Brethren of The Common Life

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Germany and the Netherlands, a rising tide of mystical lay piety grew up outside the official church. Under the leadership of Gerhard Groote* (1340-84), an interest in the inner life of the soul and the necessity of imitating the life of Christ by loving one’s neighbor as oneself had become popular in the Low Countries. When the church ordered Groote to stop preaching, he retired to Deventer, his hometown, and gathered a commune around him. It was this group that, led by Florentius* Radewijns after Groote’s death, founded the association known as the Brethren of the Common Life. The movement spread from one city to another as houses for men and also for women were founded throughout the Netherlands and Germany. These were to continue until the Reformation era. The Brethren did not constitute regular religious orders, but they took informal vows. They were entirely self-supporting, but pooled their money in a common fund from which each drew expenses, the surplus being used for charity. Groote had urged the copying of books as a method of earning a living and also to make reading materials more available. This work led to the founding of schools in many communities. From these emerged many influential religious leaders and humanists, such as Nicholas of Cusa* and Erasmus.* One pupil, Thomas à Kempis,* wrote The Imitation of Christ, which gives an understanding of the spirit and the teaching of the movement.

See A. Hyma, The Christian Renaissance, a History of the Devotio Moderna (1924); and T.P. Van Zijl, G. Groote, Ascetic and Reformer (1963).