude. The land was granted to them by the abbot, along with the permission to built a church and houses. During the second half of the fourteenth century, the beguinage was included within the city walls, because of the extension of the city.

 

Work

The main occupation of the beguines was in the textile industry; this caused some trouble between the beguines and the other textile workers in the city of Diest. An agreement dated December 7, 1279, mentions that the beguines will pay the tradesmen a yearly contribution, and would, moreover, not produce more sheets than agreed between the textile crafts and the  mistress of the beguinage. Furthermore, the beguines were not allowed to make coloured sheets, because that would interfere with the business of the textile guilds.

 

Another dispute between the beguines and the people of Diest was about bread. The bakers of Diest saw the distribution of bread after the death of a beguine – a practice known as ‘lijckmicken’ – as unfair competition. In 1686, they effectively contested this practice through the city council: for three years the breads could only be distributed at the beguinage itself. The beguines, however did not take the warning very seriously and the feud between the bakers and them continued.

 

Next to their occupation in the textile industry, the beguines were also involved in the education of many children. These children were outplaced by their parents, and received their primary education from the beguines. Boys were allowed in the beguinage until they were ready for the training of a trade or craft; the girls usually stayed in the beguinage and often became beguines themselves.

 

Management

No less than four mistresses managed the beguinage of Diest simultaneously. These mistresses of the beguinage (hofmeesteressen) were elected by the beguines who had lived for at least ten years in the beguinage. Besides them there were three 'mistresses of the Holy Spirit' ( ‘Heilige-Geestmeesteressen’) who took care of poor relief.

 

The beguinage also had a pastor, who was elected by the beguines as well; he was vested by the lords of Diest. The financial matters of the beguinage were overseen by a lay-steward, who accounted for the annual account for the mistresses and the pastor.

 

Estate

The beguinage held a large patrimony in its possession; most of it consisted of land, and was acquired through donations. The beguinage from time to time also bought land, as a means to support the poor beguines and maintain the estate. Besides the extra ventures of land income and the incomes form textile production, the beguines had their own farm within the beguinage, with which they could support their daily needs.

 

During the first decades of the seventeenth century, the income and thus the prosperity of the beguinage expanded. This resulted in the rebuilding of the clay and wooden huts into more durable buildings of brick. The project started with the rebuilding of the Holy Spirit convent in 1618. Between 1634 and 1639 the first houses were rebuilt, and around 1665, when the beguinage consisted of about a hundred houses, one-third of the houses was made of brick. This rebuilding project was largely funded by the beguines themselves.

 

Reform of the beguinage

In 1538 the beguinage was appointed a new pastor, Nicolaas van Essche, who was hired to deal with the misguidance’s of the beguines; van Essche, or Esschius, reformed the beguinage in a profound way. Esschius was a follower of the 'Modern Devotion', which made him an advocate of a more personal perception of religion. He foresaw a few very radical changes for the beguinage, many of which encountered much protest from both the beguines and the inhabitants of Diest.

 

For one, he wanted to cut of the beguines from worldly contact, in order for them to be able to concentrate on a more profound religious experience. To make this possible, he closed off the road that passed through the beguinage. Moreover, he made several alterations in the way the beguines were allowed to produce for the textile industry, and the way they conducted trade with lay people (especially tradesmen).

 

Secondly, he altered the conduct of religious worship. Many services, and some customs – such as the ringing of the vespers – were abolished. The beguines were not pleased with these alterations, and found the amount of masses unsatisfactory.

 

Thirdly, some alterations were also made in the field of finance. The distribution of provision was strongly cut; Esschius foresaw that only poor beguines could receive some support. The strong cutbacks can be seen in the light of Esschius’ ideas about poverty: those who can work should work, and only the needy should receive support.

 

Fourthly, Esschius changed the way in which the beguinage was managed: the mistresses were under his watch chosen from the more youthful girls (around 21-22 years of age); this evoked much protest from the elderly beguines, probably because they were no longer elegible.

 

Finally, he also raised the admission fee from one to five guilders (gulden).

 

The reforms Esschius enacted can be regarded as a reaction from the Catholic church to a broader displeasure with the focus of many clerical institutes on earthly, material aspects. However, Monika Triest saw the reform method of Esschius, combined with the actions of Johannes Hauchinus, the archbisshop of Mechelen, and Johannes Fredericus Lummius, pastor of the beguinage of Antwerp, as a struggle by the bishop in order to gain more power. The amendments of the beguinages of their dioceses were replaced by a uniform rule, and made the beguines subordinate to the clerical hierarchy.

 

Upheaval during the French period

In 1794, French government took over authority in the southern part of the Low Countries. Consequently, in September 1796, the entire estate of the beguinage was transferred to the city’s poor relief patrimony.  A new law, issued on October 7, 1796, erected the ‘Hospices Civils’: the municipal poor relief was from then on governed through this new body. The beguines remained in the beguinage, but some houses were given to poor inhabitants of Diest. Following the changes imposed by the French government, there was an opposition movement in Brabant called Stevinisme, which foresaw the resurrection of the religious values from before the French period. This movement also had a lot of followers among the beguines and inhabitants of the beguinage of Diest. On August 13, 1813, there was a raid on the beguinage to round up all the Stevenisten: the church was closed and bolted, and the beguines received notice on August 21st that they should leave the beguinage and move to a municipality of their own choice, where they would be supervised by the local government. This, of course, had a great impact: in 1813, only 20 beguines still lived in the beguinage.

