Project Canterbury

A History of the So-Called Jansenist Church of Holland;
with a Sketch of Its Earlier Annals,
And some Account of the Brothers of the Common Life.

By the Rev. J.M. Neale, M.A.

Oxford: John Henry and James Parker, 1858.



1. We have already remarked the influence which, in the middle of the fourteenth century, Ruysbroek exercised in Brabant and the adjacent provinces. We must now turn our eyes to the history of his greatest scholar, the man to whom, under God, almost all the religious life of Holland in the next century was owing.

Geert Groote (Gerardus Magnus) was born at Deventer, in the October of 1340. The place was one of considerable importance, and had formed its own treaties with the Count of Holland, and with the King of Denmark. His father held the offices of burgomaster and sheriff in the town. Geert commenced his education in the school of his native place, and was then removed to Aix-la-Chapelle, and afterwards to Paris, where his career fell in the troublous times of the domination of the Prevôt des marchands, Jean Marcel, and the plague and famine that desolated the city. In three years he took the degree of Master, and some years later we find him at Avignon. On his return to his native land, he spent some time at Cologne; where, and at Aix, he held a prebend.

2. “But,” says his affectionate biographer, Thomas à Kempis, “not as yet inspired by the Spirit of God, he walked along the broad ways of this world, until, through God’s loving kindness, he became changed into another man.” The pious writer goes on to tell [76] us how Geert was convinced of the vanity of the world by the prior of a Carthusian monastery, near Arnheim:—

“At that time,” says he, “the state of the world appeared everywhere most lamentable; there were few who preached the Word of Life, either by their lips or their lives, — fewer who observed continence, — and, grievous to say, the name of holy religion and the state of devotion did, for lack of the Holy Ghost, exceedingly fall away from the footsteps of the fathers. Yet among the Carthusians the light of celestial life remained hidden.”

This is another testimony to the truth of the proud motto of that order — Never reformed, because never deformed. Thomas goes on to describe the alteration effected in Geert — his resignation of his canonries at Utrecht and Aix, and finally his pilgrimage to Groenendael, to receive instruction from John Ruysbroek.

3. The first effect of his conversion was his intense zeal to bring back his countrymen to real, vital religion. His mission wonderfully resembles that of Wesley, and the tenor of his letters is exactly like that of the English missionary and his friends. But he met, at the outset, with greater support. Providentially, at that time Utrecht had a prelate, Florentius van Wevelinckhoven, (1379 — 1393), who had courage to support, though not himself distinguished for his learning, the enthusiastic reformer. Of him it is recorded, that such was his ardour in prayer, as to expose him to the ridicule of his clergy; and that his only reply was, “What wonder is it, seeing I have many sheep, that I should make many prayers?” This prelate gave Geert, though only a deacon, permission to preach through his whole diocese, after he had in vain endeavoured to persuade him to receive the priesthood. [77] “No,” replied he; “not for all the gold of Arabia would I have the care of souls, even for one night.” We find him at Utrecht, at Deventer, at Zwolle, at Zutphen, at Kampen, at Amersfoort, at Gouda, at Amsterdam, at Haarlem, at Delft, at Leyden. Crowds hung upon his words; the ordinary business of life ceased where he preached. He frequently delivered two sermons in the same day, and they not unusually were of three hours’ length. Whatever popularity he might win among the common people, the clergy were jealous and offended. The curious regime of mediaeval Holland, which supplied the want of episcopal efficiency by a reticulation of enormous collegiate churches, — such as those of Oldenzaal, Zutphen, and Zwolle, — must also have occasioned a swarm of exactly that kind of dignitaries who have always proved themselves most bitterly opposed to earnestness, in whatever shape.

4. Their influence at length prevailed on the Bishop to revoke his license, and Geert Groote thus found himself silenced. I have said that some of his expressions and letters strongly resemble those of Wesley at the commencement of his career. Thus an epistle written by him to some priests in Amsterdam runs thus:— “Be not terrified, beloved, if ye hear an evil report from them of Kamperi against me. All, as I trust, succeeds according to the will of God, and the Church in Kampen” (notice how strongly the phrase resembles that of a later period,) “is marvellously increased; to God Most High be praise and glory! Let love be inflamed within us, and that not moderately, but vehemently. Let us despise earthly commendation; and at the same time let us be patterns to the praise of the Most High[1].” Thus might Wesley have written; [79] but Wesley would not have acted as Geert’s biographer goes on to inform us that he did:—

“Perceiving that many ecclesiastical dignitaries were against him, and through hostile emulation endeavoured to hinder his preaching, and that he was interdicted by a crafty edict, he humbly yielded to their fury and malice, not choosing to agitate the people against the clergy. And he said to those who were indignant at an inhibition so got up, — ‘They are our superiors, and we wish, as we ought and are bound, to observe their edicts. For we seek not to hurt any, nor to excite scandal. The Lord knoweth from the beginning those that are His; and He will call them, as He pleases, without our means.’ He therefore kept silence for a time, and in the meanwhile betook himself to private exhortations.”

Strong representations were, however, made to the Bishop of Utrecht as to the injustice of this interdict; and it would seem to have been removed. An anonymous epistle to that prelate on the subject is preserved by Thomas.

But although his labours as a preacher might thus be interrupted, Geert Groote found abundant employment in the foundation and the development of the order which has made his name famous in the Church.

