The Brethren of the Common Life

When I arrived at the Hog’s Snout, everyone was there.  Rain had fallen for three days, and the sputtering fire did little to dispel the humid miasma that hung over the room crowded with steaming coats and soaked shoes.  I added my cloak to the souring pile.  As I took my chair, Fabri said, “He was years ahead of his time.”

Bread and a tongue that must have weighed ten pounds lay upon the table.  The tongue’s dark aspect was unappealing, but my growling stomach prompted my knife to join the others.  “Who was ahead of his time?”

“Gerard Groote,” Fabri said, “of the Brethren of the Common Life.”

Originating in the Low Countries a century before I was born, the Brethren were well known.  Groote, wealthy and educated, gave his money to the poor and worked for education for all classes of men and women.  Others of like mind joined him.  Brethren schools became famous for their unusual methods, such as mild discipline and the use of the rapiaria.  They provided poor students with food, books, paper, and lodging rather than forcing them to beg, as is normal even now.  The Brethren taught a new form of piety known as the Devotio Moderna, the modern devotion.

Hubmaier took a bite.  “We’d better eat this thing quick.  It’s turning right in front of us.”

“My novice master, Brother Bartholomous, was educated in a Brethren school,” the young monk Michael said.  “He’s very devout. . .but also. . .not.”

Rain still clung to the ends of Hubmaier’s long hair, and it sprinkled the table as he shook his head.  “Groote was under edict of Pope Urban VI, who stopped him from preaching, for he harshly criticised the clergy.”

“But his ideas spread,” Fabri said, “and even influenced art in the Low Countries and beyond.  Erasmus was educated in a Brethren school.  He, too, is devout. . .but also. . .not.”

De Re Metallica--1556

Fabri cut away a patch of thick skin left on the tongue by a careless cook and tossed it to a dog prowling under the tables.  “What good does it do, Groote asked, for a man merely to go to church?  He must do more than listen to his preacher.  A man must train his conscience by studying for himself.  To that end, Groote translated the Bible into the vernacular.  Gutenberg trained at least fifty Brethren, and they printed many books and were employed in metallurgy upon which printing depends.”

Hubmaier scowled at Groote or the tongue or both.  “Who is qualified to read the Bible except he who is trained to do so?  That’s why the Church has forbidden Bibles in the common tongue.  If Groote had lived in Spain or Austria or any Hapsburg lands,” Hubmaier said, “he might have paid dearly for his audacity.”

“Or if he had lived in a time other than the Great Schism,” Zell said, and then he laughed.  “With a Pope in Rome and one in Avignon, both Popes had bigger worries than what some Dutchman was teaching the poor.”

The young monk spoke.  “My novice master says that the most important thing in religion is to have a friendly relationship with Christ.  To this end, he prays directly, almost casually, at all times and seasons.  But proscribed rites and customs he often neglects, proclaiming them empty if the heart of the worshiper be not engaged.”

Fabri nodded.  “That’s the heart of the Devotio Moderna.  True spirituality is within us, not in religious customs, for did not Jesus say, “The kingdom of heaven is within you?’  In the inmost depths of our hearts, we may hear the voice of God.

“Groote also said that devout women who serve God in the privacy of their homes, without taking monastic vows, are just as religious as nuns in their convents.  To love God and worship him is religion–not the taking of special vows.  If one’s goal is to live a religious life, then his life becomes religious in God’s opinion and according to the judgment of conscience.  It all comes down to two things: Love God and love man.”

“What!” said Hubmaier.  “Shall we despise vows, confession, sacraments, and fifteen hundred years of Church doctrine?”

“They even took in lepers,” Michael said, “and had them bathe in special herb water and gave them clean beds.”

Someone in a nearby rowdy crew began to play a fidel, and Fabri changed to his orator’s voice.  “Groote took plague after visiting the infected and died when he had little over forty years.  But his followers carried on his work.”

That night, the rain stopped, and, walking with the others, I fell back for a while.  My shadow blackened the reflection of the lamps in the Bächle and the pools of water in the street.  How much of my life I spent in religious activity.  Was I not a priest?  Would I not soon have a Doctorate in theology?  Did I not speak constantly of the Church and her laws?

But did that compare to educating orphans or bathing lepers?  Perhaps, I thought, what the Church needs–what I need–is less religion. . .and more Christ.



Many thanks to David Henry for the picture of Clement VII from the Musée de Petit Palais in Avignon.  Visit his most excellent site, and you will be whisked to many places faster than a Hungarian coach. 

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An Allemande with Clio

Those who wish to trek in the country of History can take many paths. 

The first is the road of true scholarship, and those who dedicate themselves to this difficult way deserve our admiration. Their efforts require knowledge of the old languages, long hours of tedious research, and the close scrutiny of their peers.  Two such scholars are particularly close to Capito’s heart.  If the reader wishes to know more about the historical Capito, he should consult:

Wolfgang Capito, From Humanist to Reformer by James M. Kettelson.  The best and most recent biography in English.

