Brethren of the Common Life  

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The Brethren of the Common Life (Latin: Fratres Vitae Communis, FVC) was a Roman Catholic pietist religious community founded in the Netherlands in the 14th century by Gerard Groote, formerly a successful and worldly educator who had had a religious experience and preached a life of simple devotion to Jesus Christ. Without taking up irrevocable vows, the Brethren banded together in communities, giving up their worldly goods to live chaste and strictly regulated lives in common houses, devoting every waking hour to attending divine service, reading and preaching of sermons, labouring productively, and taking meals in common that were accompanied by the reading aloud of Scripture: "judged from the ascetic discipline and intention of this life, it had few features which distinguished it from life in a monastery", observes Hans Baron.

Gerard Groote

Of wealthy burgher stock, Groote was born in Deventer in the Oversticht possession of the bishopric Utrecht in 1340. Having read at Cologne, at the Sorbonne, and at Prague, he took orders and obtained preferment, a canon's stall at Utrecht and another at Aachen. His relations with the German Gottesfreunde and the writings of John of Ruusbroec, who later became his friend, gradually inclined him to mysticism, and on recovering from an illness in 1373, he resigned his prebends, bestowed his goods on the Carthusians of Arnheim and lived in solitude for seven years.

Feeling himself constrained to go forth and preach, Groote went from place to place calling men to repentance, proclaiming the beauty of Divine love, and bewailing the relaxation of ecclesiastical discipline and the degradation of the clergy. The effect of his sermons was marvelous; thousands hung on his words.

A small band of followers attached themselves to Groote and became his fellow workers, thus becoming the first "Brethren of the Common Life". The reformer was opposed by many, including the clergy, for his preaching on moral decadence, and in 1383 his license to preach was revoked. Nonetheless, his zeal for purifying the Catholic faith and the morality of its followers won many to his cause. Members of the secular clergy even enrolled themselves in his brotherhood, which, in due course, was approved by the Pope.

The majority of the Brethren were laymen who did not take monastic vows. They devoted themselves to doing charitable work, nursing the sick, studying and teaching the Scriptures, and copying religious and inspirational works. They founded a number of schools that became famous for their high standards of learning. Many famous men attended their schools, including Nicholas of Cusa, Thomas à Kempis, and Erasmus, all of whom studied at the Brethren's school at Deventer.

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