Case Studies - Beguinages - The Netherlands

Begijnhof, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Type of institution for collective action

Beguinage

Name/description institution

Begijnhof

Country

The Netherlands

Region

Province of Utrecht

Name of city or specified area

Utrecht

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

The location of the beguinage is indicated by the red polygon displayed on the city map of 1598 by Adam van Vianen underneath. As is visible on the map, the beguinage was surrounded by a wall and had a small gate to the Breedstraat and a larger entrance gate facing the convent of the White Nuns. On the map underneath the location of the chapel of the beguinage is visible; remains of this chapel has been included in the construction of the current houses in the Wijde Begijnestraat.

 

Click here for larger version

Detail of a map of the city of Utrecht, made in 1598 by Adam van Vianen. The author of the case study has indicated (polygon) the location of the former beguinage of Utrecht, as well as (ellips) the assumed location of the area called Heyligh Land, mentioned in Margareta's will of 1292. The bulwark to the left is the current Begijnenkade; the church at the far right hand side of the picture is the still existing Janskerk.

Source: Utrecht University Library. Click here for original version and details on source.

 

Besides this large beguinage there may have been other small groups of pious women living together that may have been inidcated as 'beguines'. For instance, Margareta, widow of Rudolfus Posch, in her will dating from 1292 bequeathed some land, called Heyligh Land ['Holy Land'] to a group of beguines, in order for those women 'to live there forever'. Van Ryn (1719) indicated the location where these beguines lived as 'near the city gate called Wittepoort, opposite of the convent of the White Nuns' ['staande bij de Witte-poort, recht over de Witte Nonnen'] (the convent of the White Nuns was a congregation of women living together, following the rule of Saint-Norbert and were called 'White Nuns' because of the white habits they wore); this location has been marked by the red ellips on the city map displayed above. This group and location was also discussed in an artcle by De Bruijn (1984). In this case description, we however only discuss the beguines living in the beguinage located around de current Wijde Begijnestraat (see also underneath).

Surface and boundaries

According to Muller (2013), the beguinage covered the area bordered by the current Voorstraat, the Asch van Wijkskade, the Plompetorengracht, and the Begijnesteeg (previously named Tweede Begijnensteeg); see also the map above. According to a detailed study by De Bruijn (1994) on property documents of houses of the beguines and to archeological research there is uncertainty about the eastern boundary of the beguinage; some of the houses at the Plompetorengracht at theeastern side of the beguinage may have been adjacent to, but de facto not actually belonging to the beguinage.

Patron Saint

unknown

Foundation/start of institution, date or year

before 1251

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

According to a charter from 1400. there has been a previous act dating from 1251, mentioning the beguinage. The earliest original source mentioning the beguinage dates from 1282. The earliest documents referring to houses of beguines dates from 1284 according to De Bruijn.

Foundation act present?

No.

Description of Act of foundation

N/a.

Year of termination of institution

De jure, the beguinage ceased to exist in 1707, when the administrators in charge terminated the separate administration of the possesions of the beguinage as an institution. De facto the beguinage had already ceased to exist in the course of the seventeenth century, especially after 1613, when the communal household of the beguines was abolished by the municipal government and also Protestant women were allowed to live in the beguinage.

Year of termination: estimated or confirmed?

See above.

Act regarding termination present?

 

No. See above.

Description Act of termination

N/a. See above.

Reason for termination?

See above.

Recognized by local government?

Yes. The municipal magistrates however tried to monitor the beguinage at close range, as the appointment of two municipal supervisors [begijnmeesters] in 1394 seems to confirm: they were the laisions between the municipal government and the beguinage and were also in charge of the protection of the beguines. After the Reformation, municipal involvement with the management of the beguinage increased: whereas in 1581 the town council demanded to have the right of approval of appointing new beguines, in 1586 they demanded to have the sole right of appointing new beguines. Althought this measures were initially withdrawn in 1588, in 1613 four officials [rentmeesters] were appointed to take over the financial and organizational management of the beguinage, thus initiating the de facto end of the beguinage as an independent institution.

