From the World Heritage inscription for the Flemish Beguinages:
The Flemish béguinages are a series of 13 sites in the Flanders Region of Belgium. They bear extraordinary witness to the cultural tradition of the Beguines that developed in north-western Europe in the Middle Ages.
These Beguines were either unmarried or widowed women who entered into a life dedicated to God but without retiring from the world. In the 13th century, they founded the béguinages, enclosed communities designed to meet their spiritual and material needs.
The Flemish béguinages formed architectural ensembles, enclosed by walls or surrounded by ditches, with gates opening to the outside world during the day. Inside, they were composed of houses, churches, ancillary buildings, and green spaces organized in a spatial conception of urban or rural origin, and built-in styles specific to the Flemish cultural region.
The inscribed sites are the most representative béguinages of the Beguine tradition, identified on the basis of their historic and architectural development and their state of conservation. These 13 béguinages testify to their original function, even though many suffered damage during World Wars I and II. They have maintained their residential character as well as the configuration with church or chapel, streets or squares with community and individual houses etc. Today, most béguinages are still clearly defined components of the urban fabric, and considered havens of tranquillity, as they were in the past. In some places, the enclosed character is preserved, although many béguinages lost their enclosed aspect during the French period and the gates were removed. The boundaries of the inscribed areas are sufficient to include the attributes of Outstanding Universal Value, but many of the components have no buffer zone. The béguinages are generally in good condition.
Overview of the Flemish Beguinages
The Flemish Beguinages are a unique historical artifact dating back to the crusades. As men left for the crusades, there was an oversupply of adult unmarried women. The norms of the time required that women either be married, live with their families, or enter a convent. The beguinages were a compromise where unmarried women could live outside their families, own property, and live their own lives. They could almost be thought of as secular convents. They were walled and enclosed and usually located on the outskirts of the city.
The Beguinages fell out of favor in the early 20th century and the last of the women who lived in them died in the early 21st century.
There are 13 Béguinages located in Flanders. You can find them in the following towns and cities.
To date, I have visited two of the Beguinages in Bruges and Ghent.
View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Belgium.
View the list of all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited on my travels.