Devotio Moderna: The Brethren of the Common Life

It was in the flourishing commercial and industrial towns of the Low Countries that there developed, in the late Middle Ages, the movement known as the Modern Devotion, or devotio moderna. Its origins are bound up with the career of Gerard Groote (1340-84) of Deventer. The son of a prominent merchant, he lived in a worldly manner until, in 1374, he had a conversion experience, which caused him to adopt an ascetic way of life. From 1379 he became a preacher of repentance, criticizing the clergy so severely that some of them caused him to be officially silenced. He appealed to the pope, who granted him permission to preach, but he died before this permission could reach him.

Groote believed in a combination of religion and learning. He wanted people to be able to read the Bible, and began to translate parts of it into the vernacular. He sought and advocated a more personal religious experience based on the imitation of Christ. He was a mystic to whom the visible church mattered less than a close union with God. Love, faith, and humility were all important, far above outward works. It was the devil who told men that good works would bring salvation and persuaded them to do such works. This foreshadows Luther's teaching of justification by faith and the uselessness of good works for salvation.

From the work of Groote arose two types of communities that spread far and wide. The Brethren of the Common Life were groups composed chiefly of laymen, though it was considered desirable that each house should contain some members of the clergy. From the original house at Deventer, other houses were established in the Low Countries, Germany, and even Poland. The Brethren devoted themselves to religious exercises, the search for personal perfection, work, and service to others. They have been described as practical mystics; their striving for personal union with God was accompanied by efforts to reform the church through educating young people and instructing the laity in the essentials of the Christian faith. Much of their best work was done through the schools. In some cases they founded schools of their own, and elsewhere they became teachers and headmasters of existing institutions. Some future intellectual and religious leaders were affected by the Brethren of the Common Life, including Erasmus and Luther.

The other type of community that derived from Groote's work was monastic in a more traditional sense. The monasteries founded by his followers were grouped in the congregation of Windesheim, and the congregation became a center for monastic reform. The new house was joined by established ones; so that by about 1500, it encompassed ninety-seven monasteries. As part of the devotio moderna it shared the ideals of the Brethren of the Common Life, with emphasis on a deep and personal religious experience and faith, combined with learning, especially in the fields of Biblical and patristic study. There were also feminine counterparts of the communities already mentioned. Corresponding to the Brethren of the Common Life were the Sisters of the Common Life, and there was also a body of nuns who became the center of a movement of reform.

The most famous literary product of the devotio moderna is the Imitation of Christ. Though its authorship has been much disputed, it seems to embody material coming out of the circle of the first Brethren of the Common Life, and it undoubtedly represents the ideas and ideals of the movement. It advocates the abandonment of one's self with its will, passions, and vices. Outward religious observances are minimized. Learning is a danger. Solitude, contemplation, and the love of God are all important.

Alongside the devotio moderna, which was orthodox in its theological views, there was a long tradition of religious radicalism in the Low Countries; the most outstanding characteristic was a willingness to question the accepted doctrine of the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper. Some had gone so far as to reject it entirely, while others had tended to spiritualize it, emphasizing an inward communion rather than an outward ceremony. This spiritualizing tendency profoundly affected Erasmus, in whom also many of the ideas of the devotio moderna and the Imitation of Christ were represented and through whom they reached a wide public.

This Article was found on the Internet in The Northern Renaissance and the Background of the Reformation

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