Brethren of the Common Life

The Brethren of the Common Life (Latin: Fratres Vitae Communis, FVC) was a Roman Catholic pietist religious community founded in the Netherlands 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. Without taking up irrevocable vows, the Brethren[1] banded together in communities, giving up their worldly goods to live chaste and strictly regulated lives in common houses, devoting every waking hour to attending divine service, reading and preaching of sermons, labouring productively, and taking meals in common that were accompanied by the reading aloud of Scripture: "judged from the ascetic discipline and intention of this life, it had few features which distinguished it from life in a monastery", observes Hans Baron.[2]

Gerard Groote

Of wealthy burgher stock, Groote was born at Deventer in the Oversticht possession of the bishopric Utrecht in 1340. Having read at Cologne, at the Sorbonne, and at Prague, he took orders and obtained preferment, a canon's stall at Utrecht and another at Aachen. His relations with the German Gottesfreunde and the writings of Ruysbroek, who later became his friend, gradually inclined him to mysticism, and on recovering from an illness in 1373, he resigned his prebends, bestowed his goods on the Carthusians of Arnheim and lived in solitude for seven years.[3]

Feeling himself constrained to go forth and preach, Groote went from place to place calling men to repentance, proclaiming the beauty of Divine love, and bewailing the relaxation of ecclesiastical discipline and the degradation of the clergy. The effect of his sermons was marvellous; thousands hung on his words.[3]

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 lax 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.[3] Members of the secular clergy even enrolled themselves in his brotherhood, which, in due course, was approved by the Pope.

The majority of the Brethren were laymen who did not take monastic vows. They devoted themselves to doing charitable work, nursing the sick, studying and teaching the Scriptures, and copying religious and inspirational works. They founded a number of schools that became famous for their high standards of learning. Many famous men attended their schools, including Nicholas of Cusa, Thomas à Kempis, and Erasmus, all of whom studied at the Brethren's school at Deventer.[4]

Devotio Moderna

The Brethren's confraternity is the best known fruits of the "Devotio Moderna", (the Modern Devotion), an undogmatic form of piety which some historians have argued helped to pave the road for the Protestant Reformation. In the fifteenth century, the movement spread to southern and western Germany.[4]

Windesheim Congregation

Groote, however, did not live long enough to finish the work he had begun. He died in 1384 and was succeeded by Florens Radewyns, who two years later refounded the famous monastery of Augustinian canons at Windesheim, near Zwolle, which was now 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 but were by then declining. Its members took no vows and neither asked nor received alms; their first aim was to cultivate the interior life, and they worked for their daily bread.

Books and the library were central to the communities of Brethren, whose scrupulous copies of works of piety supported their houses and put the texts in which they found spiritual sustenance in many hands. The houses of the brothers and sisters occupied themselves with literature and education, and their priests also with preaching.

When Groote began, education in the Netherlands was still rare, unlike 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 that. The Brethren worked consistently in the scriptorium; afterwards, with the printing press, they were able to publish their spiritual writings widely. Among 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, the physician Vesalius,[5] Jan Standonck (1454–1504), priest and reformer, Master of the Collège de Montaigu in Paris, and the Dutch Pope Adrian VI.

Martin Luther studied under the Brethren of the Common Life at Magdeburg before going on to the University of Erfurt. Another famous member of the Brethren of the Common Life was Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. His mystical and scholarly efforts produced many works of literature. One of his greatest contributions to the Christian faith was a critical Greek New Testament (1514) which challenged the previous New Testament text translations (specifically the Vulgate). Commonly called Erasmus, he embraced ecclesiastical structure yet challenged the Augustinian view (people do not choose God, but God is the only one who brings people into grace and salvation), the nature of the human will, and the corruption and problems of the late medieval church.

Through the trade connections of the Dutch Hanseatic cities Deventer and Zwolle the ideas of the Modern devotion spread over the whole of the Hanseatic trade area. 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 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 staunch 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.

