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Brethren of the Common Life


A religious society in the Netherlands from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century; it differed from religious orders in that its members did not take vows. During the lifetime of Gerard groote (134084) the first community of Brethren of the Common Life, priests and laymen, lived in the house of Florent Radewijns in Deventer. They led a life in community without specific religious vows or joining any definite religious order, although they did renounce the world. The task the Brethren set themselves was to live in the presence of God a life of total dedication to Him and to prepare themselves for eternal life. They also strove to arouse true and fervent religious life in others by means of pastoral care and preaching. It was the preaching of Gerard Groote that had inspired the organization of such a free community.

Origin. It is still a question how the first community in Deventer actually came into being. A theory based on information furnished by thomas À kempis seems most probable: that the community developed gradually because of the fact that men, sympathetic to the efforts of Gerard Groote, met regularly in the house of Groote's fellow worker, Florent Radewijns, and that some of them stayed there and lived from the revenues accruing from their work as copyists, which they put into a common fund. Florent Radewijns took over the direction after Gerard Groote's death (1384). Among the earliest Brethren were John of Höxter, John Brinckerinck, John Vos of Heusden, Amilius van Buren, Gerard Zerbolt of Zutphen, and several others. Their way of life, as described in shorter or longer vitae, was presented to later members of the community as an example worthy of imitation. These biographies, written in Latin or occasionally in the vernacular, aimed at a lively picture of pious predecessors whose lives had been filled with fervent love for Christ and the desire to imitate him; they may be found in the Chronicon Windeshemense of John Busch, in Rudolph Dier of Muiden, Thomas à Kempis, Peter Hoorn, in the Narratio de incohatione domus clericorum in Zwollis of James de Voecht, and in the anonymous Frenswegen manuscript. It may be assumed that they were read to the Brethren during mealtimes.

Growth and Expansion. The Deventer community became an example for houses of the Brethren in other cities, and later the Brethren settled also outside the cities in solitary places of the countryside.

In the Netherlands. During Gerard Groote's lifetime a community was started in Zwolle itself, but as the Brethren soon moved to the monastery of Mount St. Agnes in the neighborhood of Zwolle, a second foundation was launched in Zwolle, the St. Gregory House. Together with the Deventer House it became an important center of the devotio moderna and a base for new foundations in the neighborhood, for example, Albergen (1406) and Hulsbergen (1407). Houses were also founded in Hoorn (1384), Amersfoort (1395), and Delft (1403). Although some of these establishments had little or no success, others were founded throughout the fifteenth century, in Brussels (1422), Hertogenbosch (1424), Doesburg (1426), Groningen (1435), Harderwijk (1441), Gouda (1446), Geerardsbergen (1452), Emmeri (1467), Nijmegen (1470), Utrecht (1475), Berlicum (1482)all in the Netherlands.

In Germany. The Brethren of the Common Life spread also into the neighboring German regions. From Deventer Henry of Ahaus founded a house in Münster (1401), with which were associated foundations in Osnabrück (1410), Osterberg (1410), Cologne (1417), Herford (1426), Wesel (1435), and Hildesheim (1440). In the second half of the fifteenth century, the Brethren spread to southern Germany. Some of the German houses amalgamated into the Colloquium of Münster (1431). Outside Westphalia and the Rhenish territories, several German houses were of an intermediary sort, somewhat resembling monasteries of Canons Regular, in which, under the influence of the Devotio Moderna, the common life of the canons was revived after it had been abandoned during the High Middle Ages. Most of the houses of the Brethren in the Netherlands confederated into the Colloquium of Zwolle, but it is not known exactly which ones these were.

Decline. The development was rather slow; some communities collapsed, and others constituted themselves as monasteries soon after their foundation. The number of houses of the Brethren that were founded in the course of a century and managed to maintain themselves was not very large, and the number of Brethren in each house was also often very modest. In Albergen, for example, there were only about five brothers at the outset, and this number increased somewhat only later. Exactly the same situation prevailed in Emmerich and several other houses; only in such houses as Deventer, Zwolle, and Münster was the number larger. There were many reasons for this: first, the Brethren were by no means desirous of exerting much pressure to build up their houses. Furthermore, they were initially regarded with suspicion and were even opposed later on, especially by the mendicant orders.

Opposition was aroused among the regular clergy by the fact that the Brethren united into a common life without forming a monastic community and that they gave to these free (that is, canonically unrecognized) communities a certain organization. Groote had recognized this problem, admitted it, and prepared a solution: the foundation of a monastery to which the Brethren could retire if it became impossible for them to continue living in a free community.

