Dutch Mysticism

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Course about Christian spirituality
in a cultural-historical context

Medieval Dutch Mysticism in the Low Countries

Hadewijch and John of Ruusbroec, their faith and way of thinking

Rozemarijn van Leeuwen
© 1999-2001


Lecture 5/7.  John of Ruusbroec, the course of his life

Topics this hour:
  • The biography of John of Ruusbroec (1293-1381)
  • Ruusbroec's books
  • The Bible in the vernacular (Middle Dutch)
  • Why does Ruusbroec write in Dutch instead of Latin?
  • Ruusbroec's reputation in Europe: circulation, translations and influence of his writings


This lecture we'll start with something completely new: we'll leave Hadewijch behind us, the beguines, the 13th century. And we'll get acquainted with John of Ruusbroec (1293-1381), or, as his name is in Dutch: Jan van Ruusbroec. And this brings us in the 14th century. Ruusbroec became 88 years old and as you can see, he lived for the most part of the 14th century.

Last week I told you that the 14th century is a completely different time than the 12th or 13th century and Ruusbroec is moving in very different circles than Hadewijch was. But even so, we also will see that they both belong to the same tradition, the same spiritual sphere.

Next week I'll extensively will discuss the 14th century, but today I will tell you something about the course of Jan van Ruusbroec's life. And this hour I'll particularly will give the word to a contemporary of Ruusbroec: a 14th-century Carthusian monk, called brother Geraert (or: Gerard van Santen or Gerardus de Sanctis, deceased 1377). He lived in the Carthusian monastery in Herne (just south-west of Brussels). We'll take a look at Ruusbroec through the eyes of this brother Geraert.

John of Ruusbroec's biography (1293-1381)

When Jan van Ruusbroec is almost 70 years old, he receives a letter from a Carthusian monk, called brother Geraert. This brother Geraert got hold of four of Ruusbroec's books and he transcribed them all.

Although he is full of commendation for Ruusbroec's works, he doesn't understand everything that well. He writes about this, and I quote:

Although it contains many words and sentences that exceed my intellect, I still think that these books have to be good. If the Holy Ghost activates someone to write a clear and comprehensible doctrine, we understand it without effort. But a more exalted doctrine, requires more effort of our intellect. And is that doctrine too high for us, then we'll humiliate before God and before the teachers that wrote them.

Brother Geraert (Bonheiden V, p. 20).

English translation by RvL.

So brother Geraert doesn't understand everything that Ruusbroec has written. However, he doesn't reject the treaties as rubbish, but concludes that they exceed his intellect.

Still he would like to understand the meaning of several paragraphs, because he doubts the orthodoxy, whether they are according to the church's doctrines. He would like to discuss this with Ruusbroec, but because he is a Carthusian, he's not allowed to leave his monastery. So around 1360/1363 he sends Jan van Ruusbroec a request to come to visit him.

That's why I and some of my brothers, have dared to send someone to Lord Jan [John of Ruusbroec], so that he personally would give us clarification of some high words we came across in his books and especially a long piece of his first book The realm of the beloved ones, the part he writes about the gift of council, because we took offence at it.

So we asked him to visit us. As benevolent as he was, he walked more than five long miles afoot, although it cost him a great deal of effort.

Brother Geraert (Bonheiden V, p. 21).

English translation by RvL.

So sure enough, Ruusbroec accepts the invitation and walks for five long miles, although it cost him a great deal of effort - and that's understandable in the case of an almost 70-year old man, because 'vijf milen' is a distance of more than 30 kilometres (or 19 miles). Ruusbroec stays with the Carthusians of Herne for three days.

Apparently brother Geraert is rather impressed by this visit, because afterwards he writes a extensive, lengthy report of these three days. And he uses this as an introduction to the books of Ruusbroec that he had copied. So in other words, we have a 'life coverage' of a meeting with Ruusbroec!

That's exceptionally unique and this report is priceless for our knowledge of Ruusbroec. Not only we can peek into a few days of his life around 1360/1363, but it also gives us insight in the role of literature in people's life and for example what could be reasons to undertake the effort to write a book. And this 14th-century Carthusian also writes about his opinion about writing in Middle Dutch versus writing in Latin.

prologue brother geraert carthusian 1360 1363

Fragment of the Prologue by brother Geraert (Gerard van Santen)
(KB 3416 24 f1, 1360/1363)
-click to magnify-

We'll continue reading brother Geraert's report, that he used as a prologue to Ruusbroec's texts. His report is included in the Anthology.

