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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 6/7.  The horrible 14th century

Topics this hour:
  • Ruusbroec and the 14th century
  • Society during the 14th century
  • The church during the 14th century
  • Ruusbroec's response to his time

Ruusbroec and the 14th century

Last week we've gotten acquainted a littlebit with John of Ruusbroec (1293-1381), by means of the report that brother Geraert had written about him. I hope that you all now will have a picture of the course of Ruusbroec's life: first he has a position as priest and chaplain at the church of St. Gudula in Brussels; when he is 50 years old, he and Jan Hinckaert and Wouter Rademaker move to Groenendaal ('Green Valley'); and some years later they take the rule of Augustine and become monks. And from that moment on, their movement starts to grow more and more.

Today I will discuss the period in which Ruusbroec lived. What is happening in society and what are the religious developments in the 14th century; to what extent is Ruusbroec a child of his time and to what extent does he react to events that happen during his lifetime? I also will follow up on last week's question: what intention did Ruusbroec have with his Middle Dutch writings?

The Carthusian monk brother Geraert wrote in his report that there was a need of education in 'Diets' in those days, because of several misleadingnesses and inconsistencies that had arisen. I will come back to that at the end of this hour.

Society during the 14th century

The first subject this hour will be the time in which Ruusbroec lived: the social and religious circumstances of his time. Ruusbroec lives and writes in the fourteenth century. His life spans from 1293 until 1381, so he witnessed almost the entire century.

And the 14th century is nothing like the 12th or the 13th century. You will remember that the 12th century is a time of growth, prosperity - economically, culturally and religiously. The cities are growing, the first universities are founded, and at the court clerks start to write down literature in the vernacular. With regard to Christianity, the pope is at the zenith of his power during the 12th and 13th century, also secular power. The monasteries are growing and are becoming increasingly more rich. That leads to a countermovement: during the 12th century that poverty-movement arises, with a strong focus on an inward oriented sprituality, affectively felt religion; especially influenced by Bernard of Clairvaux.

The 13th century is in almost every respect a continuation of the 12th century. The ideal of poverty remains popular (remember the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Cistercians and outside the monasteries the beguines). The participation of women in religious movements is growing, both within and outside the monasteries; and in those circles it are women who start to write about religion in the regional language. Still essential during the 13th century are inward orientation and affective experienced faith.

The 14th century, Ruusbroec's century, I can describe in short as a disastrous century. It's a horrible century; it's sometimes called: the insane 14th century. Well, what are all these terrible events that are taking place in the 14th century?

battle crecy chronicle froissart 1346

The Hundred Years' War,
battle of Crécy, Chronicle of Froissart, 1346.
-click to magnify-

* First of all: for more than hundred years the Hundred Years' War between England and France drags on. Flanders gets caught in the crossfire (turmoil, insecurity, unsafety). That lasts from 1337-1453.

* Secondly: within many European countries a struggle for power arises. Also in Flanders and Brabant the traditional rulers, like kings, nobility, earls and dukes on the one hand, and the cities (the growing cities) with their local government and guilds on the other hand, get entangled in a power struggle. So a struggle for power between the nobility and the cities.

* Thirdly: several times the harvests completely fail, which results in hunger, starvation, famines - especially in the years 1315-1317. The consequence is an unstable economy.

* And to make matters even worse, fourth of all, Europe is hit several times by epidemics of the plague, especially in the years 1347-1351. Millions of people die in those years in Europe due to the plague (the Black Death), about a third of the population.

* All these things result in immense social unrest, commonly known are the peasant's revolts: in Flanders in 1332, in France in 1358 and in England in 1381. This is usually depicted as farmers with hayforks and pitchforks (because only the nobility was allowed to possess weapons, they had the monopoly on the use of force). The immediate cause of these peasant's revolts was the increasing tax burden, imposed by the nobility - they were impoverished by the bad economy, but had to finance at the same time a very expensive warfare.

The 14th century
  • Hundred Years' War (1337-1453)
  • power struggle nobility - cities
  • famines (1315-1317)
  • the plague (1347-1351)
  • peasant's revolts (1332, 1358, 1381)

During the worst famines, Ruusbroec was 22 years old, it's just a few years before he will be ordained to priesthood. At the start of the Hundred Years' War, Ruusbroec is 44 years old, he is still chaplain at the church of St. Gudula in Brussels. During the Black Death, the plague, he is around 55, he already lives in Groenendaal, in the Sonian Forest.

pestlijders in gasthuis lijders aan pest in italie

Plague sufferers in an Italian infirmary
with monks as caretakers.
-click to magnify-

The church during the 14th century

Dispute about the ideal of poverty

But the 14th century is not only a turbulent time for society. Also the Catholic Church is struggling during this century. First of all, there is a conflict with the Franciscans or greyfriars. They are living according to the ideal of poverty, completely without possessions. But in the opinion of the church, this is too extreme and in 1323 the pope declares that the idea that Christ was living without possessions, is heretical.