5. In looking back from a point of view which his contemporary biographers could not even imagine, it is impossible to avoid expressing our amazement at the intuitive — I had almost said the prescient — sagacity of Geert’s conception. Profane learning was then just beginning to revive. It is as though Geert had foreseen the near approach of that fierce devil, unsanctified human intellect, and the chief means by which it would prevail — an ignorant priesthood, and the almost total proscription of Holy Scripture. The order, then, was designed to teach the young, to send [79] out preachers, and to recommend the study of Holy Scripture; in short, it was a true and holy reform, and was therefore certain to find bitter opposition. Deventer was the centre of the movement. Geert procured the best MSS. from neighbouring abbeys and collegiate churches; he collated, he corrected, he introduced a true criticism; and his fellow-labourers distinguished themselves by the beauty of their calligraphy and the correctness of their text. This was the commencement of that reputation which Holland retained for her learning when she lost her faith. The Universities of Leyden, Utrecht, and Groningen — the Graevii, the Gronovii, the Heinsii, the Valckenaers, the Kusters, the Burmanns, the Hemsterhuises, all owe their name and their fame to the impulse given by the scholar-monk of Deventer.

6. During the course of his studies in Paris, Geert had contracted an intimate friendship with William de Salvavarillâ, Precentor of that cathedral, and Archdeacon of Brabant in the diocese of Liége. This ecclesiastic enjoyed a high character both for religion and learning, and circumstances gave considerable weight to his partizanship. The great schism had just broken out between Urban VI., elected at Rome on the 8th of April, 1378, by sixteen cardinals, and Clement VII., elected at Fondi, the 27th of August of the same year, by fifteen. France, Scotland, Savoy, and Lorraine acknowledged the latter; England, Germany, and the Northern States were for Urban. Salvavarillâ, though a Frenchman, sided with Urban; and the intercession of a learned divine of that nation had of course considerable weight. In a letter to the Pope, preserved by Thomas, the Precentor earnestly requests that his friend may have license to preach in the whole province of Cologne, — or, at [80] least, in the diocese of Utrecht. Urban, himself an earnest man, listened graciously to the petition, and, furthermore, approved the Institute of which I shall presently have more to say.

7. The final permission[2], however, could hardly have been received by the zealous preacher, when he was called from his labours on the earth, and the schism which rent the Western Church, to his rest above in the true vision of peace. During the time of his inhibition Geert Groote had principally resided at Woudrichem, now called Workum. The traveller from Antwerp to Utrecht by the post-road may see its spire to the right, at the junction of the Waal and the Maas, as he crosses the united river to Gorcum. In 1383 the plague broke out at Deventer, and raged fearfully, but not so destructively as in the following year. Geert Groote hastened to his native place, and busied himself in diligent attendance on the stricken men, ministering fearlessly both to their bodily comfort and to their ghostly welfare. In the month of August he was himself seized with the pestilence. Thomas à Kempis gives a touching account of his last moments:—

“‘May God grant me,’ said the dying reformer, ‘to find rest after my death, since for His cause I have laboured, written, and preached.’ His disciples, full of heaviness, groaned deeply, and cried, ‘What shall we do? Who will instruct us for the future? You have been our defender and father, you have drawn us to the Lord. Now our adversaries will rejoice, now worldly men will mock at us, and say, They have no leader or prince; they will soon be reduced to nothing.’ The kind and gentle teacher, seeing the grief of his sons, consoled them, and replied, — ‘Have trust in the Lord, [81] beloved; fear not the reproaches of worldly men; abide firmly in your holy resolution; the Lord will be with you in this place. They will never be able to undo that of which God has decreed the accomplishment..... There is Florentius, the beloved disciple, in whom of a truth the Holy Ghost rests: he shall be your father and your ruler. Hold him in my place; hear him, and obey his counsel.’ After this there came to him certain devout scholars, who were struck with the pestilence, desiring, for the remedy of their souls, to hear some salutary speech from him. To whom he said kindly, — ‘If ye have a good will of serving God, ye may die with security. All the lessons which ye have learnt shall be reckoned to you as the Lord’s Prayer, on account of the pious intention towards God which ye had in studying.’ When they heard these things, the young men were consoled; and returning to their lodgings, they died in a good confession, commending to God and the holy angels their souls redeemed through the Blood of Christ. And so after the Assumption of the Blessed and ever Virgin Mary, when the day of the Festival of S. Bernard was come, the venerable father, Master Gerard, who had a special devotion towards the said saint, when it was drawing towards evening, between the hours of five and six, rendered up to God his soul, fortified with the Sacrament of the Church, precious through its faith and illustrious for its many virtues; in the year of our Lord one thousand three hundred and eighty-four.”

He was buried in the lady-chapel of the collegiate church at Deventer, where his skull was discovered in 1697, and removed in a chest to the Fraterhuis at Emmerik[3]. It was easily known from the remarkable orifice in the bones of the forehead, which was noticeable even in his lifetime, and which he used playfully to call his chimney.

[82] 8. Gerard was only in the 45th year of his age; but besides his indefatigable labours as a preacher, and the foundations of which I shall presently have to speak, he found time for the composition of many works, the greater part of which remain MSS. in the libraries of his native land. Of his printed compositions, the most remarkable is his “Protest concerning True Preaching,” which is sometimes annexed to the works of Thomas à Kempis. He also left treatises on “The Institute of the Common Life;” “On the Institution of Novices;” “On the Government of a Sisterhood;” “On the Recall of those who have Fallen;” “A Harmony of the Evangelical Accounts of the Passion;” “A Commentary on the Lessons for the Dead;” and many other pamphlets. Another of his treatises is “Against the Tower of the Cathedral of Utrecht.” This vast erection, the glory of the metropolitical see, was commenced in 1320[4], and not completed till 1372; and it is not wonderful that Geert, more intent on the living and spiritual temple than on the outward fabric, should have felt indignant at the worldly neglect of the one, as contrasted with the lavish decorations bestowed on the other. It will be convenient, in the first place, to sketch the lives of some of his principal disciples and followers, then to proceed to the history of his Institute, and lastly to its regulations.

