Littell's Living Age/Volume 154/Issue 1995/The Brethren of Deventer
ROUND - and red-cheeked little boys and girls were chanting their vowel-sounds in the schoolhouse on St. Agnes’ Mount, near Zwolle, when we made our pilgrimage to the resting-place of Thomas a Kempis, the historian of the Deventer Brotherhood, of whose piety he was himself the choicest flower. At Deventer, we found the inevitable Calvinistic whitewash, relieved only by one or two irrepressible fragments of fresco, effacing the noble lines of St. Lebuin’s, the vast church in which Thomas a Kempis’s spiritual father, the venerable Florentius, was wont to pour forth his simple eloquence. And of Gerard Groot himself, the original founder of the fraternity which has made the name of the busy Overyssel town illustrious, the memory might have seemed altogether to have fled its streets and places, but for a whole suburb of benevolent foundations, spreading themselves out with more than ordinary Dutch amplitude, and garnished everywhere with those bright bits of flower-garden which in the Netherlands no Béguinage is too ancient, and no pensioner is too poor, to maintain.
And yet not only the stillness which has laid itself like the veil of evening upon the remote graveyard, but the busy activity too, which continues its week-day hum round church and almshouses, harmonizes with the reminiscences of which these localities are full. There are more ways than one, as a mystic visionary of the twelfth century tells us, leading heavenward; but both the hyacinthine path of contemplation and the green path of active life were trodden by the men to whom Deventer and the foundations branching out from it were at once places of retreat and scenes of active labor. To the influence which the movement begun in these regions exercised upon the course of the Renascence in the fifteenth century Germanic Europe owed something besides traditions of self-denying beneficence and examples of unworldly piety. On the one hand, it is certain that the Deventer Brotherhood, or one or more of the institutions of which it was the parent, gave their moral and intellectual nurture to men who may without any misuse of a most misused term be reckoned among the precursors of the Lutheran Reformation. And on the other, it was here that were also educated some of the most illustrious representatives of that great, and in its failure most pathetic, movement of the Renascence age, the endeavor to reform the Church from within. Among the precursors of Luther may, in all probability, be reckoned John Pupper, called John of Goch, and, without any doubt whatever, the famous magister contradictionum, John Wessel. John of Goch, although during his lifetime he gave no offence to the authorities of the existing Church, was in truth radically, if unconsciously, opposed to her system and its fruits; so that in due time his works were prohibited by the Council of Trent, after nearly a century had passed since their author had peacefully died in the house of the good sisters at Tabor, outside the walls of monkish Mecheln. John Wessel, some of whose earlier as well as later days were spent with the clericals of the Common Life at Zwolle, was of a more high-mettled nature; and, in his own apprehension at least, very nearly became a martyr to opinions which Luther afterwards declared substantially identical with his own. Wessel, however, was saved by powerful protection from the flames to which he refers, either in a literal or in a metaphorical sense; and he died at peace in his native town of Gröningen, after overcoming deep religious doubts almost at the very last. Better known to general fame are two pupils of Deventer on whose orthodoxy no breath of suspicion has ever rested. The earlier of these, who was likewise a munificent benefactor of the institution to which he owed his youthful training, as well as an active promoter of the spread of its system, was Cardinal Cusanus (of Cues on the Mosel). The author of the “De concordantiâ catholicâ” was not more surely identified with the reactionary policy which strove to reduce or undo the effects of the concessions made by the Papacy at the council at Basel, than with the endeavor to revive and spiritualize the life of the Church whose constitution that council had sought to resettle. Cardinal Cusanus’s visitation of Germany was an arduous and long-sustained endeavor to purify and reinvigorate one great national branch of the Christian Church; and when he afterwards proposed to his friend Pope Pius II. (Æneas Sylvius), a visitation and reform of the College of Cardinals itself, it was clear that his projects addressed themselves to the root as well as to the branches. An even more widely remembered son of Deventer is that truly venerable figure among the Roman pontiffs, whose name has received no less lustre from his failure than the names of many of his predecessors have from their success. It is true that, as a teacher and a man of learning, Pope Adrian VI. is to be reckoned among the adherents of scholasticism rather than among the humanists; indeed, he was “wont to despise the flowers of the more elaborate kind of eloquence and the amenities of the poets.” But he had learned other lessons besides those of the schoolmen, though unfortunately the art of government had not been included among them; and when amidst the execrations of corrupt Rome he had taken his seat in the chair of St. Peter, the “old pedant” offered to the Church over which he presided an example of moral courage surpassed by no other in her history. And yet neither in the conscientiousness of John Wessel as a religious thinker, nor in that of Pope Adrian VI. as a religious reformer, is the full spirit of the brotherhood, its peculiar genius (if I may so express myself), most strikingly apparent. Its most characteristic product is after all to be sought in the life and labors of the master-scholar of the Germanic Renascence. Zealots, who hold that a law is binding upon honest men in all quarrels, whether political or ecclesiastical, to choose one of two sides, will doubtless continue to impugn the consistency and single-mindedness of Erasmus; but those who believe him to have been distinguished by these qualities, will also incline to think that he was animated and steadied for the efforts of his maturity by the training of his youth. It cannot be denied that he lived to attack with contemptuous ire the brethren’s schools, in one of which he had himself received his early education; but his invective refers only to the period of their stagnation and decline. And it is worth noting by the way as an illustration of the looseness of treatment which has too often been the fate of Erasmus, that one of the best-known accounts of the brotherhoods makes him complain “of having himself wasted two years in one of their institutions,” whereas (as I will show a little further on), it is not of himself that he is speaking at all in the passage cited.
