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THE period covered by the Lives of Gerard Groote and his followers is the hundred years which elapsed between 1340, the date of Groote’s birth, and 1439, the year in which Henry Brune died. In order to understand the significance of the movement to which à Kempis has given the name of “The New Devotion,” it is necessary briefly to consider the conditions which prevailed at the time when that movement was initiated and the difficulties with which its adherents had to contend.
At the time of Groote’s birth the Low Countries were divided into a number of small principalities, each of which was governed by its own Sovereign: of these the most powerful were the Counts of Holland and the Prince Bishops of Utrecht, who as Motley says, “divided between them the Sovereignty of what afterwards became the United States of the Netherlands.” By the death of xviWilliam IV of Holland in 1355) that country was plunged into a whirpool of civil discord which did not subside until 1437, when Philip of Burgundy, misnamed “The Good,” obtained undisputed possession of the supreme power.
The Bishops of Utrecht, in addition to their spiritual authority, enjoyed a large amount of temporal power, and were for many centuries the most formidable of the opponents to the Counts of Holland. The Bishopric was founded by Charles Martell in the eighth century, that prince having rewarded the Anglo-Saxon monk, Willibrord, with large possessions in the neighbourhood of the town from which the See is named, in recognition of his labours on behalf of the Faith. Winfred or Bonifacius who succeeded, received further accessions of territory, and by his efforts and his martyr’s death at Dokkum, Christianity was established yet more firmly in the Netherlands, The power of his successors, the later Bishops, gradually but continually increased, and since in earlier years the authority of these prelates was frequently exercised in the defence of the people against oppression, it rested upon a foundation surer than any which could be laid by Royal Grant or Charter.
The district of Overyssel with which we are more immediately concerned, though it formed a portion of the dominions of the prince Bishops, enjoyed at this time a certain measure of independence, being administered by a council composed xviiof representatives of the nobility and of the three cities, Deventer, Kempen and Zwolle. The Bishop, indeed, presided over this council, but he seems to have allowed to its members complete freedom of decision upon any points which arose, and to have waived his rights of interference even in cases concerning clerks who dwelt in the three towns above named (“Belgii Confoederati Respub.,” p. 254, Elzevir, 1630). But though the power of the Bishops had in earlier days afforded protection to the people, their government became more and more arbitrary and despotic, a result which was due to a variety of causes too complex to enumerate; certain points, however, must be borne in mind, of which perhaps the most important is the slight deference shown by these Bishops to their Spiritual Head. Some thirty-five years before our period begins, Clement V had removed the Papal Chair to Avignon, and thus he and his successors became unduly dependent upon the favour of the French Kings, and as a natural consequence the Papal authority was for the time greatly weakened. Of the Popes who reigned during the period under consideration the first five, namely, Benedict XII, Clement VI, Innocent VI, Urban V and Gregory XI, resided in France, but after the death of Gregory, the “Great Schism” broke out to still further relax the authority of the Holy See. It is impossible here to describe in detail the course of this unhappy feud, but since Groote is praised for his loyalty to xviiiUrban VI it is desirable to note the fact that the best authorities agree that the election of that Pontiff was regular, and that the action of the Cardinals who declared the election void was illegal. It should be remembered also that whereas the Popes named above were all of French nationality, Urban VI was an Italian, and that the Schism was due to political rather than to Religious considerations.