9. Floris Radewijnzoon, (Florentius Radwini,) the successor of Geert Groote in the headship of the Institute of the Brothers of the Common Life, was born at Leerdam about the year 1350, and having early distinguished himself by his talents and application, [83] was sent to complete his studies at Prague. This fact, though mentioned by his biographers, is scarcely made so much of as it deserves to be. The avidity with which the Bohemians had, as early as the beginning of the fourteenth century, received a vernacular translation of the Bible, might well have impressed Florentius; at the same time he must have noticed the growing heresies which, after he had left Bohemia, found an organ and a mouthpiece in John Huss. How far he influenced Gerard, how far they both saw that the increasing Wickliffism in England and Bohemia would avail itself of the new development of feeling, and of the demand for the vernacular Scriptures, and that the Church should employ, instead of endeavouring to suppress, both, — is a point which may excite curiosity, but which must be left in doubt.

10. On his return from Prague, he experienced a remarkable escape from imminent danger, which altered the whole course of his future life. He was descending a steep hill, the road being particularly narrow, and fenced in on both sides, when a waggon, that had overpowered its horses, was hurried towards him at a fearful pace, leaving the traveller no apparent possibility of escape. In this extremity, he made an earnest vow of devoting himself to God’s service, if his life were spared; and in a moment, he could not tell how, the vehicle had passed, and he was in safety. While still under the impression of this deliverance, he attended a sermon preached by Geert Groote in S. Mary’s at Deventer; and forthwith determined to follow that life which the preacher was himself pursuing. Ridicule, reproaches, and revilings were heaped upon him; he was called idiot and Lollard[5], but his [84] resolution was taken. In process of time, Geert recommended him to devote himself to the priesthood; the only one of his disciples whom he permitted to receive that dignity. “I have once in my life,” he was accustomed to say, “made one priest, and I hope he is a good one.” His biographer gives several amusing particulars of his life, especially after he had succeeded his master:—

“Once,” says he, “he was devoutly speaking of the love of God; and there stood by him a certain scholar with long and curious sleeves, quite taken up by them, and putting his hands in and out of them. ‘See, brother,’ said Florentius, looking at him kindly, ‘what sort of sleeves I have; they give me no care or trouble. It would be a positive trial to me to wear them as long as you do.’ The scholar, on hearing this, blushed a little, and stood more quietly; and, taking in good part what had been said, departed with great edification.”

At another time, we are told, while the rector was taking his turn in the kitchen, (for at that time, says Thomas, all the brethren were eager to take the meanest occupations,)

“One of his neighbours was moved with compassion and said, — ‘My good sir, why should you take the kitchen department? Have you no one else to undertake it for you? Would it not be better that you should go to church, and that some one else should cook in your place?’ The humble minister of Christ, Florentius, answered, — ‘Ought I not rather to seek for the prayers of others than for my own? While I am in the kitchen, all will pray for me; and I hope that I shall obtain more benefit from the prayers of those who are in the church, than if I were to pray alone for myself.’”

He spent a considerable time in the work of copying, which, as we shall see, was an especial employment of the Brothers of the Common Life. It is [85] rather amusing to see the scant measure of praise which Thomas à Kempis, the first copyist of his time, awards him: qui licet minus bene scribere sciret, says he, Florentius would fold and pumice the leaves, and rubricate the lines for the use of others. His advice and counsel was so much sought after, that frequently he was unable to leave his room for hours together, one visitor succeeding another during the whole course of the day. Often interrupted when he had commenced one of the hours, it was his wont to say, when he resumed the book, Adhuc semel propter Deum. In the month of May, when, as Thomas observes, herbs of the greatest medicinal value come into flower, it was his custom to spend days together in the fields, and employ his knowledge of medicine, which was considerable, in collecting them for the benefit of his poor. His long and repeated fasts had so completely destroyed his sense of taste, that once, as his biographer relates, intending to drink off a tumbler of beer, he swallowed one of oil instead; and that without discovering his mistake till it was pointed out to him. His illnesses were frequent and severe, and his life was more than once despaired of:—

“As often,” says Thomas, “as he was seized by any dangerous illness, it was the custom to send to the neighbouring congregations of brothers, clerks, and sisters, and request them all to pray instantly for him, that God might spare him, and might prolong his life for the salvation of many, lest we should have sorrow upon sorrow if we lost so loving a father, and so necessary a governor. I was once charged with this message to the sisters: ‘Pray for our master Florentius, for he is grievously ill.’ And, behold, the merciful Lord Who despiseth not the prayers of the poor, but willingly hears the cry of the humble, restored health to His beloved and faithful servant, to the end that he might make His power known to the sons of men. There was at that time a [86] certain celebrated bachelor in medicine, Master Everard Eza, curate in Almeno, a very learned man, who, inspired by the grace of devotion, was an intimate friend of Florentius, and of his brethren, and of other devoted servants of Christ. He was frequently accustomed to visit the house, and to employ all his medical skill upon it.”

