In the eighth chapter of Bruges-la-Morte, the author Georges Rodenbach describes the Béguinage as “a medieval hamlet, a small town apart from the other city, even more dead.”
The Béguinage in the nineteenth century was not a convent, because the women did not have to take vows or give up their property, but they did have to be pious and respectable – and affluent, because living there was expensive.
Barbe, the Flemish housekeeper of Hugues Viane, loves the Béguinage. Her main goal in life is to save enough money so she can afford to live there when she retires.
But on the Easter Sunday when Barbe visits the Béguinage, she is shocked when her relative, Sister Rosalie, advises her to stop working for Hugues Viane because of his sinful way of life.
Sister Rosalie adds: “I even know the house where this woman lives. It is on my way from here to the city, and I have seen Mr. Viane go in or out more than once.”
When Barbe gets over her shock she simply replies: “I’ll think about it.” On the one hand, she realizes it is wrong for a decent Christian woman to work for a sinner. On the other hand, she knows she will never again find a job as pleasant, easy and lucrative as being the housekeeper for Mr. Viane, and she needs the money to be able to retire to the Béguinage when she is older.
On her way home she stops by the Church of Our Lady and tells the whole story to her confessor, who advises her not to do anything rash. Even if the rumors about her employer turned out to be true, she could still go on working for him as long as his sins were not committed in his own house. But of course if this “woman of bad life” were to come to his house, even for dinner, she would have to refuse her service and resign.
Location of the Béguinage on Google Maps
Chapter Eleven: St. Salvator's Cathedral
Walking through the city of Bruges you will notice that a certain type of houses can be seen quite often in the city. Those houses are mostly late medieval-looking and bear a name and a year on the outside wall. They are called Godshuizen. Literally translated: Houses of God.
As early as the 14th century rich families and rich corporations of Flemish cities built houses for poor. Most of the time these houses form a complex around an inner court where the people of the complex could get their water and grow vegetables. Most complexes also have a chapel where the inhabitants were supposed to pray for the souls of their benefactors. These benefactors bought of their sins this way.
In most Godshuizen the poor inhabitants also received food and basic care.
Bruges has numerous examples of these houses. Every group of houses was meant for a specific group of the population: widows, widowers, older couples, etc.... Most Godshuizen bear the name of the donator on the outside wall, together with the year of construction.
The houses in Bruges are most from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Most are still inhabited, mostly by elderly people. They now belong to the OCMW of Bruges, the Department of Social Care.
Favorite thing: visit the famous beguinages of Bruges. A beguinage consists of a number of small houses within a courtyard enclosed by walls.
Favorite thing: Make sure you do not skip the 'Begijnhof' (Beguine's House) very close to the 'Minnewater' (Lovewater) park, this is a nice place with some old houses! You can also find a museum there!
Every old city in Belgium and the Netherlands has one. Here it's always quiet. Very relaxing.