Of course this is immensely disruptive for all the groups that live according to the ideal of poverty since the 12th and 13th century, like the beguines. It also leads to the fact that the Franciscans become more critical towards the church and start to question the power that the church wields. So this a hughe area of religious tension during the 14th century (e.g. Umberto Eco wrote about this in The name of the rose). But note: the church didn't disaprove of living in poverty, but the idea that Christ lived in poverty became heretical - and with that an important foundation supporting the ideal of poverty is removed.

The Western Schism (1387-1417)

Later in this 14th century an even bigger and more fundamental problem arises within the church. During the 13th century the pope has gained very much power. Around 1300 however, a conflict rises between the pope of that time (Boniface VIII) and the French king (Philip IV the Fair). This conflict ran so high, that the pope excommunicated the king, after which the king attacked the pope with a millitary force.

In 1303 this pope died (of natural causes, by the way) and his successor is a Frenchman, pope Clement V, who does a very strange thing. He relocates the papel court from Rome to Avignon! That's really weird, because the pope is in fact the bishop of Rome. But anyway, the pope moves to the south of France, the city of Avignon, and chums up with the French king. Also all of his successors remain in Avignon and this situation lasts till 1377. Around that time, the pope gets into conflict with the monarchs of Germany, who disapprove of the fact that the pope lives all the way in Avignon, and the pope of that time (Gregory XI) returns to Rome.

But that's in fact the moment when things go really terribly wrong. In 1378 a new pope has to be chosen and that is the Neapolitan Urban VI. But immediately a disagreement arises between this pope and his cardinals, so they choose an antipope: Clement VII, an Italian. Clement takes up his residence in Avignon. So from 1378 onward, there are two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon. This is the beginning of the Western Schism (the division of the Western church). This Schism will last for 40 years, from 1378 till 1417.

The moment the first pope takes up his residence in Avignon, Ruusbroec is only 16 years old. And he lived to just see the start of the Western Schism, during the last three years of his life, since he was 85 years old (1378 till 1381). It's not something that will have put him in a cheerful or hopeful mood...

pauselijk paleis avignon middeleeuwse afbeelding

Papal palace in Avignon
-click to magnify-

Breach between believing and thinking

So during this Western Schism there is one pope in Avignon, elected by the cardinals; and one pope in Rome, who has a fight with the cardinals. Both popes repeatedly are succeeded. But this Schism is sometimes regarded as a symbol for a much more profound and more fundamental schism / division that takes place during the 14th century (the near end of the Middle Ages). A breach arises between believing and thinking.

As you will remember, of earlier lectures, during the Middle Ages thinking is soaked with religion, belief is the foundation of thinking. Knowledge, ken (then called artes, a predecessor of science, you could say) is steeped in belief during the Middle Ages - remember the medieval cosmology or the artes-literature, the philosophy of nature (see the hand-out 'Artes liberales' below).

But during the 14th century, this changes. Thinkers of the 14th century, like Duns Scotus (Franciscan, around 1300) and William of Ockham (Franciscan, 1288-1347), start to distinguish that what faith teaches us, from that what one can prove. And that is something completely new! So from the 14th century onward, thinking, philosophy, the natural sciences, are separated from belief. This leads to the first form of science on the one hand and theology on the other hand.

This can be regarded as early developments that during the Enlightenment (from ca. 1650 onward) become the most important principles of Western culture, science, philosophy, democracy - Western thinking. As long as religious ideas form the basis of science, of thinking, it's not possible this thinking is able to evolve, it is stuck in convictions that were thought to be true centuries before, by people of possibly less developed cultures, like the bronze age or the iron age.

Only when thinking and believing are separated, science can lead to progress. During the next lecture we will see that even Ruusbroec, although he is an incredible profound and precise thinker, is stuck in religious convictions of his time and far before his time - and therefore isn't able to elaborate his vision in freedom, it derails, stagnates (showing that as soon as people start to think that what they believe is 'the truth', thinking will come to a standstill).

Artes liberales

Since the antiquity there were three groups of subjects a pupil could choose to study: the 'liberal arts' (artes liberales: language and calcu­lating), the 'mecha­nical arts' (artes mechanicae, like handi­crafts or the practice of medicine) and the 'uncertain arts' (artes incertae or magicae, like alchemy or magical recipes).

