Around the year 1400 Deventer and Zwolle, medium-sized merchant towns on the Ijssel River in north-central Netherlands, first emerged as major centers of writing and book production. Scribes began to produce books on an artisan scale, while authors invented or re-fashioned genres, often working easily across Latin and Dutch. Four pamphlets from the early 1420s, united into a volume as Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, became overnight the book (excepting bibles and service books) most widely copied in the fifteenth century (over nine hundred extant manuscripts), and then among the most translated, printed, and reprinted books of early modern Europe. Such a claim might surprise Netherlanders who think of those towns as relative backwaters, and may simply puzzle people who hardly know their names or location. All this has made it into textbooks, if at all, as a religious movement known already in its own time as the Devotio Moderna or “Present-day Devotion.” Along with Lollards and Hussites the Devout represented one of those regional outbursts of religious creativity formative across Europe at the turn of the fifteenth century. But where the first two got suppressed or battled into compromise, the Devout expanded. A professed branch, the Windesheim Congregation of Canons and Canonesses, proved the most successful new religious order of the time, eventually numbering a hundred houses with dozens more in its penumbra. Approached from the angle of a topographic literary history, however, this is a story of authors and texts over two or three human generations (1390s-ca. 1480) centered in and around two merchant towns. These individuals never set out to form a religious order and many would continue to sustain a dedicated religious life outside formal profession, successfully fighting off an inquisitor’s attempts to shut them down in the later 1390s. The proper context is the towns, but also their schools and schoolmasters, these communal religious groups and houses set up there, the book production they undertook to earn their keep, and a way of life they invented which made writing central to the cultivation of a religious self.
The story of the Devotio Moderna or of the Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life has a bibliography and set of historiographical problems all its own. Here the focus will be, after setting the scene, authors and works within that movement who lived their lives and wrote their works in a mini-region stretching along the Ijssel from Deventer to Kampen and then called “Salland.” A full communal life dominated their notion of what it meant to imitate the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem, though paradoxically these individuals were also left to cultivate their own religious lives. The writing was never about fame or authorship, quite the contrary, whence, most famously with the Imitation of Christ, questions about authorship have persisted ever since. So here, while naming and introducing prominent individuals, the account proceeds by genres, new or adapted, forms of texts which cut across all these individuals and “gatherings” (houses). In this movement women outnumbered men ten or even twenty to one. As for houses, in Deventer and Zwolle there were variously five houses of women and always one for men, as well as houses for schoolboys. Women wrote consistently in Dutch, though less got written or has survived. Men wrote in both Latin and Dutch and also engaged in considerable translation, both ways.
The Devout were literarily inventive. But invention presumes contexts. For them that literary context was, simplified, two-fold. From the schools they took over the rapiarium, the scrap-book or school notebook, and transformed it into a personal spiritual diary. In principle each Brother or Sister was encouraged to keep one on whatever scraps of paper or parchment they could rescue. Practice was less than that but still formative. Brother John Brinckerink (d. 1419), preaching to sisters at Diepenveen, a house just outside Deventer, advised, as one of the sisters remembered and wrote it down, that early on after their conversion they should write the virtues upon their hearts one by one so that in old age they would have a large book from which to read and act. Here, by inversion, lifelong compilation of a personal rapiarium stood as a metaphor for the entire Devout way of life. Good points written down in a book and good virtues written on the heart merged in practice, the heart becoming a personally written notebook, remembered texts shaping consciousness and life. Second, the Devout were part of that enormous expansion of religious prose in the later middle ages, elsewhere often associated with Carthusians or Observants, for the Netherlands as well with the Devout who saw themselves in part as allies of Carthusians and Observants. Generative of both texts and books in large numbers, the Devout also creatively adapted that body of materials for their own spiritual purposes.
At the risk of oversimplifying a complex network of texts, this account treats four “genres.” First is the “Resolutio” or “Propositum” (een goede opzet maken ), a spiritual regimen undertaken by each individual, in principle drawn up or designed personally, in practice, and true to a communal lifestyle, often by borrowing or adapting from others. This practice began with the ‘founder’ of this movement, Master Geert Grote (1340-84), but the paradigm circulated widely and the textual form persisted deep into the sixteenth century. The second genre form may be called ‘dicta’, sayings. It embraces exhortations of all sorts transpiring at varied levels: mutual correction or guidance, group discussion, injunctions that were in effect sermons. These got recorded, however, as proverb-like sentences, partly in imitation of the Desert Fathers, also as a rival to those worldly proverbs that dominated daily life in the streets (and so as not to pretend to issue sermons as such). This spiritual wisdom was communicated in writing as ‘sayings’. The third genre form enters the realm of ‘meditations’. Many models existed. The Devout mixed and matched, adapted for themselves what seemed most useful, preferring older texts (church fathers or twelfth-century teachings) but appropriating Bonaventure and Henry Suso as well, along with John Ruusbroec. Fourth, and quite appealingly, the Devout wrote “lives” of the departed in their own communities, generally in Latin for men and in Dutch for women. Companions remembered departed companions, their virtues but more broadly their character, creating an internal memorial to what Devout life was and should be. All these writings and genre forms (and more actually) came, to be clear, from home-grown authors, women and men in and around Deventer and Zwolle. These patterns and genres may be followed into related communities across the Low Countries and western Germany, but on the whole do not appear as impressively or inventively, but more as acts of modeling. Literary production in this case had a distinctive regional mark, and at the core of that region were Deventer and Zwolle.