The election of Urban took place in 1378, and in the same year certain of the Cardinals, claiming that the menaces of the Roman populace had hindered their freedom of choice, elected Robert of Geneva, who took the title of Clement VII. Urban refused to recognize his deposition and took up his residence at Rome, while Clement went to Avignon. Thus there were two claimants to the Papacy, a condition of things which not only weakened the Church by dividing Catholic Christendom into two parties, but also embittered the already existing civil and political strife. On the death of Urban VI the Italian party elected Boniface IX as his successor, and five years later Benedict XIII was chosen to succeed Clement at Avignon. Boniface was followed by Innocent VII, who, however, survived his election by two years only, and on his death the Italian Cardinals chose Angelo Corrario, who is known to History as Gregory XII. This pontiff and Benedict undertook to resign their claims if such resignation should seem likely to promote the peace of the church, xixbut as events proved neither was willing to carry out his promise, and in 1409 nine of the Cardinals who had supported Benedict made common cause with the Italian party, and the latter being thus strengthened, convoked the Council of Pisa which condemned and deposed both Popes, and chose John of Candia, who took the name of Alexander V. The deposed Pontiffs, however, refused to recognize the validity of this sentence, so that there were now three claimants to St. Peter’s Throne, and although Alexander died in 1410, the strife of parties was not thereby lessened, since the sixteen Cardinals who had elected him now chose in his place another Italian who is known as John XXIII. He it was who in 1414 convoked the council of Constance, perhaps expecting that Council to support his pretensions and depose his rivals, but if this was his expectation it was disappointed, for by the unanimous vote of the Council John was himself deposed, and shortly afterwards Gregory expressed his willingness to resign. Sentence of deposition was subsequently passed upon Benedict, who, however, continued to claim, and so far as he could to exercise, the Papal authority until his death in 1423, when the two Cardinals who had continued to support him chose Clement VIII in his place. Meanwhile the Council of Constance had chosen Otto de Colonna, who as Martin V succeeded in healing the Schism, for in 1429 Clement, the last of the Anti-Popes, was persuaded to resign.xx
In view of the complexity of these proceedings it may be convenient to append a table of the Popes who reigned during the period under discussion, the names of Anti-Popes being in italics:
|Benedict XII||Innocent VIII||}|
|Clement VI||Benedict XIII|
Besides the Schism other causes tended to weaken the Papal authority in the country with which we have to deal. The Bishops of Utrecht were dependent rather upon the favour of the Emperor than upon that of the Pope, and even during the years which marked the increase of the Papal authority throughout Europe, there are many instances of strong resistance being offered to it both in the Low Countries and elsewhere in Northern Europe. Heresy, as Motley has pointed out, was a plant of early growth in the Netherlands, and “from the earliest times neither Prince, xxiPeople nor even Prelates had been very dutiful to the Pope.” Students of history will remember many instances of resistance to the Papal claims in England, especially during the reigns of Edward III. and his immediate successors, and as early as 1413 the feeling of the people against the clergy led the commons to petition Henry V. to seize certain revenues of the Church, and apply them to the service of the State.
It is necessary, however, to go back to an earlier period than this in order to trace the development of the feeling of which such acts were the outcome, and it is impossible to deny that ecclesiastical dignitaries and the subordinate clergy gave many provocations to the civil power and to the people at large in the years which preceded the time of which we speak.
As early as the beginning of the twelfth century the notorious Tanchelyn, an illiterate impostor, caused great commotion in Brabant by his denunciations of the clergy, and although his utterances were blasphemous and his conduct was grotesquely indecent, he gained for a time a considerable following, a result which could hardly have occurred had there been no substratum of truth in the protest which he made against clerical domination. During the progress of the same century other teachers arose to cause divisions and strife in the Church to which they professed allegiance, and, naturally enough, persecution followed, to be attended as usual by a yet more xxiiluxuriant growth in that which it strove to eradicate. By the end of the thirteenth century the clerical power had begun to decline. The enormous wealth of the Church aroused the cupidity of the civil power, and the depravity of many clerks excited the indignation of thoughtful men. Even those who would not consent to rob the Church of her possessions, were forced to admit that the influence of great wealth was not wholly for good: that luxurious indolence was too often the effect of it: and that the austerity of life and sobriety of conduit which marked certain sects which were regarded as heretical, could not but give those sects a firm hold upon the minds of the people. It was perhaps to this feeling that the great popularity of the mendicant orders was due, but in any case that popularity grew continuously throughout the thirteenth century, and the orders themselves multiplied to an extent so inconvenient that the council of Lyons in 1274 had decreed the suppression of all such orders as had sprung up since the Pontificate of Innocent III. Thus four mendicant orders only were left, namely, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Carmelites and the Hermits of St. Augustine, and the reputation for sanctity enjoyed by these orders was such that it became a common practice for testators to provide in their wills that their bodies should be wrapped in a Dominican or Franciscan habit, in the hope of thereby obtaining mercy in the Day of Judgement. This popularity, however, was followed by a reaction; xxiiithus in our own country Richard of Armagh and others attacked the authority of the mendicants, and it was to his opposition to them that Wyclif owed the sentence of deprivation that was passed on him. In addition to the effect of such attacks from without, the societies were also weakened by internal dissensions, many of which appear to the modern reader as frivolous and puerile, being based upon philosophical rather than upon religious differences, though others had their origin in more serious matters. It is, however, only necessary for our purpose to remind the reader of the bitter quarrels between the different sections of Franciscans and of the long feud between the latter and the Dominicans.