Lutheran community in Herford

The community of the Brethren in Herford went over bodily to the Reformation, but the local council nonetheless threatened to close their house. The Brethren wrote to Martin Luther 1532, who defended their community life by writing to the council of the city. To Jacob Montanus and Gerhard Wilskamp he wrote in the end of January 1532: "Your way of life, since you teach and live according to the Gospel, pleases me no end". If only "there had been, and today there were more convents like yours!...Abide by your way of life and use it to spread the Gospel (as you do)!"[7] The house of the Brethren of the Common Life in Herford remained in existence as a Lutheran brotherhood until 1841.[8]


A 2016 study in the Economic Journal finds that the BCL "contributed to the high rates of literacy, to the high level of book production and to city growth in the Netherlands."[9]

See also


  1. ^ There were a few communities of Sisters as well.
  2. ^ Hans Baron, "Fifteenth century civilisation and the Renaissance", in The New Cambridge Modern History, vol. I (1957:64).
  3. ^ a b c Gilliat-Smith, Ernest. "Brethren of the Common Life." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 15 Jun. 2013
  4. ^ a b "The Brethren of the Common Life", The End of Europe's Middle Ages, University of Calgary Archived August 14, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^
  6. ^ Dolan, John P. ed. (1962). Unity & Reform: Selected Writings of Nicholas de Cusa. Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press. p. 9.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  7. ^ Dorothea Wendebourg: Luther on Monasticism, s. 327–355. The Pastoral Luther. Essays on Martin Luther's Practical Theology. Timothy J. Wengert (ed.). Lutheran Quarterly Books. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009. Published also in Lutheran Quarterly 19 (2005): 125–52
  8. ^ Common Life, Brethren of the – Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge
  9. ^ Akçomak, İ. Semih; Webbink, Dinand; ter Weel, Bas (2016-06-01). "Why Did the Netherlands Develop So Early? The Legacy of the Brethren of the Common Life". The Economic Journal. 126 (593): 821–860. CiteSeerX doi:10.1111/ecoj.12193. ISSN 1468-0297.

Further reading

  • Heiko Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.

Year 1340 (MCCCXL) was a leap year starting on Saturday (link will display the full calendar) of the Julian calendar.


Year 1384 (MCCCLXXXIV) was a leap year starting on Friday (link will display the full calendar) of the Julian calendar.

Adoration of the Shepherds (Hugo van der Goes)

Adoration of the Shepherds is a late oil painting by Hugo van der Goes, now in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Unusually large for the painter, it is less well-known than his Portinari Triptych or his Monforte Altarpiece on the same subject. He produced it before renouncing his worldly life and becoming a lay brother at Rouge-Cloître Abbey near Brussels, a daughter house of the Windesheim Congregation in the strict tradition of the Brethren of the Common Life, part of the wider devotio moderna movement.

The scene is flanked by two prophets from the Hebrew scriptures, shown half-length and holding up a green curtain, which they part to show the scene. Standing in front of the scene, they act as intermediaries between it and the viewer, with the right-hand one with his hand and mouth open as if to speak.(Belting 2005, p. 218) As Hans Belting puts it,(Belting 2005, p. 203) "it is indeed a scene in the theatrical sense, as we see the curatins opening on the stable in Bethlehem as if the play is about to begin". The scene itself includes three shepherds as well as a background scene showing the angels announcing Christ's birth to them. The Christ Child looks out at the viewer and behind him, Mary and Joseph is a group of angels.(Belting 2005, p. 212)

Congregation of Windesheim

The Congregation of Windesheim is a branch of the Augustinians. It takes its name from its most important monastery, which was located at Windesheim, about four miles south of Zwolle on the IJssel, in the Netherlands.

This congregation of canons regular, of which this was the chief house, was an offshoot of the Brethren of the Common Life and played a considerable part in the reform movement within the Dutch and German Catholic Church in the century before the Protestant Reformation.

Florens Radewyns

Floris Radewyns (or Latinized Florentius Radwyn) (c. 1350 – 24 March 1400) was the co-founder of the Brethren of the Common Life.


