What is the Begijnhof?
The Begijnhof is a secluded courtyard community where devout Catholic women have lived since the 14th century.
Since the Middle Ages, hofjes, the Dutch term for enclosed courtyards surrounded by almshouses, have provided charitable housing for poor, unmarried, widowed, and elderly women of the Catholic faith. Dozens of hofjes still exist in Amsterdam and in the nearby city of Haarlem, and though they no longer serve their original purpose, these tranquil oases offer a glimpse into what life was like in a medieval-era religious commune.
One of the oldest and most famous examples is the Begijnhof, located here in Amsterdam’s historic centre, just a stone’s throw away from the bustling Spui Square. It was built in the 14th century as a sanctuary for Begijntjes (or Beguines), a Catholic order of women who wished to live a pious life without entering a convent.
The Begijnhof consists of 47 small townhouses grouped around two landscaped courtyards, along with a church and a hidden chapel. Although the Begijnhof was constructed around 1346, most of the houses here date from the 1600s, with Gothic façades added in the 17th and 18th centuries. The exception is Het Houten Huys (or The Wooden House), at 34 Begijnhof, a structure that stands apart from its brick-and-stone neighbours. With its distinctive peaked roof and wooden façade, it’s one of the oldest houses in Amsterdam, dating from around 1470.
Although the Beguines practised Catholicism, which was outlawed during the Alteration in 1578, when Amsterdam became Protestant, the women were allowed to keep their homes as these were considered private property. But the church where they attended Mass was seized and lay empty for several decades until it was given over to English-speaking Protestant worshippers in 1607. Dubbed the English Reformed Church, it’s actually part of the Church of Scotland’s International Presbytery and has conducted services for centuries, except for a short period during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War. Vincent van Gogh visited the church several times, writing to his brother Theo in 1877:
‘Tomorrow morning I shall go to the little English church I told you about. In the evening it lies so peacefully in that quiet Beguinage, between the hawthorn hedges; it seems to say, ‘In loco isto dabo pacem,’ which means, ‘In this place I will give peace,’ saith the Lord.’
Just opposite the church is the Begijnhof chapel, tucked inside a building that looks nothing like a church. That was deliberate, given that when the hidden chapel was built in 1671, practising Catholicism in public was forbidden. Holy Mass is still celebrated in this pocket-sized building, adorned with lovely stained-glass windows, and visitors are welcome.
Although the last Beguine died in 1971, the houses in the Begijnhof continue to be occupied by single women.
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