First of all, brother Geraert gives some biographical information about Jan van Ruusbroec.

The name of this writer was Jan van Ruusbroec. First he was a pious priest and chaplain in the church of St. Gudula (Sint Goedele) in Brussels, Brabant. There he started to write some books.

Later on he wanted to withdraw himself from the crowd. Thanks to the help of another chaplain, also a pious man, but wealthier, namely lord Frank van Coudenberg, they could, to the benefit of both, acquire a humble residence south-east of Brussels, a mile into the Sonian Forest (Zoniënwoud), in a valley called Green Valley, where used to be a hermitage, the dwelling of a hermit. But always lord Jan wanted to be the subordinate of lord Frank. There, in seclusion, they lived a holy life.

Brother Geraert.

English translation by RvL.

goedelekerk brussel schilderij door adams en verven 17de eeuw

The church of St. Gudula in Brussels
(based on an engraving by Jacob Harrewijn around 1700,
Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels).

I'll skip a paragraph and continue at the bottom of the page.

Later on, after God's inspiration, they desired to change into a monastic order, so their foundation would be durable after their life. They received the habit and the rule of the canons regular of St. Augustine and welcomed eight persons, who were affirmed in the hands of lord Frank. Lord Jan was their prior. They were exemplary monks in the eyes of God and of the people.

Brother Geraert (II, p. 18-19).

English translation by RvL.

Brother Geraert's short biography corresponds with the historic facts that are still known to us. Jan van Ruusbroec (1293-1381) was born in Ruysbroec, a village just outside Brussels (nowadays it's a neighbourhood within Brussels). When he is 11 years old, he moves to his uncle Jan Hinckaert in Brussels. At the same time, Ruusbroec's mother moves into the beguinage of Brussels (his father is mentioned nowhere). Ruusbroec's uncle, Jan Hinckaert, is chaplain in the church of St. Gudula in Brussels and Ruusbroec attends the chapter's school of St. Gudula. He learns to read and write in Latin and is educated in the usual subjects of the liberal arts, like: grammar, rhetoric and arithmetic.

In 1317 Ruusbroec is ordained to priesthood, he's 24 years old at that time. The next 25 years Ruusbroec is chaplain in the church of St. Gudula in Brussels. This is a rather modest function, a chaplain is the priest of a chapel, an assistant priest, working under the responsibility of for example a noble canon. In the years he's working as a chaplain, he starts writing books.

So Ruusbroec lives with his uncle, Jan Hinckaert, and after some time a third priest moves in with them, canon Frank van Coudenberg. After a while they decide to leave the busy city and in 1343 they get permission of Jan III, Duke of Brabant, to take up residence in a former hermitage in Groenendaal, the 'Green Valley' in the Sonian Forest (Zoniënwoud), not far from Brussels. Most probably this was accomplished thanks to that third priest, Frank van Coudenberg, because the wealthy Van Coudenberg family had ties with the Duke's court. In the year they move, 1343, Ruusbroec is 50 years old.

•  Jan van Ruusbroec (1293-1381)
•  Jan Hinckaert (uncle, chaplain)
•  Frank van Coudenberg (priest)

    ↳ 1343: from Brussels to the Green Valley

The best known picture of Ruusbroec shows Jan van Ruusbroec in the Sonian Forest. Ruusbroec is sitting under a tree and writing; he writes on a waxed tablet. Around him books are spread out on the ground, implying erudition. A dove is flying above his head, indicating inspiration (Holy Ghost). On the right a second monk (although this also could be Ruusbroec himself) is copying the text onto parchment.

john of ruusbroec painting portrait ruusbroec society around 1580

John of Ruubroec in the Green Valley (Sonian Forest)
(Mnscr. Brussels KB, 19295-7, 14th century).
-click to magnify-

So when Ruusbroec is 50 years old, he moves to the Green Valley in the Sonian Forest with Jan Hinckaert en Frank van Coudenberg. Shortly after, two men, two lay brothers, join them, Wouter Rademaker and a cook, Jan van Leeuwen, known as 'the kind cook of the Green Valley'. Ruusbroec taught this cook, a lay brother, how to read and write. Two weeks ago, we read a fragment of Jan van Leeuwen's works: he called Hadewijch a 'holy woman' and a 'true teacher'.

