The Devotio moderna proved to be one of the more significant movements of religious piety in the later Middle Ages, and it owes its existence to the influence of the Dutchman Gert Groote, or as his disciples referred to him, Gerardus Magnus. Born October 16, 1340 in the Netherlands town of Deventer, his father was a wealthy draper who served on the town’s 24-member governing council, twice as treasurer. His parents, however, were lost to him at an early age. Both mother and father died in the summer of 1350 due to the plague, leaving the young orphan to live with his uncle. He remained in Deventer and studied at the Latin grammar school associated with St. Lebuinus. Due to the ample inheritance he received, Groote was able to leave for Paris to study in 1355, earning his master of arts by 1358. In the ensuing years, he would study canon law, medicine, astrology, natural philosophy, and theology, both in Paris and abroad, though he received no additional degrees.
Groote eventually chose to pursue a clerical career and sought numerous benefices to that end. In 1368, he procured a benefice as canon in Aachen, at the first Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne’s church. He also obtained a benefice as canon at the Utrecht cathedral in 1371. While he took the income from the churches, he served neither and was never ordained. He later recounted his licentiousness as a wealthy young cleric, admitting that he “fornicated on every hilltop and under every spreading tree.” This dissolute lifestyle soon gave way to a series personal crises involving serious illness and astrology shortly before 1374. Under the influence of Henry of Kalkar, prior of a Carthusian monastery in Monnikhuizen, Groote thereafter reported a spiritual conversion and chose to pursue a penitential lifestyle.
In the years following this conversion, Groote began to amend his life. He gave up his sexual dalliances, attended mass regularly at a local Franciscan church, and by 1375 abdicated both of his benefices. Several important events, however, would prove pivotal to his legacy. First, from 1374 until 1377, he lived and studied at the Carthusian charterhouse in Monnikhuizen, where Henry of Kalkar had been prior. Groote learned much from their structured piety and common life, but he did not take vows himself and never intended to do so. This proved fortuitous for his followers, as it enabled the incorporation of both men and women, laity and clergy into the movement. Second, in September 1374, Groote signed over his house to the city of Deventer to be used as a hospice for poor women. Those who populated the house would later form the Sisters of the Common Life, eventually adding a parallel Brethren of the Common Life. Third, after returning to Deventer in 1377 he traveled to Paris in order to buy theological books for study. On the trip back, he visited the Flemish mystic Jan van Ruusbroec and established a relationship that would shape his own teachings on the devotional life.
After this long preparatory period, Groote emerged back into public life at Deventer with a new mission. In 1379, he obtained a special license to preach as a deacon in Utrecht. The next four years saw him traveling and preaching regularly throughout the diocese. His sermons were delivered in Latin to the clergy and in the vernacular to the laity, increasingly attracting followers to his penitential, devotional view of the Christian life. In 1383, he was invited to preach to the clergy of Utrecht at a diocesan synod. For his sermon, Groote berated the clergy guilty of concubinage and alleged that not only such clergy, but even the laity under their care were living in mortal sin. The response was predictably severe. As a result of his sermon, all licensed diaconal preaching in the diocese was suspended, thereby silencing Groote. Though he abided by the ruling, he did appeal it to Rome. Before the appeal could be heard and addressed, he contracted the plague while visiting an ill member of his brotherhood, and thereafter died on August 20, 1384.
Groote’s influence would far outstrip his meager productivity as a writer or thinker, or even his notoriety as a preacher. His extant works only include 80 letters and 10 treatises. One of those treatises, Resolutiones (c. 1374 or 1375), was written during his time at Monnikhuizen and established guidelines for the common spiritual life. This treatise became a rule of sorts for his communities of followers, first the Sisters of the Common Life at the hospice in his former Deventer home, then disciples who formed the Brethren of the Common Life. Groote chose to convene brotherhoods, not religious orders, since a brotherhood would not require vows. On his deathbed, however, he did advise followers that, should they desire an established monastic rule, they would do well to join the Augustinian canons regular. This is precisely what many did when in 1387 they established the Augustinian Canons of Windesheim, which would prove very influential in late medieval monastic reform.
The Windesheim movement came to prominence through its advocacy of the fifteenth-century Devotio moderna, a simple form of religious devotion deeply rooted in the personal meditation on Christ and a penitential lifestyle. Writers such as Thomas à Kempis and Johann Busch became notable proponents of the Devotio moderna. The most famous theological expression of the movement remains the Imitatio Christi attributed to Kempis, but reflective of the entire tradition that grew out of Groote’s encounter with mysticism. Groote’s followers later came to adopt the educational and moral principles of Renaissance humanis, and while their reported influence on Luther’s early schooling is still largely uncertain, they did make the religious culture in northern Europe receptive to certain tenets of the Protestant Reformation. The most important contribution to the Reformation itself, however, came in the way of Ignatius of Loyola, who incorporated much of the Devotio moderna tradition in his Spiritual Exercises and by extension into the Jesuit tradition of formation. In this way, Groote’s simple, penitential, devotional piety became a hallmark of the sixteenth-century Counter Reformation.