The Brabantine mysticism of Jan van Ruusbroec and the Priory of Groenendaal,
the Modern Devotion of Geert Grote and the spiritual and religious thought of
Erasmus and More through Utopia and other key works of Christian humanism.
Maarten Vermeir -University College London
Two Renaissance work serve me well as interpretation keys for Thomas More’s
book of Utopia.
My first interpretation key will always remain Desiderius Erasmus’ Praise of Folly
or Moriae Encomium.
As you all know, Erasmus wrote his Praise of Folly in the house of More and the
narrator of his Praise, Lady Stultitia or Moria, is ironically linked to the name of
Thomas More. Lady Moria orates a great amount of nonsense, but through
Erasmus’ fine irony at the same time a great deal of wise and rightful criticism
on aspects and figures of his contemporary society. At the end of her Praise,
Stultitia speaks also about a deeper mystical, Christian folly and considering
similar statements by Erasmus in other works like his Enchiridion Militis
Christiani, these statements of Lady Stultitia were seriously meant by Erasmus.
Also in Thomas More’s Utopia we can recognize a mixture of serious ideas
through the eyes of More and Erasmus (about the institution of the state and
church, international relations, the division between church and state,
spirituality, religion and tolerance, social care, culture/education? And
matrimonial policies) with also nonsensical ideas to their opinion (the economic
system, the travel restrictions inside the Utopian state). A search for their ideas
on these points through other works and their personal orientations makes the
recognition of such mixture unavoidable. In Utopia we can probably find more
serious concepts than nonsensical, and although this partition was reversed in
the earlier Praise of Folly, the family similarity on this point remains paramount
and crucial to a correct understanding.
The narrator of More’s Utopia, Raphael Hythlodaeus(in one of the two meanings
translated as ‘Merchant of Nonsense’, in the other as ‘Destroyer of Nonsense’)
is linked reciprocally to Erasmus through the figure of Saint Erasmus, as I learned
recently, the patron of all sailors. Also reciprocally, Thomas More started
probably writing the book of Utopia in one of the major residences of Erasmus
in the Low Countries: the Antwerp house of his friend Pieter Gillis.
My second preferred interpretation key for More’s Utopia consists in the 900
theses of Pico della Mirandola.
Thomas More translated ‘The Life of Pico della Mirandola’ and was undoubtedly
aware of della Mirandola’s philosophical program: in his famous 900 theses Pico
della Mirandola intended to combine into a higher synthesis the best elements
of classical traditions, especially from the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, with
aspects of the Jewish-Christian traditions, especially mystical elements like he
found in the Jewish Kabbala. His great endeavor was to formulate a consistent
marriage between Jewish-Christian mysticism and the rich humanistic learning
by which he was surrounded in Renaissance Florence. His early death prevented
him regretfully from executing this great master plan. But the Christian
Humanists around Erasmus and Thomas More would become Pico’s true
inheritors and take Pico della Mirandola’s scheme as a blueprint for their
complete literary oeuvre and philosophical program. One of Utopia’s layers of
meaning is certainly a broad defense of the Christian humanistic ideals. The
serious parts of Utopia can be read as an honorary tribute to Pico della
Mirandola’s audacious plans, as a literary realization of Pico’s inspiring dreams.
These traces of della Mirandola’s program in Utopia will be subject of my later
Both works, Erasmus’ Praise of Folly and della Mirandola’s 900 theses have thus also a deeper Mystical meaning and importance.Also Thomas More’s Utopia has.
As a religious community Utopia knows only a few strict and unbreakable rules for the religious life of its citizens. Next to these respected rules, there is complete liberty for personal spirituality and thus room for many different colorings, orientations and institutions of the Utopians’ personal spiritual life. In this way each Utopian is also destined and commissioned to set out on a personal spiritual journey, encouraged by the daily contact between the elder and the
children or youngsters, sitting daily side by side with every meal.