•  Wouter Rademaker
•  Jan van Leeuwen (cook)

The little community in the Green Valley, in the middle of the woods, the Sonian Forest, is not a monastery or a sort of group of hermits, but the intention is to create a kind of exemplary parish. They build a little chapel, that is consecrated as parish church in 1345. Frank van Coudenberg then becomes pastor. So in fact this is a highly original and very idealistic initiative. In the middle of the woods, with this small group of people, they strive for an ideal parish.

jan van leeuwen cook green valley portrait

Jan van Leeuwen, cook of the Green Valley.
He's shown both cooking and reading/writing.
-click to magnify-

This also brings another idealistic initiative in mind, mainly found in the 14th century in the area around the Rhine (Germany), the so called God's friends. Small groups of priests and laymen, both men and women, seek an inward spirituality in line with the 12th-century ideal of poverty. They call themselves 'God's friends' and attach little importance to the organisation of the church or to hierarchy. They are slightly outsiders in relation to the church organisation and the established monasteries.

Ruusbroec even had contact with the God's friends around Strasbourg; and maybe we actually could consider the group in the Green Valley as a group of Brabantian God's friends. Jan van Leeuwen stated in his text that Hadewijch was a teacher and it's still a question in how far the spirituality of Ruusbroec and his circle was based on Hadewijch. Maybe Hadewijch's writings gave Ruusbroec the idea to write about religion in Middle Dutch instead of in Latin (that he mastered perfectly). These are questions we still can't answer with historical certainty.

Anyway, the status of group in the Green Valley is unclear. Whether it is an exemplary parish, or a group of God's friends, the church (and this will sound familiar to you by this time) has problems with this community in the Sonian Forest. The bishop of Cambrai even comes in person to judge the situation and in 1350, probably at the instance of the bishop, the community in the Green Valley takes the rule of Augustine and their organisation becomes a monastery, a priory.

Frank van Coudenberg becomes the provost (chairman of the chapter) and Jan van Ruusbroec becomes prior (second in rank, assistant of for example an abbot). In the fragment we just read, brother Geraert conceals the whole affair a little bit; he writes that 'after God's inspiration, they desired to change into a monastic order' (he doesn't mention the interference of the bishop).

•  Jan van Ruusbroec (prior)
•  Jan Hinckaert
•  Frank van Coudenberg (provost)
•  Wouter Rademaker
•  Jan van Leeuwen (cook)

    ↳ 1343: from Brussels to the Green Valley
         1350: monastery

Let's return to the report brother Geraert of Herne wrote. He also describes Ruusbroec's appearance, his first impression of Ruusbroec.

There are many edifying things that could be told about him: his calm and good-humoured face, his benevolent and humble way of speaking, his spiritualised external appearance and the devout attitude that emanated from his habit and his behavior and actions.

Brother Geraert (VI, p. 21).

English translation by RvL.

'A calm and good-humoured face', brother Geraert says. In the Anthology two portraits of Ruusbroec are depicted. The left one was made in 1356, Ruusbroec was 63 years old at the time. It's drawn in a capital letter in one of the codices. The right portrait clearly is based on the left, it was painted in 1580, so 200 years later. This painting is displayed in the Ruusbroec Society in Antwerp.

jan van ruusbroec portrait initial manuscript around 1356 jan van ruusbroec painting portrait ruusbroec society around 1580

Left: portait in initial (manuscr. 1356)
right: painting Ruusbroec
(around 1580, Ruusbroec Society).
-click right one to magnify-

Ruusbroec's books

Going back to brother Geraert's report. During the three days Jan van Ruusbroec stays in the Carthusian monastery in Herne, he speaks about all kinds of religious issues with the brothers, and also about his own books and finally, in private with brother Geraert, about the condemned paragraphs in The realm of the beloved ones, that the brothers took offence at.

And when I spoke to him, by twos, about the words that where found in the first book The realm of the beloved ones and that we took offence at, he calmly answered that he didn't know that the book became public and that he regretted the fact that it had been passed on, because it was the first book he wrote. A priest who had been Jan's secretary, had lent it out to us in secret to copy it. Nevertheless, it had been forbidden to him to pass it on.

As soon as I heard this, I wanted to give this first book The realm of the beloved ones back to him, so he could do with it as he pleased, but he refused this and said that he would write another book with a clarification. He would explain what he meant with those words and how he wanted people to interpret them. So he did and that is the last book of these five, beginning with the words 'The prophet Samuel'.

Brother Geraert (VII, p. 23-24).

English translation by RvL.

This booklet nowadays is known as The little book of enlightenment (Het boecsken der verclaringe), so a booklet with clarification of explanation. Of course it is a very curious story that brother Geraert wrote down.

