The Begijnhof (Beguine Courtyard) from the 14th century has two entrances: one on the Spui, the other on the Gedempte Begijnensloot (Filled-In Beguine Ditch). The backsides of the houses in the courtyard can be seen on the Spui and the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal. Fires in 1421 and 1452 destroyed the oldest version of the Begijnhof — the current houses date mostly from the 17th century; the house with the wooden façade is from the second half of the 15th century.
Beguines were part of a free lay community in the Catholic Church, mostly housed in courtyards like this. They lived alone and devoted themselves to prayer and good works like attending to the poor and sick — although they took personal, informal vows of chastity, they were free to leave and wed at any time. These women enjoyed the best of both worlds: holding on to their property, living in the world as lay people, while claiming the privileges and protections of the professed religious.
The Begijnhof, constructed between 1346 and 1389 and renovated in 1979, has 105 houses. There are 47 normal city houses there, most with gables from the 17th and 18th century — the houses themselves are mostly older, with gothic wooden frames inside. The terrain in the courtyard is at medieval street level, about 1 meter (3.28 ft) lower than the rest of the city. The courtyard was originally almost completely surrounded by water, the only entrance being the gate on the Begijnensteeg, with a bridge over the Begijnensloot, filled in around 1865 — the gate on the Spui was created in the 19th century.
Thanks for the Square, Beguines
The Spui was a natural water running from the Boerenwetering canal in the polder to the river Amstel (Rokin, then still water). This was the southern border of the city, defended by a row of poles along the water’s outer edge. The beguines had solidified the swampy terrain along the water on their side with debris and sand.
They made an arrangement with the city in 1417 to construct a 4 meter (13 ft) wide path along the south side of the Begijnhof. This would then connect the Rozenboomsteeg (which runs from Kalverstraat to Spui) to the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal.
The city in turn had to promise to refrain from building or allowing building on the entire southern courtyard, giving the Beguines a free view from their houses. All empty spaces in the walled in city, bursting at the seams, were soon filled wih buildings, but not the filled in Spui. So we actually owe the current Spui square to this deal. Thanks, Beguines!
Surviving the Protestant Alteration
The Begijnhof community survived the Protestant Reformation (Alteratie, 1578) as one of the few Catholic institutions, even though their parish church was confiscated and given to exiled English Puritans, now known as the English Church. Because the houses in the Begijnhof were private property, owned by the beguines themselves, they were spared the fate of many Catholic sites.
In front of the chapel entrance, two residences (numbers 29 and 30) were converted into a Catholic hidden church by architect Philip Vingboons, completed in 1680. After the Heilige Stede (Holy Stead Chapel on the Rokin) was demolished in 1908 this Begijnhof Chapel then became the official Miracle Church (Miracle of Amsterdam, 1345). The church has its own exit on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal.
The Houten Huys (Wooden House) at Begijnhof 34 dates from around 1528 and was heavily restored in 1888 — in 1957 it was reconstructed using original materials and techniques. It has brick side walls and a wooden front an back, with a protruding attic floor as was common in the Middle Ages. This house was long thought to be the oldest wooden house, but in 2012 it was discovered that a house on the Warmoesstraat 90 has a wooden construction from 1485 behind a 19th century brick façade, which makes it almost half a century older than the wooden house on the Begijnhof.
The Begijnhof Gates
The old gate on the Begijnensloot (Beguine Ditch) dates from from 1574 and was restored in 1907. It has a gable stone depicting Saint Ursula, patron saint of the Amsterdamse Beguines. The gate house on the Spui from around 1725 was replaced in 1907 by the current building and passageway.
The Begijnhof has a great number of gable stones, many of which show a strong Roman Catholic character. There is a third entrance in the North-East corner to the former St. Luciënklooster (St. Lucia Convent), now part of the Amsterdam Musem), which has been closed to the public.
Private Dwellings & Tourism Excesses
The last Amsterdam Beguine died in 1971. Until its renovation in 1979, the court had 140 dwellings — now there are 105 inhabitants, all single females. Until the 20th century almost all houses were propery of the inhabitants, where now a foundation owns most of the buildings and terrain. In short: this is private property and the foundation has the right to close off the premises if they deem it necessary for its conservation and the comfort of the inhabitants.
The Begijnhof is one of the top tourist attractions in Amsterdam, which unfortunately has led to many excesses from guides and tourists who fail to understand that this is not a museum but a private courtyard where people live. A sign now bans large groups, while individual visitors are still welcomed when behaving respectfully.
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