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In the middle of Gent stands a refuge, secluded from the bustling city by the Neerschelde and a high wall and various other structures surrounding it. The main point of entry is a Neoclassical gate, dating back to 1819, its narrow alleys eventually opening up on a courtyard lined with beech and lime trees. The courtyard itself is dominated by a large church, which overlooks some 100 small houses, a small chapel, an administrative building, a hospital, and remnants of a farm — all bearing the name of a saint. This is the béguinage of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Ter Hooyen ("Our Lady of Hay"), more commonly known as Klein Begijnhof, or "the Little Béguinage", one of the best preserved of its kind.
It's one of three such complexes in Gent, one of eighteen in Belgium, all of which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. (The other Heritage Site entry in Gent is the city's belfry, which is listed with 55 others in Belgium and France.) Though originally laid out in the 13th century on the meadow known as Groene Hooie ("green hay"), from which the béguinage derives its name, most of the current structures date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Its main church, named for the same "Lady of Hay" as the surrounding béguinage, was built between 1654 and 1658, with a new façade added in 1716.
Most likely named for the priest Lambert le Bègue (Lambert the Stutterer), a self styled Catholic reformer who lambasted the abuses and vices of fellow clergy from his Liège parish, béguinages were semi-monastic religious communities, established across the Low Countries as well as parts of Northwestern Germany at the beginning of the 13th century. Unlike regular monasteries or convents, béguinages didn't require those who sought refuge there to take vows or withdraw from the world. Nor did they have to surrender their property (if they held any), or pay the exorbitant admission fees demanded by other "spiritual" institutions, and they were free to "return" to the world at large whenever they wished.
Perhaps because of this, béguinages tended to attract single women in particular; unmarried or widowed by the various religious wars and crusades that were shattering their communities at the time, or perhaps simply choosing a life of attending to the poor, prayer, and charity after their own fashion. In fact, it's tempting to suggest that béguinages may have provided a viable alternative for women who wanted more out of life than simply becoming some man's chattel. Particularly as the béguines initially supported themselves through manual labour rather than through alms.
Many came to teach the children of town folk, the low nobility from which many of the béguines themselves were drawn — the very segment of society that would one day become the middle class. However, as time wore on, the béguines and beghards (their male counterparts) began relying on begging or rich sponsors to sustain their communities. Soon too, their "unregulated" lifestyle (no to forget the profits they were diverting) sparked the ire of Catholic Church, which set about branding them heretic and — as is its wont — persecuting them.
Despite the church's attempts to stamp them out, the béguinages continued to exist and function well into the 20th century, with the last béguine in Belgium, Sister Marcella, the last béguine of Kortrijk, currently living out her nineties in a rest home. In fact, the Little Béguinage by the lower Schelde endured not only the impounding of religious real estate that followed in the wake of the French Revolution, but also being pawned off on a duke in 1862, before becoming the property of a private organisation in the mid-1920s — with the last remaining béguines inhabiting their modest domiciles well into the 1990s.
Today, the lay sisterhoods little houses have been largely converted into condominiums, offering one story with an attic, sometimes a basement and a small back garden, enclosed by high whitewashed walls. Some of the larger structures, except the church and chapel, have also been utilised as ateliers and galleries. A "gated community" of sorts, the little béguinage is now a semi-cloistered environment for people who wish to retreat from inner city life after 10PM, when it's main gate closes to non-residents.