Concise history of institution

In an act dating from 1400, a previous act from 1251 (the original act being lost), mentioning the beguinage, is mentioned. In 1282, two other acts mention this beguinage, afirst regulation dates from 1284. In 1292, Margareta, widow of the Utrecht burgher Ruldophus Posch, states in her will that she will leave part of the land she ownes (called 'Heylige-Land'[transl. 'Holy Land']) opposite the convent of the White Nuns to the 'pious women, who are called beguines' ['de godvruchtige vro uwluyden, dewelke Begijnen genoemt worden'], in order for them to 'live there forever, in obedience and wearing a habit' ['aldaar geduurig, onder gehoorzaamheiit staande en een religieus kleed aan hebbende, zullen blijven']. A remarkable statement in her will is that she orderes that 'if anyone of them will live in disgrace, and this will be known publicly, that women will be expelled from the beguinage, but will however remain in possession of her belongings' ['indien iemand van haar een eerloozen naam gekregen heeft, en zulks op straten en in kerken bekend is geworden, die zal van het gezelschap der anderen verstooten worden; zoo evenwel, dat ze haare goederem zal behouden'].

 

This statement was overruled almost a century later by a proclamation of the bailiff and the aldermen [schout and schepenen], which stated that beguines who would be expelled from the beguinage, would lose the possession of their house at the beguinage. The same proclamation also stated that, in case a beguine had not drawn up a last will, all her belongings would befall to the beguinage. It was also determined that no beguine would be allowed to bequeath her house in the beguinage to somebody from outside the beguinage; this latter rule may have been the causal factor for the number of non-beguines that, according to Muller (2013), seem to have lived inside the walls of the beguinage.

 

By that time, the beguinage had already survived another serious threat to their existence. In 1311, Pope Clemens V issued a decree to interdict and abolish the beguinages, due to the reason beguinages did not belong to one of the official ecclesiastical orders. This decree was published in 1317, and in 1318 the bisshop of Utrecht intended to take action against the beguinages in the Northern Netherlands. The decree of the late Pope Clemens V (he died in 1314) had, however, already been adjusted and 'softened' by his successor, Pope John XXII, who proclaimed that women of rightuous belief [molieres fideles] were allowed to live together without having to adapt to a specific ecclesiastical order. In 1323, a proclamation was issued that ordered the protection of the beguines against any malvolent action; this order would be re-issued several times within the next decades. In 1394, two municipal officials were appointed who were supposed to act as a liaision between the beguinage and the municipal government; their appointment may also have been intended to guarantee the safety of the beguines.

 

After the Alteration, the beguines continued to celebrate mass. From 1310 on, mass was celebrated with the assistance of one of the Black Friars [Predikheren] from the adjacent monastery. During the Reformation, the Protestant movemenet strove to abolish the former Catholic institutions; this also applied to the beguinage. In 1586, an attempt was made by the municipal (Protestant) magistrates to abolish the communal household of the beguines; new beguines from then on could only be admitted by appointment of the town council. Although these measures were initially revoked in 1588, in 1613 the municipal magistrates finally reorganized the beguinage by abolishing the communal household of the beguines, appointing four officials in charge of financial matters of the beguinage, and change the system of self-support to a system of allotment by the municipality, allowing also non-catholic single women to enter the beguinage.

 

In 1674, it was decided to amortize obligations of the beguinage that were to te expense of the municipality. One year later, in March 1675, the allowances to the surviving beguines were also amortized, thus ternimating de facto the existence of the beguinage. In 1707, the town council decided to end the separate accounts that were still made up regarding the possessions of the former beguinage, thus also de jure terminating the beguinage .

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

  • 1251: First mentioning of the beguinage (according to an act dating from 1400)
  • 1292: Margareta, widow of burgher Rudolfus Posch, bequeathes a part of the land she ownes to a congregation of beguines
  • 1311: beguinages interdicted by Papal decree of Pope Clemens V (decree published in 1317)
  • 1318: Pope John XXII issues a decree, allowing molieres fideles to form congregations without having to adapt to a specific ecclesiastical order
  • 1394: first two municipal officials appointed as begijnmeesters
  • 1421: bishop Frederik van Blankenheim abolishes the rule that houses of beguines would befall to the beguinage in case they died without a will or in case of banishmanet from the beguinage, inheritors of deceased beguines could inherit their houses from then on
  • 1586: first attempt of Protestant municipal magistrates to take over the organization of the beguinage: abolishement of communal households, finances would be handled by municipal officer
  • 1588: measures taken in 1586 were revoked
  • 1613: municipal magistrates take over organization of the beguinage: abolishment of communal household beguines, appointment of four officials in charge of finance [rentmeesters], changing from self-support to allotment-system
  • 17th century: decrease of number of beguines, increase of non-beguine women inhabiting the beguinage
  • 1674/1675: obligations to expense of municipality and allowances to still living beguines amortized
  • 1830: chapel of former beguinage demolished, part of the remains being integrated into new buildings on the same site

