Brethren [and Sisters] of the Common Life

A medieval Christian community known for their communal living and influential role in Christian humanism.

Religion: Christianity
Denomination: Catholicism
Founder: Gerard Groote
Founded: 14th century
Location: Netherlands, Germany, and other parts of Europe
Other Names: Brothers [and Sisters] of the Common Life, Modern Devotion

The Brethren and Sisters of the Common Life were a Roman Catholic religious community established in the late 14th century by Geert Groote in Deventer, Netherlands. This community was founded upon principles of living a pious life dedicated to Jesus Christ, emphasizing simple devotion and the importance of living Christianity not just in religious settings but in everyday life as well. Geert Groote, a successful educator and preacher who experienced a profound religious conversion, established this community to embody these ideals.

The community was distinctive in that its members, including both men and women, did not take religious vows as traditional monastic orders did. Instead, they lived together, sharing their lives and resources in common, with a focus on spiritual growth, education, and the copying of manuscripts. This effort was primarily to earn a living but also served to disseminate their religious beliefs and the texts that were important to them.

The Sisters of the Common Life, similarly founded by Groote, dedicated themselves to education, book copying, and weaving, contributing significantly to the community’s mission and sustaining themselves through their labor. Both the brethren and sisters played an essential role in the spread of devotio moderna, a movement that advocated for personal piety and the practice of Christianity in daily life.

The influence of the Brethren and Sisters of the Common Life extended beyond their immediate communities, with their educational efforts leading to the establishment of schools that emphasized Latin, religious studies, and the humanities. This emphasis on education and the production of religious texts facilitated the spread of their beliefs and practices across the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. Their work laid the groundwork for future educational reforms and contributed to the religious and cultural life of Europe during the late Middle Ages.

Their impact was also noted in the rise of prominent figures such as Erasmus and Thomas à Kempis, who were associated with the community and whose works were influenced by the principles of devotio moderna. The Imitation of Christ, attributed to Kempis, is among the most famous works emerging from this movement, encapsulating the spiritual ethos of the Brethren and Sisters of the Common Life.

The decline of the community began with the advent of the printing press, which changed the landscape of book production and distribution, and was further accelerated by the Protestant Reformation and the establishment of new religious orders and educational institutions. Despite their gradual decline and the closure of their last house in 1811, the legacy of the Brethren and Sisters of the Common Life endures through their contributions to religious life, education, and literature in Europe​​​​​​.

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