It need hardly he said that the name of Erasmus is far from being the only one illustrious in the history of learning and letters which connects the annals of the Deventer and Zwolle Fraternities with the general course of the Renascence movement. The story, to be sure, according to which Thomas a Kempis sent three of his pupils from Deventer to Italy, and thus directly prepared the revival of classical studies in the Low Countries and the neighboring parts of the Empire, will not bear examination; but it is all the same incontestable that the brethren’s schools were of the utmost assistance in fostering that exact study of the classical languages which was to receive a more vigorous impulse, when Agricola and other pioneers of humanism returned from Italy intent upon raising the literary fame of their “barbarous” native land. From the teaching at Deventer of Alexander Hegius more especially (though he did not stand alone), there issued forth not only a long line of more or less celebrated scholars, but also some who were themselves in their turn to become centres of academical or literary influence. Such - not to speak again of Erasmus himself — was Conrad Mutianus, the wise and refined canon of Gotha, and the glory, in its happier days, of the neighboring University of Erfurt, then (in the earlier years of the sixteenth century) the foremost of the universities in the Empire that favored the new learning. Besides him, there came from Deventer at least one of the many who have been credited with a share in the authorship of the famous Dunciad of the scholastics, the “Epistolœ Obscurorum Virorum.” This was the celebrated Hermann von dem Busche, who is aptly described by Strauss as “the missionary of humanism,” and who suffered, as well as bestowed, many a buffet for the good cause. Not less certain is the connection, as a pupil of Hegius, with Deventer of an unlucky scholar whose doom it has been to be remembered by an amused posterity as one of the most prominent victims of the same immortal satire. And yet this at least may be said on behalf of Magister Ortuinus Gratius (Ortuin de Graes): first, that he seems to have been quite as heartily devoted to learning as most of his opponents; and, again, that his later conduct shows him to have been gifted with an instinct which has been denied to many far more excellent scholars — the instinct of knowing when he had put himself in the wrong. Two other names only shall here be mentioned as illustrating the widespread and various influence of the “Daventrian” training, because they form a most important link between this early or introductory chapter in the history of the German Renascence, and its subsequent growth. At Deventer was trained, some time in the second quarter of the fifteenth century, the Westphalian Ludwig Dringenberg, whose own school at Schlettstadt became a main lever of the Renascence movement in Elsass; and through the efforts of the famous Wimpheling and others the means of opening a new era in the educational history of Germany. Not the least interesting feature in his system of teaching is its popular element, which recalls the circumstances of his schooling: he made his pupils learn German rhymes about the national history, which was an advance upon the Latin rhymes in the scholastic grammars about verbs and substantives. Another Westphalian educated at Deventer, was Rudolph von Langen, who brought from Italy the accomplishment of Latin verse composition, or “poetry,” as it was then called and after becoming a member of the cathedral body at Münster raised the schools of Westphalia, and its intellectual life in general, to an unprecedented stage of activity. The influence of seminaries founded in adjoining parts of Germany by Deventrians or their disciples must have operated in the same direction. And thus, while the universities in the main continued for a long time to cherish and defend the scholastic method of instruction, its overthrow was already in course of accomplishment by means of the unpretending schools which were the creations of the simple piety of a few humble men.
Such are a few of the more prominent instances of the influence exercised by these institutions. If, after all, what is most deeply interesting in their history seems to shrink away from the touch of inquiry, this is only too easily accounted for. In the lives of institutions, as in those of individual men and women, it is the period of aspiration which has the greatest charm; but how difficult, at times how impossible, it is for the observer to catch and reproduce this bloom of youth!
The foundation of the earliest Brotherhood of the Common Life can hardly be dated before the last quarter of the fourteenth century; but, like all institutions which have satisfied a real need in the life of their age, this was not a sudden growth, still less the invention of a single mind. The Netherlands, which at this time had not yet reached the full height of their prosperity, were more and more shaking off the predominance of their nobility; while at no stage of their history has the part played by the clergy in the life of the people been more insignificant. These well-known circumstances — which here as elsewhere betokened the approach of new times with new ideas both political and religious — explain two curious facts bearing on the present subject. In the first place, a considerable number of schools had been founded in the Dutch towns during the course of the fourteenth century, but these schools were commercial speculations rather than endowed seminaries of piety and learning. Again, the popular religious movements that had up to this time occurred in the Netherlands had on the whole had but little connection with the established organization of the Church. The country was, as is well known, during the whole of the Middle Ages, a favorite home of those tendencies of religious thought and feeling which are commonly classed together under the rather vague name of mysticism; and equally familiar to the soil of these regions, nor less persistently long, lived, were those associations at which the Church looked askance, until at last she accorded them more or less qualified sanction. By the side of the Béguines and Beghards and Lollards — the true ancestors, from one point of view, of the Brethren of the Common Life — there had sprung up other associations with more or less doubtful and dangerous tenets and usages and it was inevitable that (just as in England in Wiclif’s later days) an indolent public should confound the sowers of corn with the scatterers of cockle. Moreover, owing to the slightness of the attention as yet paid by the people at large to clerical theology, no signs had yet appeared of any recalcitrance against any part of the Roman system of dogma. Notwithstanding the lively commercial intercourse between England and Flanders, the teachings of Wiclif failed to penetrate among the burghers of the Flemish and Dutch towns — as, for that matter, those of Hus were likewise to fail to do in the next generation.