Florentius is the name of:

Saint Florentius (died c. 310), martyr, brother of Justin of Siponto

Florentius (consul 361), Roman praetorian prefect and consul

Florentius (consul 429), high official of the Eastern Roman Empire

Florentius Romanus Protogenes, Roman statesman, Consul in 449

Florentius of Sardis, 5th century bishop of Sardis and theologian

Florentius of Orange (died 525), bishop of Orange and saint

Saint Florentius of Strasbourg, Bishop of Strasbourg c. 678–693

Florentius of Peterborough, 7th century saint and martyr

Florentius of Worcester (died 1118), monk of Worcester, worked on the Chronicon ex chronicis

Florentius of Carracedo (died 1156), Spanish Benedictine abbot

Florentius or Florence of Holland (died 1210), nobleman and cleric, Chancellor of Scotland

Florentius Radewyns (c. 1350–1400), co-founder of the Brethren of the Common Life

Florentius Volusenus (1500s–1540s), Scottish humanist noted for De Animi Tranquillitate

Gabriel Biel

Gabriel Biel, C.R.S.A. (German pronunciation: [biːl]; 1420 to 1425 – 7 December 1495), was a German scholastic philosopher and member of the Canons Regular of the Congregation of Windesheim, who were the clerical counterpart to the Brethren of the Common Life.

Biel was born in Speyer and died in Einsiedel near Tübingen. In 1432 he was ordained to the priesthood and entered Heidelberg University to obtain a baccalaureate. He succeeded academically and became an instructor in the faculty of the arts for three years, until he pursued a higher degree at the University of Erfurt. His first stay was brief, lasting only until he transferred to the University of Cologne. He did not complete his degree there either, and would return to Erfurt in 1451 to finish. The curriculum at these two universities varied greatly, with Cologne stressing St. Thomas Aquinas and overall scholastic curricula heavily, and Erfurt emphasizing William of Ockham. Because of his reliance on the scholastic tradition, as well as William of Ockham's nominalist views, he is often credited as being an "articulate spokesman of the via moderna and … a discerning user of the thought of via antiqua” (Oberman, 11).

Geert Groote

Gerard Groote (October 1340 – 20 August 1384), otherwise Gerrit or Gerhard Groet, in Latin Gerardus Magnus, was a Dutch Roman Catholic deacon, who was a popular preacher and the founder of the Brethren of the Common Life. He was a key figure in the Devotio Moderna movement.

Groot (surname)

Groot is a Dutch surname. Groot (pronounced [ɣroːt]) means "big" in Dutch and the surname was originally a nickname for a tall person. The name is most common in the province of North Holland. It may refer to:

Ana María Groot (born 1952), Colombian historian, archaeologist, and anthropologist

Anna Maria Groot (born 1952), Dutch model, Miss Europe of 1973

Cees Groot (born 1932), Dutch footballer, brother of Henk

Chantal Groot (born 1982), Dutch swimmer

Cor Groot (1899–1978), Dutch Olympic sailor

Cornelia Groot (born 1988), Dutch team handball player

Denise Groot (born 1990), Dutch pole vaulter

Ed Groot (born 1957), Dutch journalist and politician

Gerard Groot (1340–1384), Dutch Roman Catholic deacon, founder of the Brethren of the Common Life

Henk Groot (born 1938), Dutch footballer, brother of Cees

Jacob Groot (1812–1893), Russian philologist

Marike Groot (born 1968), Dutch singer

Nycke Groot (born 1988), Dutch handball player

Roger Groot (1942–2005), American law professor

Tjade Groot (born 1973), Dutch cricketer

Heinrich von Ahaus

Heinrich von Ahaus (in Dutch Hendrik van Ahuis) (1371–1439) was the founder of the Brethren of the Common Life in Germany.

Hendrik Mande

Hendrik Mande (1350-60 – 1431) was a Dutch mystical writer, an early member of the Brethren of the Common Life, and an Augustinian Canon.

Johannes Busch

Johannes (or Jan) Busch (1399 – c. 1480) was a major reformer and provost of a community of Canons Regular. He was associated with the Brethren of the Common Life.He was born in Zwolle. He spent most of the last 40 years of his life visiting and inspecting monasteries and convents, including Escherde (1441), Brunswick, and Wienhausen Abbey, then a Cistercian nunnery, where he removed the abbess in 1469. He also wrote some substantial surviving works, including a chronicle of Windesheim. He died at Hildesheim.