The Correspondence of Wolfgang Capito, translated by Erika Rummel, provides English translations of Capito’s letters unavailable elsewhere.  (The letters in Latin are provided here with English summaries of letters available elsewhere.)

The second path to the country of History, also taken by the serious scholar, is that of creative nonfiction or popular history.  An excellent example of this approach is found at History in the Margins by Dr. Pamela Toler.  Visit this clever site regularly for fascinating glimpses backstage of the many dramas that history unfolds.

The third path, not so scholarly but still delightful, is to flit about like a bee.  This writer has taken such an approach, and his meandering trail can be found at The Research Behind Capito.

Whichever path you find, dear Reader, if Clio, the Muse of History, takes your hand, your steps will be an allemande into a land full of amazements.

Clio from The Allegory of Painting by Johannes Vermeer

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Published in: on June 17, 2011 at 5:59 am  Comments (1)  

Faces in the Crowd

If you observe a button, endeavor to depress it.

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Ich Weiss Nit composed by Ludwig Senfl (c.1490-1555). Recorded by Jon Sayles.  We offer him the gratitude of Briareus to Zeus for making this music freely available at his most marvelous site

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Published in: on June 9, 2011 at 9:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Capito Incarcerated

November 1510

Matthew Zell waited until our dinner of pigeon pie and bread was served by the mistress of the Hog Snout.  Then he looked at me as sternly as his good nature allows.  “I told you Eck would get you into trouble.  He’s too arrogant and contentious.”

Before I could speak, Hubmaier rushed to Eck’s defense.  “He has a right to be arrogant.  He’s brilliant.  A genius.” 

“And he would be the first to tell you that,” Zell said, as we all plunged our spoons into the pie.

Johann Eck--Gustav Konig

“But consider,” I said.  “Who else entered a university at the age of eleven?  Acquired a Master’s degree by fourteen?  Received a Papal dispensation that he might be ordained before the required age?”

Zell snorted.  “As if the Church couldn’t wait for him to grow up.   But he is still of peasant stock, just like the rest of us.  Tutoring to pay the rent, just like the rest of us.”

“Which makes his accomplishments all the more astounding,” Hubmaier said.  “At sixteen, he lectured on Aristotle while studying theology, law, mathematics, geography–”

“And Greek and Hebrew on the pot,” Zell added.  “I admit that he has a prodigious memory.  But even Capito reasons faster.  And have you ever heard Eck utter one original idea?  No.  He wins debates by drowning his opponents in a flood of massive quotations–not all relevant to the subject–until they are beaten through exhaustion and confusion.  Does he study because he wants to learn or only because he wants to collect more quotable ammunition?  Or perhaps he studies all the time because he has no friends.”

“That’s not true,” Hubmaier said.  “We’re his friends.”

“You’re his votaries,” Zell said.  He turned to me.  “And now look where that has landed you.”

Just then Eck walked into the room.  He raised a hand in my direction, but did not come over.  Perhaps he was ashamed to be seen with me.

“What a hulking boar hog,” Zell said.  “He’s like a walking square.  If you saw him without that robe, you would assume he was a butcher.”  Zell tore at the hard bread.  “And tomorrow you will be under house arrest because of him.”

I shrugged as if I didn’t care.  “Only for three days,” I said. 

Johann Eck--Gustav Konig

Of course, in truth I was humiliated.  Disciplined by the Senate for writing graffiti mocking another faculty member.  “They started it,” I said, referring to the anti-Eck faction.

“No, he started it,” Zell said, “by being so arrogant and pretentious.  His huge appetite for glory begged for ridicule, and they provided it.   And,” he added another sting, “their cartoons were better than yours.”

“Maybe,” I said, “but my poems were better.”  I chewed the bread without pleasure.  It was well known the mistress extended her flour with sawdust.    

“Well, Eck is leaving,” Hubmaier said, “now that he has his Doctorate.  “At the  University of Ingolstadt, they will appreciate him.  And by the Muses, I wish I were going with him!”

“Perhaps he’ll send for you,” Zell said, “if he finds himself lacking for worshipers.”

I knew that Zell’s tirade against Eck was due to his friendship for me and his concern that this blot on my reputation would affect my future career.  So I replied only one thing more.  “Eck will do great things.”

“Certainly he will,” Hubmaier said.

But as I think about the many debates that rage in the church over doctrine, over. . .everything, I see how many arguments originate, not from the quest for truth, but from  pride.  And I resolve, Dear Reader, to amend my ways.  Perhaps Eck will be recorded by history as a great debater.  But I shall strive from this day forward that, if Capito is remembered at all, it will be as a man of peace.

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Published in: on June 3, 2011 at 7:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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