This Eza had been a most vigorous opponent of Geert Groote, by whom he was won over from the world, and induced, after his wife’s death, to take orders[6].

11. Thomas, in relating the opposition which Florentius and his disciples experienced, points out that, nevertheless, true devotion was on the increase in Holland. The Carthusians, as always, took the lead. Some Cistercians and Benedictines are also mentioned in terms of high approbation. A school of preachers was formed in the diocese of Utrecht, chiefly owing to the example and teaching of Groote and Florentius. Of these, Master Wermbold, who was confessor to the convent of S. Cecilia, at Utrecht, was the most celebrated; at Amersfoort, William Hendrickzoon, the founder of the Canons Regular there; at Zwolle, Hendrik Gronde, confessor to the Béguinage in that town: that convent was the first reformed, and was for a long time the only one in that part of the country that was not notoriously and shamefully irregular. Mention is also made of Gisbert Dou, in Amsterdam; Deric Gruter, at Doesbrouch; and a priest named Paul at Medenblick. The progress which the Institute made under Florentius I shall presently relate; but his labours and austerities did not permit him to govern the order for many years. In the spring of 1400, when he had been superior about sixteen years, he was seized with one of his usual Lent illnesses, which the medical [87] science of Eza soon pronounced to be mortal. Assembling the brethren around him, he nominated Brother Amilius as his successor, and then, says Thomas, “after Compline, when the Angelus had been rung in honour of the Blessed Virgin, the day being now finished, he also finished his earthly life.” It was his special request to be buried in the churchyard of S. Lebuin’s, without any pomp whatever; but Rambert, archpriest in the deanery of Deventer, interposed his veto. The corpse was accordingly borne by the brethren into the church, and buried before the altar of S. Paul. I have visited the flat stone which marks the resting-place of this truly great reformer. His affectionate disciples made a collection of his sayings, which Thomas has taken care to preserve:—

“In praying, you should rather ask for the grace and mercy of the Lord, than for any great rewards.” “By hurrying your words, you lose your devotion.” “Fly to your cell as you would to a friend’s; you are safe there.” “You can think in a crowd.” “If I have nothing great to offer, I will give what I have; as Mary’s offering was a pair of turtledoves, and not a lamb.” “The devil is well read in Scripture, and yet is none the better for it.” “A little earnestness is better than much learning without devotion.” “Do not look at your neighbour as rich, or learned, or handsome, but as redeemed by the Blood of Christ.” “We seldom sit down to table without the devil’s laying an ambush for us.” “Take care what you write, that your copy is correct and your punctuation good and distinct, because it is a sad trouble to study out of an incorrectly written book.” “Whatever a man takes in hand, if he does not feel the humbler when it is finished, he has made very little progress indeed.”

12. Another of Geert Groote’s earliest fellow-labourers was John Van der Gronde, a native of Ootmarsum. He was labouring with singular success in [88] Amsterdam, when Geert summoned him to Deventer, where he spent the remainder of his life, and after the death of Geert, became confessor to the sisters in that place. He was one of the most celebrated among the early preachers of the order, and it is especially related of him, that his voice filled the great church at Deventer. Thomas once heard him preach on Good-Friday for more than six hours continuously, with only the rest of a few minutes in the midst of his discourse. He was occasionally resident at Zwolle, and frequently visited Mount S. Agnes, of which more anon. He was at a distance from home when seized with an illness which he felt to be mortal, and hastened to return to Deventer, in order that Florentius might assist him in his last agony. His wish was granted, and he gave up the ghost with great resignation on May 7, 1392. Indeed, over-exertion and over-austerity mowed down the early Brothers of the Common Life. Gerard Van Zerbolt, another of their fellow-labourers, only reached the age of thirty-one. He had distinguished himself by two treatises written in Dutch, on the “Benefit of Reading Holy Scripture,” and the “Use of Vernacular Prayer.” On both these points he speaks most clearly and decidedly, and brings forward numerous arguments against those who were for forbidding the laity the use of Holy Scripture at all, and compelling them to employ Latin, even though they might not understand a syllable of it, in their own prayers. Van Heussen has translated large extracts from both[7]: the references to the Fathers are numerous, but not very accurate; the writer continually quoting pseudo-treatises as the composition of the authors whose name they bear. The same remark applies to a writer who has been called the second to à Kempis — Gerlach Petersen. He was [89] received very young at Windesheim by Florentius; and, while he was distinguished for his gift of meditation, he was also distinguished by his determined opposition to the austerities which had brought so many of the brethren to an early grave:—

“And from that time,” says the chronicler of the order, “it has been a custom among us to demand, whenever any clerk presents himself for admission, these three points: whether he can eat well; whether he can sleep well; and whether he is willing to obey; because we know that on the answers to these three questions depends, in great measure, the likelihood of his perseverance.”

Petersen, however, was as short-lived as the others, dying at the age of thirty-three, in 1414. He is known by his work, Ignitum cum Deo soliloquium, which has been translated into Flemish and French, and which was a great favourite with the Port-Royalists. Some consider it the masterpiece of mystic theology.

