Looking to go off the beaten path in Belgium? Searching for a non-touristy city with UNESCO world heritage sites and plenty of history? Well, the quaint city of Leuven may well be the adventure you never knew you need. And, once there, the picture perfect and free to visit two beguinages of Leuven are both must-sees. Known as the Klein Begijnhof and Groot Begijnhof Leuven individually, here’s your guide to the history of Belgian beguinages, as well as how to visit these pretty spaces.
A brief history of the Beguinages of Belgium
The term ‘Beguinage’ comes from the French words ‘béguinage’, which is used to denote a housing complex which was constructed so as to house beguines, religious women who lived together as part of a community but didn’t have to take any vows, relinquish their possessions, or retire from the world. Beguines were also free to leave in order to get married if they so wished.
The first Beguine community was founded in the 12th-century in Liège, and the begijnhofs, as they are so known in Dutch, could soon be found throughout the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands), as well as Northern France and the Rhineland. Worth noting is that the only evidence of a Beguinage in England is to be found in Norwich. The last beguine, Marcella Pattyn died in 2013, aged 92. Today the former beguinages are used for all kinds of purposes, including housing and university offices.
Groot Begijnhof Leuven
UNESCO world heritage listed and easily one of the best things to do in Leuven, the grand beguinage of the city is one of the largest in Belgium. Comprising of a space that covers an impressive 3 hectares in size, the Groot Begijnhof is easily one of the largest beguinages of Belgium and the Netherlands. In total, there are over 100 buildings, which have been split into roughly 300 apartments.
Unlike the beguinages of Amsterdam or Bruges, the houses are set along various cobbled lanes and a series of courtyards, as opposed to a single central courtyard. Though the Beguinage was founded during the 13th-century, the oldest houses you see in the complex today actually date back to the 16th-century. The last beguine of the Groot Begijnhof died in 1988, while the last Priest died in 1977 at 107.
Today, the Large Beguinage is free to visit and is owned by the University of Leuven. The space is largely used as housing for the lucky students who manage to secure a place within the UNESCO listed housing! The Beguinage’s church (Sint-Jan-de-Doperker) is a beautiful blend of Renaissance and Gothic and can be spied upon entry to the Groot Begijnhof when visiting via the city centre.
Klein Begijnhof of Leuven (Petit béguinage de Louvain)
Also known as St Catherine’s Beguinage, this tiny one street alleyway lies beneath the shadow of the nearby Sint-Geertrui Abbey and actually has no relation to the larger Leuven Beguinage! Founded as early as 1272 (or, at the very least, this is the first recorded date of the beguinage), it’s thought that the community was founded to house women who worked in the nearby Abbey, though this too is unclear.
The smaller Leuven Begijnhof never enjoyed the same kind of prosperity as its larger counterpart and would never have housed more than 100 beguines at any given time. Unlike the Groot Begijnhof Leuven, the Klein Begijnhof’s last beguine died in 1855, following the demolition of the Begijnhof’s church during the French Revolution.
Today, the pretty street is one of the most beautiful roads in the city and is easily one of the best-kept secrets of Leuven. Cobbled and restored several times in the past few decades, the Klein Begijnhof is well worth visiting on any trip to the city. Nearby, other attractions also worth checking out include