Brethren of the Common Life

Brethren of the Common Life

The Brethren of the Common Life was a Roman Catholic religious community founded in the 14th century by Gerard Groote, formerly a successful and worldly educator who had had a religious experience and preached a life of simple devotion to Jesus Christ. The Brethren's confraternity is best known for having inspired the Modern Devotion. A small band of followers attached themselves to Groote and became his fellow-workers, thus becoming the first "Brethren of the Common Life" ( _nl. Broeders des gemeenen levens). The reformer was opposed by the clergy whose lives he denounced in his preaching as decadent and evil, but his zeal for purifying the Catholic faith and the morality of its followers won many to his cause [The Catholic Encyclopedia] . The best of the secular clergy even enrolled themselves in his brotherhood, which in due course was approved by the Pope. Groote, however, did not live long enough to finish the work he had begun. He died in 1384, and was succeeded by Florence Radewyns, who two years later founded the famous monastery of Windesheim, near Zwolle, which was thenceforth the centre of the new association.

The Confraternity of the Common Life were in many ways similar to the Beghard and Beguine communities which had flourished two centuries earlier and were by then declining. Its members took no vows, neither asked nor received alms; their first aim was to cultivate the interior life, and they worked for their daily bread. The houses of the brothers and sisters occupied themselves exclusively with literature and education, and their priests also with preaching. When Groote began, education in the Netherlands was still rare, contrary to the situation in Italy and the southern parts of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation; the University of Leuven had not yet been founded, and the fame of the schools of Liège was only a vague memory. Apart from some of the clergy who had studied at the universities and cathedral schools in Paris or in Cologne, there were few scholars in the land; even amongst the higher clergy there were many who were ignorant of the scientific study of Latin, and the ordinary burgher of the Dutch cities was quite content if, when his children left school, they were able to read and write the Medieval Low German and Diets.

Groote determined to change all this. They worked consistently in the scriptorium and afterwards at the printing press they were able to publish their spiritual writings widely. Amongst them are to be found the best works of 15th century Flemish prose. The Brethren spared no pains to obtain good masters, if necessary from foreign countries, for their schools, which became centres of spiritual and intellectual life of the Catholic Church; amongst those whom they trained or who were associated with them were men like Thomas à Kempis, Dierick Maertens, Gabriel Biel, Jan Standonck (1454 - 1504), priest and reformer, Master of the Collège de Montaigu in Paris, and the Dutch Pope Adrian VI.

Before the fifteenth century closed, the Brethren of the Common Life had placed in all Germany and the Netherlands schools in which teaching was offered "for the love of God alone."

Gradually the course, at first elementary, embraced the humanities, philosophy, and theology. The religious orders were not impressed, as the Brethren were neither monks nor friars, but they were protected by Popes Eugene IV, Pius II, and Sixtus IV. Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa had been their pupil and so became their stanch protector and benefactor. He was also the patron of Rudolph Agricola (Rudolf de Boer), who in his youth at Zwolle had studied under Thomas à Kempis; and through this connection the Brethren of the Common Life, through Cusa and Agricola, influenced Erasmus and other adepts in the New Learning. More than half of the crowded schools - in 1500, Deventer had over two thousand students - were swept away in the religious troubles of the sixteenth century. Others languished until the French Revolution, while the rise of universities, the creation of diocesan seminaries, and the competition of new teaching orders gradually extinguished the schools that regarded Deventer and Windesheim as their parent establishments.


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