13. John Brinkerinck, who succeeded Van der Gronde as confessor to the sisters at Deventer, was also a celebrated preacher. Thomas has a story about him which, though I have already repeated it in another place, it would not be fair to omit here:—

“He was once preaching on the Circumcision, and treating most pleasantly and sweetly of the name of Jesus; exalting this blessed and delicious name above all things in heaven and earth. At length he condescended to rebuke the irreverence and familiarity with which some foolish men of this world treated the name of Jesus. ‘Why,’ said he, ‘there are some who say, with a contemptuous sneer, “Oho! Jesus is the God of the Béguines!” Fools and miserable men! Jesus the God of the Béguines? Then, pray, who is your God? Truly it is the devil. To us this holy name is a great honour and a singular joy: over and over again our brethren name Jesus; above all other things they worship Jesus; before and above the names of all the saints, they [90] love and adore Jesus, the Son of the living God, whom you deride and despise. True it is, the Brothers and the Béguines do name Jesus willingly, do laud Him devoutly, do salute each other in His name. And woe to you who have the devil in your mouths oftener than Jesus: He is too lowly and despised to please you.’ Thus speedily,” adds Thomas, “he gladdened the lovers of Jesus, and confounded his deriders according to their deserts.”

Under his direction the number of the Béguines increased exceedingly. He erected for them a new convent, for they had hitherto been domiciled in the house that belonged to Geert Groote, and was indefatigable in catechising them in Holy Scripture. He died on March 26, 1419, and was buried before the high altar of the convent.

14. Another of the early brethren was Lubert ten Bosche, born of a good family at Zwolle, and a devoted disciple of Florentius. Thomas relates a story of his obedience:—

“He was one day sitting in his cell and writing, and Master Florentius sent for him. He was in the last line of the page, and there were but three or four words to finish it. The brother who was sent for him said, ‘Finish that line, then the page will be complete; there is no hurry.’ Whereto he, like a true son of obedience, replied, ‘Not one word more; I must obey at once.’ When Master Florentius heard of this prompt obedience of Lubert, ‘Ah!’ he said, ‘Lubert, how well you know what is your true gain, and advantageous to your soul!’ He was so diligent in writing, that, if anyone were talking to him, he would write on just the same, and yet be able to keep up the conversation. At another time, a youth, who was studying in the house, was writing to his parents, and Lubert invited him to sit, while doing so, in his chamber. I was there myself. Master Florentius came in and said, ‘What are you about?’ He answered with reverence, ‘My companion is writing to his father.’ Then our sweet Father said, ‘Write, that you yourself may be written [91] in the Book of Life.’ Afterwards that youth became a devout monk, and I forgot not the words of my master Florentius, which he spoke in the chamber of Lubert; for a good man, out of the good treasure of his heart, always bringeth forth good things.”

There are yet some other anecdotes which à Kempis relates of his friend:—

“Once on a time, when the brethren were gathered together, Master Florentius interrogated them concerning certain subjects from Holy Scripture. While many kept silence, Lubert, who was the eldest, began to reply. Master Florentius, wishing to humble and prove him before the others, says to him seriously, ‘Lubert, do you think that we are ignorant of this, although we are not bachelors or masters?’ He very humbly answered, ‘My presumption.’ For he had a custom, that, when he was rebuked for any little fault, he never would excuse himself, but rather confess it, and would say, ‘My fault.’ or ‘My negligence,’ or ‘My inadvertency,’ or ‘My levity,’ or ‘My stupidity and idleness,’ or some other expression of humility which might edify the brothers. When he was reading at dinner-time, he sometimes made a mistake on purpose, that he might be corrected by the corrector of the table; and sometimes he pretended that he did not hear, that he might be corrected again, desiring to be put to shame, and to be thought stupid, as if he could read no better. But Master Gerard of Zutphen, who was the corrector of the table, perceiving that he did not make mistakes from ignorance, but from humility, ceased to correct him any more. He had a manly voice like a trumpet, and read capitally well. One of the brethren once asked Master Florentius, ‘Why do you not find fault with and correct me, as you do Master Lubert, and John Kettel, our cook?’ The good Father, full of the virtue of discretion, answered, ‘If I saw that you were as full of courage as they, I would try you in the same manner. But they are such, that they derive advantage from blame, and do not murmur, but become more humble and more fervent.’.... He could write sufficiently well, and he was fond of writing, to avoid idleness, and would induce others to write also. A young man once asked him [92] to set him a copy, and he kindly consented to do so. ‘And,’ saith he, ‘you will learn to write well, for you have long and soft fingers.’ And by the co-operation of God, what he said came true. He wrote in round hand these words as a copy: ‘Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart.’”

And here is the closing scene of Lubert ten Bosche:—

“When, then, the plague was raging in Deventer, and the surrounding country, it removed many also of the brethren from this life, but, as we may piously believe, joined them in eternal life in the next. It fell out also that Master Lubert was seized with the same plague. And behold, in the month of July, three days before the feast of blessed Mary Magdalene, he fell ill, and took to his bed, and said that he was not long for this world. We, on the other hand, laboured with many prayers, and sought remedies from God, and from intelligent surgeons, because his life was desirable to all. But his prayers were heard beyond ours, and they were full of desires to be admitted among the heavenly citizens. One of the brethren said, ‘We shall not be separated so quickly; but we shall hold our conversations in the room of Master Florentius.’ ‘No,’ said he; ‘not here any more, but in the heavenly places with the saints:’ for he desired to depart, and to be with Christ. On the feast of S. Mary Magdalene, he asked that the Sequence, Laus Tibi Christe, might be sung in his room.

[This Sequence, which is one of the most beautiful of the kind called “Notkerian,” is by Godeschalkus, and runs as follows:—

“1. Praise be to Thee, O Christ, Who art the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Saviour

“2. Of the heaven, the earth, the sea, angels, and men.

“3. Whom alone we confess to be God and Man.