The word 'artes' ('arts') refered to competence, 'to have knowledge of'. The word 'liberales' ('free') meant that it involved intellectual work, and one had to be free of physical work. The 'seven liberal arts' involved: linguistics, logic and rhetoric (articulate­ness); and arithmetic, geometry, theory of music and cosmology.

Texts that describe such subjects are called artes-literature. This is sometimes conveniently defined as 'medieval scientific texts' but that is very mis­leading, since science as we know it today (knowledge based on research, experi­menting, verifiable for others, reprodu­cible, falsifiable, objective, discussion based on arguments and not on convictions, or beliefs, or invisable unveri­fiable authori­ties), didn't yet exist before the seven­teenth, eighteenth century.

Although artes-texts describe subjects that nowadays are studied scientificly, they were combined with religious convic­tions and super­stition (for example: plants books with magical invocations; treating wounds combined with astrology; or the stars described with having choirs of angels).

So although artes-literature describes the state of knowledge of a certain subject (several plant species or ways to treat wounds), this knowledge isn't explored any further by study the world around us, but by philosophising and theological theorising from the Bible, theology, the religious tradition or supersition. In that sense, they aren't scientific texts, but infor­mative, practical or contem­plative texts or natural philosophy (philosophy of nature).

During the 14th century one starts to distinguish believing (believing something and then propagate it as 'truth') from thinking (knowledge based on verifiable facts). But only in the 17th century one can find the origins of nowadays science (with the inven­tion of the microscope / telescope: studying bacteria and planets; and the develop­ment of the scientific method by Bacon and Descartes). And only during the 18th century science and knowledge exchange really were promoted by the ideals of the Enlightenment.

An average high school student already has access to many times more knowledge about for example biology, physics or the universe, than that was altogether available in the Antiquity or the Middle Ages. So narratives in artes-text usually are just invented clarifi­cations, not examined, determined facts. I shows how the medieval man looked at and thought about life.

Breach between theology and devotion

This schism, this division or separation between believing and thinking during the fourteenth century, will however become even more profound. Because of this shift from science based on belief to science based on proof (that is science independent of belief) the theology, as it is taught at the universities, gets jammed. I simplify, but it comes down to the issue that theology also wants to be a science, doesn't want to qualify as belief, but wants to be regarded as an academic science. And in this way in the 14th century also a breach arises between theology and devotion.

Imagine so to speak that first theology was a kneeling theology and now it becomes a sitting theology. Theology detaches itself from devotion: from a kneeling to a sitting theology.

In short you could say: during the 14th century the church, theology and thinking all shake on their foundations. And John of Ruusbroec is right in the middle of it: as mystic, as priest, as prior of the Green Valley, as spiritual mentor.

The church during the 14th century
  • poverty Christ becomes heretical (1323)
  • pope in Avignon (1309-1377)
  • Western Schism (1378-1417)
  • breach believing - thinking (what one can prove)
  • theology also wants to be a science, leads to:
    breach theology - devotion

Ruusbroec's response to his time

Ruusbroec is not a mystic who is continuously high in the clouds, or who withdraws himself into the remote woods of the Sonian Forest, far from society - he reacts to several developments within society and within the church. But he is very selective. Of all the things listed on the black board, he clearly responds to some of them and clearly not to others.

We will observe all he responds to and ask the question: 'why this?' What is his motive, what is he trying to say? And eventually that leads to the question: why did Ruusbroec write his treatises and why in Middle Dutch?

About the breach believing-thinking and theology-devotion

Ruusbroec never comments on theological debates. In his manuscripts he doesn't respond to the whole development that scholars start to distinguish that what can be proven and that what you have to assume in faith (breach thinking-believing). And neither to the distinction between belief and theology-as-a-science, the process from a kneeling theology to a sitting theology (breach theology-devotion).

Of course Ruusbroec has in fact not much to do with it: he has had an education in Brussels and knows Latin, but he hadn't been a student at a university, for example in Paris. He is a priest, not a theologian. If he would have wanted to join the academic debate, he would have had to write in Latin, but he chooses to write in the local language. So he must have had another objective.

He neither writes about the fact that the pope is in Avignon, during the years 1309-1377. In contrast to many other religious writers in the 14th century, because this is heavily criticised.

About the ideal of poverty and criticising the church

Ruusbroec does take a stand against the condemnation of the ideal of poverty. He doesn't literally refer to the dispute between the pope and the Franciscans, but he explicitly speaks his mind about the question when he gives his opinion on the condition of the church in his century.