Apparently Ruusbroec had a secretary, a clerk. We know that Ruusbroec himself wrote on waxed tablets and it is possible that someone else copied the text on parchment. Probably this person is meant with his 'secretary'. So this secretary has lent out this very first book Ruusbroec wrote, The realm of the beloved ones (while Ruusbroec clearly wasn't content with the final result), behind Ruusbroec's back, to the Carthusians of Herne. Obviously this is a very curious affair. Anyway, thanks to this whole incident, we now have one more book by Ruusbroec, The little book of enlightenment.

Brother Geraert writes in this latter fragment that he possesses five of Ruusbroec's works. First of all of course The realm of the beloved ones; and last of all The little book of enlightenment. The other treatises that brother Geraert transcribed were: The spiritual wedding (or 'the spiritual espousals', we will read this book partially); The spiritual tabernacle (that was Ruusbroec's most copied manuscript in the Middle Ages); and the booklet The sparkling stone.

About this last treatise, The Sparkling Stone, brother Geraert also tells us why Ruusbroec wrote this down:

About the fourth book, The Sparkling Stone, one should know that at a given moment lord Jan was talking with a recluse about spiritual subjects. When they went their separate ways, that brother urgently pleaded him to put everything they discussed there in writing, so that he and someone else could make good use of it. At his request he wrote this book, that in itself contains enough teachings to lead a person to a perfect life.

Brother Geraert.

English translation by RvL.

Also in the case of The Sparkling Stone, just like The little book of enlightenment, the question or request of somebody else was Ruusbroec's motive to write another book. We'll see that this is also the case for some other books.

Initially brother Geraert possesses four of Ruusbroec's books: The realm of the beloved ones, The spiritual wedding, The spiritual tabernacle and The sparkling stone. After Ruusbroec's visit he adds a fifth book to his collection: The little book of enlightenment. But Ruusbroec wrote many more books, they're listed chronologically in the Anthology.

page sparkling stone manuscript ruusbroec

A page of The sparkling stone
(manuscript dated 1361).
-click to magnify-

Ruusbroec wrote his oeuvre between approx. 1333 and 1365 (so between 40 and 72 years old). It consists of 11 treatises (a treatise is a philosophical or religious discourse, longer and more compounding than an essay). Let's briefly take a look at this list.

1 - The realm of the beloved ones / Dat rijcke der ghelieven (± 1333). So this was Ruusbroec's first work, that had been spreaded behind his back. Maybe he wrote this only for a few kindred spirits in his inner circle, or maybe he did write it with the intention of public spreading, but wasn't so content with the end result in hindsight. But he for sure was very content with his second book,

2 - The spiritual wedding (or: spiritual espousals) / Die gheestelike brulocht (written around 1335-40, still in Brussels). Brother Geraert writes about this book: 'he thought it to be reliable and good and hoped it would be multiplied many times'. Ruusbroec sent this book to a group of God's friens in Strasbourg in 1350. This is why we know that he maintained contacts with the God's friends along the Rhine. The third book is

3 - The sparkling stone / Van den blinckenden steen. Brother Geraert mentions about this book that it was written as a result of a conversation with a recluse.

4 - The four temptations / Van den vier becoringhen is about several temptations one can encounter whilst living a life with a spiritual orientation.

5 - About the christian faith / Van den kerstenen ghelove is a very simple discourse about faith and eternal life. Possibly it was written for lessons in the St. Gudula church, where Ruusbroec was employed as chaplain.

6 - The spiritual tabernacle / Van den gheesteliken tabernakel (around 1350) is the first book that he wrote in the Green Valley, but the intended audience is unknown. Probably in the first place the other residents in the Green Valley. This book was his most widespread during the Middle Ages.

The next three titles

7 - The seven enclosures / Van den seven sloten

8 - A mirror of eternal blessedness / Een spieghel der eeuwigher salicheit

9 - The seven rungs / Van seven trappen in den graed der gheesteleker minnen were all written for Poor Clares living in Brussels. In one case we even know her name: Margriet van Meerbeke. Also one of Ruusbroec's preserved letters was addressed to her and in this text he even refers to a visit he payed her. Apparently he maintained good relations with the Order of Saint Clare in Brussels.