Amongst other religious bodies which flourished during this period are the Lollards and Béguines, of whom it is necessary to make special mention, as they are referred to in the Lives. The former name is constantly used by English writers as if it were descriptive of the followers of Wyclif only, whereas the term is applied by other authors to the Franciscan Tertiaries, the Cellites, the Brothers of the Common Life, and many others. The term Lollard with its variants, Lollhard, Lullhard, Lollert and Lullert means primarily “a singer,” and denotes one who is constantly singing hymns to God. Thus it is applied to various bodies, without reference to the orthodoxy of their opinions. This explains the use of the word in the text where it is used in its literal signification, although xxivthe name had already become a term of reproach in consequence of their hypocrisy and pernicious sentiments that were attributed to many persons who professed extraordinary piety. Thus Hocsemius, a Canon of Liége, writing of the year 1309, says, “certain strolling hypocrites who were called Lollards or ‘praisers of God,’ deceived persons of quality” (“Gesta Pontif. Leod.,” ii, 350).
The name “Béguine” is also of somewhat uncertain signification, being applied both to that body which owed its origin to an austere branch of the Franciscan order, and also to certain German and Belgic societies which flourished during the thirteenth and following centuries. It is with the latter only that we have to do, and it is sufficient for our purpose to say that though it has been shown that certain societies called by this name were established in Holland and Flanders as early as the eleventh century, it was not until the thirteenth that they gained any great celebrity. It appears that a number of pious women associated themselves together and lived under the rule of a superior of their own sex, dividing their time between devotional exercises and honest labour. They did not, however, bind themselves by vows, but were at liberty to quit the society or to marry if so disposed. The name Béguine means—like Beghard—“one who is assiduous in prayer,” and having been used at first of pious persons generally, became afterwards applied to the societies xxvabove mentioned. After a period of prosperity which lasted until the early part of the fourteenth century the Béguines fell into disrepute, and although John XXII and his successors afforded them some protection they continued to fall both in wealth and prosperity, because as it would seem they were supposed to have been corrupted by the infamous opinions of the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Hence it is that we find the name used in the Life of Florentius as a term of reproach. This period, marked as it was by civil and religious discord, was of course favourable to the production of fanatic enthusiasts and visionaries, such as the Flagellants who caused some commotion in 1340, and the Dancers who disturbed the Netherlands in 1373. Somewhat later, but still during our period, arose the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit, the Men of Understanding, and other sects, all of which added to the disorder of this unhappy time, and disturbed in a special degree the country in which Groote and his followers lived.
Although the explosion caused by the condemnation of Huss took place in another land, its echoes were heard and some of its effects felt in Holland and the surrounding districts. Huss was condemned and suffered in 1415? and his friend Jerome of Prague in the following year; but the religious dissensions and the barbarous war which they caused continued to disturb further an already distracted world, until Æneas Sylvius, the emissary xxviof the Council of Basel, succeeded in reconciling the more reasonable section of the Hussites to the Church, in 1433. Whatever view may be taken as to the justice or otherwise of the condemnation of the views of Huss, there can be no doubt that the demands of those of his followers who are known as Taborites were grossly extravagant, that their doctrines were grotesque and heretical, and that their conduct was at least as barbarous and cruel as that of their most fanatical opponents.
It was not by actual heretics only that the peace of the Church was disturbed; various abuses had slowly developed, and were tolerated by many persons whose orthodoxy was never questioned. We need, however, deal only with those to which reference is made in the text.
It will be observed that Groote lays great stress upon the evils of pluralism, and indeed the disastrous consequences of the non-enforcement of the Canons against this abuse must have been evident to all. According to Hallam (“Mid. Ages,” c. 7, p. 2) there were cases of fifty, or even sixty benefices being held by a single incumbent, and in our own country it was found that in 1367 some clerks enjoyed more than twenty benefices. An abuse of a like nature was the holding by persons other than priests of ecclesiastical preferments. Thus Petrarch was enabled to enjoy the revenues of two benefices although he never took full orders. Closely connected with these abuses we find the crime of Simony, a term that, in the wider sense xxviiin which Groote uses it, must be taken to include many things besides the actual sale and purchase of benefices, such as the traffic in Indulgences which, as all who are conversant with the history of this period are aware, was lamentably common. Odious as is any traffic in the temporalities attached to spiritual cures, the Church has found great difficulty in suppressing it: as early as the eleventh century such simony was a reproach to the clergy in Holland and to the patrons “who made their powers of nomination and investiture subservient to their rapacity.” By the ancient canons, indeed, a benefice was avoided by any simoniacal payment or stipulation, but for obvious reasons this law was seldom enforced; as time went on the practice became more and more common in spite of the protests of upright churchmen. In 1377 the English Parliament presented a petition to Edward III complaining of the greed of patrons, and in Germany, according to Sismondi, things were even worse than in England. Pope Urban VI owed no small part of his unpopularity with a section of churchmen to their fear that he would interfere with their illegitimate profits, and the council of Constance proposed to deal with this growing evil.
