Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life: The Devotio Moderna and the World of the Later Middle Ages

Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life: The Devotio Moderna and the World of the Later Middle Ages

Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life: The Devotio Moderna and the World of the Later Middle Ages

Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life: The Devotio Moderna and the World of the Later Middle Ages

Synopsis

The Devotio Moderna, or Modern Devout, puzzled their contemporaries. Beginning in the 1380s in market towns along the Ijssel River of the east-central Netherlands and in the county of Holland, they formed households organized as communes and forged lives centered on private devotion. They lived on city streets alongside their neighbors, managed properties and rents in common, and worked in the textile and book trades, all the while refusing to profess vows as members of any religious order or to acquire spouses and personal property as lay citizens. They defended their self-designed style of life as exemplary and sustained it in the face of opposition, their women labeled "beguines" and their men "lollards," both meant as derogatory terms. Yet the movement grew, drawing in women and schoolboys, priests and laymen, and spreading outward toward Munster, Flanders, and Cologne.

The Devout were arguably more culturally significant than the Lollards and Beguines, yet they have commanded far less scholarly attention in English. John Van Engen's magisterial book keeps the Modern Devout at its center and thinks through their story anew. Few interpreters have read the Devout so insistently within their own time and space by looking to the social and religious conditions that marked towns and parishes in northern Europe during the fifteenth century and examining the widespread upheavals in cultural and religious life between the 1370s and the 1440s. In Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life, Van Engen grasps the Devout in their humanity, communities, and beliefs, and places them firmly within the urban societies of the Low Countries and the cultures we call late medieval.

Excerpt

Beginning in the 1380s, in market towns along the IJssel River (east-central Netherlands) and in the county of Holland, groups of women and men formed households organized as communes and a lifestyle centered on devotion. They lived on city streets alongside urban neighbors, managed properties and rents in common, and prepared textiles or books for local markets—all the while refusing to profess vows as religious or to acquire spouses and property as lay citizens. They defended their lifestyle, self-designed, as exemplary, and sustained it in the face of opposition, the women labeled “beguines,” the men “lollards,” epithets meant to mock or cast suspicion. They also spread, toward Münster to the east, Cologne and Liège to the southeast, Brabant and Flanders to the south, and eventually as far as Magdeburg and Rostock to the east and the Upper Rhine to the south. For the most part, in the first generation or two especially, these “Modern-Day Devout” puzzled contemporaries, their zeal surprising neighbors and churchmen, its intensity evoking admiration but also worry. For the Devout it was all the negligent parishioners and self-indulgent religious, the corruption of the ordinary, that seemed worrying. Parish-goers appeared “crude and beastly” in matters moral and spiritual, resistant to anything but required worship, and the professed religious mostly compromised and hypocritical. the Devout resolved—over against indifferent parish routines, over against those who vowed religion but lived in privilege—to embody “piety” in the “presentday,” the rhetorical force of their term “devotio moderna.”

This seemed admirable to some, annoyingly self-righteous to others. a story from the mid-1430s may help us visualize the tensions. Egbert ter Beeck, head for many years (1450–83) of the men’s household in Deventer, was sent as a boy to the renowned school connected to the canons of St. Lebuin. He came from a gentry family in Wijhe, several miles north, and lived as a schoolboy with kinswomen in Deventer. He became drawn to the Brothers in good part by their “collations,” talks they offered on Sunday afternoons and feast days. Soon . . .

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