Gerhard Groot - Encyclopedia

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GERHARD GROOT (1340-1384), otherwise Gerrit or Geert Groet, in Latin Gerardus Magnus, a preacher and founder of the society of Brothers of Common Life, was born in 1340 at Deventer in the diocese of Utrecht, where his father held a good civic position. He went to the university of Paris when only fifteen. Here he studied scholastic philosophy and theology under a pupil of Occam's, from whom he imbibed the nominalist conception of philosophy; in addition he studied canon law, medicine, astronomy and even magic, and apparently some Hebrew. After a brilliant course he graduated in 1358, and possibly became master in 1363. He pursued his studies still further in Cologne, and perhaps in Prague. In 1366 he visited the papal court at Avignon. About this time he was appointed to a canonry in Utrecht and to another in Aix-la-Chapelle, and the life of the brilliant young scholar was rapidly becoming luxurious, secular and selfish, when a great spiritual change passed over him which resulted in a final renunciation of every worldly enjoyment. This conversion, which took place in 1374, appears to have been due partly to the effects of a dangerous illness and partly to the influence of henry de Calcar, the learned and pious prior of the Carthusian monastery at Munnikhuizen near Arnhem, who had remonstrated with him on the vanity of his life. About 1376 Gerhard retired to this monastery and there spent three years in meditation, prayer and study, without, however, becoming a Carthusian. In 1379, having received ordination as a deacon, he became missionary preacher throughout the diocese of Utrecht. The success which followed his labours not only in the town of Utrecht, but also in Zwolle, Deventer, Kampen, Amsterdam, Haarlem, Gouda, Leiden, Delft, Zutphen and elsewhere, was immense; according to Thomas Kempis the people left their business and their meals to hear his sermons, so that the churches could not hold the crowds that flocked together wherever he came. The bishop of Utrecht supported him warmly, and got him to preach against concubinage in the presence of the clergy assembled in synod. The impartiality of his censures, which he directed not only against the prevailing sins of the laity, but also against heresy, simony, avarice, and impurity among the secular and regular clergy, provoked the hostility of the clergy, and accusations of heterodoxy were brought against him. It was in vain that Groot emitted a Publica Protestatio, in which he declared that Jesus Christ was the great subject of his discourses, that in all of them he believed himself to be in harmony with Catholic doctrine, and that he willingly subjected them to the candid judgment of the Roman Church. The bishop was induced to issue an edict which prohibited from preaching all who were not in priest's orders, and an appeal to Urban VI. was without effect. There is a difficulty as to the date of this prohibition; either it was only a few months before Groot's death, or else it must have been removed by the bishop, for Groot seems to have preached in public in the last year of his life. At some period (perhaps 1381, perhaps earlier) he paid a visit of some days' duration to the famous mystic Johann Ruysbroeck, prior of the Augustinian canons at Groenendael near Brussels; at this visit was formed Groot's attraction for the rule and life of the Augustinian canons which was destined to bear such notable fruit. At the close of his life he was asked by some of the clerics who attached themselves to him to form them into a religious order, and Groot resolved that they should be canons regular of St Augustine. No time was lost in the effort to carry out the project, but Groot died before a foundation could be made. In 1387, however, a site was secured at Windesheim, some 20 m. north of Deventer, and here was established the monastery that became the cradle of the Windesheim congregation of canons regular, embracing in course of time nearly one hundred houses, and leading the way in the series of reforms undertaken during the 15th century by all the religious orders in Germany. The initiation of this movement was the great achievement of Groot's life; he lived to preside over the birth and first days of his other creation, the society of Brothers of Common Life. He died of the plague at Deventer in 1384, at the age of 44.

The chief authority for Groot's life is Thomas a Kempis, Vita Gerardi Magni (translated into English by J. P. Arthur, The Founders of the New Devotion, 1905); also the Chronicon Windeshemense of Johann Busch (ed. K. Grube, 1886). An account, based on these sources, will be found in S. Kettlewell, Thomas d Kempis and the Brothers of Common Life (1882), i. c. 5; and a shorter account in F. R. Cruise, Thomas a Kempis, 1887, pt. ii. An excellent sketch, with an account of Groot's writings, is given by L. Schulze in HerzogHauck, Realencyklopadie (ed. 3); he insists on the fact that Groot's theological and ecclesiastical ideas were those commonly current in his day, and that the attempts to make him "a reformer before the Reformation" are unhistorical. (E. C. B.)

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