The Monastery of Windesheim. As early as 1387 the Deventer Brethren founded the monastery of windesheim (near Zwolle), which associated itself with the canons regular of st. augustine and soon became the center of the Windesheim congregation, which spread very rapidly; it was a sort of complement to the houses of the Brethren in that many men who favored the Devotio Moderna had been accepted into the monasteries associated with it. To Windesheim's existence is traceable the fewness of the free communities of the Brethren. Among the houses of the Windesheim congregation, the monastery of Frenswegen was an important center for the spread of the Devotio Moderna in Westphalia. It was also a focal point for religious contacts between the eastern Netherlands and Westphalia.

Scriptoria of the Brethren. An important occupation of the Brethren was the copying of manuscripts of various sorts: vitae of the saints, theological works, liturgical books. Their books were often illuminated and beautifully bound. The Deventer community, especially before the invention of the printing press, depended principally on the revenues from the copying of manuscripts and also on simple handicrafts. Other communities founded elsewhere on the model of Deventer derived most of their income from copying work as well. The monasteries of the Windesheim congregation, a product of the Devotio Moderna, had scriptoria where members of the community copied Bibles, missals, prayer books, and other ecclesiastical books, sometimes by commission; they had a good market. The Brethren wrote for their own use the biographies of Gerard Groote and the men who had been leaders in their society. Their work was unusually legible (rotunda, fractura ); their scripts, generally used in manuscripts destined for divine service, for private prayer, and for reading in the refectory, are well exemplified in the two 1447 folios from the workroom of the master copyist Hermanus Strepel, who belonged to the Münster House of the Brethren.

Customaries. In the few Consuetudines that have been preserved, copying is specifically stressed as a necessary work, supplementing religious practices:

Concerning the work of copying, note that you should order the work of your hands to the end that it may lead you to purity of heart, because you are weak and cannot be always at spiritual exercises and for this reason was handiwork instituted. Wherefore you ought to attend in your copying to three things, to wit, that you make the letters properly and perfectly, that you copy without error, that you understand the sense of what you are copying, and that you concentrate your wandering mind on the task.

There is also the regulation: "Twice a week they [the Brethren] write for one hour in the evening for the poor, to wit from six to seven." Not only do the Consuetudines regulate the horarium and duties of the Brethren, they also contain description of the hours of the Divine Office and state how the members of the house are to conduct themselves externally and interiorly during Mass and what special prayers they are to add to those generally prescribed. In the Consuetudines are to be found the combination of individual practice and common custom. A closer investigation of the Consuetudines and their relation to the Devotio Moderna are problems still to be treated.

Schools and Residences. Recent research has shown that the Brethren of the Common Life concentrated on pastoral work and taught only rarely; usually the students from large city schools lived in residences managed by the Brethren or with lay families formed by the Devotio Moderna. Only in Gouda, Utrecht, and Liège did the Brethren have schools of their own c. 1500. Of these, the school of St. Jerome in Utrecht was by the sixteenth century the most important. The pastoral care and religious training of the young entrusted to them in their residences was generally the proper task of the Brethren.

Bibliography: Sources. j. busch, Des Augustinerpropstes Johannes Busch Chronicon Windeshemense und Liber de reformatione monasteriorum, ed. k. l. grube (Halle 1886). thomas À kempis, The Founders of the New Devotion, Being the Lives of Gerard Groote, Florentius Radewin and Their Followers, tr. j. p. arthur (London 1905); The Chronicle of the Canons Regular of Mount St. Agnes, tr. j. p. arthur (London 1906). j. t. de voecht, Narratio de inchoatione domus clericorum in Zwollis, ed. m. schoengen (Amsterdam 1908). g. groote, "The Original Constitution of the Brethren of the Common Life at Deventer," ed. a. hyma in his The Christian Renaissance: A History of the "Devotio Moderna" (New York 1925) 440474. w. j. alberts, ed., Het Frensweger Handschrift (Groningen 1958); Consuetudines fratrum Vitae Communis (Groningen 1959); Consuetudines domus fratrum Embricensis (Groningen 1965). Literature. e. barnikol, Studien zur Geschichte der Brüder vom Gemeinsamen Leben (Tübingen 1917). r. r. post, "Studiën over de Broeders van het Gemeene Leven," Nederlandsche Historiebladen 1 (1938) 304335; 2(1939) 136162; De Moderne devotie (2d ed. Amsterdam 1950). a. hyma, The Brethren of the Common Life (Grand Rapids, Mich.1950). s. axters, Geschiedenis van de vroomheid in de Nederlanden, 4 v. (Antwerp 195060) 3: De moderne devotie 13801550 (1956). c. van der wansem, Het ontstaan en de geschiedenis der Broederschap van het Gemene Leven tot 1400 (Louvain 1958). t.p. van zijl, Gerard Groote, Ascetic and Reformer, 13401384 (Washington 1963).

[w. j. alberts]

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