|The Beguinage of Bruges, Belgiunm|
the Beguine movement was at the heart of the
Why push it back to the thirteenth century? I don’t think there should be any argument about dating it at least back to the great Dominican mystical writer Meister Eckhart whose profound, even arcane, writings will create a chain of via negativa texts that will be traceable all the way down to John of the Cross in the late sixteenth century. I think we can go back further than Eckhart however and include the Cistercian and Benedictine women authors Beatrice of Nazareth 1200-1268, Mechtilde of Magdeburg 1207 – 1282, Mechtlide of Hakeborn 1241 -1298, and Gertrude of Helfta 1256 – 1302. These were devout women—nuns or beguines—who wrote spiritual and mystical texts in the vernacular. What marks the Devotio Moderna are vernacular mystical texts produced by laity and trained theologians alike but written to relay spiritual experience for non-theological audiences. Of course that also then includes the unfortunate Marguerite Porete (d. 1310) who ended up at the stake for here Mirror of Simple Souls, a book whose orthodoxy depends not on the text or its author, but on the disposition of the reader and what they find, or think to find, in the text. The historical context of the charges against Porete are extremely complex and while it seems that modern feminist claims that her only heresy was being a woman in a man’s world is way too simplistic, there obviously were factors working in her trial that had nothing to do with her book. The France of Philip the Fair was a dangerous time for many, the Church in France was firmly under the royal thumb, and bigger fish were (literally) frying as it was the exact time of the suppression (and burnings) of the Knights Templar. We can safely say that it was an era when Satan walked abroad and the saints trembled in fear. There is, consequently, relatively little of this spiritual writing in France in this era and the Devotio Blooms in Flanders and the Rhineland, with seeds blowing over to England and taking root there. Other names associated with the Devotio Moderna are:
Hadewijch (Brabant, beguine, thirteenth century)
Richard Rolle (England, hermit 1290 – 1349)
Johannes Tauler (Rhineland, Dominican friar 1300 – 1361)
Henry Suso (Rhineland, Dominican friar 1300-1366)
John of Ruysbroeck (Flanders, canon regular 1294—1381 )
Geert Groote (Netherlands, Brethren of the Common Life, 1340-1384)
Julian of Norwich (England, anchorite 1342-1416)
Thomas a Kempis (Netherlands, Brethren of the Common Life, 1380 -1471)
There were other figures, of course. But the authors of the Devotio Moderna contributed to a spiritual literature accessible to ordinary lay people without the necessary guidance of clergy. Their writings spoke to people who wanted a devout and ordered spiritual life but who did not feel themselves called to the cloister. These writings taught people to trust their own spiritual experience and to follow the guidance of grace, that is of the Holy Spirit. Encouraging this lively faith and a trust in their own spiritual experience, however, would break ground for the Reformation. Luther was particularly steeped in Devotio Moderna spirituality and his hymns and sermons would speak to his audiences with the same fervor that the books of the Devotio authors had stirred up in their readers.
Despite Luther’s own ties to the Devotio Moderna and the tenor of his preaching and hymnody, I think you have to end it abruptly with his challenge to the authority of the papacy and the Institutional Church as Luther’s Reformation changes the game entirely. Lutheranism will reflect the Devotio Moderna even better than subsequent Catholicism, but the divergence of Luther and Rome marks a change of game from spiritual renewal of the individual to the drawing of theological battle lines. The writing moves from the heart to the head. I think for Luther, his reformation was as much about the spiritual life of the individual believer as it was about theological purification of the medieval Church, but in the shuffle of history I think that vibrant spirituality was ultimately lost in the various Protestant traditions. This loss was not immediate. There was the German Pietist tradition; nor was it universal as it long survived in the Moravian Brethren and some other sects. In fact, the Moravian Brethren sort of jump-started it for Wesley and it spread, to a degree, in Methodism. I would also note the seventeenth century Anglican Divines and their contribution to spiritual literature. Lutheranism had its Haugeanism and the popular piety that stemmed from the lay preacher Hans Nielsen Hauge, but by and large the deep spiritual currents of the Devotio Moderna did not survive into the modern era.
At the same time Catholics did not fare much better. The Devotio Moderna passed through the writings of Hendrik Herp to John of the Cross but the influence of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila was pretty much limited to the Discalced Carmelite friars and nuns until the 20th century. Similarly the vibrancy of French Spirituality in the early seventeenth century, centered around the salon of Madame Barbe Acarie and drawing such great figures as Pierre de Bérulle, Jean Jacques Olier, and Francis de Sales had an immediate impact of great proportions, but the struggle of this partí devôt with its rivals in Jansenism and Quietism, less orthodox pieties, resulted in mysticism freaking out most of the Catholic hierarchy and caused what one historian termed “the suppression of mysticism.” It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that popular books on spirituality (as differentiated from piety) began to appear again. The works of Thomas Merton pioneered the way in the American Church. Today with such popular writers as Kathleen Norris, Ronald Rohlheiser, Richard Rohr, Joan Chittester and others it seems that another Devotio Moderna period is blooming. What will come of it is a question for which only time has the answer. What does need to be watched for, however, is the situation in which previous spiritual flowerings have raised when the laity are interested in their spiritual journies and the clergy are preoccupied with institutional issues.