This post could equally be titled “The Secret Life of Hofjes”. These reclusive courtyard communities of former almshouses date back to medieval Europe, and were an early form of privately funded social housing, often for the old or for women. There are still a lot of Hofjes in the Netherlands, and several in The Hague, but they are rarely open to the public and you’d have to know a resident to get a glimpse of life behind their walls. The one exception to this is during Open House Weekend when several Hofjes are open for visits.
Hofjes were founded by wealthy citizens who were trying to secure their eternal place in Heaven. In medieval Europe, Christian beliefs and practices were influenced by the need to redeem your soul through works of mercy. There were seven works of mercy, including feeding the hungry, sheltering travellers and comforting the sick. It’s not a surprise that many Hofjes were founded as hospitals. Often they were reserved for the poor, or for single women, but also came with restrictions such as religious affiliation, or a minimum qualifying age of 50 years.
Many old Hofjes still have these restrictions in place, but modern Hofjes are being built without such medieval restrictions. I can understand why there is a modern revival of the Hofjes, they are picturesque places, calm and serene. Walking through the gateway into one is a little like entering a different world, like opening the doors of a wardrobe and ending up in Narnia. One of the most pleasant things about Hofjes is that they are centred around a community garden, often for growing vegetables and herbs. Some of them retain this feature and even sell chutney and honey to visitors.
We visited three Hofjes, all with a very distinctive feel to them, and very picturesque. First on the list was De Hof van Wouw, founded in 1647 by Cornelia van Wouw with the purpose of housing single women. Rules he set out in his will still govern who is able to live there. It’s a beautiful place, with red painted window shutters and lovely garden, and larger than I’d expected. Nearby is the ‘t Hooftshofje, founded by Angenis Hooft in 1755. She stipulated in her will that only ‘elderly women or widows who profess the Reformed religion’ were allowed to live there.
‘t Hooftshofje, has eight houses and you’d never guess from the street that there was a double courtyard lying behind the facade. It is much more enclosed that De Hof van Wouw, but no less attractive. Our final visit was to the hidden away Hofje “Rusthof”, next to Sint-Jacobus de Meerderekerk Catholic church. Founded in 1841 by Elisabeth Groen van Prinsterer for women over 55 years of age, who have Protestant Christian religious convictions, the same age rules still apply today. Something I discovered when asking one of the residents if it would be possible for me to live there.
In what would become something of an unintentional religiously themed day, we went back into town, popping into someone’s house to have a look around (all part of Open House), before discovering the Brothers of St. John monastery on Oude Molstraat was open to the public as well. I knew about the Brothers because they make (and sell) a couple of very good beers that can be bought locally. We wandered in and were guided up a flight of stairs to the most extraordinary little chapel on the top floor.
It felt like the chapel was a secret, hidden away from public sight, which explains why there is absolutely no indication of its existence from street level. The monastery is part of a new movement of monastic life begun in 1975 in France, and has spread to many corners of the world. It has gone out of its way to appeal to young people and to try to attract them to the ‘modern’ monastic life. There have been some accusations that they operate like a cult. All of which I’d still be unaware of but for Open House Weekend.