“4. Who didst come that Thou mightest save sinners.

“5. (Without sin, assuming the likeness of sin.)

“6. From the number of which sinners, as Thou didst visit the Canaanitish woman, as also Mary Magdalene.

[93] “7. At the same table of the divine Word, Thou didst refresh the one with crumbs, the other with drink,

“8. In the house of Simon the Leper, sitting down at the typical feast.

“9. The Pharisee murmurs, where the woman, conscious of her sin, laments.

“10. The sinner despiseth his fellow-sinner. Thou that knewest no sin, hearest her, penitent, — cleansest her, defiled, — lovest her, that Thou mayest make her fair.

“11. She embraceth the feet of the Lord, washeth them with her tears, wipeth them with her hair: by washing, by wiping, by ointment, she anointeth them, — with kisses she encircled them.

“12. These are the banquets which are well-pleasing to Thee, O Wisdom of the Father,

“13. O Thou, born of a Virgin, Who disdainedst not to be touched by a woman that was a sinner.

“14. Thou wast invited by the Pharisee; Thou wast banqueted by Mary.

“15. Much Thou forgivest to her that loved much, and repeated not her sin in time to come.

“16. From seven devils Thou cleansedst her by Thy sevenfold Spirit.

“17. Arising from the dead, Thou didst grant her to see Thee before the others.

“18. By her, O Christ, Thou signifiest Thy proselyte Church; whom, albeit alien-born, Thou callest to the table of Thy sons.

“19. Whom at the feast of the law and grace, the pride of the Pharisees contemns, the leprosy of heresy vexes.

“20. What she is Thou knowest; she toucheth Thee because she is a sinner, because she is a desirer of pardon.

“21. What, sick one, could she have possessed, if she had not received it, if the Physician had not been present?

“22. King of kings, rich unto all, save us; Thou that wipest away all the crimes of sinners, Thou that art the hope and glory of saints.”]

“When it had been sung, he said, ‘What devout and fervent words are these! And he repeated to himself this verse, ruminating upon it:— ‘What, sick one, could she [94] have possessed, if she had not received it, if the Physician had not been present?’

“Many of the brethren who were present wept when they heard these things. But he, joyful in the Lord, consoled them that were mourning. Brother Amilius, who nursed him carefully, heard many edifying things from his mouth, and wrote them down.”

These notes of Brother Amilius are preserved by Thomas, and are very interesting. He first gives a letter dictated by Lubert to Florentius, who was then at a distance, on the Vigil of S. James; and next proceeds:—

“When he had dictated it, he sat up and read it over, to see if he wished to add or omit anything. Then suddenly there fell upon him such a horror and such a weakness, that he seemed to have lost all his senses; and he asked me to collect all the brethren of our house, and other good men who lived near at hand. When they were come, he was exceedingly distressed and agitated, and uttered doleful cries and lamentable sentences..... Then he made a sign to me, Amilius, who never left him, to take away the taper which I had put in his hand, thinking him to be in the act of death, that I might read with him the seven Psalms, — ‘ for,’ said he, ‘I shall not die yet.’ So he began reading one verse with me, and the other making a response, and so he went all through them with great fervour and devotion.”

After describing the temptations by which Lubert was tried, he says of the evening of the same day:—

“After this, entirely worn out, he lay in great tranquillity and peace of heart until his death. For ardently he desired to be dissolved and to be with Christ, having a firm confidence and hope of the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Virgin Mary, and the other saints. And in the aforesaid ardent desire he continued to pray, to sigh, and to meditate on pious Psalms, especially the Psalm Beati Immaculati, till the morrow of S. James, — often enquiring whether he was near death; whether he yet had all the signs of death; whether short breath was a true sign of death, and the like. We could in no wise console him better than [95] by assuring him that death was at hand. Sometimes with great confidence he would exclaim, ‘O when will the Lord Jesus and S. Mary, with the holy angels, come to set me free?’ and the like. ‘I hope that they will not tarry long. O if they would come quickly. O if they would put an end to this. I trust that I shall not abide here much longer,’ and the like. And frequently he invoked SS. Mary, Jerome, and Gregory, whom he specially loved, and the other saints, to pray for him, and to succour him in the hour of death.... Thus in so great fervour, in such devotion, in so ardent a desire of being dissolved, in so affectionate and trustful an expectation of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Virgin Mary, the holy angels, and the other saints, he came to his last hour; nor, as it seems, was the request of his lips denied. In all his limbs he was already dead, and quite cold; life only seemed to palpitate on his tongue and in his breast, and he could scarcely move any one of his limbs. And, behold, on a sudden, without “any help, he sat up by himself, struck together and raised his hands, fixed his eyes on the wall, and bowed towards it with great devotion; and with what strength he might, in his poor broken voice he exclaimed, ‘In Thy glory, in Thy goodness, in Thy mercy, take me, take me. In Thy glory, in Thy glory; in Thy goodness, in Thy goodness; in Thy mercy, take me, take me, take me.’ He sat upright, and went over the same words several times, and then lay down on his bed again; and twice over he went through the same actions and words. The last time he lay down, he seemed to be in great astonishment and admiration. I asked the question, and said to him, ‘Brother Lubert, what is it? How fare you?’ He replied, as it were in great astonishment, ‘Wonders, wonders; admirable things, admirable things; great and admirable things I saw when I sat up!’ He added directly, ‘Call the brethren, call the brethren.’ As soon as they were called, he passed through a brief agony, and happily fell asleep in the Lord, full of virtue and good works, concerning whom God be blessed for ever.”