Blind to her opportunities as well as to her dangers, the Church had allowed these longings and gaspings after a truer and fuller religious life to lose themselves in extravagance and ecstaticism, though we may rest assured that a purer flame had continued to burn in many a remote cell and humble home unremembered in history. For us, however, mysticism as it appears in the Netherlands finds its first articulate expression in John Rusbroek, the venerable prior of Groenendal, near Brussels. Rusbroek was long after his death denounced as heretical by the great Gerson; but his fame in life was that of a chosen depositary of the counsels and consolations of divine wisdom and love. He had consecrated himself to God — and had to others seemed so consecrated — even before he had taken holy orders. When as a young man he was on one occasion walking through the streets of Brussels, two “men of the world” passed him on his way. “Would that I,” exclaimed one of these, struck by his appearance, “had a sanctity of life such as this priest’s.” “Not for all the gold in the world,” the other “riotour” (as Chaucer would have called him) made answer, “for in that case I should never again know what it is to have a good day.” “Alas, poor man,” thought Rusbroek to himself “how little thou knowest the sweetness which those feel within them who taste the Spirit of God!” Here we have the very essence of the mystic conception of religious life; but neither was there wanting in Rusbroek the practical simplicity which was to be inherited from him by the disciples of his teaching. Thus he was anxious to expose the impostures of pretended ecstatics, and was specially successful in making clear the real nature of the “freedom of the spirit and seraphic love” inculcated by a too popular sister at Brussels. Rusbroek cannot in any sense be called a reformer, and the question as to the measure of originality traceable in his religious conceptions must be passed over here. But the significance of his personality and teachings for that chapter of religious history with which we are more particularly concerned, is that they pointed the way which was actually taken by the man who made mysticism a practical and popular influence, and who thus became the author of a movement destined to make itself felt throughout his native land, and far beyond its boundaries.
As the fourteenth century began to draw towards its close, the Christian world might feel that it had for some time had enough of lamentations about the state of this world, however eloquent, sincere, and well-founded. But grievances, as we know, are a plant slowly ripening towards redress. There is a vast difference between the Miserere’s of the “Vision of Piers Plowman” and the polemical protests of Wiclif; and the step is considerable even from the complaints of Rusbroek to the remedial action begun by Gerard Groot. The personal history of the latter, so far as it lies open to us, is that of numberless agents of enthusiasm, from Ignatius Loyola down to many an evangelical light of these latter days. He was the son of well-born and wealthy parents; and the fact that his father, who was burgomaster of Deventer, intended him for the Church, enabling him to prepare himself for orders by an early academical course at Paris, may have been due to the weakly health of the boy. After continuing his studies, and at the same time beginning his efforts as a teacher, at Cologne, he seemed likely, some agreeable preferments having fallen to his lot, to become what Chaucer might have called an “idle chanon.” if there is one thing more pathetic than the religious aspirations of this age, it is its scientific gropings; and Gerard Groot, like so many mediæval students and inquirers, was reputed an adept in astrology and necromancy, albeit he eagerly protested that he had never studied to his own damnation. But, though the habits of reading and writing seem afterwards to have clung to him, as it were, in spite of himself, there can be no doubt that at the critical point of his career he was seized by a strong revulsion against the special temptations incident to his mode of life. He resigned his two canonries; he denounced the hollow delusion of university degrees; and he proscribed the twin vanities of disputations and literary authorship. Most fortunately, his genuine love of books, and his charitable goodwill towards learners, prevented him to the last from carrying his Puritanic principles to their logical consequences; and his library survived him as a cherished inheritance of his famous foundation.
Thus Gerard Groot passed through that great change in the conception of the task and duties of human life which perhaps more men undergo than care to call it by a technical term of religious import. The peculiarity — though of course no unique peculiarity — of his conduct was that he at once and completely translated his convictions into action. He not only, as has been said ,gave up his preferments and burned his vain “mathematical” books, but he also renounced whatever property - belonging to him was not either absolutely necessary for his sustenance, or capable of being devoted to pious purposes. After a three years’ period of preparation in a monastic retreat, he took deacon’s orders, and began his labors as a missionary preacher under the license of the Bishop of Utrecht. As is so often the case with men whose careers have resembled his, humility was in him coupled with a strange self-confidence. “Not for a hat full of gold guilders,” so he told the parson of Zwolle, “would he be himself parson of Zwolle even for the space of a single night; “yet he preached without fear or faltering before rich and poor, learned and lewd, through the length and breadth of the northern provinces, most frequently, it would seem, at St. Mary’s in Deventer itself. Nor was his courage fair-weather courage only, or his humility of the unbending kind not unusual in popular preachers. For when at last (as it would seem, not without the co-operation of the jealousy of the mendicant friars) an episcopal prohibition arrested his preaching, he first straightforwardly deprecated the justice, and then unreservedly acknowledged and obeyed the authority, of the ordinance.