10 - The little book of enlightenment / Dat boecsken der verclaringhe (± 1363), I already told you, was written after Ruusbroec visited the Carthusian monastery in Herne, particularly bother Geraert. Ruusbroec wrote this close to his seventies, so around 1360, 1363. And last of all

11 - The 12 beguines / Van den XII beghinen (± 1365). This is a somewhat disorganised mishmash, as if it is composed and never completed. Possibly it only was put together after his death. Remember here his mother, who moved into the beguinage of Brussels.

His most extensive books are: The spiritual wedding, 178 pages and The spiritual tabernacle, 272 pages (in Moereels' translation).

Besides these 11 treatises, Ruusbroec wrote 7 letters (at least 7 letters of his hand were preserved). One was addressed to a Poor Clare, the same Margriet van Meerbeke for whom he wrote those three books; one to a certain lady Machteld; one to hermits in Cologne; and four to several noble ladies.

scriptorium roo monastery medieval miniature

A scribe in the scriptorium of the Roo Monastery, near to the Green Valley. This monastery owned manuscripts of both Hadewijch and Ruusbroec
(Mnscr. Brussels, KB 213, f. 2r, 15th century).
-click to magnify-

Two aspects of this list are noteworthy. First of all, Ruusbroec wrote all his works in Middle Dutch. And that is still rare in the 14th century, regarding religious texts. Latin still is the official language that is used in church and monasteries. Since the 13th century onward the regional language indeed is used sometimes for religious texts, but always by women, women who had received less education than men - and for women, women who had no or little knowledge of Latin, like the beguines.

But Ruusbroec is a man, more than that, he's a man of the church, a clergyman - he's a priest and later a monk. He knows Latin very well, he was educated at the chapter school of St. Gudula in Brussels; and he is surrounded by people who also were educated and know Latin, like Jan Hickaert and Frank van Coudenberg, hermits and monks. But although he's an educated man within the church, he writes in Middle Dutch. The question is why. I'll return to that question in a moment.

Secondly it's noteworthy that in many cases Ruusbroec had a motive to start writing another book, or that he had a specific audience in mind. Of course the books and letter to the Poor Clares are conspicuously, especially Margriet van Meerbeke. In this case it's logical Ruusbroec writes in the regional language, these women probably didn't know enough Latin to read difficult books in this language. So in this case it is the intended audience why he writes in Middle Dutch.

But The sparkling stone (nr. 3) is written for a hermit and The little book of enlightenment (nr. 10) is written for Carthusian monks, and they all knew Latin perfectly. And what about The tabernacle or The spiritual wedding?

Fortunately, brother Geraert also wrote something about this subject! His tone is somewhat defensive, when he describes the benefits of using the regional language instead of Latin.

There are people who, although they better understand Diets (Middle Dutch) than Latin, don't like to study religious books in Diets, but prefer Latin. These people don't seek the fruit of their study, meaning: to learn something; because I can't grasp the complete knowledge of writings, when I hardly or only laboriously understand the language.

But a piece of writing in which I can't make any mistake in the meaning of the words and the twists and turns of sentences, I can take in with understanding. Do I understand them well, I can learn from them, but if I don't understand them well, I will never learn.

Brother Geraert (XIII, p. 28-29).

English translation by RvL.

In fact brother Geraert criticises people, probably he mainly means priests and monks, who rather read in Latin, even if they better understand Diets. The point is, according to bother Geraert, that the book one reads makes one smarter, wiser. And your native tongue, your mother tongue, is far more suited for that than a (later learned) language like Latin. But the fact that he feels the need to say this so explicitly, indicates that in everyday life, many people prefered Latin - and also that the books he copied, like The wedding and The tabernacle, were intended for people who normally read Latin, like priests, clergymen, monks.

It's no coincidence that brother Geraert, of all people, explains the benefits of Middle Dutch, your mother tongue, over Latin. Because the monastery in Herne actually was a forerunner in the area of transcribing religious texts in the regional language. They possessed a vast library with religious texts in Middle Dutch, including four (later five) books by Ruusbroec. And most likely it has been in the monastery in Herne, where around 1360 the whole Bible was translated from Latin into Middle Dutch.

The Bible in the vernacular (Middle Dutch)

Many people assume that the Bible first was translated in Middle Dutch during the day's of the reformer Luther, during the Protestantism, in the 16th century. But that's not true at all; the first translations date back to the beginning of the 13th century. It's a bit of a side-way, but I'll say a litte bit about it. Initially the Bible is written in Hebrew (the Old Testament) and the New Testament for the larger part in Koine Greek. In the 4th century the Bible is translated into Latin by one of the Church Fathers: Jerome (or: Hieronymus). This translation is called the Vulgate ('commonly used').