We'll read a couple of fragments about this subject. These paragraphs are not from the Brulocht, but of one of Ruusbroec's other books, in which he clearly speaks his mind about the condition of the church and monasteries in his century: Van den geesteliken tabernakel ('About a spiritual tabernacle', written around 1350).

Ruusbroec clearly speaks from his own experience; he had of course been a chaplain for 25 years and had been prior for several years. So he was very familiar with the mores of both the church and the monastic life. We'll read from page 235 (or no. 324):

But the eldest sons, who stayed at home with the father and who possess his legacy, are the Prelates of the holy Church. But it seems indeed as if all of them, while consuming the legacy of our Lord Jesus Christ, have dozed off in a heavy lethargy, because they neither live nor teach, either with words or with labour, anything that could improve the people that are entrusted to them.

Jan van Ruusbroec, Van den geesteliken tabernakel (± 1350). Critique of church and monasteries.

English translation by RvL, based on: L. Moereels, Het geestelijk tabernakel (1982), p. 324. 

So what does this critical comment mean? The clergymen within the church don't teach the people anything about spiritual life and they neither show it through their actions. This might be Ruusbroec's most fundamental criticism of the religious circumstances of his time: the clergymen 'neither live nor teach, either with words or with labour, anything that could improve the people that are entrusted to them'. So in his opinion the church fails, falls short.

Well, there's more critique of the church to come, let's read on from page 324, the second paragraph.

Now observe the princes of the holy Church, consider if they are good shepherds. Their halls and palaces are full of servants who serve them. It's full of show of force, wealth and enormous splendour in the way of the world, an abundance of food and drink, a hughe assortment of clothes, precious jewelleries and all the splendour the world can produce. And still they don't have enough: the more they get, the more greedy they become. Because of this, they resemble the miserable world, that is always eager for wordly goods, because the world has no taste for God.

But Christ, our good shepherd, teaches us another way. Because he had house nor garden, but paying with Himself and with all he possessed He bought the human being, that is: his sheep. And when the world praised Him with the highest honour, he rode a female donkey. And his entourage were his disciples and they walked beside Him afoot. He could have obtained a horse or a white mule, if He had wanted, but He wanted to teach us the way of humbleness. So: during the early years of the holy Church the apostles and the holy bishops of that time traveled through the world afoot and with enormous diligence and converted the people from their disbelief.

Jan van Ruusbroec, Van den geesteliken tabernakel (± 1350). Critique of church and monasteries.

English translation by RvL, based on: L. Moereels, Het geestelijk tabernakel (1982), p. 324. 

Here Ruusbroec very explicitly and unmistakably expresses his opinion about the ideal of poverty that is under discussion. The poverty of Christ had become heretic in 1323; Ruusbroec writes the Tabernacle around 1350. In this paragraph he openly states: Christ had 'house nor garden' and rode in all modesty on 'a female donkey'. His opinion on the ideal of poverty is part of his judgement of the church.

So we have found two points of criticism towards the 14th-century church. First of all the wealth, greed, display of splender and a barren spiritual life. Second of all the people aren't shown a good spiritual life through actions, and they don't get sufficient education, spiritual education.

benedictijner monnik drinkt wijn

Benedictine monk tastes the wine in advance
-click to magnify-

Ruusbroec's critique of the monasteries

Furthermore Ruusbroec criticises the monateries of his time. This is rather similar to his critique of the church. Let's read from page 328 onward, from the subheading the 'Decline of the monastic orders', because here he absolutely doesn't mince his words and gives an illuminating peep into wrongdoings that apparently existed within monasteries - fascinating reading!

And one can equally notice this on the part of all the clergymen who are present in the world. One still can find monks and nuns in the monasteries, who are dutiful and devout and who appear to be inward oriented and who behave well in every respect. Some among them are willing, simple and holy, but they aren't highly esteemed. Others however are evil and insincere and show what they are not, and just because of that they often are elevated and chosen on prominent positions.

And then one gets to know them for what they really are. Because they'll elevate themselves above others, as if they were in the world, as if they had gained these goods and this honorary position as the heritage of their forefathers. And then they have forgotten the holiness and they desire the wordly belongings and they wield their power. They entrust the welfare of the souls and the discipline in the monasteries to the prior, because they are too busy and are engaged in all sorts of things, to the point that they're hardly able to attend a mass. And all who approach them, have to bow and nod, because they hold the place of honour!

Whereas in fact they should be the last for this reason, out of their heart's humbleness, and they should loyally be of service to their subjects.

Jan van Ruusbroec, Van den geesteliken tabernakel (± 1350). Critique of church and monasteries.

English translation by RvL, based on: L. Moereels, Het geestelijk tabernakel (1982), p. 328. 