A modern reader might perhaps feel some surprise at the severity with which Groote speaks of usurers, but it is well known that from very early times the practice of usury was regarded as criminal. In the year 1179 Alexander III decreed that usurers “nec ad communionem recipiantur xxviiialtaris, nec Christianam si in hoc peccato decesserint, accipiant sepulturam, sed nec oblationem eorum quisquam accipiat.” So, too, in Spain the Inquisition took cognisance of usury, and long after the Reformation Anglican Divines continued to speak with horror of the practice—indeed, it may be doubted whether the prejudice against what is essentially a legitimate commercial transaction is even now dead, although the unanimous verdict of economists ought to have settled the question.
It is unnecessary to comment upon the protest made by Groote against the grosser sins of his contemporaries, but no one who takes the trouble to examine the evidence can doubt that his protests were fully justified.
Since many references are made in the Lives to Schools and Universities, it may be well to review briefly the state of learning during this period. The interest in classical studies, which had declined during the latter half of the thirteenth century, was revived to a great extent in the fourteenth, and during the lifetime of Groote and his followers many schools and universities were founded and became flourishing institutions, as, for example, at Cologne, Florence, Pisa, and Prague. The study of Greek, which had been neglected, was revived, owing to the influence of such scholars as Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Manuel Chrysolaras, and although the enthusiasm for classical learning was xxixmore marked in Italy than elsewhere, these great scholars had followers in Northern Europe as well as in their own land.
Somewhat earlier than the period with which we deal, Clement V had given encouragement to the study of Hebrew and other Oriental languages, which he directed “should be taught in public schools that the Church might never lack a sufficient number of missionaries properly qualified to dispute with Jews and Mohammedans, and to diffuse the light of the gospel throughout the East.” Mathematical study, which was regarded with some suspicion, owing to its supposed connection with astrology and magic, had been pursued with success by Thomas Bradwardine, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1349), although the history of such enquirers as Cecco d’Ascoli hardly encouraged others to pursue that branch of knowledge. The University of Paris at which Groote studied was specially famous for Scholastic Theology, and it is interesting to note that Groote is said to have acquired great learning in Civil as well as Common law, although the study of the former was prohibited in that university: we know, however, from other sources that the prohibition was disregarded. The University of Prague, of which Florentius was a member, was not founded until 1350, but its repute grew rapidly and attracted many students, until, as Radius says (“Vita Thomae à Kempis,” viii, § 7), “it became infected by heresy,” when it fell into disrepute with xxxorthodox Catholics. The reference is, of course, to the Hussite troubles which had their origin here, Huss having persuaded the authorities to take away three votes from the German party in University elections. This produced a secession, to which the University of Leipsic owes its origin, and the ill feeling which the action of Huss aroused was no doubt one of the causes which led to his condemnation.
Another great centre of learning was the school of Cologne, which is called by Angelius “the child of the University of Paris and the mother of that at Louvain.” This institution was founded by Urban VI in 1388, while the academy at Louvain was raised to the dignity of an university by John IV of Brabant in 1423.
Though we have some considerable knowledge as to the subjects taught and the methods pursued in the Universities during this period, very few records remain of school life. A Kempis himself, as he tells us in “The Life of Florentius,” was a pupil in the school of Deventer, of which institution John Boheme was master; a notice of this school may be found in “De Laet. Belg. Descript,” ed. 1630, p. 239, where we learn that the subjects taught were Philosophy, Theology, Hebrew, and Civil law. As to the methods adopted we may gather some information from the chronicles of Windesheim by Buschius, a contemporary of à Kempis. In this work there is an account of John Cele, who is mentioned in the life of Groote, xxxiand his biographer gives some account of the school of Zwolle of which Cele was master from 1376 to 1417. In all probability the schools at Zwolle and Deventer were managed on similar lines, so that Buschius’ account of the former has some interest for us. Strict discipline seems to have been maintained among the eight hundred scholars, details of which may be found in the chronicle above-named, and in Kettlewell’s work, entitled, “Thomas à Kempis and the Brothers of the Common Life.” Further information about Cele himself may be derived from the chronicle of Mt. St. Agnes.
