Gerhard Groot or Gerhard Groet, in Latin Gerardus Magnus, (1340 - 1384), was a Dutch preacher and founder of the Brethren of the Common Life. He studied at the University of Paris and became a prosperous and successful professor and clergyman until a religious conversion in 1374, after which he renounced worldly enjoyment and retired into solitude at a monastery. In 1379 Groot began to preach throughout Utrecht, calling men to repentance, proclaiming the beauty of divine love, and censuring the relaxation of ecclesiastical discipline and the degradation of the clergy. Thousands were inspired by his preaching, and eventually some of them joined him in founding the Brethren of the Common Life, establishing houses in which devout men and women might live in community without taking monastic vows.
The Brethren of the Common Life, or Modern Devotion, as it was also known, devoted themselves to copying manuscripts and later to printing them, reproducing scriptural and religious texts and also literature in Flemish and Dutch, the local languages, making religious works available to the common people. They also made a valuable contribution to the development of Europe through their schools, which made education available to many who had never had such an opportunity before. A number of important scholars and religious figures, including Thomas à Kempis and the Dutch Pope Adrian VII, were associated with the movement, which influenced the religious revival in Europe during the fifteenth century.
The greatest achievement of Groot's life was the initiation of the Windesheim congregation of Augustinian canons regular, established in 1387, after his death, by Florentius Radewyns. In time the Windesheim congregation came to embrace nearly one hundred houses, and led the way in the series of reforms undertaken during the fifteenth century by all the religious orders in Germany.
During the fourteenth century many Catholics felt that the Church had become too worldly, and that real faith had become obscured by all the technicalities of doctrine and scholastic philosophy. Religious people were hungry for a life of faith that fulfilled their spiritual needs, and they responded eagerly to Groot’s preaching and his calls for honesty, sincerity and piety. Groot was a forerunner who helped pave the way for the Protestant Reformation.
Geert Groot was born in October, 1340, of rich burgher stock at Deventer, in the diocese of Utrecht, where his father held a good civic position. He studied at Aachen, then, at the age of fifteen, went to the University of Paris, where he studied scholastic philosophy and theology at the Collège de Sorbonne under a pupil of William of Ockham's, from whom he imbibed the nominalist conception of philosophy; in addition he studied canon law, medicine, astronomy and even magic, and apparently some Hebrew. After a brilliant course of study he graduated in 1358 and returned home, where he was appointed teacher at the Deventer chapter school in 1362. He pursued his studies still further in Prague and in Cologne, where he was made professor of theology and philosophy.
In 1366 he visited the papal court at Avignon. About this time he was appointed to a canonry in Utrecht and to another in Aachen, and the life of the brilliant young scholar was rapidly becoming luxurious, secular and selfish, when a great spiritual change passed over him which resulted in a final renunciation of every worldly enjoyment. This conversion, which took place in 1374, appears to have been due partly to the effects of a dangerous illness and partly to the influence of Henry de Calcar, the learned and pious prior of the Carthusian monastery at Munnikhuizen near Arnhem, who had remonstrated with him on the vanity of his life. Groot resigned his canonries, bestowed his goods on the Carthusians of Arnheim, and lived in solitude for seven years.
Around this time he also frequently visited the famous ascetic Ruysbroek. In 1376 Gerhard retired to the monastery of Munnikhuizen and there spent three years in meditation, prayer and study, without, however, becoming a Carthusian. In 1379, having received ordination as a deacon, he became a missionary preacher throughout the diocese of Utrecht. He went from town to town, calling men to repentance, proclaiming the beauty of divine love, and bewailing the relaxation of ecclesiastical discipline and the degradation of the clergy. The success that followed his labors not only in the town of Utrecht, but also in Zwolle, Deventer, Kampen, Amsterdam, Haarlem, Gouda, Leiden, Delft, Zutphen and elsewhere, was immense; according to Thomas à Kempis the people left their business and their meals to hear his sermons, so that the churches could not hold the crowds that flocked together wherever he came.
The bishop of Utrecht supported him warmly, and asked him to preach against concubinage in the presence of the clergy assembled in synod. He spoke out against the sins of heresy, simony (which was the selling of papal indulgences), avarice, and impurity not only among the laity, but also among the secular and regular clergy, provoking the hostility of the clergy. Accusations of heterodoxy were brought against him. In vain, Groot emitted a Publica Protestatio, in which he declared that Jesus was the main subject of his discourses, that in all of them he believed himself to be in harmony with Catholic doctrine, and that he willingly subjected them to the candid judgment of the Roman Church.
