Devotio Moderna

Devotio Moderna
(Modern Devotion)
   A late medieval movement of personal spiritual regeneration and concern for preaching and social ministry to the poor in northwestern Europe. Its followers also favored reform of the institutional church, but in a way that emphasized the need to avoid heresy and to obey superiors. The movement was founded by Geert Groote (1340-1384), the son of a prominent family of Deventer in the Netherlands. He had an excellent scholastic education, primarily at the University of Paris (M.A., 1358). After graduation, he studied canon law, natural philosophy, and theology at Paris, and perhaps also at Cologne and Prague. Though not ordained as a priest, in 1368 he obtained a valuable canonry at Aachen and settled down to the conventional career of a wealthy cleric. In 1372, after a nearly fatal illness, he renounced his study of magic and vowed to spend the rest of his life in the service of God. He resigned his lucrative benefices and adopted a self-denying way of life.
   In 1374 Groote turned his family home in Deventer into a shelter for poor women and lived for several years as a guest of a Carthusian monastery. Eventually, he concluded that God was calling him to be a preacher to the general populace. He secured ordination as a deacon in order to qualify for permission to preach but never became a priest. Between 1379 and 1383 he worked as an itinerant preacher. His sermons were so critical of the morals and privileges of the clergy, openly denouncing those who lived with women in violation of their vows, that the bishop of Utrecht revoked his license to preach. Though he appealed to the pope, he obeyed the bishop's order and withdrew first to a monastery and then to a small community of his disciples at Kampen.
   In the meantime, a priest at Deventer who had become his disciple, Florens Radewijns (1350-1400), resigned his own benefices and formed in his own house a community (a commune) of Groote's followers. They led a life in common, working in the secular world (often as professional copyists) and pooling their earnings. They elected a rector but did not organize as a formal monastic community, preferring an informal association, inspired by the example of the early Christian church at Jerusalem. There were no binding vows, and decisions to enter or to leave the community were a matter of personal calling. Because of their commitment to share a common life, they came to be known as Brethren of the Common Life.
   Other communities were soon organized in imitation of the Deventer group, and the rules established by Radewijns at Deventer were adopted by the others. Occasionally such a local group decided to take formal monastic vows; one such community was the Augustinian monastery at St. Agnietenberg, where Thomas à Kempis, the probable author of The Imitation of Christ, was master of novices. Groote and Radewijns were also interested in the spiritual and material needs of poor women converted by their preaching, and a number of communities of Sisters of the Common Life were the result. The communities, both male and female, sought no endowed income or charity but supported themselves by their own labor. These semi-monastic communities of men and women arose spontaneously, without formal canonical status, and were a matter of great concern to the ecclesiastical authorities, who worried that heretical doctrines and immoral styles of living might prevail within communities (especially the communities of women) that were not subject to a monastic rule. The communities did seek approval from diocesan bishops, but suspicions of them remained strong among the higher clergy and the monks. There was pressure on them to reorganize as monastic communities.
   In the face of this pressure, since he was by no means hostile to monasticism, Groote shortly before his death advised some of his followers to organize a monastery under the established rule for Augustinian canons. In 1387 these followers formed an Augustinian monastery at Windesheim, committed to strict observance of the Augustinian rule, and this monastery became the center for a group of Augustinian houses known as the Windesheim Congregation. It received papal approval in 1395. By the end of the 14th century, the Devotio Moderna consisted of three distinct but closely linked organizations: 1) the Brethren of the Common Life; 2) the Sisters of the Common Life; and 3) a group of reformed Augustinian monasteries belonging to the Windesheim Congregation. All three movements spread from their original center in the northern Netherlands into the southern Netherlands, northern France, and northwestern Germany. Many of these communities were disbanded during the Reformation, and in 1568 Pope Pius V ordered all remaining communities of Brethren and Sisters either to adopt a formal monastic rule or to disband.
   Historians of the late medieval church have often associated the rise of the Devotio Moderna with a growing hunger for personal spirituality among the people of northwestern Europe, chiefly in the socially troubled urban centers. Desire for an effective response to spiritual needs and to the problems of urban poverty inspired idealistic young men like Groote and caused such communities to spread. It also led many of them to draw a sharp contrast between their life and the worldly lives of many wealthy clergy. Hence their preaching often took on an anticlerical tinge. Yet some historians have overem-phasized and misinterpreted this critical side of the movement. The Brethren were determined to be humble and obedient as well as devout. Their close links to the Augustinian order show that they had no revolutionary agenda and in no way were precursors of the Protestant Reformation.
   Another common misunderstanding has to do with their attitude toward intellectual life and their activity in education. Although Groote himself repudiated the scholastic learning he had acquired at Paris, he and his movement had no intention of challenging the traditional formulations of orthodox doctrine. They were cool to higher education because they thought that it implied a kind of intellectual arrogance that was incompatible with the simplicity and humility of the early New Testament Christians. Being largely an urban movement, they realized the value of literacy and did not extend their coolness toward university learning into hostility to education in general. The copying of books—mainly books of prayer and meditation— was regarded as a pious act and became a source of income for many of the communities. Later, some communities became publishers of spiritual tracts.
   A second misunderstanding is the idea that because they encouraged literacy and the production of books, the Brethren became a major force in education, even a center for the diffusion of Renaissance interests in classical learning. The "schools of the Brethren of the Common Life," of which some historians have made much, represent exaggeration and even distortion of the record. Some communities of Brethren did organize schools to meet the needs of boys from their towns, and as time passed, the number of such schools increased. But the Brethren were not precursors of the teaching orders of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. Instead of opening schools, many communities provided hostels in which boys from out of town could live in a pious and moral environment while attending schools operated by town governments or by wealthy cathedral chapters and collegiate churches. The prime example of this misunderstanding concerns the relation of the Brethren at Deventer to the famous school of St. Lebwin's church, the school attended by the young Erasmus, Rudolf Agrícola, and other prominent Renaissance humanists. St. Lebwin's was an excellent school for its time. Its largely medieval curriculum was enriched by attention to humanistic studies, especially during the long tenure of Alexander Hegius as its headmaster. But the school was never under the control of the Brethren. Since the Brethren discouraged their members from attending universities, the only qualified teachers they had were men (Groote himself would be an example) who had been converted to the common life after their formal education.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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