Membership

Numbers of members (specified)

Due to a lack of sources, exact numbers of the beguines of this beguinage are unknown. From archival sources we know that the beguinage consisted of several individual houses (godshuizen) and a large communal house (Groothuys), where several beguines lived together. In 1284, only one mistress (magistra) managing was mentioned, from as early as 1400 onward there have been at least two mistresses in charge of the beguinage. An agreement between the mistresses of the beguinage and the bailiff and aldermen, mentioned in the proclamation of 1384, seems to indicate that the number of beguines entering the beguinage may have been quite considerable, since the mistresses of the beguinage promise 'to accept no more new beguines from now on'.
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The current houses at Wijde Begijnestraat 15-21, Utrecht, which originally formed the Groothuys of the Utrecht beguinage. The Groothuys was located opposite the chapel of the beguinage, remains of which are integrated into the new buildings at Wijde Begijnestraat 112-114.

Source: Wikimedia Commons, click here for more info on source

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

The only direct requirements that have been explicitly mentioned in archival sources is the condition mentioned in the will of the widow Margareta of 1384 (see above), stating that the beguines should live in obedience and were expected to wear a religious habit.

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

See above.

Specific reasons regarding banning members from the institution?

The archival sources preserved contain no rules written down for the beguines. The will of Margareta of 1284 and the proclamation issued by the bailiff and the aldermen in 1384 however mention the possibility of beguines being excluded from the beguinage. In accordance with rules known from other beguinages, exclusion may have been the result of disrespecting the rules, inobedience to the mistresses of the beguinage, and indecent or improper behavior.

Advantages of membership?

The beguines lived a life that was in-between the secular and the sacred: they were free to hold on to their own possessions. The beguines of Utrecht initially even were allowed to keep their possessions after exclusion from the beguinage; this was however overruled by proclamation of the bailiff and aldermen in 1384. This right was however restored in 1421 by the bishop, also enabling inheritors from decaeased beguines to claim the inheritance of their possessions (including houses) in the beguinage.

Obligations of members?

There is no list of rules preserved in the archival documents of this beguinage. It may, however, be assumed that these rules will have been more or less alike regulations from other beguinages and therefore would have contained rules about religious obligations, obedience, and chastisty. Beguines did not have to pledge the vow of poverty, which also is proven by the amount of property documents preserved in the archives.

Literature on case study

  • Bakker, F. J. 1988. Bedelorden en begijnen in de stad Groningen tot 1584. Assen: Van Gorcum.
  • De Bruijn, M. W. J., 1994. Husinghe ende hofstede. Een institutioneel-geografische studie van de rechtspraak over onroerend goed in de stad Utrecht in de middeleeuwen. Stichtse Historische Reeks. Utrecht: Het Spectrum (especially Ch. 11, pp. 395-402).
  • De Bruijn, M. W. J., 1984. Begijnen op Het Heilige Leven in Utrecht in de veertiende eeuw. Maandblad Oud-Utrecht 57(7), pp. 72-3. Available as pdf (Open Access) via Utrecht University Repository .
  • Muller Fz., S. 2013 (1913). Inventaris van de bij de archieven van het stadsbestuur van Utrecht bewaarde archieven, behorend aan de stad 1284-1813 (1885). Utrecht: Gemeentelijke Archiefdienst (1913) / Het Utrechts Archief (2013).
  • Muller Fz., S. and Ketner, F. 1959. Oorkondenboek van het Sticht Utrecht tot 1301. Vol. V. 's-Gravenhage: Staatsuitgeverij, pp. 78-9. Available online here.
  • Van Ryn, H. (transl.). 1719. Historie ofte Beschryving van ’t Utrechtsche Bisdom, Behelzende De Oudheden, Kerkelijke en Geestelijke Gebouwen, Kapellen, Kommandeurschappen, Abdijen, Kloosters, Oversten en geleerde Mannen, van ’t zelve Bsidom, Getrokken uit de oude Handschriften der Kerken en Abdijen, enz.. I. Van de Oudheeden en Gestichten der Stad Utrecht. Leiden: Christiaan Vermey. Available online here.

Sources on case study

The archival sources of this beguinage are mainly to be found in the Archieven van het stadsbestuur van Utrecht bewaarde archieven, behorend aan de stad 1284-1813 (1885), deposited at Het Utrechts Archief.

Links to further information on case study:

Case study composed by

René van Weeren (Utrecht University). We thank drs. M.W.J. de Bruijn for supplying additional information on this case study.