But the institutions founded by Groot during the period of his activity as a preacher were not to come to an end with it. He was and is rightly venerated as their founder, although in his lifetime they never passed beyond an initial stage. There seems to be some uncertainty as to questions of dates and priority; but it may be concluded that the earliest foundation presenting the distinctive features of a Brotherhood of the Common Life was established by Groot at Deventer itself, before a similar institution was opened at Zwolle. The inspiring example of the holy tranquillity of the life led by Rusbroek and his brother canons at Groenendal had suggested to Groot to aim at a similar result in Deventer. But he was still a comparatively young man, indisposed for a mere withdrawal into the cloister, fully awake to the shortcomings and failings of the existing monastic orders, and prevented by the jealous arm of authority from the performance of pastoral duties. Silenced as a preacher, he began to attach to himself personally young men and lads in his native town, and more especially scholars in its Latin school, whom he induced to copy the Scriptures and certain of the Fathers for him, and, while remunerating them for their work, thus brought under the influence of his conversation and counsel. After this fashion he from the very first connected the pursuit of learning with religious thoughts and ways. Very soon an ardent disciple of Groot, afterwards his successor in the direction of the brotherhoods, Florentius, the son of Radevyn (Floris Radevynzoon), suggested that he and the copyists should club their weekly earnings into a common fund, and from its proceeds lead a common life. After some hesitation (owing to fear of the jealousy of the mendicant orders), Groot accorded his sanction, and the plan was carried into execution in the first instance in the house of Florentius himself. Thus from the outset the characteristic mark of the association, the rule, so to speak, distinguishing it from the mendicant bodies, was that it supported itself, so far as possible, not by alms but by labor. Groot lived to see another brotherhood established at Zwolle, while he gave up his own paternal house at Deventer to a sisterhood established there on somewhat similar principles, and superintended by himself. But his wish (which proves how far he was from assuming a hostile attitude towards the monastic system in general) to found a society of regular canons in connection with his brotherhoods, and forming as it were their natural apex, was only accomplished by his successor. In 1384 he caught the plague from a friend whom he was nursing at Deventer, and died shortly afterwards on the feast of St. Bernard. “St. Augustine and St. Bernard,” he had told his distressed friends, “are knocking at the gate.”
His work was carried on by the real organizer as well as originator of the brotherhoods, Florentius, the son of a prosperous citizen of Leerdam, in south Holland. To him Thomas a Kempis does no more than justice when he proposes, “after presenting in Master Gerard the good fruitful tree from whom our pious life took its beginning, to bring before you in his disciple, the pious Florentius, a glorious sweet-smelling blossom of that tree.” Florentius, like Gerard, lived to no advanced age, but during the sixteen years for which he survived his revered master their joint creation had grown in an extraordinary degree. He was, more emphatically than Gerard Groot, a man of action rather than of books; he proclaimed his abhorrence of dead scholastic knowledge (“the devil,” he points out, “knows a great deal of the Scriptures, and yet it avails him nothing”); and he was himself so little of an expert in the art of writing that he contributed his own share of productive labor as a binder rather than as a transcriber of manuscripts. On the other hand, his eloquence in the pulpit can in no way have fallen short of his master’s, in enthusiastic sympathy with whom Florentius had begun by exchanging a comfortable canonry at Utrecht for the laborious post of vicar at St. Lebuin’s, in Deventer. Thus he was marked out for his task. Under his rule, not only was the Deventer brotherhood enlarged and rehoused, but at Zwolle too, where the famous schoolmaster, Cele, an old associate of Groot’s, gathered many hundreds of pupils around him, a second house was opened, and in other towns also the same species of institution began gradually to spring up. Meanwhile, Florentius had further succeeded in carrying out his friend’s cherished wish of establishing a monastic foundation of regular canons; indeed, before his death he had established two, the first at Windesem, near Zwolle, the second in the more immediate vicinity of that town, on the hill of St. Agnes.
With the death of Florentius the first period in the history of the brotherhoods may be said to close; or, in other words, by that time the period of a steady and continuous growth had fairly set in. It is of the earlier time that so touching a series of reminiscences has been preserved by Thomas a Kempis (whose fees as a scholar at Deventer the good Florentius generously offered to defray; but the schoolmaster, hearing who intended to pay them, would not accept them when Thomas came with them to redeem the book he had — in accordance with a common custom — left in pledge). Thus we are enabled to realize to ourselves the figures of the chief among the brethren who surrounded their beloved chief, and followed the “praiseworthy usages” devised by him, until these gradually fixed themselves as the statutes of the community. At first there had been only one ordained ecclesiastic among them besides the founder; but gradually others of the brethren, after undergoing a conscientious preparation, took orders. Several of these were men of good birth and fortune; but any such distinctions were merged in the humility and self-sacrifice of all. Not only property was common, but labor; for the brethren shared among one another a variety of industrial and menial tasks and occupations, without thinking any burdensome or contemptible. Still, some functions were permanently assigned to particular brethren, and perhaps the most typical representatives of the moral and intellectual significance of the association were the two brethren who served it respectively in the capacities of cook and of librarian. John Kakabus the cook, commonly called “Ketel,” in playful allusion to his functions, had formerly been a merchant at Dort, till an irresistible impulse had caused him to become, first a scholar at Deventer, and then a member of the brotherhood. It was his own prayer that he might serve the brethren’s house in the humble office which he was appointed to fill; and though he had not contrived to muster enough learning to understand the Latin read aloud at meals, he performed his menial labors in no menial spirit. While his hands were busy over his pots, his voice went up in psalms of praise; and thus his kitchen (where the brethren, including Florentius himself, had week by week to take their turn as helpers) resembled a chamber of prayer. He never wearied of doing good to the poor; for he had utterly cast off regard for the things of this world. “We read,” he said, “in the Gospel, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit;’ but nowhere do we read, ‘Blessed are the Masters of Arts.’” Still more interesting, because exemplifying that union between love of knowledge and active piety which lies at the root of the system of the Deventer Brotherhood, is the character, as handed down to us, of its librarian, Gerard Zerbald, of Zütphen. He was a born student, seemingly absorbed in his books, indifferent to the advantages of air and exercise, and absolutely indifferent to his dinner. But he was in truth very far from being a mere bookworm. A true friend of knowledge, he not only contrived to augment the collection of books bequeathed to the brotherhood by its founder, but provided for their use even by readers at a distance. Nor was his own learning of the useless sort. Well seen in the law, he became the trusted man of business of the fraternity, as well as its literary champion. He successfully defended it against the monkish insinuation that it was an “unlawful conventicle;” and he sustained in excellent Latin the thesis — for the truth of which he adduced fifteen reasons — that it is profitable to read Holy Scripture in the vulgar tongue.