In the course of the centuries other Latin translations were made, but in the 12th century the university in Paris chooses to use this translation and then the Vulgate becomes the first choice Bible. By the way, very early on the Bible also is translated into other languages: for example in the first century into Greek and in the 4th century into the Gothic language (an East-Germanic dialect), the famous 'Silver Manuscript' (or 'Codex Argenteus') of bishop Wulfila. So in fact the Bible was translated into the vernacular of the East-Germanic people already in the 4th century.

You might rememeber from my first lecture that Middle Dutch is a part of the West-Germanic dialects - and the Gothic is a part of the East-Germanic dialects: you could say the East- and West-Germanic are sister languages. And indeed you still can recognise Dutch words in the Gothic language. I stray a little bit from my subject, but I wrote one sentence in Gothic on the black board, the first line of the prayer 'Our Father' (and word-by-word in Dutch and English):
'Atta unsar, thu in himinam, weihnai namo thein'
'Vader onze, jij in hemelen, heilig naam dijn'
'Father our, you in heaven, holy name yours'

Well, so far about the 4th century. In the 13th century people more and more often start to translate parts of the Bible into the regional language; these are often not literally translations, but retelling in a narrative manner. So stories come into being about the life of Jesus; texts with collections of bible verses; and manuscripts with the psalms in Middle Dutch. The whole story of the Old and the New Testament was adapted around 1270 by Jacob van Maerlant (±1235-1300), known as the Rhyme Bible (this is still effectively not a translation, but it retells the biblical history).

rhyme bible jacob van maerlant creation

The Rhyme Bible (±1270) by Jacob van Maerlant,
the 7 days of creation in 7 pictures.
-click to magnify-

And then just before 1360, in Herne a big project was initiated: they translated the whole Vulgate into Middle Dutch. And this time a real translation, although occasionally replenished with some history.

This project was not commissioned by the nobility (as you might expect of literature in the regional language), but by a citizen, namely Jan Taye of Brussels, who was a council member in the city council. Before this translation order, this Taye family had made donations to the monastery in Herne. It was a very wealthy family, part of the governmental elite of Brussels.

This translation of the whole Bible is now known as the famous Herne Bible or the Bible of 1360. The intended audience clearly wasn't the nobility, but the bourgeoisie. If you take a moment to remember that Jan van Ruusbroec visited Herne between 1360 and 1363, then without a doubt he will have heard about this prestigious project, but unfortunately, it never was put in writing.

This was a short side-way, because of the fragment in which brother Geraert writes about the benefits of using your own language rather than Latin: you understand your mother-tongue best of all, and therefore you learn the most of texts written in your local language.

Why does Ruusbroec write in Dutch instead of Latin?

Earlier we saw that the intended audience (women who don't know Latin) could be a motive for Ruusbroec to write in Diets, Middle Dutch. Another reason is, that the regional language is easier to understand than Latin, and in consequence you're much better able to absorb knowledge.

But brother Geraert tells us one more important thing about writing in the vernacular: he gives us the reason why Ruusbroec decided to write in Dutch. He says the following about it:

Furthermore one must know that the writings and books of lord Jan van Ruusbroec were widely spread in Brabant, Flanders and the neighbouring countries. They were translated from Brabantian Diets into other languages, even into Latin, so people could read them in far away countries.

In those days there was a great need of healthy spiritual education in the regional language, due to several heresies and misconceptions (feignednesses/misleadingnesses and inconsistencies) that had arisen. Ruusbroec clearly describes those towards the end of the second part of his book The highness of the spiritual wedding and also in other books he mentions them many times.

Brother Geraert (III, p. 19).

English translation by RvL.

So brother Geraert gives here as reason why Ruusbroec wrote all his works in the vernacular: in those days there was a great need of holy and complete education in Diets, because of several misleadingnesses and inconsistencies that had arisen.

Apparently Ruusbroec is worrying about all kinds of ideas about religion, that are found amongst the common people, the people who don't speak Latin - misconceptions, heresies. And indeed during the 14th century several new religious ideas arose in the cities amongst certain groups of people. And sure enough Ruusbroec does analyse those ideas in the Wedding and fiercely criticises them. He calls this: 'false mysticism'. Next week we'll read more about this and that will clarify his opinion.

So Ruusbroec not only writes for priest and monks around him; he also writes for the 'common people', to spiritually educate them in a language that they could understand. We could probably think of people who visited the St. Gudula Church and of the lay brothers in the Green Valley (like the cook Jan van Leeuwen) and also of the several noble ladies to whom he wrote his letters, and maybe even of the beguines in Brussels, among which his mother lived.

