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§ 34. Gerrit de Groote and the Brothers of the Common Life.

It was fortunate for the progress of religion, that mysticism in Holland and Northwestern Germany did not confine itself to the channel into which it had run at Groenendal. In the latter part of the fourteenth century, and before Ruysbroeck’s death, it associated with itself practical philanthropic activities under the leadership of Gerrit Groote, 1340–1384, and Florentius Radewyn, 1350–1400, who had finished his studies in Prag. They were the founders of the Windesheim Congregation and the genial company known as the Brothers of the Common Life, called also the Brothers of the New Devotion. To the effort to attain to union with God they gave a new impulse by insisting that men imitate the conduct of Christ. 501501    See Grube, Gerh. Groot, p. 9; Langenberg, p. ix; Pastor, I. 150. The Latin titles of the brotherhood were fratres vitae communis, fratres modernae devotionis, fratres bonae voluntatis, with reference to Luke 11:14, and fratres collationari with reference to their habit of preaching. Groote’s name is spelled Geert de Groote, Gherd de Groet (Langenberg, p. 3), Gerhard Groot (Grube), etc. Originating in Holland, they spread along the Rhine and into Central Germany.

Groote was born at Deventer, where his father had been burgomaster. After studying at Paris, he taught at Cologne, and received the appointment of canon, enjoying at least two church livings, one at Utrecht and one at Aachen. He lived the life of a man of the world until he experienced a sudden conversion through the influence of a friend, Henry of Kolcar, a Carthusian prior. He renounced his ecclesiastical livings and visited Ruysbroeck, being much influenced by him. Thomas à Kempis remarks that Groote could say, after his visits to Ruysbroeck, "Thy wisdom and knowledge are greater than the report which I heard in my own country."

At forty he began preaching. Throngs gathered to hear him in the churches and churchyards of Deventer, Zwolle, Leyden and other chief towns of the Lowlands.502502    The title, hammer of the heretics,—malleus hereticorum,—was applied to him for his defence of the orthodox teaching. For the application of this expression, see Hansen, Gesch. des Hexenwahns, p. 361. On Groote’s fame as a preacher, see Grube, p. 14 sqq., 23. Thomas à Kempis vouches for Groote’s popularity as a preacher. See Kettlewell, I. 130-134. Among his published sermons is one against the concubinage of the clergy—de focaristis. For a list of his printed discourses, see Herzog, VII., 692 sqq., and Langenberg, p. 35 sqq. Often he preached three times a day. His success stirred up the Franciscans, who secured from the bishop of Utrecht an inhibition of preaching by laymen. Groote came under this restriction, as he was not ordained. An appeal was made to Urban VI., but the pope put himself on the side of the bishop. Groote died in 1384, before the decision was known.

Groote strongly denounced the low morals of the clergy, but seems not to have opposed any of the doctrines of the Church. He fasted, attended mass, laid stress upon prayer and alms, and enforced these lessons by his own life. To quote an old writer, he taught by living righteously—docuit sancte vivendo. In 1374, he gave the house he had inherited from his father at Deventer as a home for widows and unmarried women. Without taking vows, the inmates were afforded an opportunity of retirement and a life of religious devotion and good works. They were to support themselves by weaving, spinning, sewing, nursing and caring for the sick. They were at liberty to leave the community whenever they chose. John Brinkerinck further developed the idea of the female community.

The origin of the Brothers of the Common Life was on this wise. After the inhibition of lay preaching, Groote settled down at Deventer, spending much time in the house of Florentius Radewyn. He had employed young priests to copy manuscripts. At Radewyn’s suggestion they were united into a community, and agreed to throw their earnings into a common fund. After Groote’s death, the community received a more distinct organization through Radewyn. Other societies were established after the model of the Deventer house, which was called "the rich brother house,"—het rijke fraterhuis,—as at Zwolle, Delft, Liége, Ghent, Cologne, Münster, Marburg and Rostock, many of them continuing strong till the Reformation.503503    See Grube, p. 88, and Schulze, p. 492 sqq., who gives a succinct history of 18 German houses and 20 houses in the Lowlands. The last to be established was at Cambray, 1505.