Such as these were the associates who dwelt with Florentius in the house called after his name at Deventer. It continued from first to last (so far as appears) to be acknowledged as the parent and central institution of the whole system of Brotherhoods, and its head or rector held an honorary primacy among the rectors or priors of the several houses, who seem, in later times at all events, to have periodically met for purposes of conference. Nor is there any reason to doubt that the younger brethren’s houses, in the main, followed the example of the Florentius house in their constitution and ways of life. It was usual for a brethren’s house to be inhabited by at least four priests, and about twice as many clerks (clerici), the score or so of persons included in the establishment being completed by “laymen” and “novices.” The clerks wese the ordinary brethren, corresponding to monks in a convent; but, unlike these, bound by no vows, and at liberty to depart after paying, a certain sum of money. The laymen were those who, by their own desire, shared for a time in the common life. As for the novices, it need only be said that it was against the principles of the brotherhood to court or solicit additions to their numbers (though, if Erasmus is to be trusted, in this respect also things were afterwards to change). Among the members of the communities as little of formality as possible seems to have been required. There were no officers except the rector and his substitute, and functionaries charged with the performance of certain necessary duties; while in the matter of dress, nothing but an “excessive simplicity” of gray coat, overcoat, and cowl seems to have distinguished the brethren from other wearers of frieze. But their main distinction, after all, lay rather in their occupations than in the forms of their life. Sensible as they necessarily were to the uses of preaching and prayer, yet they had not renounced an active life in abandoning a worldly one. “So long,” says the author of the “Imitatio,” “as thou art in the flesh, thou oughtest oftentimes to bewail the burden of the flesh; for thou canst not without intermission engage in spiritual exercises and divine contemplation. At these times it is expedient for thee to betake thyself to lowly works in the outer world, and to recreate thyself in good actions.” It has been seen how Thomas a Kempis devoted a separate biographical sketch to the merits of a brother qui coquus fuit; and at St. Agnes’s he cheerfully undertook himself the almost equally “mechanical” duties of a steward. Frequently the brethren practised handicrafts; and indeed, as was perhaps inevitable, in some fraternities the industrial spirit gained the mastery to such an extent as to convert them into something not very unlike co-operative societies. But the chief and favorite pursuits, of course, continued to be those of education and literature; for it was not forgotten that the origin of the brotherhoods had been an endeavor to furnish young scholars with the means for carrying on their studies, by encouraging and promoting on their part the transcription of books.
As was natural enough among simple men at a time when book-learning partook not a little of the nature of a luxury, there was among the brethren considerable searching of heart as to the righteousness of the spread of books in general. Fortunately the good founder, though objecting in principle to most of the trivium and quadrivium as to sheer waste of time, had also been a genuine lover of books, of which he could not help avowing himself “avaricious, nay, over-avaricious.” Not less fortunately he had been indifferent (except in the case of Bibles and service-books) to the mere exterior of the copies which he so assiduously collected, thus giving the tone, so to speak, to the literary efforts of the brethren, whose object was rather to transcribe large numbers of books, and distribute them freely (often even gratuitously), than to shine as artistic copyists in the eyes of bibliophiles such as the spectacled collector of “unprofitable books” in the “Ship of Fools.” The German Reformation, and, it may be added, the advance of learning and research in Germany, owe much to this early zeal for the cheap diffusion of good literature. Groot’s successor, as has been seen, was no scholar by taste or training; while a brother of simple soul, like Ketel the cook, when asked on his deathbed in what ways the brotherhood in his opinion needed improvement, made answer that for one thing they had too many books, and would do well to sell such as were superfluous for the good of the poor. But the genius of the institution prevailed over such misgivings, with which, I need hardly say, should not be confounded the repeated warnings of Thomas a Kempis against the self-sufficiency of learning, whether sacred or profane. Many of the brethren attained to considerable mechanical skill as copyists, among them pre-eminently Thomas himself, whose transcripts of the Bible (in four volumes) and of passages from St. Bernard remain to attest his willingness to practise what he so eloquently preached: “If he shall not lose his reward who gives a cup of cold water to his thirsty neighbor, what will not be the reward of those who by putting approved works into the hands of their neighbors open to them the foundations of eternal life?” Thus the brethren were of direct and substantial service to the preservation and spread of the most important materials of religious study and of choice monuments of religious devotion. They continued to be of use in the same direction when (at a rather late date) they, in a few instances, took advantage of the new art of printing. The brotherhood founded at Brussels about the year 1469 was soon afterwards busily engaged in the management of a printing-press and two small societies in the neighborhood of Mainz boasted of practising Guttemberg’s art with the aid of his own instruments.