15. Henry Brune and Gerard of Zutphen were two of the most zealous of the early labourers in the same work. Amilius de Buren has been honoured with a [96] short memoir by Thomas à Kempis: it was he who attended Lubert ten Bosche on his death-bed, and who afterwards succeeded Florentius in his government of the House of Deventer. He held that office more than four years, and departed this life in 1404. One of those who exercised the greatest influence at Deventer was John Kettel, the cook. He had been a merchant, and would never take upon himself any higher office than that to which he was at first appointed. He also died of the plague in 1398, and was attended by brother Amilius on his death-bed.

16. Having thus commemorated the principal fellow-labourers of Geert Groote, I will give a brief sketch of the nature of his Institute. His disciples were usually known as the Brothers of the Common Life, or of Good Will; sometimes as Fraterheeren, Devoted Clerks, Collationary Brothers; occasionally as Hieronymians, or Gregorians, from their great veneration for those saints, and the frequent dedication of their houses to them. The association was entirely voluntary; none of the brothers were bound by a vow; and yet none were ever known, having put their hand to the plough, to turn again to the world. Each house consisted of four or more priests, twice as many clerks, and a few laymen. The head was called indifferently Ruler, Prior, or Provost. Next to him were the Vice-Ruler and Procurator, whose business lay in the management of the worldly affairs of the house. As the brothers were so much occupied in transcription, among the other functionaries of their establishment appear the rubricator, ligator, and scripturarius. One or other of the principal houses was chosen for the yearly “colloquy.” At first, it was the parent institution at Deventer; after the death of Florentius Radewijns, the high reputation of Diderick van Herxen caused Zwolle to be chosen for the place of meeting. Later, [97] we find the annual assembly in other places, as in 1500 at Groningen, in 1560 at Bois-le-duc, in 1561 at Emmerik. In the middle of the fifteenth century, the three leading houses were Deventer, Zwolle, and Hieronymusberg at Halten. The German brotherhoods formed a separate union, under Münster first, and afterwards under Emmerik. While by no means neglecting manual labour, the Brothers of the Common Life were emphatically and mainly an order devoted to instruction and to the propagation of learning.

17. Before the death of Florentius, they numbered seventeen collegiate churches in the Netherlands; of which, next to Windesheim, the most famous was Mount Saint Agnes, near Zwolle. Here it was that, in 1400, Thomas à Kempis was transferred; his brother John being then first Prior of that newly-established House. Here, for seventy years, he occupied himself in all the exercises of a pious monk; and more especially in the transcription of books. A Bible of his writing is still extant, in four volumes, folio; begun in 1417, and finished in 1459. The epigraph is, “Finished and completed by the hands of brother Thomas à Kempis.” The same words may be seen in a Missal, which he completed in 1414. It is beyond my design to enter at length into the question, whether the “Imitation” has been rightly ascribed to him; that work which, next to the Holy Scriptures, has probably been read more widely than any other in the Western Church, — and which has, it is said, gone through as many editions as there have been months since it first appeared. It is now, however, almost a settled point among ecclesiastical scholars, that Thomas was not its author. The arguments against his claims are briefly these:—

[98] 1. The simple fact, that the only reason for ascribing it to him consists in the epigraph, “Finished and completed in the year of our Lord 1441, by the hands of brother Thomas à Kempis, of the monastery of Mount Saint Agnes, near Zwolle.” The same reason might make him author of the Bible itself.

2. The account given by his contemporaries that, in writing the “Imitation,” Thomas employed the most ancient MSS. he could find,

3. The fact that, in the very rare editio princeps of the works of Thomas, printed by Keteleer about 1475, and edited by the brothers of his own order, theImitationis not to be found.

4. Nor is it to be found in any Dutch edition for fifty years after.

5. It is said in Holland — and the assertion has never been contradicted — that M. Van Vree, President of the college at Warmond, has fragments of the “Imitation” in Flemish, written in the fourteenth century.

6. Anyone who will study the undoubted works of Thomas — “ The Valley of Lilies,” “The Book of the Three Tabernacles,” “The Sermons to the Novices,” — will be morally convinced that he did not write the “Imitation.” The style is as different as is that of S. Bernard from S. Augustine. And the quotations he makes from the “Imitation” prove the same thing. Who ever thus quoted his own works? Nor do we ask the reader to take this assertion on our credit only; though we make it without the least hesitation. M. Kamper, who lately published a translation of the undoubted works of Thomas, gives it as his settled opinion, that either these, or the “Imitation,” are not from his pen. M. Holtropp, of the Hague, has published a most convincing pamphlet on the subject. [99] The only modern ecclesiastical scholar of eminence who supports the opposite side is, we believe, the present excellent Bishop of Bruges; and he writes with a warmth which betrays a secret mistrust of his cause. The reader who wishes to become acquainted with the sum and substance of all that can be said on the question is referred to the eleventh volume of Dupin’s Bibliothèque, and to Gregory’s Histoire du Livre de lImitation de Jésus Christ. After all, a far more edifying point of consideration than that of its authorship, is the comfort and blessing which, for nearly four hundred years, the “Imitation” has been to every Christian nation. Thus, the countless German, French, and Italian translations, the frequent English reprints, are known to everyone. The Spaniard reads it in the venerable Luis de Grenada’s version, — the best of all; the Bohemian, in Balthazar Osthowne’s; the Hungarian, in Peter Pazmany’s; while the Turkish, the Arabian, and the modern Greek have their respective translations.

