- Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life: The Devotio Moderna and the World of the Later Middle Ages
There have been earlier studies of the Devotio Moderna, a religious movement emerging from late medieval Holland, but John Van Engen's new study of this topic surpasses them in terms of the breadth and depth of his engagement with surviving archival records and the thoroughness and complexity of his argument.
He engages fully with complexity of defining or locating these communities, in terms of what to call them and the difficulty of establishing a working definition of the area of their main influence, be it Flanders, the Netherlands or Lower Germany. On one level, the brothers and sisters of the Devotio Moderna appear in Van Engen's work as part of a wider religious fabric, which included beguines and others who lived in communities but without a rule. However, the brothers and sisters also presented particular interpretative problems to their contemporaries, who called them Lollards or beguines, largely because they struggled to find other terminology to do justice to these small communities of men and women.
The difficulties the contemporaries of the brothers and sisters experienced in naming them are reflected in the modern literature and not least in Van Engen's own work. Much of the opening chapters of this book is given over to teasing out the self-generated and externally imposed names for the brothers and sisters and to establishing the nomenclature for the areas where they were territorially strong.
The greatest strength of this study, besides the knowledge Van Engen exhibits of the contemporary sources, is the skill he shows in conveying the complexity of this order, both for contemporary observers and for later [End Page 257] historians. He reconstructs a world in which the brothers and sisters, and other communities living without rules, were both derided and defended. As Van Engen points out, it was quite possible for papally-endorsed inquisitors and bishops to clash with each other over how to deal with communities living together but not governed by a rule or under the jurisdiction of an abbot or a prior.
The confusion the brothers and sisters generated among their contemporary observers is reflected in how modern scholars have approached them. For much of the twentieth century, the brothers and sisters (as were other groups such as Lollards) were conceived of as proto-reformers or as evidence of an early reformation before the actual Reformation of the sixteenth century. Cruder historiographic methodologies that traced continuities between medieval religious groups and the reformers of the sixteenth century have since given way to more nuanced readings, such as Van Engen's, which are prepared to evaluate Lollards, brothers and sisters and others on their own terms rather than as premature Protestants.
Van Engen's subtitle refers to the 'medieval world' and he stakes a claim for the significance of the brothers and sisters in a wider world of late medieval religion, rather than as reformers in waiting. He adeptly reconstructs a world of late medieval religious diversity, showing the brothers and sisters as one of many competing forces, others including the Free Spirits. Van Engen does full justice to the complexity of this landscape, asserting that binary opposition between orthodoxy and unorthodoxy is a methodology which does not do justice to the variety encompassed by the Devotio Moderna or the complexity of official church responses to it.
Van Engen makes clear that contemporary observers were often nonplussed by the appearance of sisters and brothers, a response identifiable in surviving evidence, which indicates the visibility and accessibility of the devotees in their contemporary contexts. As Van Engen points out, the brothers and sisters were identifiable by their garb (normally a hooded gown) and other unusual touches, such as overlarge shoes for the insufficiently humble.
This book teases out the further implications of this pronounced and enduring suspicion, especially the tension between...