But while the copying of books was neither in principle nor in practice carried on in the brotherhoods as a labor pursued on its own account, the work of education had from the first been an integral part and an essential function of their common life. Not all the brotherhoods had as a matter of course schools of their own — even at Deventer such was not the case at first; but even where the existing school had not been set up by the brethren, they boarded and lodged its pupils, or paid the fees of the poorer among them (the distinction between poor and rich scholars runs through the whole educational life of the Middle Ages), or supplied the school with books, or even with teachers. As a rule, however, every brethren’s house provided, at least for its own inmates, instruction in reading, writing, singing, and the Latin tongue, together with that all-pervading influence of a common life in which wise judges have at all times recognized an invaluable moral and disciplinary aid to education. The efforts of the brethren called into life throughout the Netherlands an active educational spirit which has never since deserted the country. Statistics are generally suspicious; and we may decline to be overcome by the statement that Cele’s school at Zwolle, early in the fifteenth century, sometimes numbered nearly one thousand, and the school at Herzogenbusch even twelve hundred pupils. But these figures at least testify to the wide diffusion of the elements of literary culture, and go some way towards explaining such accounts as that given in the next century of Amersfoort, where Latin was to be everywhere heard, even from the lips of the lowly, and Greek also was understood by the better educated among the merchants. The services of the brotherhoods to the intellectual progress of Europe were not, however, confined to the improving and supplementing of the schools in one particular country. They played a humble but important part in the great intellectual achievement of the age preceding that of the Reformation — the overthrow of scholasticism.
The artists’ faculty in a mediæval university was little more than a grammar school writ large, in which boys were grounded in the rudiments of the Latin grammar with the aid of immutably established handbooks. Foremost among these was the Latin grammar — i.e., the series of grammatical rules in rhyme composed by Alexander de Villa Dei some time before his death in 1209, a book which had received the sanction of the Church, and thus reigned omnipotent in the schools of Europe during the better part of three centuries. It was standard authorities of this description which the more intelligent and simple teaching encouraged by the brethren overthrew, or at least subjected to a long-needed revision. The most famous of the teachers at Deventer was no doubt Alexander Hegius (of Heck, in Westphalia), who died near the close of the fifteenth century, as rector of the Latin school of the town, leaving nothing behind him but his clothes and his books, and among whose pupils a greater number of eminent men chose to reckon themselves than had actually sat on the benches under him. Together with him, and distinguished like him by both piety and scholarship, worked John Sinthius (Syntheim), who was actually a member of the Brotherhood of the Common Life. It was he who daringly, and yet successfully, revised the famous “Doctrinale Puerorum” of Alexander de Villa Dei, and thereby rendered a signal service to education in the Netherlands and in Germany. (In educational, as in other reforms, it is usually the first step which costs the most trouble; nor was it so very long before one of the Obscure Ones was to be found lamenting the good old times of the universities, when the “Partes Alexandri” and the “Dicta Ioannis Sinthenii” together were indispensable in a grammatical student’s literary luggage.) Other of the Deventer brethren followed the example of Sinthius, and the Intelligent teaching of the Latin grammar was afterwards similarly cherished in the brethren’s establishments elsewhere. The accomplished “Ciceronian” Ascensius (of Asche, near Brussels), the friend of Erasmus and editor of Thomas a Kempis, declared himself deeply indebted to the teaching of the “Heronymians” of Ghent, a fraternity of the Common Life established there early in the fifteenth century. At Herzogenbusch, Gerard Cannyfius composed a new “Latin Grammar;” at Gröningen, Hermann Forrentinus was author of another, which went so far in the direction of simplifying instruction as to involve its author in a charge of heresy. The brotherhoods may thus be said to have assumed the attitude of reformers in the matter of classical studies, and to have helped to cut the ground from under the old scholastic training, which had treated the Latin tongue merely as an instrument for its own purposes, a “sermo” (to quote the Prologus to the Leipzig “Manuale Scholarium”) “in guem omnes doctrinæ sunt translatæ.” Yet, at the same time, as became their popular origin and character, these institutions cherished the use and even the study of the vulgar tongue, and encouraged the reading of the Bible and the use of the service-books in it, thus stimulating an educational movement which elsewhere (in Elsass) was to lead to results of national significance. The study of history, too, which was to be so vigorously prosecuted at Strassburg, was not altogether overlooked in the Netherlands; and perhaps, in these days of encyclopædias, some additional respect should be paid to the memory of the already mentioned Forrentinus, reputed the earliest compiler of a historical dictionary.
Thus already, in their early days, the brotherhoods prepared and facilitated the entrance of Germany into the general current of the Renascence; and, at the same time, their influence impressed upon the German Renascence in particular, from its very beginning, its distinctive mark of seriousness and of association with religious studies and religious life. For the brethren never forgot what had been the primary purpose of the institution to which they belonged, and the guiding principle of the life of their founder. They could not depend on any teaching, however good and sound, as on the one effective agency towards the end they had in view. “I am He,” says the divine voice in the “Imitatio,” “who in an instant elevate a humble mind to comprehend more reasons of eternal truth than if a man had studied ten years in the schools.” Accordingly, while cherishing the art of preaching in its amplest form (one has some difficulty in realizing, even in connection with Dutch pews, sermons extending over three or — with a pause in the middle — over six hours), they also attached much importance to popular afternoon addresses in the vulgar tongue, which were called collations. Carrying out in these different directions the purpose of their establishment, the brotherhoods by their example, and occasionally even by their direct influence, contributed largely to the reformation of the existing religious orders, of whom, notwithstanding their own modest protests, they were in truth the natural competitors.