Louis of Praet

Louis of Praet, Louis of Flanders, Lord of Praet, or locally Lodewijk van Praet (1488, Bruges – 7 October 1555) was a nobleman from the Low Countries and an important diplomat and statesman under the Emperor Charles V.

Louis was descended through his father from a bastard son of Louis of Male, count of Flanders, and through his mother from a bastard daughter of Philip the Good. He was a student of the Brethren of the Common Life and studied in Leuven.

Louis was 'hoog-baljuw' ("grand bailiff") of Ghent from 1515 to 1522 and of Bruges from 1523 to 1549. He served the Emperor between 1522 and 1525 as ambassador in England, where he in the end got into severe conflict with Thomas Wolsey and had to leave the country. Between 1525 and 1526 he also served as ambassador in France.

In England, Praet met the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives who dedicated his 1523 book De Consultatione to him. Praet also either directly inspired or encouraged Vives to write his book On Assistance to the Poor, which he did when living in Bruges in 1526. Vives dedicated the book to Lord Praet, writing:

"Actually I had been asked to do this some time ago, when I was in England, by Lord Praet your Burgomaster, who deliberates deeply and often -as indeed he ought- concerning the public welfare of the city".

Louis was elected knight of the Golden Fleece in 1531 and then took up his residence in the Netherlands. He served as Stadtholder in Holland and Zeeland between 1544 and 1546.

In 1555 he was buried in an impressive mausoleum at Aalter, between Bruges and Ghent.

Ludwig Dringenberg

Ludwig Dringenberg (born between 1410 and 1415

at Dringenberg in the Prince-Bishopric of Paderborn; died in 1477 at Sélestat in Alsace), was a German monk, educator and humanist.

Born in Dringenberg in Westphalia, Ludwig probably attended the school of the Brethren of the Common Life, known as the Hieronymusschule in the monastery at Böddeken. He began his studies at Heidelberg in 1430 and in 1441, he was appointed director of the Latin school at Sélestat. At Sélestat he founded the famous Humanist Library in 1442. He had the humanist Jakob Wimpfeling as a pupil.


Mariënberg (Dutch Low Saxon: Mainbarg or Mainbarrug) is a village in the Dutch province of Overijssel. It is located in the municipality of Hardenberg, and lies on the westside of the Vecht river, between Hardenberg and Ommen. As of 2009, the village has 840 inhabitants. Mariënberg was erected by the Brethren of the Common Life in the 14th century.


Michaeliskloster is a monastery building in Rostock, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany. It was a home to the Brethren of the Common Life, and hosted major printing and bookbinding of the late Middle Ages. In April 1942, after British bombing raid completely burned the monastery, it was in ruins. The eastern section was restored in the 1950s and the United Methodist congregation transferred to it. The historic exterior back of the west wing was retrofitted in 1994 with reproduced form bricks and other special-sized bricks which were adapted to the character and physical properties of the original bricks. In the present day, the University of Rostock Library houses its special collections in Michaeliskloster.

Renaissance humanism in Northern Europe

Renaissance Humanism came much later to Germany and Northern Europe in general than to Italy, and when it did, it encountered some resistance from the scholastic theology which reigned at the universities.

Humanism may be dated from the invention of the printing press about 1450. Its flourishing period began at the close of the 15th century and lasted only until about 1520, when it was absorbed by the more popular and powerful religious movement, the Reformation, as Italian Humanism was superseded by the papal counter-Reformation. Marked features distinguished the new culture north of the Alps from the culture of the Italians. The university and school played a much more important part than in the South according to Catholic historians. The representatives of the new scholarship were teachers; even Erasmus taught in Cambridge and was on intimate terms with the professors at Basel. During the progress of the movement new universities sprang up, from Basel to Rostock. Again, in Germany, there were no princely patrons of arts and learning to be compared in intelligence and munificence to the Renaissance popes and the Medici. Nor was the new culture here exclusive and aristocratic. It sought the general spread of intelligence, and was active in the development of primary and grammar schools. In fact, when the currents of the Italian Renaissance began to set toward the North, a strong, independent, intellectual current was pushing down from the flourishing schools conducted by the Brethren of the Common Life. In the Humanistic movement, the German people was far from being a slavish imitator. It received an impulse from the South, but made its own path.

