From the 12th century onward, an increasingly growing number of women feel a need to withdraw from society. They seek a life of voluntary poverty and purity without however wanting to join an existing religious community. The name Beguine appears from the mid-13th century. The movement, which had spread all over Europe by then, had known considerable persecution. It was only in 1216, after receiving Papal endorsement, that the movement finally blossomed. Hundreds of small communities were established from Spain to Poland. However, most of them had already disappeared by 1400.
Real Beguinages were established mainly in the Low Countries from the 13th century onward. The compounds consisting of a church, buildings, and houses in which the Beguines lived, were usually set up at the edge or just outside of the city walls. The influence of the Counter-Reformation led to a revival in the 16th and 17th century in the Southern Netherlands. The French Revolution marked the demise of the Beguine Movement in our area. Only a few communities managed to survive to the present day. The last Beguine of the Hasselt Beguinage died in 1886.
The Beguinage of Hasselt
1245 marks the year of the first establishment of a Beguinage in Hasselt. It was however destroyed in 1567 during the Calvinistic revolt in Hasselt. After Prince-Bishop Gerard Van Groesbeek restored peace to the area, the Beguines decided to build a new Beguinage within the safety of the city walls. They first settled in a few mud houses centred around a chapel on the right bank of the Demer River. The Beguines were traditionally dedicated to the education of upper class girls and the care of the sick. When pestilence broke out after the Battle of Fleurus in 1625, they were instrumental in the battle against the epidemic. Six Beguines died.
The religious revival caused by the Counter-Reformation had its effect on the Hasselt Beguinage also. At the end of the 17th century, the Beguinage grew too small. A new Beguinage was constructed at the other side of the Demer River. In 1707, Anna-Catharina Van Hilst built the first house along the Demer River and the wing next to the Witte-Nonnenstraat was completed in 1711. Parts of the wing along the Badderijstraat were completed in 1723 and 1736 consecutively. The last house in this row was completed in 1762. In the meantime the construction of the church had begun. It was completed in 1754 and consecrated (only) in 1759. As the construction of the new Beguinage progressed, the beguines left the old Beguinage, which was subsequently rented out to laymen.
The construction of the gate building (1780) of the new Beguinage was given priority despite the fact that not all Beguines had been set up in new housing yet. The completion of the gate building finally also marked the ending of all construction activities.
The old Beguinage was sold at public auction in 1798. Through various manoeuvrings, a number of Beguines and former Monastic Sisters managed to remain living at the Beguinage. The Beguines tried to reorganise but there was very little interest, at least not enough to ensure the continued existence of the movement.
The “armenbureel” (Poorhouse) of Hasselt acquired full ownership of the Beguinage in 1880, and its Church would not be used from 1881 onward.
The Provincial Council of Limburg acquired the building complex in 1938 and undertook its restoration. The Beguinage was heavily damaged during the 1944 bombings. The church would not be rebuilt; its ruin was conserved as a lasting monument to the atrocities of warThe Provincial Library and the Provincial Museum were moved to the restored Beguinage in 1946.
The Provincial Central Public Library was moved from the Beguinage to an adjacent new building on Martelarenlaan, built by architects P. Felix en G. Nolens. A number of different provincial services were housed at the Beguinage.
The Beguinage of Hasselt is a square Beguinage. All houses are built facing the central square, with the church in the middle.
The gate building (1780) was built in a classicistic style. The gate and the windows are framed in Pierre de Vinalmont limestone. The gate building and the houses have very few openings on the street side. It was customary that the gate be closed every evening to ensure the peace and seclusion which the Beguines’ modest life and religious meditation required.
Only a few ruins of the beguinage church (1753-54) dedicated to St. Catherine remain, leaving but a vague impression of the once towering classicistic building. A number of tombstones and other remnants that have found a final destination here stand leaning against what is left of the walls. Aside from the tombstones, there are wrought iron tower crosses and roof ornaments dating back to the 16th, 17th, and 18th century from all over Limburg left to admire.
The houses are built in the Meuse Renaissance style with an abundant use of Pierre de Vinalmont limestone for door and window frames. Every house had its own walled garden and entry gate. The gardens were originally separated by walls, with one water well for every two houses, as can still be seen at houses 9 and 10. A number of wells were shut down during the post-World War II restoration works. Most of the houses housed two to three beguines, although, if tradition is to be believed, one of the houses (nr. 1) must have once housed twelve.
The oldest house (nr. 1) dates back to 1707 and was dedicated by Anna-Catharina Van Hilst (see the coat of arms above the door) to St. Joseph (See the oval relief above the door. The upper sill of the garden gate nr. 6 forms part of it as well).
This house is more elaborately decorated than the others. Above the door of house nr. 4 you can see the coat of arms of the Eijben family. The facades of the more recent houses show a more sparse usage of limestone. The side facade of the last house of the most recent wing clearly shows that further construction was planned. A closer inspection of the facades reveals their easily identifiable consecutive building phases - 1723, 1736 and 1762.