A second branch from the same stock, the canons Regular of St. Augustine, established by the influence of Radewyn and other friends and pupils of Groote, had as their chief houses Windesheim, dedicated 1387, and Mt. St. Agnes, near Zwolle. These labored more within the convent, the Brothers of the Common Life outside of it.

The Brotherhood of the Common Life never reached the position of an order sanctioned by Church authority. Its members, including laymen as well as clerics, took no irrevocable vow, and were at liberty to withdraw when they pleased. They were opposed to the Brethren of the Free Spirit, and were free from charges of looseness in morals and doctrine. Like their founder, they renounced worldly goods and remained unmarried. They supported the houses by their own toil.504504    Writing of Radewyn, Thomas à Kempis, Vita Florentii, ch. XIV., says that work was most profitable to spiritual advancement, and adapted to hold in check the lusts of the flesh. One brother who was found after his death to be in possession of some money, was denied prayer at his burial.

To gardening, making clothes and other occupations pertaining to the daily life, they added preaching, conducting schools and copying manuscripts. Groote was an ardent lover of books, and had many manuscripts copied for his library. Among these master copyists was Thomas à Kempis. Classical authors as well as writings of the Fathers and books of Scripture were transcribed. Selections were also made from these authors in distinct volumes, called ripiaria — little river banks. At Liege they were so diligent as copyists as to receive the name Broeders van de penne, Brothers of the Quill. Of Groote, Thomas à Kempis reports that he had a chest filled with the best books standing near his dining table, so that, if a course did not please him, he might reach over to them and give his friends a cup for their souls. He carried books about with him on his preaching tours. Objection was here and there made to the possession of so many books, where they might have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.505505    Uhlhorn, p. 373, gives the case of such an objector, a certain man by the name of Ketel of Deventer. Also Langenberg, p. x. Translations also were made of the books of Scripture and other works. Groote translated the Seven Penitential Psalms, the Office for the Dead and certain Devotions to Mary. The houses were not slow in adopting type, and printing establishments are mentioned in connection with Maryvale, near Geissenheim, Windesheim, Herzogenbusch, Rostock, Louvaine and other houses.

The schools conducted by the Brothers of the Common Life, intended primarily for clerics, have a distinguished place in the history of education. Seldom, if ever before, had so much attention been paid to the intellectual and moral training of youth. Not only did the Brothers, have their own schools. They labored also in schools already established. Long lists of the teachers are still extant. Their school at Herzogenbusch had at one time 1200 scholars, and put Greek into its course at its very start, 1424. The school at Liége in 1524 had 1600 scholars.506506    See Schmid, Gesch. d. Erziehung vom Anfang his auf unsere Zeit, Stuttgart, 1892, II. 164-167; Hirsche in Herzog, II 759; Pastor’s high tribute, I. 152; and Langenberg, p. ix. The school at Deventer acquired a place among the notable grammar schools of history, and trained Nicolas of Cusa, Thomas à Kempis, John Wessel and Erasmus, who became an inmate of the institution, 1474, and learned Greek from one of its teachers, Synthis. Making the mother-tongue the chief vehicle of education, these schools sent out the men who are the fathers of the modern literature of Northwestern Germany and the Lowlands, and prepared the soil for the coming Reformation.

Scarcely less influential was the public preaching of the Brethren in the vernacular, and the collations, or expositions of Scripture, given to private circles in their own houses. Groote went to the Scriptures, so Thomas à Kempis says, as to a well of life. Of John Celle, d. 1417, the zealous rector of the Zwolle school, the same biographer writes: "He frequently expounded to the pupils the Holy Scriptures, impressing upon them their authority and stirring them up to diligence in writing out the sayings of the saints. He also taught them to sing accurately, and sedulously to attend church, to honor God’s ministers and to pray often."507507    Kettlewell, I. 111. Celle himself played on the organ.

