Begijnhof (14)

If you have been surprised so far by Amsterdam’s peaceful character, then just wait to see this quiet spot, which is entered from Spui street. 

This historical courtyard, surrounded by pretty houses, has a small medieval church and a large lawn, and ancient trees and flowers. This small jewel in the centre of the city also features the oldest house in Amsterdam.

A trip to the Béguinage may seem like a journey back in time, because the peace and silence of the Beguine village as it was in the Middle Ages remains, despite the increasing number of tourists who visit it. 

The Beguine community, who lived on this site, were devoted mainly to caring for the sick and the elderly. They were neither convent nuns nor recluses, but had taken a vow of chastity and obedience to God, although they were free to leave the Béguinage to get married. 

This village is believed to have been founded in 1346 on a site that was the city’s outer limit at the time. This is the only interior courtyard from the Middle Ages and therefore lies within Canal Singel, the innermost of the city’s circular canals. 

The Begijnhof is at medieval street level, which is a metre lower than the rest of the old city centre, and at that time the defence canal curved around the Beguine’s vegetable garden. 

In the second half of the fourteenth century and early fifteenth century, the Béguinage grew with the acquisition of land, which it still owns today, to the south of the courtyard upon which a large number of residences were built. 

This expansion did not last long however as the devastating fires that destroyed the city in 1421 and 1452 ruined much of the Béguinage. The Beguines, nonetheless, did not give up and over the following years set about the work of reconstruction. In 1511, what is more, the Béguinage was enlarged again and the houses were extended along the canal. 

Subsequently, and particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the facades of the previously wooden courtyard houses were fully restored. These preserve the style of typical Amsterdam houses and emphasise the private nature of the courtyard. They nonetheless do not comprise a single, even row but each one maintains its individual character in the site as a whole. 

Number 34 of the Begijnhof is said to be the oldest house in Amsterdam, and known as the Houten Huis, which means “wooden house”. Although it was subject to a process of restoration, it is one of the last wooden houses left in the centre of Amsterdam. The house, with its peculiar pointed gable, dates from 1460 and is probably one of the oldest houses in all Holland. 

The courtyard also features two restored churches that may be visited. The first, which is Gothic in style, was initially built around the year 1400. With the Calvinist Reformation 1578, the church of the Béguinage was the only Catholic church to remain, as it was the private property of the Beguines. It was nonetheless soon granted to the reformers and even today remains the city’s Presbyterian church. 

Opposite this church, and easily confused with the other houses, is a small clandestine church. This is the work of the architect Philip Vingboons, who built it in 1671. It was consecrated to Saints John and Ursula, the patron saints of the Beguines. 

The Begijnhof is a unique place and so special that if you close your eyes, you can almost hear bygone times; the Beguines walking with the sick, and the murmur of the leaves in the trees, which are old now but then were still young. Not even the clattering of the trams, or the horns of cars or bicycles can be heard in this haven of peace and tranquillity.

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