The principle of Association which led to the formation of Trade Guilds in this part of the world was extended so as to include other interests, and to this principle was due the formation of the Guilds of Rhetoric which flourished in most of the principal towns. The importance for our purpose of such association is the influence they exercised over the people, for it is a remarkable fact that the cultivation of the arts and the pursuit of knowledge were during the fourteenth century by no means confined to the upper classes. During the time of which we speak the influence of these Guilds in the Low Countries was not so great as it afterwards became, but in France and Germany such associations had already considerable importance. Amongst other things the guilds encouraged theatrical performances, some of which were conducted in the churches, as, for instance, “King xxxiiHerod and his Deeds,” which was enacted in Utrecht Cathedral in 1418 (Motley, loc. cit.). Their efforts, however, were not confined to the exhibition of religious dramas, and it is not unlikely that the u idle amusements and spectacles “mentioned in the text were entertainments organized by these societies.
Some reference must be made to the social condition of the people in the days of Groote and his followers. In spite of the disturbances which perpetually recurred, this was a period during which wealth accumulated with astonishing rapidity. The flourishing condition of the wool trade in Flanders, Brabant and Hainault was the chief cause of this prosperity, but the fisheries of Zeland and Holland also contributed to it. Cologne had long been a great trading centre, and as early as 122O the merchants of that city set up a factory in London. The opening of trade in the Baltic through the enterprise of the Hanseatic confederacy and the development of commercial intercourse with southern Europe during the fourteenth century also contributed to make this accumulation of wealth possible, and there can be no doubt that the Trade Guilds, to which reference has been made, assisted the merchants to resist the arbitrary measures of their nominal rulers and to amass riches which rivalled or surpassed those of the ancient nobility. Agriculture, too, had made considerable progress, largely owing to the efforts of the Religious Houses to which grants of xxxiiiwaste land were made, and these being cleared and put under cultivation added largely to the wealth of the countries in which they were situated.
The continuance of this prosperity appears the more remarkable when we consider the fact that throughout this period the countries of which we speak were devastated from time to time by visitations of the Plague and the Black Death; no less than six of the Brothers whose lives are here written died of these diseases, and à Kempis notes that many others of the community met with a like fate. The horrible pestilence called the Plague seems to have reached Europe from the Levant in 1346. A year or two later it ravaged France and England, and in 1350 appeared in an aggravated form in Germany and the Low Countries. Other severe visitations occurred in 1361, 1366, 1398, 1404 and 1439, and although we must receive with reserve the statements of contemporary chronicles as to the mortality caused by these pestilences, there can be no doubt that a considerable proportion of the population was swept off by them. According to Sismondi between four and five millions died in France alone during the first plague, and although some of the later epidemics appear to have been less deadly, the devastation caused by them cannot but have affected detrimentally the material progress of the country, and great misery must have resulted, especially amongst the poor, to whose service the Brothers of the Common Life specially devoted themselves.xxxiv
Another disease which scourged the country was leprosy, and this complaint is mentioned several times in the text. According to the greatest living authority leprosy is caused by a diet of more or less putrid fish. If this theory is correct, a country like that of which we speak would be likely to suffer, since in it fish formed the staple diet of many of the people, and in the inland parts especially salted fish was largely eaten, even on occasions when abstinence from flesh was not ordained.
The existence in France of two thousand leper houses, and in Europe as a whole of nineteen thousand such establishments, shows how severe a scourge this complaint must have been (Sprengel, “Hist. de la Médicine,” ii. 374, quoted by Buckle). The treatment to which the unfortunate victims of the disease were subjected added to the horror of their lot, and the action of the Brothers in ministering to them is the more laudable inasmuch as by so doing they ran counter to the prevailing prejudices and superstitions; for at this time—and indeed long afterwards—diseases in general and leprosy in particular were looked upon as indications of Divine wrath rather than as being due to natural causes. It appears that some of the Brothers had a knowledge of medicine, and though Groote deprecates the practice of this art it is probable that he was not altogether unacquainted with it; in any case he must have had the famous saying of Hippocrates in his mind when he laid xxxvdown the rule “not to give remedies of doubtful virtue.”