18. With the death of Thomas, the learned generation may be said to have commenced. Overyssel and Guelderland were undoubtedly, at the epoch of the invention of printing, the most learned countries in Europe; and the first leading colleges were at Deventer, Zutphen, Zwolle, and Kampen. The Cardinal Cusa and Pope Hadrian VI. owed their erudition to these institutions; and in 1476 a young lad named Gerard was received at Deventer, who afterwards became known to all the literary world as Desiderius Erasmus. From these, as from a centre, radiated schools into every part of north-western Europe. Rodolph Lang established that of Münster; Louis Dingenberg that of Schelstadt: here he had for pupils, Murrho (founder of the college at Colmar), Wimpheling [100], and Simler, the master of Melanchthon. Rodolph Agricola was the master of Beatus Rhenanus, the first editor of Tertullian, and one of the most eminent scholars of the fifteenth century.

19. Such an order naturally seized with avidity the invention of printing. The wooden blocks of Laurence Jansz, commonly called Coster, at Haarlem, may have familiarized them with the idea before John Gutemberg invented his movable metallic types at Mayence. Certain it is, however, that among the most valuable volumes to be found in the incunabula of German libraries, the Canons of Windesheim have their full share. In 1474, those of Val Sainte Marie, near Mayence, printed a psalter and a breviary; and those of S. Michael, at Rostock, the editio princeps of Lactantius; in 1476, those of Nazareth, at Brussels, the Speculum Humanae Salvationis — the first work printed in that city.

It may be truly said that the stimulus to the revival of ecclesiastical learning came from Windesheim, as that to profane learning from Rome. And it should be a humbling thought for educated, wealthy, intellectual Holland that, in her Catholic times, the north-eastern provinces were immeasurably superior to their present condition in that mental culture which Protestantism is usually supposed to foster.

20. The institute, in the course of years, developed itself into six different families. The first was the Belgian, of which the House of S. Gregory, at Deventer, was considered the head. Another of its most celebrated houses was that at Zwolle; where, in the middle of the fifteenth century, Diderik Van Herxen attained a degree of celebrity equal to that of Florentius: it was famous also for the teaching and reputation of Gerard Van Kalkar, another of the early brothers. [101] At Amersfoort, at Groningen, at Harderwyck, at Utrecht itself, and at Liége, there were celebrated houses. At Louvain, their printing-press sent forth a great number of the early books of the Low Countries.

The second family was the German, which, however, acquired less reputation, and became afterwards in some degree connected with the outbreak of the Reformation. “Would,” said Luther, in 1534, of that at Herford, “that all monasteries would teach and hold the Word of God as earnestly as this.”

The third family was the Italian, which also was not one of the most illustrious. It had houses at Venice, Padua, Rimini, Rome, and other places. That at Rimini strenuously resisted the imposition of vows, when accepted by almost all the other houses; and, when compelled by Pius V. to take them, did it under protest that they were taken by mere compulsion.

The fourth family was the Portuguese. This did not contain many houses, but those which existed held a high reputation for good order and sanctity. That at Coimbra persisted to the end in its rejection of vows; and it is said that, during the whole course of its existence, scarcely one or two of the brothers forsook it. The fifth and sixth were the Sicilian and the Genoese.

21. The Brothers of the Common Life were, as may be seen from the above, a chiefly local institution. It was not long before the non-existence of vows was brought forward as derogatory to the sanctity, and likely to peril the stability, of the order. It is not wonderful, therefore, that the House of Canons Regular at Windesheim, which had acquired great reputation both for learning and piety, should have attracted to itself the Dutch institution, and tended [102] in some degree to remodel it. In the middle of the fifteenth century a union took place between the two, and thenceforward the earlier appellation of Brothers of the Common Life was generally lost in that of Canons Regular of Windesheim.

The congregation of Windesheim had a golden age of about one hundred years. After 1500 we hear little of it. Swept out of Holland by the whirlwind of the Reformation, it had not the vitality to propagate itself in the neighbouring countries. Though it continued to exist, it did not continue to spread, and became, as it were, a mere fragment in the institute of Canons Regular. In this respect, the well-defined existence which the Béguines have kept up is not a little remarkable; and the wisdom of Geert Groote in avoiding any close assimilation to, or amalgamation with, the Canons Regular will, perhaps, be acknowledged.


[1] Quoted by Thomas à Kempis, chap. ix.

[2] Delprat, p. 25, shews by a comparison of letters of Groote himself with that of Salvavarillâ, that the application to Urban VI. must have been made in 1383.

[3] And this was his epitaph:—

“Gerardus Magnus vixit sicut pius agnus,
Fecit quod dixit, sicut docuit quoque vixit.
Vultu non fictus, aliis lenis, sibi strictus.
Lux fuerat cleris, tradens huic lumina veris, &c.
Sic fuit exemplo lux in Christi bene templo
Gerardus Magnus, quam verus diligit Agnus.”

[4] So the inscription on the tower itself sets forth:—

“M. C. ter. X. bis. semel S. Paulique Johannis
Turris adaptatur, quo Trajectum decoratur.”

That is, on the Feast of SS. John and Paul, June 26.

[5] Elegit namque potens abjectus Lullardus cum habitu suis vocari, aut insanus a secularibus nominari, quam magnus Dominus et magister nominari.” — Thomas à Kempis, cap. 9.

[6] Historia Episc.: Episc. Daventr., p. 157.

[7] Historia Episcopatuum: Daventr., p, 88.


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