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The Brethren of the Common Life (Latin: Fratres Vitae Communis) 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 and the Devotio Moderna

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" (Dutch: 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[1]. 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.

Education and activity

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 Leme 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. The Brethren worked consistently in the scriptorium; afterwards, with 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." Martin Luther studied under the Brethren of the Common Life at Magdeburg before going on to the University of Erfurt.

Gradually the course of study, 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.


  1. ^ The Catholic Encyclopedia

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

BROTHERS OF COMMON LIFE, a religious community formerly existing in the Catholic Church. Towards the end of his career Gerhard Groot retired to his native town of Deventer, in the province of Overyssel and the diocese of Utrecht, and gathered around him a number of those who had been "converted" by his preaching or wished to place themselves under his spiritual guidance. With the assistance of Florentius Radewyn, who resigned for the purpose a canonry at Utrecht, he was able to carry out a long-cherished idea of establishing a house wherein devout men might live in community without the monastic vows. The first such community was established at Deventer in the house of Florentius himself (c. 1380); and Thomas a Kempis, who lived in it from 1392 to 1399, has left a description of the manner of life pursued: "They humbly imitated the manner of the Apostolic life, and having one heart and mind in God, brought every man what was his own into the common stock, and receiving simple food and clothing avoided taking thought for the morrow. Of their own will they devoted themselves to God, and all busied themselves in obeying their rector or his vicar.... They laboured carefully in copying books, being instant continually in sacred study and devout meditation. In the morning having said Matins, they went to the church (for Mass).. .. Some who were priests and were learned in the divine law preached earnestly in the church." Other houses of the Brothers of Common Life, otherwise called the "Modern Devotion," were in rapid succession established in the chief cities of the Low Countries and north and central Germany, so that there were in all upwards of forty houses of men; while those of women doubled that figure, the first having been founded by Groot himself at Deventer.

The ground-idea was to reproduce the life of the first Christians as described in Acts iv. The members took no vows and were free to leave when they chose; but so long as they remained they were bound to observe chastity, to practise personal poverty, putting all their money and earnings into the common fund, to obey the rules of the house and the commands of the rector, and to exercise themselves in self-denial, humility and piety. The rector was chosen by the community and was not necessarily a priest, though in each house there were a few priests and clerics. The majority, however, were laymen, of all kinds and degrees - nobles, artisans, scholars, students, labouring men. The clerics preached and instructed the people, working chiefly among the poor; they also devoted themselves to the copying of manuscripts, in order thereby to earn something for the common fund; and some of them taught in the schools. Of the laymen, the educated copied manuscripts, the others worked at various handicrafts or at agriculture. After the religious services of the morning the Brothers scattered for the day's work, the artisans going to the workshops in the city, - for the idea was to live and work in the world, and not separated from it, like the monks. Their rule was that they had to earn their livelihood, and must not beg. This feature seemed a reflection on the mendicant orders, and the idea of a community life without vows and not in isolation from everyday life, was looked upon as something new and strange, and even as bearing affinities to the Beghards and other sects, at that time causing trouble to both Church and state. And so opposition arose to the Modern Devotion, and the controversy was carried to the legal faculty at Cologne University, which gave a judgment strongly in their favour. The question, for all that, was not finally settled until the council of Constance (1414), when their cause was triumphantly defended by Pierre d'Ailly and Gerson. For a century of ter this the Modern Devotion flourished exceedingly, and its influence on the revival of religion in the Netherlands and north Germany in the 15th century was wide and deep. It has been the fashion to treat Groot and the Brothers of Common Life as "Reformers before the Reformation"; but Schulze, in the Protestant Realencyklopddie, is surely right in pronouncing this view quite unhistorical - except on the theory that all interior spiritual religion is Protestant: he shows that at the Reformation hardly any of the Brothers embraced Lutheranism, only a single community going over as a body to the new religion. During the second half of the 16th century the institute gradually declined, and by the middle of the 17th all its houses had ceased to exist.


The chief authorities are Thomas a Kempis, Lives of Groot and his Disciples and Chronicle of Mount St Agnes (both works translated by J. P. Arthur, the former under the title Founders of the New Devotion, 1905); Busch, Chronicle of Windesheim (ed. Grube, 1887). Much has been written on the subject in Dutch and German; in English, S. Kettlewell, Thomas a Kempis and the Brothers of Common Life (1882) (but see Arthur in the Prefaces to above-named books); for a shorter sketch, F. R. Cruise, Thomas a Kempis (1887). An excellent article in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopcidie (3rd ed.), "Briider des gemeinsamen Lebens," supplies copious information with references to all the literature; see also Max Heimbucher, Orden and Kongregationen (1897), ii. § 123. The part played by the Brothers of Common Life in the religious and educational movements of the time may be studied in Ludwig Pastor's History of the Popes from the close of the Middle Ages, or J. Janssen's History of the German People. (E. C. B.)

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