09.11.20, Van Engen, Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life

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Petty Bange

The Medieval Review 09.11.20

Van Engen, John. Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life: The Devotio Moderna and the World of the Later Middle Ages. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Pp. 448. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4119-8.

Reviewed by:
Petty Bange
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen

Erasmus characterized the Brothers of the Common Life as medium genus inter monachos et laicos, a middle species between monks and laypeople. Medium genus, status medius or via media: these terms lead us in medias res. 25 years ago, in 1985--on occasion of the Geert Grote congress in Nijmegen--Kaspar Elm called the brothers "eine geistliche Bruderschaft zwischen Kloster und Welt, zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit," a spiritual brotherhood between monastery and world, the Middle Ages and Modern Times. This was their strength as well as their weakness, and also why in the first generation the Modern Day Devout or Modern Day Brothers (and Sisters for that matter)--as Van Engen calls them--puzzled their contemporaries. Serious studies on the Modern Devotion began in the second half of the nineteenth century, but at that time many scholars looked upon the Brotherhood as a premature reformation of modern devotion. Nowadays the Brothers and Sisters are no longer seen as forerunners: they inhabited a distinct moment in time and by recent standards they cannot be claimed by either the Reformation or Counterreformation.

Van Engen's book is not a textbook as such, because, as he notes, such studies already exist. His book deals with the enterprise, community building, and its self-making. According to the author the basic sources--the narratives, documents and exercises--still need attention. With the use of these sources, sometimes necessarily reinterpreted, Van Engen aims to grasp the Brothers and Sisters in their humanity, their communities and their religion, all within various urban societies. This is precisely where the concept status medius is applicable: they were living in the towns, and they did not belong to any monastic order.

In the first chapter Van Engen tells us about converts in the Middle Ages and how Geert Grote, the spiritual father of the Modern Devotion, after his conversion made his resolutions that were not vows. His conception, actually, did not come out of the blue: in the Netherlands and elsewhere there already existed beguines and begards, mostly pious men and women who did not fit in hierarchical church-structures. That is one of the reasons why now and then accusations of heresy were raised.

In the second chapter we meet the Modern Devout households of male and female converts. As people of the towns, they lived in houses, domus, not monasteries. Therefore they had to negotiate with local authorities for the legal status of their communities and the form of life. Theirs was a private world that turned to the interior person, and care for the self, cura sui ipsius. Chapter III concerns suspicion of their devout practices, and Sisters who are visited by the inquisition. That is why Van Engen calls the fourth chapter "From Converts to Communities". To forestall further accusations and insinuations they had to become professed religious. Recent approaches to medieval religious life, as Van Engen's, focus less on matters of socioecclesiastical status and more on religiocultural authority. Institution-building, however, was central to the later medieval experience. The largest number of the Brothers and Sisters became Tertiaries, but they did not forsake their identity. In this chapter attention is also paid to the lodging and care of schoolboys, e.g. in Deventer and Zwolle; they aimed ultimately at winning souls, turning young clerics toward a more spiritual life. It was their most signal contribution to the region.

There is only a brief paragraph about the Congregation of Windesheim because the history of the Congregation lies outside the scope of this book. All the same, it was the most successful new religious order in the fifteenth century. More than eighty houses of canons and canonesses were founded, who in entering this order left behind their status medius. Consequently they were no longer subject to criticism of the kind they received before.

Chapter V is a key chapter. Here Van Engen describes the communal household of the Brothers and Sisters. Their gatherings were set up in the spirit of the earliest Christians. Their aim was to break with possession and its associated greed. They formed a societas, not a collegium. A privately entered societas did not require the warrant of a superior authority. Their income was procured by donatio inter vivos, as a valid and irrevocable transaction. From the beginning they had to support themselves by manual labor, as begging was forbidden. Many Brothers were copyists, while the Sisters engaged in more feminine occupations, textile production for instance. Although they formed a voluntary gathering, they nevertheless needed common customs, which evolved out of accustomed practices because they subsumed themselves under no Rule. They avoided the status of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the professed religious. The crux of the matter was obedience born of charity, the care of souls based theoretically on people yielding to one another in love. They formed a respublica modeled on a private household, which can be characterized, as stated above, as a third way, viz. a via media. Brothers and Sisters were also free to go if they could not cope with the Modern Devout lifestyle. That is exactly why Erasmus said that it would have been better had he stayed with the Brothers in Den Bosch; there would have been less difficulties had he wanted to leave!

In chapter III Van Engen told us about "suspicion and inquisition," in chapter VI we read about church officials and town governors, who objected to the Modern Devout way of life, and their lack of traditional structures. The Brothers defended themselves by stating that they did no harm, rather the opposite, in their care of schoolboys. They even found a supporter in the famous theologian Jean Gerson (1363-1429), who stated that if the church was to be repaired one had to start with the young.

The last chapter is also a key chapter. One of the main concepts is the term profectus, "borrowed" among others from the Franciscan friar David of Augsburg (d. 1272). Profectus virtutum or progress in virtue, was the central aim of the Modern Devout. Together with caring for the self and examining the soul--not only their own souls but also those of other people placed in their care--this was a practical matter. Status medius is applicable once again, meaning an intricate balance between "apartness and interaction" (p. 267). Spiritual reading was central as it enabled prayer, meditation and reflection. The Modern Devout persistently defended the right to read the Bible and other pious texts in the vernacular. One of their most convincing arguments was that after all Latin wasn't the original language of the Holy Scripture: the early Christians read the Bible in their own vernacular. At the heart of their literary canon were, besides of course the Bible, the writings of the Church Fathers, see e.g. the Collationes of John Cassian. Dirk of Herxen compiled a book of exemplary collations in Latin and in Dutch on devotional and moral themes. One of their most prolific writers was the Windesheim canon Arnold Gheyloven from Rotterdam, who wrote a voluminous summa of canon law and moral theology--actually, not for schoolboys at Deventer and Louvain as Van Engen writes (293), but for priest/students. Their goal was to cultivate an inner life, to learn to know yourself, to care for yourself, and to act as confessors.

In the conclusion the most important features of the Devout are once again mentioned: they formed a private gathering, not a public religious institution, to the annoyance of many a parish priest and bishop. They lived by the work of their own hands, as they were determined to support themselves. Reading--of devotional prose-- emerges as central to their spiritual program. They protected themselves early by founding the chapter of Windesheim, which "in practice rapidly overshadowed them to become, ironically, the most successful new religious order of the 15th century" (314). The spirit of the Devotio Moderna survived, long after the last houses were closed down. The great Erasmus was touched by it, although he wasn't likely to admit it, but it was with the Brothers in Den Bosch that he read the writings of Jerome for the first time. Later in life he commented on and made editions of them (Opera omnia, ordo IX).

Van Engen has written a comprehensive and captivating textbook on the Modern Devout Sisters and Brothers. After Post's Modern Devotion (1968) it is the most complete survey of this late- medieval religious movement. Above all the way Van Engen positioned them within their own time and space, and his emphasis on the social and religious conditions of their foundations give us an excellent insight in this important movement in the Netherlands.

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Petty Bange

Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen