As soon as I knew there was a Beguinage at Antwerp, I had to visit it. I’ve been obsessed with them since I first visited one in Bruges. These are communities for women, originally Roman Catholic but not a nunnery, normally wrapped around a garden.
These photographs above from my visit have been rather shamefully kept in a file on my desktop labelled ‘All the Single Ladies’, and every time I think I must do something with them, I end up singing Beyonce.
As you do.
And because I am always amazed at the synchronicity that sprinkles itself around this website, I expected… what … Beyonce may start singing about gardens. Wouldn’t that be fab!
But instead, a much more beautiful synchronicity. Like nearly everyone else in the UK, it seems, I have just finished reading Bernard MacLaverty‘s excellent novel Midwinter Break. Glorious. Go and buy. In it, Stella and Gerry visit Amsterdam. It’s supposed to be just a holiday, but Stella has an agenda. She wants to visit the Beguinage there. Which made me whoop with delight (see where I got the better title from – although I must admit I do have Beyonce in my head right now. Beyonce and MacLaverty – now there’s a heavenly coupling).
Look, he’s talking about Amsterdam but doesn’t he capture the Antwerp one perfectly too?
I thought I was slightly on my own with my love of Beguinages (also called begijnhofs). Situated in the middle of cities, such as Amsterdam, Bruges and of course, Antwerp, but with their backs slightly turned to the world. An enclave of protection, support and peace – an atmosphere which still exists today. There’s a waiting list, but oh my, you can still apply to live there.
From the very beginning, the women living in the Beguinages were not nuns, they could leave at any stage and marry (although they couldn’t return after), and each community had its own rules. As this piece in the New York Times says, they were looking ‘for holiness outside monastic norms.’ And perhaps not surprisingly – women wanting to live without men, whatever next – they risked persecution as ‘free spirits’.
I imagine, as Bernard MacLaverty captures so perfectly in his novel, there are still many women who long for somewhere to live like this. The Antwerp one does allow couples, but there’s something about the atmosphere left behind – all those women making an active choice to live a different way and being welcomed to do so – that makes them a special place to visit, although perhaps a little too claustrophobic for men?
Oh oh oh but just imagine this as your front door….
… and, as I saw a woman do, walking just a couple of yards to the garden with your thermos of coffee and a good book…