It seems that the first suggestion for the formation of a Brotherhood came from Florentius (see Buschius Chr. of Windesheim), who with the assent of Groote gathered together a number of young clerks and copyists who were willing to live a Common Life. These persons took no formal vows, but undertook to obey such rules as might be drawn up from time to time for the government of the Community, and from this small beginning grew the Brotherhood of the Common. Life. Although the credit for this suggestion is due in part to Florentius, yet Groote himself had formerly desired to found a religious community. Lack of means, however, and the opposition of the existing Orders, which he foresaw, had hindered the execution of this design: the former difficulty was overcome by the generosity of one Lambert Stuerman, who by his will left a large sum of money at Groote’s disposal; but Groote himself did not live long enough to carry out his desires. On his death-bed, however, he gave instructions to his followers to build and establish a House, and transfer to it such members of the original society as might desire to join. He particularly directed that this House should adopt the Rule of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, assigning the following reasons for his decision. He did not desire, he said, that the members of xxxvithe Order should be wholly separated from the world like the Carthusians, nor that the Rule under which they lived should be as severe as that of the Cistercians. On the other hand, he was aware of the advantage to be derived by adhering to the rule of an established order, for by this means he hoped to overcome or avoid the opposition of the Mendicants, who would certainly do their utmost to crush an entirely new society.
Obedient to the directions given by their leader, Florentius, whom Groote had named as his successor, proceeded at once to build the House at Windesheim, a desolate place between Zwolle and Deventer. Afterwards, as the movement gained fresh adherents other houses were built, such as that near Arnheim, called “The Fount of the Blessed Mary,” that near Hoern, named “The House of the New Light,” and a third, called “The House of Mount St. Agnes,” at Nemel.
The Rule which was thus adopted had been summarized by Kettle well (p. 173), and contains the following headings:
I. To observe the fundamental law of Love, and to imitate the example of the Mother Church of Jerusalem in union of heart and in having all things in common.
II. To learn the lesson of Humility, according to the pattern of the Life of Christ and that of His nearest and most faithful followers.xxxvii
III. To observe the Canonical Hours and times of prayer.
IV. To take charge of the sick and infirm wherever they be found, and to minister to their bodily and spiritual needs.
V. To avoid all affectation and singularity in dress.
VI. To give and receive fraternal correction and admonition from one another, to confess our faults and to submit ourselves wholly to our Superior.
VII. To promote in all things the interest of the Community; to be diligent in all duties and never to be idle.
VIII. To observe outward cleanliness and decency, and to take proper care of the body for the sake of the soul, both in health and sickness.
In connection with this last provision it is interesting to find that in consequence of the austerities practised by certain of the Brothers in the earlier days of the Community at Deventer their health failed, and therefore the custom was established at Windesheim of exacting from every member a promise “to endeavour to eat well, and sleep well.”
The habit adopted by the Brothers was of dark grey cloth, and when they became Canons Regular they wore a white rochet with a black hood.
It will be noticed that the only title given to the head of the community in the following lives is xxxviiithat of Rector. The first “Prior” of the Order appears to have been John à Kempis (elected in 1398), the elder brother of Thomas, to whom reference is made in the life of Gronde.
The members of the Brotherhood were divided into two classes, the Clerks and the Unlettered Brethren; and of these the former devoted themselves to the cause of education, and to copying books in addition to the duties above indicated, while the latter occupied themselves in manual labour.
It is beside our purpose to trace in detail the growth and decline of this society, but it may not be out of place to indicate some of the causes of that decline.
Some writers of repute have referred to à Kempis, Gerard Groote and others who belonged to this society as forerunners of the Reformation, and it is true enough to say that their teaching and that of certain leaders of the Protestant movement had points of contact. To say this, however, is to say very little, for the same statement might be made equally truly of the teaching of Luther and that of Bellarmine, whilst a very moderate degree of ingenuity would suffice to show that on many points Calvin was at one with St. Francis Xavier. Groote indeed protests against various abuses, but so also does Urban VI; and if Gerard of Zutphen advocates the dissemination of portions of the Scripture in the vulgar tongue, it was xxxixa Pope who praised the Archbishop of Florence for publishing the sacred writings in the language of his own country. It is hardly possible to read the lives which follow without admitting that both their subjects and their author were loyal to their Church and to its head: on this point the appendix to the life of Lubert Berner would appear to be conclusive, for the temptations there described would probably be regarded in a very different light by one whose leanings were toward Protestantism.