The jealousy and ill-will of the Regulars had been naturally excited against the brethren even in their early days, as they were in England against Wiclif’s Simple Priests. Already in the lifetime of Gerard Groot, a mendicant monk was (according to Thomas a Kempis) prevented only by divine interposition — he died on the way — from calumniating at Rome the “man of God” whom he was bent upon ruining. Soon afterwards the Town Council of Kampen, the beautiful city on the Zuyder-Zee, expelled the friends of Groot who had opened an institution of the Common Life there. Graver troubles seemed to threaten, as the advance and increase of the brotherhoods began seriously to affect the popularity and the profits of the mendicants. A Dominician named Matthew Grabow formulated the charges against the brethren in a controversial volume, accusing them of mortal sin as having without monastic vows combined in monastic associations, and with scholastic exuberance further indicting them as murderers by implication and palpable false prophets. The Bishop of Utrecht having declined to listen to the charge, its author soon repeated it on what seemed the promising occasion of the great Council of Constance. But the representatives sent to Constance by the Deventer and Zwolle Brotherhoods, and by the Regular Canons of Windesem, were not destined to share the fate of Hus and Jerome. Their cause, which may be described as that of the permissibility of a regular religious life outside the established orders, was eloquently pleaded by the great Paris chancellor Gerson, whose party contributed so much to the doom of the Bohemian reformers. Grabow had to recant, and his book was cast into the flames as heretical. The Deventer brethren a few years afterwards repaid this recognition of their orthodoxy by taking the part of Pope Martin V. in a conflict concerning the appointment to the see of Utrecht, in consequence of which an interdict had been proclaimed over the recalcitrant portions of the diocese, and more especially over the towns of Overyssel. The result was the emigration of the brethren to Zutphen, whence they did not return till after six years of exile and suffering, another papal bull (of Eugenius IV., in 1431) warning all authorities, spiritual or lay, against disturbing the brethren’s pious and beneficent activity.
The half century which followed was that of the most vigorous advance of the institution. Its settlements were to be found spreading from Holland and Friesland to Flanders and Brabant, and even extending beyond the Netherlands into Rhenish Germany; and, more sparsely, into other parts of the empire. But these remoter foundations were mostly of later date and inferior importance, nor was it more than a pleasant form when (at Cologne in 1475) the emperor Frederick III. appointed the brethren his and his successors’ vicars and chaplains forever. Perhaps, on the other hand, something of the spiritual influence exercised by the brethren in that part of the Netherlands where they were most numerous may be accounted for by the exceptional need which in this period arose fonts exercise. From 1456 to 1496 the see of Utrecht was held by David of Burgundy (the half-brother of Charles the Bold), who was said to have done only one good deed during the whole course of his episcopate. Already, however, in this second period the institution of the brotherhoods was — in accordance with an almost inevitable law — tending to merge itself in the general monastic system of the Church of Rome. It has been noticed how, so soon as two years after the death of Groot, a monastery of Regular Canons in connection with the Brotherhood of the Common Life, and following the rule of St. Augustine, had been established at Windesem, near Zwolle, and how not long afterwards a second convent of the very simplest kind had been opened on Mount St. Agnes, a little height pleasantly rising out of the “bush” near the same city, and watered at its base by a stream supplying the fish which formed so important a necessary of life in these as in other convents. By the year 1340 there were already in existence not less than forty-five monastic establishments of the same kind and origin and in the period just described this number had nearly trebled. The convent at Windesem, however, always remained the institution in chief, and after it the whole body of these convents in the Netherlands and in Germany were called the Windesem Congregations.
It is, however, to the second and humbler foundation of Canons Regular of the Common Life that we owe both what insight we can gain into their loftiest conceptions, and (unless the preponderance of opinion concerning the authorship of the “Imitatio Christi” be in error) the one enduring embodiment of these. Mount St. Agnes was for seventy-two years the home of Thomas Hamerken, of Kempen (a tranquil little town formerly in the archbishopric of Cologne, now in Rhenish Prussia, which at the present day has little to recall the memory which makes it illustrious, unless it be the humane consideration which is paid in it to the inhabitants of its principal edifice, an asylum for the deaf and dumb). Seventy-two years — from his arrival there in 1399, in the twentieth year of his life, to the day of his death “Blessed is he who has lived well in one and the same place, and made a happy end.” The writer of these words was of humble birth, a handicraftsman’s son; and it seems to have been the force of example which attracted him into the life of which his own career was to become a lasting type. For the names of several other natives of Kempen occur among the brethren or the canons of the Common Life, and Thomas’s own elder brother John, who had become a canon at Windesem, and was afterwards the first prior of the convent at St. Agnes, had preceded him on his way, on which a younger brother named Gobelinus seems afterwards to have followed him. Thomas spent six years as a scholar, and one as a brother, at Deventer, residing during the last in the Florentius house, to whose founder and inmates he has erected an imperishable monument. Florentius, who had enabled him to go through his preparatory studies, acquiesced in his desire to devote himself to a monastic life; and thus, after not less than seven years of probation at St. Agnes, he was in 1406 admitted as a regular member of the convent. “It is no small matter,” he writes, “to dwell in a monastery, or in a congregation, and to live therein, without reproof, and to persevere faithfully till death.” Doubtless the good Thomas had his part in the trials incident to the inner life of all small communities, as well as in troubles of greater outward importance. He shared the three years’ exile of his brother canons on the occasion of the episcopal troubles in 1425. After he had held the office of sub-prior in the convent, he lost it — perhaps in consequence of this very flight on shipboard; and was subsequently appointed to the post of steward — the “office of Martha,” as he calls it. He was ultimately again made sub-prior, having in the interval held the appointment of master of the novices; and some of the discourses are preserved in which he encouraged the piety of his charges, among other things by the narration of “modern instances,” which have perhaps escaped the notice of those good Protestants who claim Thomas as a precursor of the Reformation. But it is not his theology which I can here pretend to discuss. In it he was a child of his times, and his writings breathe the particular atmosphere in which they were produced; the secret of the influence of his genius lies in the enthusiasm of his personal devotion. At one time he enforces his new γνῶθι σεαντον: “This is the highest and most profitable lesson, truly to know and to despise ourselves.” At another, he can thus directly point the way to his ideal: “This is the reason why there are found so few contemplative men, because there are few who know how to separate themselves wholly from perishable and created things. For this a great grace is required, which may raise the soul and bear it above itself.” Thus in him the contemplative side of the Common Life, to which the active is ministrant, is consummately shown forth. But the tranquillity which he seems to typify is not that of a repose obtained without effort, or enjoyed unbroken. The conscientious steward, the laborious copyist, the much-sought preacher, the rigorous ascetic, in his threescore years and twelve of retirement led a life which was no dream ; “In all things,” he was wont to say, “I have sought rest, but I have found it nowhere save in hœxkens ende bœxkens” (in nooks and in books).