So on the one hand Ruusbroec wrote for monks and hermits, who could read Latin, but who could read Dutch as well and maybe would understand that even better. And on the other hand for the 'common people', laymen, people who hadn't learned Latin, but still were searching their way in the field of religion, were searching for spiritual insights (and who seemingly, in Ruusbroec's opinion, are in danger of picking up all kinds of misconceptions and wrong ideas.

Reasons to write in the vernacular:
  • Intended audience doesn't know Latin (like women / laymen)
  • Mother tongue is easier to understand (also for priests / monks)
  • Counteract heresies and misconceptions

Brother Geraert doesn't specify Ruusbroec's intended audience, he hasn't written about who were reading his texts and with whom he had contact. But this audience for sure was considerable large. We still have over 160 manuscripts with one or more of Ruusbroec's texts (or fragments of it). For Middle Dutch manuscripts, this high number is unparalleled.

So far we've got a general oversight of Ruusbroec's life and authorship by means of Geraert's prologue. This portrait corresponds with another important source of our knowledge of him. Because around the year 1414, that is 30 years after Ruusbroec's passing away, the history of the foundation of the community in the Green Valley was written down. This contains a biography of Ruusbroec. It was written by Hendrik Utenbogaerde (or Pomerius). Also this report clearly shows that Ruusbroec maintained many contacts and lived his life in the middle of society.

Ruusbroec didn't withdraw into the Sonian Forest to seclude himself from the world, but he still acts actively as spiritual mentor. Through his writings he is one of the first clergymen, who doesn't keep religious knowledge within the church, written in an unreadable secret language (Latin), exclusively intended for a group of priest, educated men; but out of this official church he turns to the common believers, in an understandable language, to give them knowledge of religious subjects, to educate them, let them contemplate and above all: to put the religious experience, the truly lived-through, affective spirituality, the personal experience, in the center point of faith.

Ruusbroec's reputation in Europe: circulation, translations and influence of his writings

The texts of Ruusbroec must have been widely spread, because like I just said, no less than 160 manuscripts containing (parts of) his work, have been preserved (according to the count of De Vreese).

But furthermore his books were translated, both during and after his life. Already in 1360 a fellow-brother of the Green Valley, Willem Jordaens (who was from a noble family and had studied in Paris) translated the Wedding into Latin. Thus the book could become more widely spread in educated circles. Ruusbroec is the only author in Middle Dutch, who's work was translated in Latin during his life.

In 1350 the Green Valley priory sends the Wedding to two German groups of God's friends, in Basel and Strasbourg. The book then gets translated into High German. After this, the Dominican mystic Johannes Tauler (fellow-brother of Meister Eckhart in Strasbourg) and the Dominican prior Henry Suso became admirers of Ruusbroec's mystical works. Still in the 14th century an adaptation is made in English as well. These translations show that the community in the Green Valley is actively trying to spread around the Wedding.

Around 1378 Geert Grote, of Deventer in the north-east of the Low Countries (1340-1384), visited Ruusbroec and translated the Wedding once again in Latin (this was shortly after Ruusbroec deceased). Grote founded the Modern Devotion (a movement for religious reform, emphasising devotion, humility, obedience, and simplicity of life). Due to Grote's translation, Ruusbroec's mystical body of thought could influence this movement.

However the 16th-century translation by Carthusian Laurentius Surius of Cologne (deceased 1574), was the most important translation concerning the spreading of Ruusbroec's mystical texts through Europe. He integrally translates Ruusbroecs collected works into Latin (finished in 1552) and this translation was highly praised for it's precision and eloquence. Based on this translation, the complete oeuvre is translated then again into Italian (1565), French (1606), Spanish (1696) and German (1701). This gives us an impression of the outline of Ruusbroec's fame in Europe through the centuries.

However the Parisian professor Jean Gerson (1363-1429) put spikes in the wheels of this growing fame of Ruusbroec's mystical thoughts. In 1399 Gerson reads the Latin translation of the Wedding and sharply criticises the third part (the Contemplative Life, or 'God-beholding Life'). He judges that this part should be 'rejected and destroyed'. The Green Valley tries to disprove the criticism, but this doesn't convince Gerson.