It is perhaps more true to say that the movement called the New Devotion is one manifestation of a tendency which, according to the direction given to it, may become either a source of additional power, or a cause of disruption. This is not in any sense a controversial work, for which, indeed, the writer has no qualifications, and these lives, with the other writings of à Kempis, may be left to tell their own story; but since a late writer seems to represent the Reformation as the “fruit” of the labour of the Brothers of the Common Life (Kettlewell, p. 379), it is necessary to remark that the Founder of the Brotherhood uses the words, “Salvo Semper judicio Sacrosanctae Romanae ecclesiae cui humillime undique et ubique me submitto,” and his followers never departed from the principle here laid down. Had that principle been adopted universally, the Reformation could never have taken the course it did take. There is a wide difference between protests that are directed xlagainst breaches of recognized law, and deliberate revolt against the fundamental principles upon which those laws are based. The former course was adopted by Groote and his followers, whilst Luther and his adherents chose the latter. Moreover, neither Gerard Groote nor any of his followers whose lives are written here, attacked any doctrine of the Catholic creed, nor did they claim that liberty of interpretation which many Reformers allowed. The decline of the Community coincided with the rise of Protestantism, but the causes of that decline are not far to seek. In the first place the Brothers had supported themselves to a great extent by copying books, a source of revenue which came to an end with the introduction of the printing press. Secondly, their schools had to face the competition of similar institutions which sprang up during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In some cases their own pupils successfully competed with them, in others the Institutions founded by the Society of Jesus became popular at the expense of the schools maintained by the Brothers of the Common Life. Thirdly, “when the struggle about the Reformation became acute, the Papal Party insisted that those who clave” to the Church as a divine institution, must either withdraw from their monasteries or give in their adherence to them,” and “This led to a great disbandonment of the Brotherhood” (Kettlewell, p. 379). From this it appears that even in the later days to which the passage quoted refers, the Brotherhood as a whole xlihad not adopted the tenets of the reforming party, while in earlier times, as we have already seen, the members were thoroughly loyal to Rome; indeed, the association received the approbation of the Council of Constance, which would not have been given had their fidelity been suspected.
The text which had been adopted for this translation is that of Somalius, which was published in 1600. The Editor tells us in his preface that he collated all the known manuscripts, and paid special attention to those which he found written in à Kempis’s own hand, in the monastery of St. Martin at Louvain; he, however, omits, as he says, certain lives, because the manuscripts were in so bad a condition that he could make nothing of them. It appears uncertain whether these omitted lives were really by Thomas à Kempis. The earliest printed edition is that published at Nuremberg in 1492-1494, of which copies are to be found in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and in the British Museum, and this edition contains no lives other-than those given by Somalius. The book begins with the “Imitation,” which occupies twenty-six leaves, and goes on with “Tractatus de meditatione Cordis Johannis Gerson,” the inclusion of which work in a volume devoted to Thomas à Kempis, is remarkable in view of the controversy which has arisen with regard to the authorship of the “Imitation,” It is beside our purpose to discuss this vexed question, as xliithere is no doubt as to the authenticity of the “Lives” or of the propriety of their attribution to à Kempis, but it may be worth while to mention the fact that the present writer has seen a MS. of the first book of the “Imitatio,” whose date would seem to be about 1423, in which that work is assigned to a Carthusian Monk.
Besides the Nuremberg Folio there are other printed editions earlier than that of Somalius, which the latter seems to have consulted, namely, the works of à Kempis published in Paris by Jodocus Radius Ascensius in 1500, and re-issued in 1549. For purposes of correction this edition is of little value, since the same blunders and misprints occur frequently both in this and in Somalius’ edition; but it is interesting as containing a Life of à Kempis in twelve chapters written by the Editor, of which the eighth gives some further particulars as to Gerard Groote, while the eleventh contains a long exhortation addressed to à Kempis by Florentius Radewin.
“The Lives” are written in the form of a dialogue between an elder Brother of the house and a Novice, and were no doubt intended for the instruction of those who should join the Brotherhood. In the Nuremberg Folio the whole of Book II (the Life of Florentius) is entitled “de humilitate Christi,” a title which is confined in Somalius’s edition to the first chapter of this biography; this heading gives the key-note to the whole composition, for throughout the Lives the xliiivirtues upon which the author insists most strongly are those of humility and obedience. There are several points to be noted with reference to the matter contained in these biographies, (i) The use of quotations from the Bible is somewhat peculiar, or at least may strike the modern reader as being so; e.g., passages are taken away from their context and made to bear a meaning other than that which they were intended primarily to convey. This “mystical interpretation” was then regarded as legitimate, and, indeed, is still so regarded by many persons. The quotations are of course from the Vulgate, and the translations are taken usually from the Douay version.
(2) With regard to the last chapter of Groote’s Life, it is obvious from a perusal of the original that the whole is taken from notes made by Gerard himself, which notes were left in a fragmentary condition, and were not thrown into regular literary form, probably because they were intended for the writer’s own guidance and not for publication. Thus we find constant changes from the first to the second person, and it is often doubtful where the consideration of one subject ends and that of another begins; this is particularly noticeable in 16.