Thomas a Kempis belongs in the greater part of his life to the second period in the history of the brotherhoods, though he is the historian of the first. He had never known Groot, and Florentius had been the paternal friend of his boyhood; and when he fell asleep himself after his long day’s work, both Gerard and his friends had long passed away, though it was still nearly two centuries before the piety of a remote brotherhood bore their remains to their last resting-place at Emmerich. About the time of Thomas’s death that decline in the vigor and usefulness, though not as yet in the outward prosperity, of the institutions may be said to have begun, of which their modern historians have sufficiently traced the causes. These may, perhaps, not unfairly be summed up in the fact which institutions, like individuals, are so slow to recognize — the best of their work had been done. In general, the advance of the Renascence in Germany had overtaken the efforts of the brotherhoods and their schools, to which in its beginnings it had owed so much. In particular, the printing-press, which they only here and there took into their service, was beginning to supersede their own less efficacious method of multiplying books, in which so many of them had found a main support, as well as a distinctive badge of their Common Life. The centre of both intellectual and spiritual effort was certainly no longer in the Low Countries; and though, when the day of the Reformation had arrived, Luther did his utmost to attest his warm admiration of the spirit and the practice of the brotherhoods, it was hard indeed for them to choose their side — harder than either for purely ecclesiastical foundations on the one hand or for purely academical bodies on the other. So their side was in very many instances chosen for them; in Protestant States their establishments were swept away, in Catholic their educational functions passed into the hands of the Jesuits; while the brethren’s and canons’ and analogous sisters’ houses became convents of the ordinary type. Concerning the earlier part of this period of decay we possess a very curious piece of evidence (of which a quite unfair use has been made) in a letter addressed by Erasmus to the pope’s secretary, and intended for the ear of the pope himself. In it he tells the story of two young men whom, on their being left orphans with a small property, their designing guardians had resolved to bring up for a monastic life. When they were old enough to be sent to those schools “which are now called universities,” the guardians fearing the secular influence of such a place upon their wards, determined to place them in an establishment of those Fratres Gollationarii “who nowadays are to be found any and everywhere, and who gain their living by teaching boys.” The principal purpose of these brethren, continues Erasmus, is to break the spirit of their best pupils, and to mould them into fit subjects for a monastic life. The Dominicans and Franciscans declare that without these seminaries their own orders would soon perish from inanition. “For my part,” he adds, “I believe that these institutions may contain some honest men; but as they all suffer from lack of the best authors, and in their obscurity follow their own usages and rules of life, without comparing themselves with any one but themselves, I do not see how they can be liberal educators of youth; and at all events the fact speaks for itself, that from nowhere issue forth young men with scantier scholarship and with viler manners.” The younger of the two brothers knew more than his teachers did, one of whom he roundly described as the most unlearned and boastful monster on whom he ever set eyes. “And such they very often entrust with the care of boys. For their teachers are not chosen according to the judgment of learned men, but by the fiat of the patriarch, who very often knows nothing of letters.” The writer then relates how one of the two young men, after “losing two years or more” in one of these houses, was easily persuaded to take the vows in one of the establishments of those brethren who rejoice in calling themselves canons; while the other was with greater difficulty drawn into a net of the same kind, which was kept so tight over him that he could only hope to escape from it through the intervention of his Holiness.
Allowing a little for the pointedness of a style with which the pope had good reason to be “singularly delighted,” allowing more for the burning hatred of monkery which animated Erasmus, we may see in this letter a picture probably true enough in many cases to the actual condition or growing tendency of the brethren and their conventual establishments. In other instances the convents began to take thought of worldly things, to push the practice of trade and industry, and to develop that love of property which seems almost inevitable in a corporate body, and of which the germs may perhaps be detected even at St. Agnes in its early days. As time went on, no new afflatus manifested itself, but there was a noteworthy tenacity in the Common Life even when its institutions had become nothing more than an insignificant branch of the conventual system of the diminished Church of Rome. As late as the year 1728 not fewer than thirty-four convents sent their representatives to a general assembly of the Windesem Chapter.
The brethren of Deventer and their foundations took no part, so far as I know, in any endeavor to heal the breach which the Reformation had effected. But Catholics and Protestants alike may acknowledge the efforts of men who helped to teach the modern world to love books without ceasing to love what is better than books, and who (though educational reformers in their generation) did not lose sight of the maxim of one of their number that “there is a great difference between the wisdom of an enlightened and devout man, and the knowledge of a well-read and studious clerk.”