1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Brothers of Common Life
BROTHERS OF COMMON LIFE, a religious community formerly existing in the Catholic Church. Towards the end of his career Gerhard Groot (q.v.) retired to his native town of Deventer, in the province of Overyssel and the diocese of Utrecht, and gathered about 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 Floentius himself (c. 1380); and Thomas à 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 after 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 Realencyklopädie, 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 à 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 à 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 à Kempis (1887).
An excellent article in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopädie (3rd ed.), "Brüder des gemeinsamen Lebens," supplies copious information with references to all the literature; see also Max Heimbucher, Orden und 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.)