Devotio Moderna is a school and trend of spirituality that originated in the Netherlands at the end of the 14th century and spread during the 15th century through that region and through the Rhineland, Saxony (J. Busch), Northern France (J. mombaer, J. Standonch), Spain (Montserrat), and possibly Italy (L. Barbo).
Origin. Gerard groote (1340–84) was the father and founder of the Devotio Moderna. He was a deacon and a fervent preacher in Deventer. H. Pomerius called him Fons et origo modernae devotionis (c. 1420). Groote's principal disciple was florentius radewijns (1350–1400), founder of the brethren of the common life and of the Canons Regular of windesheim. In these two institutions the Devotio Moderna acquired a canonical status that enabled it to contribute to western spirituality and to the reform of the Church. It was called "modern" in opposition to the "old" spirituality of the 13th and 14th centuries, which was highly speculative and scholastic in character. The nominalism of Ockham had been hailed as a via moderna compared with the via antiqua of the Thomists and Scotists; similarly, Groote and his disciples introduced a devotio moderna in contrast to the mysticism of eckhart and tauler.
Characteristics. The principal features which, taken together, distinguish the Devotio Moderna from other schools and trends of Christian spirituality can be reduced to the following: 1. Christocentrism. The disciples of Groote and Radewijns did not meditate upon the divine nature and attributes, but rather upon Christ's humanity, the virtues of which they sought to imitate (cf. The Imitation of Christ ). 2. Affectivity. In their attitude toward emotion they followed the Cistercians, Franciscans, and Carthusians, their affectivity tending to be more rational than "enthusiastic." They had a preference for devotion to the Eucharist and to the Passion of Christ. 3. Technique. They introduced method in meditation as well as in the other exercises of life. A complicated example of the method for meditation is to be found in Mombaer's Scala meditatoria. 4. Moralism. The Devotio Moderna claimed that the basis of perfection is self-knowledge and the fulfillment of obligations, i.e., the practice of virtue and the avoidance of vice. 5. Asceticism. Without excluding mysticism they nevertheless insisted more upon self-abnegation and the effort of the will. "The more constraint you put on yourself, the more progress you will make; that is certain" (Imitation of Christ, 1.25). 6. Antispeculative tendency. The place of learning in their system is clear from their question "What does it profit you to talk learnedly about the Trinity…. Of what valueis knowledge without the fear of God?" (ibid., 1.1.) 7. Interiority and subjectivism. They tended to attach little importance to external works and ritual; only intention, reflection and fervor counted. The ideal of Thomas à Kempis was homo compunctus, internus et devotus. Probably because it was born in the dark days of the Western Schism, the Devotio Moderna was wanting in an appreciation of the Church and the hierarchy. 8. Retirement from the world. They commended solitude and silence; in dealings with men they saw only danger and temptation; they showed little love or concern for the apostolate. 9. Devotional reading of the Scriptures. They were much given to reading the Bible, but only for edification and devotion, not for scientific research. They recommended the translation of the Bible into the vernacular tongues. 10. Antihumanism. From what has been said it is evident that this school of spirituality had nothing in common with the humanistic tendencies that were beginning to be felt in those times. They despised culture and knowledge and had no use for purely human values.
Writers. After G. Groote and F. Radewijns, the most important author among the Brethren of the Common Life was Geert Zerbolt v. Zutphen (1367–98), who wrote two significant treatises, De reformatione virium animae and De spiritualibus ascensionibus. Among the Canons Regular of Windesheim the following authors deserve mention: Gerlac Peters (1378–1411), author of a small ascetical work, Breviloquium, and of the Soliloquium, which has a more mystical character and was probably inspired by Ruysbroeck; Joannes Vos de Heusden (1391–1424), who, although he did not write the treatise once attributed to him, Epistola de vita et passione D. N. Jesuchristi et aliis devotis exercitiis, nevertheless used to recommend it to his disciples; Hendrik Mande (1360–1431), the greatest mystic of the school, and author of Een boecskijn van drien staten (Liber de tribus statibus hominis), Eene claghe of enighe sprake der mynnender Sielen (Amorosa querela amantis animae) and about 10 other small books that are held in great esteem by modern Dutch philologists and writers; thomas À kempis (1380–1471), universally known figure and greatest representative of Devotio Moderna, whose treatise, The imitation of christ, ranks among the greatest of the classics of Catholic spirituality; and Joannes Mauburnus (Mombaer, 1460–1501), whose Rosetum exercitiorum is like an encyclopedia of the spirituality of the Devotio Moderna. Thomas à Kempis wrote a number of other small works also, e.g., Soliloquium animae, De elevatione mentis ad inquirendum Summum Bonum (of Augustinian inspiration), Dialogus novitiorum (pious biographies of the founders of the Devotio Moderna), Hortulus rosarum, Vaillis liliorum, Sermones de vita et passione D. N. Jesu Christi.
The Devotio Moderna flourished through the 15th century, and during the 16th century it influenced other schools of spirituality, such as the Erasmian, Ignatian, and even the Benedictine, Franciscan, and Dominican. In the end it was absorbed by these. It almost disappeared when the Protestant revolution destroyed many houses of the Brethren of the Common Life and convents of the Canons Regular.
Bibliography: Sources. a. hyma, ed., "The Original Constitution of the Brethren of the Common Life at Deventer," The Christian Renaissance (New York 1925) Appendix C: 440–474. j. busch, Chronicon Windeshemense, ed. k. grube (Geschichtsquellen der Provinz Sachsen 19; Halle 1886). thomas À kempis, Opera omnia, ed. j. pohl, 7 v. (Freiburg 1902–22) v.7 "Vita Gerardi Magni," 31–115, "Vita Domini Florentii," 116–210, "Chronica Montis Sanctae Agnetis," 333–478. j. mauburnus, Rosetum exercitiorum spiritualium et sacrarum meditationum (Paris 1510). General. r. r. post, De Moderne devotie (Amsterdam 1950), best general work. a. hyma, The Christian Renaissance (New York 1925). e. de schaepdrijver, "La Dévotion moderne," Nouvelle revue théologique 54 (1927) 742–772. m. ditche, "Zur Herkunft und Bedeutung des Begriffes 'Devotio Moderna'," Historisches Jahrbuch der Görres-Gesellschaft 79 (1960) 124–145. k. c. l. m. de beer, Studie over de spiritualiteit van Geert Groote (Brussels 1938). s. axters, Geschiedenis van de vroomheid in de Nederlanden (Antwerp 1950) v.3 De Moderne devotie 1380–1550 (1956), with extensive bibliog., 416–456. p. debongnie, Jean Mombaer de Bruxelles, abbé de Livry, ses écrits et ses réformes (Louvain 1927); Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932) 3:727–747. j. m. e. dols, Bibliographie der Moderne devotie, 2 v. (Nijmegen 1936–37), an incomplete work. More useful is the logical exposition of w. j. alberts, "Zur Historiographie der 'Devotio Moderna' und ihrer Erforschung," Westfälische Forschungen 11 (1958) 51–67. Complementary bibliography in the articles: groote; brethren of the common life; thomas À kempis.