This is also the foundation of Utopia’s religious tolerance and freedom: the
undeniable points of belief (the eternal soul, divine presence and activity in the
world, the punishment of vices and the rewarding of virtues – and thus the
rewarded or punished free will of men) have to be respected by all Utopians, and
all personal, by definition different additions in respect of these rules, are
tolerated in the Utopian state. These undeniable points were instituted by
Utopus himself and public challenges outside the closed company of priests and
officials, are punished severely to safeguard the common interest and public
order of the state. So the gap between the institution of Utopian tolerance and
later political actions of Thomas More, is therefore less deep and less broad as
often depicted. In his discussion with Luther on the Free Will, Erasmus stated
also that Luther shouldn’t discuss his ideas with or spread amongst the ordinary
people but discuss with qualified persons.
Seen the revolutionarily broad scale on which the Chrisitian humanists promoted
their cultural, political and spiritual/religious agenda for the entire Respublica
Christiana, the promotion of their religious and spiritual ideas is in se also
revolutionary in Utopia, as stated here already, even a key manifesto of the
Christian humanistic ideals and trough the force of fiction, a wide applicable
exemplum for all states and peoples inspired by Thomas More’s Magnum Opus.
This is why Sanford Kessler stated that ‘his reading of Utopia shows that modern
religious freedom has Catholic, Renaissance roots.’
The printing scale and literary-philosophical reach of this religious and spiritual
promotion was indeed unprecedented.
These ideas however were not original.
The roots of Utopia’s religious freedom and personal spirituality can be traced
back to the great Mystical tradition of the Low Countries and the neighboring
One of the three books anyone should read according to Thomas More, was ‘The
imitation of Christ’ by Thomas a Kempis, a prominent representative of the
Modern Devotion. Also Jean-Claude Margolin found striking similarities between
‘The imitation of Christ’ and Erasmus’ Enchiridion Militis Christiani, stating at the
same time that a major cause of these similarities could be the shared
background and shared context of the Modern Devotion, in which also Erasmus
was raised and educated as a child and as a youngster – in my view decisively for
his later religious and spiritual views and writings. Although he has had indeed
also bad experiences with figures formally connected to the Modern Devotion,
this movement started by Geert Grote was really significant and inspiring for
Erasmus too. Geert Grote founded the first houses of the Brethren and Sisters of
the Common Life (in 1374 and 1383), echoed in Utopia in the two religious
schools and through the shared common property inside Geert Grote’s
households maybe even in the entire economic institution of the Utopian state.
To counter criticism on the Brehtren and Sisters of the Common Life, Geert Grote
requested on his deathbed – and his successor Florence Radewyns would execute
this – the foundation of the monastery of Windesheim with some Brethren taking
the form of an Augustinian order, heading later the congregation of
Windesheim. By doing so, they followed the example and living principles of the
Priory of Groenendaal, founded by Jan van Ruusbroec, two other canons, a good
cook and a layman some fourty years earlier (in 1343) in the Forêt de Soignes
outside the city of Brussels. Jan van Ruusbroec, the great master of Brabantine
mysticism or doctor admirabilis, constituted with his settlement in 1343 a new
religious community with a less strict structure and more room for personal
spiritual development in the Green tranquility of the forest around Groenendaal,
taking the form of an Augustinian canon’s monastery in 1349 to counter criticism
and avoid further suspicion. The reputation of Groenendaal priory and of
Ruusbroec’s teachings, through his oral explanations and beautiful writings in
Medieval Brabantine Dutch, would reach far inside the Low Countries and
outside. Geert Grote came to visit Jan van Ruusbroec even in Groenendaal as
many did (in 1378-1379). In 1413, the Windesheim congregation even absorbed
the monastery of Groenendaal, turning it into a priory. This specific tradition with
less stringent structures and more liberty for personal spirituality, would become
defining through the spreading force of its focus on education, its great success
in the Low Countries and beyond and its uniqueness inside the Catholic Church,
defining for the Brabantine and Netherlandish mystical tradition and its
pioneering role in Late Medieval Europe.
