- Type: Landmarks
NileGuide Expert tip:
Amsterdam's oldest (wooden) house is located at the south-west corner of the courtyard.
- Tucked between the Spui square and the Amsterdams Historisch Museum, only yards from the busy Kalverstraat shopping area, is Amsterdam's (not so) secret garden, the Begijnhof. This large, beautiful, green courtyard is the only courtyard from the Middle Ages still existing in the city; it still sits at Medieval street level, which is one meter below the rest of the Old City Centre. The name comes from the Dutch words for courtyard (hof) and the Beguines. The Beguines were a Catholic group of women who, starting in 1150, came together to form self-reliant communities around the Low Countries to care for the sick and lead spiritual lives. While women who joined the community had to take a vow of chastity, the Beguines not take the final vows of nuns—they did not have to give up their property and they could leave the community and marry whenever they chose. There are mentions of the Beguines in Amsterdam as early as 1307, but no one is sure when Amsterdam's Begijnhof was founded. In 1417 the current boundaries of the Begijnhof were defined in a document from the municipality binding itself to never build on this land—the Beguines ensured that the city kept this promise.
Because the houses were private property, the Begijnhof survived the Protestant Alteration of 1578, but the women had to give their church to the English-speaking Protestants who had petitioned the city for their own place to worship. This church has since 1607 been called the English Church, although the church has had strong ties to Scotland since the 18th century. It still holds services in English every Sunday. In 1671, the Catholic Beguines replaced their lost church with one of the city's "hidden" Catholic churches built into two of the houses. It is still a practicing Catholic Church today, with the mission to preserve the story of the Miracle of Amsterdam of 1345. While the last Beguine died in 1971, the courtyard is still a home for single, spiritual, low-income women—so quiet is expected from visitors. The Begijnhof also features the oldest of the two wooden houses remaining after the city's many fires and ban on building with wood. This house, built in 1470, may also be the oldest wooden house in the Netherlands.
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