In the middle of our Paris adventure, TheHusband and I took the weekend to visit my cousins and their daughter, who live in The Netherlands. The cousin-niece (CN) did a study abroad program last fall in a university in our town and we were fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time with her.
We took the TGV train from Paris to Amsterdam. For train buffs, the TGV is a must-ride. It supposedly achieves top speeds of nearly 200 mph, and it felt like it between Paris and Brussels. CN met us at Amsterdam Centraal when we arrived just before noon, and we spent the afternoon shopping and sightseeing.
After a quick shop and lunch at the historic department store De Bijenkorf, we walked around the central canals of Amsterdam for the afternoon. As we were walking by one of the popular squares, CN pointed out a small wooden door and led us into a lovely, serene courtyard. This was the Begijnhof, a medieval inner court whose houses were given to Beguines and later “women of good character.” From their website:
In about 1150, a group of women came together to live in a religious community, primarily to look after the sick. These were, in effect, the first ‘Beguines’ although the name was not yet used.
The women were not nuns and nor did they live in the seclusion of a convent. They had no founders nor did they make lifelong vows. They did have to be unmarried, to make a vow of chastity and to promise obedience to the parish priest, but since they were not expected to make a vow of poverty, they were free to dispose of their own possessions.
They could renounce their vows at any moment and leave the Beguinage, for instance, to get married.
We do not know exactly when the Beguinage was founded.
The first time the word ‘beguines’ was used was in an official document of 1307 found in the accounts of the Bailiff of Amstelland. Another document, dated 31 July 1346, speaks of the Beghijnhuis (house of the Beguines) ceded to them by one Cope van der Laene on St Peter’s Eve. In 1393, on 7 August, Albrecht van Beieren (Albert of Bavaria) ratified the regulations of the Beguinage by letter, taking them under his protection and giving a number of rules for those in the Beguinage to observe.
The last Beguine died in 1971, but the Begijnhof houses are still reserved exclusively for women residents.
The atmosphere is amazingly serene. From the noisy, busy Spui you enter a door into another world. The tourists are quiet as they walk around and take surreptitious photos. Here is the old “wooden house,” one of the last left in central Amsterdam. It dates from 1528:
And here is the main courtyard, complete with statue:
After that break, we resumed wandering about Amsterdam. Here is the obligatory canal boat shot. That couple looks happy, probably because at last it wasn’t raining:
And here is the steeple of the Westerkerk, in the Jordaan neighborhood, towering over everything:
The next day we went to the Rijksmuseum and the van Gogh Museum, stopping for pannekoeken in between. Yum. We caught the 7:30 TGV from Schiphol Airport and were back in our flat in Paris by 11pm. Ah, the joys of public transportation in countries that care about having it.
Oh yes, Betty Neels. Obviously, Neels wrote extensively about Holland in her romances, and Amsterdam was a favorite setting. But the Begijnhof in particular featured in an early novel, Saturday’s Child, which I’ve written about before. In that story, the heroine, Abigail, takes care of a Scotswoman, Mrs. Macklin who lives there (presumably the rich and influential Dutch Doctor Hero helped her get in). Neels even chooses a particular house:
He didn’t speak again, even when he pulled up in the Begijnsteeg, got her case from the boot of the car and crossed the quiet Begijnhof to the end house on the semi-circle of quaint dwellings surrounding the church. The steps leading to its door were narrow and worn, and the front door creaked with age as he turned its handle and walked in, saying, ‘Hullo there,’ in a cheerful voice, the sort of voice he never used towards Abigail. She stifled a sigh and followed him into one of the smallest houses she had ever been in.
I first went to Holland many years ago (to visit the same cousins) and I was able to find my way around in part because of the accuracy and thoroughness with which Neels described so much of Holland. The books may have been dated even then in terms of the characters and the social context, but they were spot on when it came to geography. When I entered the Begijnhof courtyard, I couldn’t help but think of Abigail, Dominic, and Mrs. Macklin.