 

With the establishment of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815, many beguines returned to their homes, the beguinage itself however remained under supervision of the municipality; hence, more and more lay people came to live in the beguinage.

Special events? Highs and lows? Specific problems or problematic periods?

  • 1253: Beguines are granted city rights, thus becoming inhabitants of Diest.
  • 1538: Start of reform by Esschius.
  • June 19, 1578: Esschius died.
  • 1841: First kindergarten of Diest was established in the beguinage.
  • 1928: Last two beguines left the beguinage.

  

Click for larger image and source info

Entrance gate of Begijnhof, Diest, finished in 1671.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

Prime of the beguinage was during the third quarter of the seventeenth century. The beguinages invested a lot in decoration for the church, purchasing art and the building of many new houses and a new entry port (see picture above).

 

Membership

Numbers of members (specified)

There were many people living in the beguinage, not just beguines: also children and servants lived there. The infirmary and farm was staffed by servants, and some of the richer beguines had their own maid.

 

Clik on graph for larger image

 Source: based on numbers, mentioned by Van der Eycken (1987)

 

In the chart we can make out the population trend of the beguinage from the second half of the seventeenth century on until 1928, the year in which the last two beguines left the beguinage

 

From the period of the beginning of the beguinage until the sixteenth century, there is almost no data available on the size of the beguinage. We do know that in 1464 the beguinage contained already 86 houses. In 1526, the number of houses had gone down to 84, inhabited by a total of 176 beguines, 37 novices and helps, 17 children, and 4 other people.

 

The golden age of the beguinage was clearly during the end of the seventeenth century. The low point, between 1796 and 1833, can be explained by the effects of the period of French government.

The beguines had to take temporary vows of obedience and chastity after they successfully made it through the probation period of one year. After this year and the taking of vows they could move in the beguinage, either by buying their own house or by leasing a room in the house of another beguine.  The really poor beguines could enter in one of the convents or community houses.

When a wealthier beguine wanted to build her own house, she would have to ask permission from the mistresses and the pastor after which they would most likley grant her a plot of land. The beguine that built the house would be allowed to live there until her death; she could also appoint three beguines who could live there rent-free after her passing. When these beguines came to pass the house would fall to the beguinage, and be rented out to other beguines.

As mentioned, before the reforms of Esschius the entree fee of the beguinage was one guilder; Esschius changed it to five.

Membership attainable for every one, regardless of social class or family background?

Yes, there were both poor and rich beguines living in the beguinage of Diest. It could be, though, that the entrance fee – and especially after it had gone up during the reform period of Esschius – could have formed a barrier for some girls or women. 

Specific conditions for obtaining membership? (Entrance fee, special tests etc.)

The beguines had to take temporary vows of obedience and chastity after they successfully made it through the probation period of one year. After this year and the taking of vows, they could move into the beguinage, either by buying their own house or by leasing a room in the house of another beguine.  The really poor beguines could enter in one of the convents or community houses.

 

When a wealthier beguine wanted to build her own house, she would have to ask permission from the mistresses and the pastor, after which they would most likely grant her a plot of land. The beguine that built the house would be allowed to live there until the time of her death; she could also appoint three beguines who could live there rent-free after her passing away. When these beguines came to pass, the house would befall to the beguinage, and be rented out to other beguines.

 

As mentioned, before the reforms of Esschius,  the entree fee of the beguinage was one guilder (gulden); Esschius changed it to five.

Specific reasons regarding banning members from the institution?

None specifically mentioned in literature.

Advantages of membership?

None specifically mentioned in literature.

Obligations of members?

Literature mentions no specific obligations of the beguines, other than the standard obligations:

  • the profession of temporary vows of chastity and obedience 
  • daily prayers and attending mass.

 

There was, however, a custom at the convents of the beguinage of Diest. The women who lived here did prepare their meals together in the same kitchen, but did not join together at a table to have their meals: each ate at her own begijnenschapraai, a cabinet in which the beguines also saved their china. They ate at the extending board from the cabinet. During regular days they used white china; the coloured china was especially reserved for use on Sundays and holidays.

Literature on case study

  • Van der Eycken, M., 1987. Het Diestse begijnhof: een besloten hof. In: Begijnen in Brabant: de begijnhoven van Breda en Diest, eds. F. Koorn and M. van der Eycken. Esso Museumreeks 9. Breda: Esso.
  • Triest, M., 1998. Het besloten hof: begijnen in de Zuidelijke Nederlanden. Leuven: Van Halewijck.
  • Stabergh, I., Jonckers, F., and Van Passel, M. (eds.), 2003. 750 jaar Begijnhof Diest: vroeger en nu. Tienen: Ripova.
  • Van der Eycken, M., 1978. Nicholaas van Essche en de hervorming van het Dietse begijnhof.  Historica Lovaniensia, 80, 277-97.

Sources on case study

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Links to further information on case study:

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Case study composed by

Data collection: Aart Vos, Municipal archive (Stadsarchief) 's Hertogenbosch

Text: Winny Bierman, Utrecht University