The central theme of their study was the person and life of Christ. "Let the root of thy study," said Groote, "and the mirror of thy life be primarily the Gospel, for therein is the life of Christ portrayed."508508    Thos. à Kempis, Vita Gerard. XVIII. 11; Kettlewell I. 166. A life of a cleric he declared to be the people’s Gospel—vita clerici evangelium populi. A period of each day was set apart for reflection on some special religious subject,—Sunday on heaven, Monday on death, Tuesday on the mercies of God, Wednesday on the last judgment, Thursday on the pains of hell, Friday on the Lord’s passion and Saturday on sins. They laid more stress upon inward purity and rectitude than upon outward conformities to ritual.509509    See Langenberg, p. 51.

The excellent people joined the other mystics of the fourteenth century in loosening the hold of scholasticism and sacerdotalism, those two master forces of the Middle Ages.510510    See Ullman, II. 82, 115 sq. Schulze, p. 190, is not so clear on this point. Kettlewell, II. 440 says that the Brothers were "the chief agents in pioneering the way for the Reformation." They gave emphasis to the ideas brought out strongly from other quarters,—the heretical sects and such writers as Marsiglius of Padua,—the idea of the dignity of the layman, and that monastic vows are not the condition of pure religious devotion. They were the chief contributors to the vigorous religious current which was flowing through the Lowlands. Popular religious literature was in circulation. Manuals of devotion were current, cordials and praecordials for the soul’s needs. Written codes of rules for laymen were passed from hand to hand, giving directions for their conduct at home and abroad. Religious poems in the vernacular, such as the poem on the wise and foolish virgins, carried biblical truth.

Van viff juncfrou wen de wis weren

Unde van vif dwasen wilt nu hir leren.

Some of these were translations from Bernard’s Jesu dulcis memoria, and some condemned festivities like the Maypole and the dance.511511    See Langenberg. The poem he gives on the dance, 68 sqq., begins—
   Hyr na volget eyn lere schone

   Teghen dantzen unde van den meybome.

   Here follows a nice teaching against dancing and the May tree. One reason given against dancing was that the dancers stretched out their arms, and so showed disrespect to Christ, who stretched out his arms on the cross. One of the documents is a letter in which a monk warns his niece, who had gone astray, against displays of dress and bold gestures, intended to attract the attention of young men, especially on the Cathedral Square. With the letter he sent his niece a book of devotional literature.

Eugene IV., Pius II., and Sistus IV. gave the Brothers marks of their approval, and the great teachers, Cardinal Cusa, D’Ailly and John Gerson spoke in their praise. There were, however, detractors, such as Grabon, a Saxon Dominican who presented, in the last days of the Council of Constance, 1418, no less than twenty-five charges against them. The substance of the charges was that the highest religious life may not be lived apart from the orders officially sanctioned by the Church. A commission appointed by Martin V., to which Gerson and D’Ailly belonged, reported adversely, and Grabon was obliged to retract. The commission adduced the fact that there was no monastic body in Jerusalem when the primitive Church practised community of goods, and that conventual walls and vows are not essential to the highest religious life. Otherwise the pope, the cardinals and the prelates themselves would not be able to attain to the highest reach of religious experience.512512    Van der Hardt, Conc. Const., III. 107-121, gives Grabon’s charges, the judgments of D’Ailly and Gerson and the text of Grabon’s retraction.

With the Reformation, the distinct mission of the Brotherhood was at an end, and many of the communities fell in with the new movement. As for the houses which maintained their old rules, Luther felt a warm interest in them. When, in 1532, the Council of Hervord in Westphalia was proposing to abolish the local sister and brother houses, the Reformer wrote strongly against the proposal as follows: "Inasmuch as the Brothers and Sisters, who were the first to start the Gospel among you, lead a creditable life, and have a decent and well-behaved community, and faithfully teach and hold the pure Word, such monasteries and brother-houses please me beyond measure." On two other occasions, he openly showed his interest in the brotherhood of which Groote was the founder.513513    De Wette, Luther’s Letters, Nos. 1448, 1449, vol. IV., pp. 358 sqq.


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