Modern photo of Windesheim
The origins of the movement probably go back to the Congregation of Windesheim, though it has so far proved elusive to locate the precise origin of the movement. Broadly, it may be seen to rise out of a widespread dissatisfaction with the state of the church (both in terms of the structure of the church and the personal lives of the clergy) in fourteenth-century Europe. Geert Groote (1340-1384) was among many in being highly dissatisfied with the state of the Church and what he perceived as the gradual loss of monastic traditions and the lack of moral values among the clergy, and he sought to rediscover genuine pious practices.
Devotio Moderna began as a lay movement – around 1374 Groote established his parental house in Deventer into a hostel for poor women who wished to serve God. Though similar to beguine houses, this hostel, and later communities of what came to be called the “Sisters of the Common Life”, were freer in structure than the beguines and kept no private property. The women who lived in these houses remained, also, under the jurisdiction of city authorities and parish priests. Their way of life therefore sat somewhere between ordinary Christian existence ‘in the world’, and the formation of an ecclesiastically recognised religious order.
From this point, a number of different loose forms of community emerged. On the one hand, various forms of life for the female Devout were formed. Especially from the 1390s under the leadership of John Brinckerinck, one of Grote’s early converts, the Sisters of the Common Life spread across the Netherlands and into Germany (with eventually about 25 houses in the former, and about 60 houses in the latter). There were also, however, many houses (mostly small and poor) inspired by the movement that were never formally attached to the Sisters of the Common Life, and may eventually have become Third Order Franciscans or Augustinian nuns.
Among male followers, the movement was given impetus after Groote’s death in 1384 by Florens Radewyns (who had become a priest based on Groote's advice). He gathered like-minded laity and clergy into houses of communal living, eventually known as the Brethren of the Common Life, which numbered 41 by the early sixteenth century. The majority of members in these communities were priests or candidates for the priesthood (clerics); the few lay brothers, the familiares, usually carried out the menial tasks of cooking, cleaning and tailoring. These communities did not take vows, but led an austere life of penance, prayer, spiritual reading and work, most often the copying of manuscripts. In addition, the Brethren provided pastoral care and spiritual counsel to the sister houses, and at least some of the Brethren engaged in preaching.
Groote’s message of reform had also been aimed at clerics and priests, some of whom had joined the Brethren. In addition, though, under the leadership of Radewyns, in 1387 some members of the Deventer house set up a new community at Windesheim, near Zwolle, and adopted the habit and rule of St Augustine. Although living a cloistered life under vows, the new community kept many of the practices and spiritual values of the teaching of Groote and Radewyns. From 1395, a monastic union was set up around Windesheim; this new confederation grew quickly, and was joined both by older Augustinian communities (including, famously, Groenendaal in 1413), as well as new foundations, and sometimes the conversion of some of the houses of Brothers to this new form of religious life. By the end of the fifteenth century, there were almost 100 houses (84 of them male) in the Chapter of Windesheim.
The movement faced opposition from clergy and laity at times, both during its early years under Groote’s leadership, and under Radewyns’ later expansion. Much of this suspicion was similar to that directed at other new forms of religious devotion developed in the period, such as beguine and beghard movements. In addition, though, the strong resemblance to monastic life of the daily routine among the Brethren provoked accusations from the mendicant orders that the Brethren and Sisters of the Common Life were starting a new mendicant order, in violation of the Fourth Lateran Council's prohibition of new orders in 1215, and without taking vows. The simplicity and devotion of the Devotio Moderna, though, seems to have lessened the force of many of these criticisms.
It was especially prominent in cities in the Low Countries during the 14th and 15th centuries. Alongside its immediate impact, however, it was the writings of authors associated with the movement (who were most commonly based in the monasteries associated with Windesheim), that gave the Devotio Moderna its wider European influence at the time, and its great subsequent influence.