Different translations of Ruusbroec’s works in Latin and other languages were
even spread over Europe in different lines of subsequently copied manuscripts,
already from the second half of the 14th century. A Latin translation of
Ruusbroec’s main work ‘de geestelijke bruiloft’/ ‘the spiritual wedding’ about the
different phases and risks of the evolving process of a human seeking unity with
the Divine throughout his life, was printed for the first time in 1512 by Jacques
Lefèvre d’Etaples. Most intriguingly, Erasmus visited this friend in 1511 and had
with him ‘a number of intimate conversations’. At the end of the 15th century
already, Erasmus had visited the priory of Groenendaal, learned from the living
exemplum of Groenendaal’s institutions and organization and spent days there
studying in its library: with his zeal he surprised even the monks, taking books
with him at night to his dormitory. So it is certainly possible that around 1515,
both Erasmus and Thomas More knew the works of Ruusbroec very well from
first hand, not only through works of Devotio Moderna’s protagonists like
Thomas a Kempis, inspired by Geert Grote and Ruusbroec himself.
Also other key aspects of Utopian society can be linked to the Brabantine
Mysticism of Jan van Ruusbroec. As the political system of Utopia was inspired
by the Joyous Entries of Brabant from 1356, Jan van Ruusbroec received the
grounds for his firstly settled community in Groenendaal directly from Duke Jan
III, who would allow at the end of his life the composition of the first Joyous Entry
in 1356, arranging the succession of his daughter. Dux Utopus would institute
the religious freedom in Utopia immediately after his victory over the fighting
religious sects he found in Utopia upon his arrival. Ruusbroec would write also
his most influential book ‘de geestelijke bruiloft’ in the preceding decades. As
architect of the Tower and enlargement of the city hall of Brussels, one of the
four capitals of Brabant, was even chosen and appointed in the mid-15th century
a Jan van Ruisbroec, by name referring to the Mystical Master.
Also Pierre d’ Ailly and Jean Gerson, the fathers of conciliarism as found in the
institution of the Utopian church, were directly familiar with the Brabantine
mysticism of Ruusbroec: Jean Gerson had a keen interest in the teachings of the
Brabantine master, and even discussed eagerly about a detailed topic. Pierre
d’Ailly followed these engagements of his pupil from a first row seat, as the
bishop of Cambrai under whose ecclesiastical jurisdiction the priory of
Groenendaal fell, integrating into the congregation of Windesheim under his
watch (till 1411).
The Civic humanism – both political and religious – in Utopia was in many aspects
closely related to and inspired by this Netherlandish civic humanism, and this
connection will be treated in my further research exhaustively.
Certain elements strengthen these bonds between ‘More’s Utopia and the Low
Countries’, paraphrasing the title of my RSA conference paper for Moreana, in
New York 2014.
In Jean Desmarez’ prefatory poem for Utopia, the different gifts and talents of
different European countries are attributed to the state of Utopia: only one
country is missing in this overview, the Low Countries, showing a collision and
combination into a higher synthesis of the different cultural traditions strongly
present there. For Pico della Mirandola and his program, the Low Countries
would have constituted a true dreamland in this perspective, a cultural
laboratory Erasmus and Thomas More could encounter directly.
And as Marisa Bass stated recently, the group around Gerard Geldenhouwer was
excited about the discovery that ‘Roman writers such as Julius Caesar, Pliny the
Elder, and Tacitus had long ago described the Netherlands as a body of land
surrounded on all sides by water.’
And in Anemolius’ prefatory poem for Utopia we find the statement that ‘Utopia
is a rival of Plato’s republic, perhaps even a victor over it. The reason is that what
he delineated in words Utopia alone has exhibited in men and resources and
laws of surpassing excellence.’
I recently counted all the places considered as real cities in the Duchy of Brabant
and connected territories, this calculation resulted in the number of 54 cities,
the same number as the number of cities in Utopia.
Together with the political protection offered by chancellor Jean le Sauvage, this
is why I believe the first edition of Utopia was printed in Leuven, also one of the
four capitals of Brabant, why Utopia’s opening scenery is situated in the city of
Antwerp, also a capital of Brabant and the main Brabantine port, and why
Thomas More requested Erasmus to provide him also with politicians – from the
Low Countries where Erasmus was staying at the moment of this request – as
writers of the prefatory letters for Utopia. These places have their interpretative
meaning and significance. Indeed, Thomas More’s embassy to the Low Countries
was truly an ‘Utopian embassy’