After this, this allusion of heresie remained sticking to Ruusbroec's works in France. Due to the disapproving judgement out of the university of Paris, just of this one fragment (not in the words of Ruusbroec, but in it's Latin translation), the spreading of Ruusbroec's spiritual thoughts both within the church and within the Romanic language area, was drasticly slowed down. Only after two more centuries, the Wedding was translated into French.

With that it's now possible to identify three communities that are unmistakably influenced by Ruusbroec's thoughts. First of all, the Augustinian Canons, to which the Green Valley was connected. And remember: these religious orders were in fact international organisations during the Middle Ages, present through the whole of Europe (and even beyond), exchanging knowledge in a lingua franca, Latin.

In the second place this influence is clearly present within the Carthusians, also such an international network of knowledge, where his writings were read to a large extent. For example someone like Dionysius van Rijkel, a Carthusian of Roermond, still made an effort in the 15th century to spread the mystical doctrine both within and without the Carthusian Order. And in the third place, as we saw, within the Modern Devotion, the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, in the north-eastern Low Countries.

In general it's assumed that Ruusbroec is the most translated Dutch author before 1900. The broad circulation of his works, the many translations, and the spreading throughout Europe through the centuries, which is a continuous proces till this day by the way, give us an idea of the reputation (and in some circles fame) of our Brabantine, the popularity of his works and the authority he had as a mystic. It shows that Ruusbroec wrote within a small linguistic region, but nevertheless was appreciated as a first-class, important mystic - far and wide, and century after century.

From the 17th century onward, the residents of the Green Valley try to beatify Ruusbroec. It last however three more centuries before this is accomplished - but in 1908 Jan van Ruusbroec, the chaplain of Brussels, the prior of the Green Valley, the author of profound mysticism in the language of the people, is beatified. Finally recognition by the church after all. His feast day is december 2nd.


This last hour we looked into the life of Jan van Ruusbroec (1293-1381). Ruusbroec is ordained to priesthood (1317) and was a chaplain in the church of St. Gudula in Brussels for 25 years. From 1343 onward he lived in the Green Valley (Sonian Forest). First this was a kind of exemplary parish, from 1345 onward this was a priory (with Ruusbroec as prior).

•  Ruusbroec (as a priest, chaplain, prior) is a man of the church. He attended the chapter's school of St. Gudula and knows Latin.

•  Ruusbroec wrote 11 treatises (religious discourses), all in Middle Dutch. This is remarkable, because it's still cusomary within the church to write in Latin about religion.

•  He had several reasons to write in the regional language:
  • Intended audience doesn't know Latin (like women / laymen)
  • Mother tongue is easier to understand (also for priests / monks)
  • Counteract heresies and misconceptions

•  In his writings he educates about religious matters and puts the religious experience (the lived-through and affective spirituality) in the center point of faith.

•  The texts were widely spread, both in Middle Dutch and in many translations. This tells us something about the popularity of the works and the authority that Ruusbroec had as great mystic.

After the break

After the break we'll start reading The spiritual wedding.

Next week I'll come back to Ruusbroec's substantive criticism concerning the heresies and misconceptions of his time - in his words: 'false mysticism'.

Background information

The course Medieval Mysticism in the Low Countries consists of seven lectures. The mystical writings of Hadewijch and Ruusbroec will be read and understood from their cultural-historical context.

•  About this course Medieval Mysticism in the Low Countries: content and layout.

•  Background literature about the Middle Ages, Hadewijch, Ruusbroec and medieval mysticism.

•  About the teacher Rozemarijn van Leeuwen.

•  Read the reactions or leave a comment.

•  Texts of Hadewijch and Ruusbroec: fragments in Middle Dutch and nowadays Dutch.

Original Dutch course

•  Lecture 5/7 in Dutch: Het leven van Jan van Ruusbroec.


©  Above lecture is part of the course Medieval Dutch Mysticism in the Low Countries, by Rozemarijn van Leeuwen (1999-2001).

It's not permitted to copy this text digital or in print and/or to publish it.

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Follow the whole course Medieval Dutch Mysticism in the Low Countries online:

    first lesson hour (cultural-historical background) second lesson hour (reading texts)
  1 The Middle Ages What is mysticism?
  2 The medieval world view Hadewijch: vision and mysticism
  3 Hadewijch: glimpse of her life Hadewijch: roads towards God
  4 Women in the Middle Ages Hadewijch: bridal mysticism
  5 Ruusbroec: course of his life  ↑ Ruusbroec: Active Life
  6 The horrible 14th century Ruusbroec: Inward Life
  7 Image and resemblance of God Ruusbroec: To meet Him