(3) Hirsche has remarked that “the details given in these eleven biographies are either derived from the personal experiences of à Kempis himself or are drawn from the testimony of reliable witnesses,” and the manner in which some xlivof the incidents are related suggests that even when the author does not expressly mention his own name he was personally concerned in the events which he describes. Thus we gather a certain amount of information as to à Kempis himself, which is the more interesting in view of the scanty knowledge which has come down to us directly of the life of one whose name has become a household word.
(4) Appended to these biographies is a life of the Virgin Lydewig, to whom reference is made in the notice of Arnold of Schoonhoven. This life is not included in the present translation, which is devoted to the Lives of Groote and his followers only. There is little doubt, however, that it is an authentic work of à Kempis, as a copy of it exists in his own handwriting, though the original MSS., containing the Lives of the eleven Brethren and the chronicles of Mount St. Agnes have disappeared. On the other hand, the life is prefaced by a dedication ascribing it to “Frater N pauper peregrinus,” but this may easily refer to Thomas himself.
I have already disclaimed any intention of entering into the controversy regarding the authorship of the “Imitatio,” but as several passages in the latter work are closely parallel to sentences in the Lives it seems advisable to call attention to the fact. The reader will find particulars in “Hirsche,” v. 2. p. 523.
(6) The date of the composition of these lives xlvcannot be determined with certainty. Hirsche states that 1430 is the last date that occurs, being the year of Arnold’s death, but as I have already pointed out, the text which has been adopted gives 1439 as the last year of Henry Brune, and there is reason to think that this date is correct since Brune is said to have lived “long after those who had known their first fervour in the Devout Life with him.” All we can say on the question of the date is that the Lives were written later than 1440 and that the author was upwards of sixty years of age when he wrote them.
Hitherto no complete translation of the Lives into English has been published, although several writers have made extracts from them. The Rev. S. Kettlewell in his “Thomas à Kempis and the Brothers of the Common Life” has given us versions of selected passages, and as the present translation differs widely in many places from the versions given in the work named it may be desirable in the interests of accuracy to refer to some of the more prominent of those differences. In Groote, chap. viii, § 2, we have a passage which runs thus: “Cum tuba salutari intonaret . . . commota sunt corda plurimorum a facie formidinis Domini, et a ventura ira judicii extremi, et ignis extremi”: according to Kettlewell this means that Groote “entirely abandoned the vulgar arguments drawn from the fears of Hell,” an interpretation which is both impossible in view of the original xlvitext, and is a complete misrepresentation of Groote’s teaching (Kettlewell, op. cit., 2nd ed., p. 70). Again in chap. ix, § 2, we have “Tanto libentius doctrinam audiebant quanto majora pietatis beneficia in eo redundare videbant.” Kettlewell takes this to mean that the more the scribes listened to Gerard’s teaching “the more did they seem to abound in beneficent acts of piety,” (Kettlewell, p. 72.) So, too, in Florentius, chap. xiv, § 3, “Incontinenti expedivit” is rendered by “he extricated the incontinent man” (Kettlewell, p. 106), whereas the passage means, as I think, “he settled the matter out of hand”: and in chap. xix, § 3, “quod cuidam revelatum esset quod adhuc supervicturus esset” is translated “it was revealed respecting him to some one who is still living,” a rendering which is grammatically impossible.
Such slips as “a quarter of an hour” for “quartâ horâ,” “liquor” for “cibus,” “soul” for “mensa,” and the like, are of small moment, but they show at least that to differ from a translator who committed such blunders does not argue a great amount of audacity. More serious, however, are such mistakes as that made in the “Life of John Ketel,” when Kettlewell makes à Kempis say that John was “so lately well known to me” instead of “in old days well known,” etc. In regard to this it is only necessary to observe that Ketel had been dead for more than forty years when à Kempis wrote these words, and to use the phrase “so lately” is to confuse dates. It is not necessary to xlviimultiply instances of the mistakes, more or less important, made by this translator, but the reliability of his work may be judged by “quid praetendit ille bonus homo”—what a good man he has shown himself to be; “integros panes”—“the whole of the bread” though the context requires “whole loaves:” “ferens patienter verba increpantis”—“hearing the words with incredible patience.” All these blunders occur in the translation of a single page of the Latin.
Kettlewell’s work, however, is not without its value, as apart from his extracts from the Lives, it contains much information that is of interest to students of à Kempis, and the present writer would not have singled out the above passages for adverse comment but for his desire to justify himself in differing from one who is regarded as a leading authority.xlviii1
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