In the North, Humanism entered into the service of religious progress. German scholars were less brilliant and elegant, but more serious in their purpose and more exact in their scholarship than their Italian predecessors and contemporaries. In the South, the ancient classics absorbed the attention of the literati. It was not so in the North. There was no consuming passion to render the classics into German as there had been in Italy. Nor did Italian literature, with its often relaxed moral attitude, find imitators in the North. Boccaccio’s Decameron was first translated into German by the physician, Henry Stainhowel, who died in 1482. North of the Alps, attention was chiefly centred on the Old and New Testaments. Greek and Hebrew were studied, not with the purpose of ministering to a cult of antiquity, but to reach the fountains of the Christian system more adequately. In this way, preparation was made for the work of the Protestant Reformation. This focus on translation was a feature of the Christian humanists who helped to launch the new, post-scholastic era, among them Erasmus and Luther. In so doing, they also placed biblical texts above any human or institutional authority, an approach that emphasised the role of the reader in understanding a text for him or herself. Closely allied to the late medieval shift of scholarship from the monastery to the university, Christian humanism engendered a new freedom of expression, even though some of its proponents opposed that freedom of expression elsewhere, such as in their censure of the Anabaptists.

What was true of the scholarship of Germany was also true of its art. The painters, Albrecht Dürer, who was born and died at Nuremberg, 1471–1528, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1472–1553, and for the most part Hans Holbein the Younger, 1497–1543, took little interest in mythology, apart from Cranach's nudes, and were persuaded by the Reformation, though most continued to take commissions for traditional Catholic subjects. Dürer and Holbein had close contacts with leading humanists. Cranach lived in Wittenberg after 1504 and painted portraits of Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon and other leaders of the German Reformation. Holbein made frontispieces and illustrations for Protestant books and painted portraits of Erasmus and Melanchthon.

School of Saint Victor

The school of St Victor was the medieval monastic school at the Augustinian abbey of St Victor in Paris. The name also refers to the Victorines, the group of philosophers and mystics based at this school as part of the University of Paris.It was founded in the twelfth century by Peter Abelard's tutor and subsequent opponent, the realist school master William of Champeaux, and a prominent early member of their community was Hugh of St Victor. Other prominent members were Achard of St. Victor, Andrew of St Victor, Richard of St Victor, Walter of St Victor and Godfrey of St Victor, as well as Thomas Gallus.

Under the rigorous supervision of Hugh, St Victor offered a coherent and structured approach to learning through the cultivation of personal virtue rather than the requisition of knowledge for its own sake. This is exemplified in the schema for the liberal arts laid out in Hugh's Didascalicon, in which he exhorts the reader to Omnia Disce, or to know all. By 1160, the abbey had become a place of retreat from the schools, echoing the original act of weary retirement enacted by William of Champeaux at its founding. By the time of Godfrey, St Victor was primarily concerned with the instruction of its own canons, rather than the emphasis on the extern school operated earlier in the twelfth century.The end of the Victorines as a unique force came by 1173, when the reactionary Walter was appointed as prior. Walter launched a furious attack upon the intellectual culture of the school and its members with his Contra quatuor labyrinthos Francae (Against the Four Labyrinths of France), a denunciation of secular theological teaching. After this violent repudiation of Victorine pedagogical tradition the abbey was, in effect, a self-contained Augustinian priory like any other.Jan van Ruusbroec submitted his Groenendael Priory to their Rule in 1335, from which stemmed the Brethren of the Common Life and Thomas à Kempis' Devotio Moderna. A major theme of their studies was the anagogical relationship between the Divine and the Mundane, adopted by Pope Eugene IV in his 5.1.1435 bull declaring Roman supremacy.

Thomas à Kempis

Thomas à Kempis, CRSA (c. 1380 – 25 July 1471) was a German-Dutch canon regular of the late medieval period and the author of The Imitation of Christ, one of the most popular and best known Christian books on devotion. His name means Thomas "of Kempen", his hometown, and in German he is known as Thomas von Kempen (in Dutch, Thomas van Kempen).He was a member of the Modern Devotion, a spiritual movement during the late medieval period, and a follower of Geert Groote and Florens Radewyns, the founders of the Brethren of the Common Life.

This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.