The bishop was induced to issue an edict which prohibited all who were not in priest's orders from preaching, and an appeal to pope Urban VI was ineffectual. (There is uncertainty as to the date of this prohibition; either it was only a few months before Groot's death, or else it must have been removed by the bishop, for Groot seems to have preached in public in the last year of his life.)
Groot’s zeal for the purification of the Catholic faith and his appeal for morality attracted large numbers of enthusiastic young followers. Florentius Radewyns, Groot’s most devoted supporter, suggested to him one day, "Master, why not put our efforts and earnings together, why not work and pray together under the guidance of our Common Father?" With a small band of Groot’s followers, they founded the "Brethren of the Common Life" ([Dutch: Broeders des gemeenen levens) at Zwolle. Using the residence of Florentius, who resigned a canonry at Utrecht in order to devote himself to the project, they established a house in which devout men might live in community without taking monastic vows.
Thomas a Kempis, who lived in the house from 1392 to 1399, described the life there: "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, also called the "Modern Devotion," were established in rapid succession in the major towns of the Netherlands and north and central Germany, so that there were about 40 houses of men and almost twice that many of women.
The Brotherhood of the Common Life resembled in several respects the Beghard and Beguine communities which had flourished two centuries earlier and were by then in decay. Its members took no vows and were free to leave when they chose; as long as they remained they were bound to observe chastity, practice personal poverty, obey the rules of the house and the commands of the rector, and exercise self-denial, humility and piety. Their first aim was to cultivate the interior life. They neither asked nor received alms, the idea was to live and work in the world, and separate themselves from it, like the monks. The houses of the brothers and sisters occupied themselves exclusively with literature and education, and their priests also with preaching. The Brothers insisted that scriptures, booklets and prayers should be reproduced in the Dutch language so that common people could read them.
At that time, education in the Netherlandswas rare, unlike the situation in Italy and the southern parts of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation; the University of Leuven had not yet been founded, and the fame 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, and even among the higher clergy many were ignorant of the scientific study of Latin. The ordinary Dutch burgher was quite content if, when his children left school, they were able to read and write the Medieval Low German and Diets(Dutch).
Groot and his followers set about reforming the educational system in the Netherlands. Through their unflagging toil in their scriptoriums, and afterwards with the printing press, they were able to multiply their spiritual writings and to publish them widely. Amongst them are the best works of fifteenth century Flemish prose. The Brethren spared no pains to obtain good masters, if necessary from foreign countries, for their schools, which became centers of spiritual and intellectual life of the Catholic Church; among 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 VII.
Before the end of the fifteenth century, the Brethren of the Common Life had established, throughout all of Germany and the Netherlands, schools in which teaching was offered "for the love of God alone." Gradually the curriculum, at first elementary, expanded to embrace the humanities, philosophy, and theology. The religious orders looked askance at these Brethren, who were neither monks nor friars, but the Brethren found protectors in Eugene IV, Pope Pius II, and Pope Sixtus IV. The great Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa had been their pupil and 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 so the Brethren of the Common Life, through Cusa and Agricola, influenced Erasmus and other humanists. When opposition arose to the Brethren, the controversy was carried to the legal faculty at Cologne University, which judged strongly in their favor. The question was finally settled at the council of Constance (1414), when their cause was triumphantly defended by Pierre d'Ailly and Gerson.
The Brethren of the Common Life flourished for a century after this, and had a significant influence on the revival of religion in the Netherlands and north Germany during the fifteenth century. The movement gradually declined during the second half of the sixteenth century, and by the mid-seventeenth century, all its houses had ceased to exist. 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.
At some period (perhaps 1381, perhaps earlier) Groot spent several days with the famous mystic John of Ruysbroeck, prior of the Augustinian canons at Groenendaal near Brussels. During this visit Groot became attracted to the rule and life of the Augustinian canons, and near the end of his life, when some of the clerics who attached themselves to him asked him to form them into a religious order, he resolved that they should be canons regular of Saint Augustine. Before a foundation for that major step could be made, however, Groot died suddenly in 1384, of the plague contracted while nursing the sick.
Nonetheless the clerics followed through on Groot's resolve, and in 1387 a site was secured at Windesheim, some 20 miles north of Deventer. The monastery that became the cradle of the Windesheim congregation of canons regular was established there by Florentius Radewyns. In time the Windeshiem congregation came to embrace nearly one hundred houses, and led the way in the series of reforms undertaken during the fifteenth century by all the religious orders in Germany. The initiation of this movement was the great achievement of Groot's life.
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