Then we skip two paragraphs and continue with the last paragraph (page 329 and 330):

One can indeed also observe this: if there are forty monks in a monastery, they'll perform little more masses than they are forced to do, only because they're collectively imposed by the convent. And at night when they are ringing the bells for the matins, four or five will come out of duty of their profession, but more out of necessity than out of free will, while all the others keep sleeping and calmly cherish their convenience.

They often gather in the Chapter House and that is useful and good, but nevertheless the condition of the monasteries declines every day. Because when everyone judges the other one instead of himself, the reprimand is merciless and the humility and the unity in brotherly love are lacking. Because people who don't displease themselves and don't admit their flaws, will hardly take criticism calmly when they are reprimanded.

Also, when the prior or someone else, who he can order to do it, rings the bells for the refectory, three or four of the youngest will show up, so it will still look like a community. Lord abbot remains in his quarters with his entourage, and all the others in the convent are ill and sick and tuck into meat and tasty foods, all that they can lay their hands on. Those who have vast wages, collect a lot of money or squander it rapidly; those who possess less, just have to consume less. Because everyone hangs on to what he has and won't share it with others.


But the persons who founded the beggar's orders, possessed God in the unity of their spirit, and internally driven by God and out of brotherly love, they turned themselves towards the people and filled the whole world with their holy life and with perfect teachings. They rejected possessions and honour, the pleasures of their body and all the comfort in the world. They followed Christ in voluntarily poverty, both externally and internally.

Jan van Ruusbroec, Van den geesteliken tabernakel (± 1350). Critique of church and monasteries.

English translation by RvL, based on: L. Moereels, Het geestelijk tabernakel (1982), p. 329-330. 

Hypocrisy, haughtiness, desiring earthly possessions and power, not attending mass, excessive eating and drinking and not sharing your wealth. Ruusbroec really doesn't mince his words here. In the last paragraph he openly stands up for the ideal of poverty, when he writes about the founders of the beggar's orders: 'They followed Christ in voluntarily poverty, both externally and internally'. This he calls a 'holy life' and 'perfect teachings'.

So he praises these beggar's orders for their fundamental principles: they cared about the people and they lived in poverty. But, Ruusbroec says, only a few still live this way. Nowadays also the beggar's orders are guilty of craving for possessions and wealth and outward appearances.

The only ones he still expresses some appreciation for (on page 243), are the Carthusians and the women who live in enclosed religious orders. They don't take part in the world, so they won't become identical to the world.

It probably wasn't a coincidence that brother Geraert, whom Ruusbroec visited, as we saw last week, was a Carthusian. It's generally known that the Carthusians in the 14th century also sharply criticised priests and pastors. They accuse pastors of not spiritually teaching the common people enough. And the Carthusians then start, in that 14th century, to spread religious literature in native languages, like their integral translation of the Bible.

So the Carthusians and Ruusbroec, prior of the Augustinian monastery in Green Valley, strive after the same thing. In short: they want to meet with the spiritual needs of the people. And why? Well, as we just saw, because those who are responsible for that, the church (priests, pastors), fail to do so; or don't do a very good job, according to Ruusbroec. As he states in the Tabernacle: the clergymen in the church don't teach the people anything about spiritual life and they neither show it through their actions.

Ruusbroec about heresy

But there is a second reason why Ruusbroec wants to meet the spiritual need of the people in the vernacular. Brother Geraert mentions that reason in his Prologue. We read it last week and I will repeat the paragraph concerned:

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 (Prologue, III, p. 19).

English translation by RvL.

This is an important reason why Ruusbroec writes in the regional language: there was 'a great need of spiritual education in the regional language, due to several heresies and misconceptions that had arisen'. What could he imply by that?

During this 'horrible 14th century' with all it's social problems, the church wasn't able to be an anchor, because it had too many problems of it's own; due to loss of power, the pope all the way in Avignon and later that ridicoulous situation that there were two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon.

At the same time the church was tremendously rich and - as we've read before in Ruusbroec's words - apparently many priests and monks totally indulge into that wealth and wallow in all the splendour and abundance, while they neglect their task to spiritually guide and educate the people.

Under these circumstances - social insecurity, the church provides no anchor - people start to seek refuge somewhere else. And that led during the 14th century to the rise of all kinds of spiritual movements. According to the church: heretical movements. Heresy is: not following the doctrine of Rome (or... of Avignon, that's the question during the 14th century).

An extreme example of such a religious group are the so called Flagellants: men (males) who walk in processions through cities, while they flog themselves until they bleed. But there is another movement I want to discuss a little more, the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit (also: Brethren of the Free Spirit). It was a rather disorganised movement, a bit of a mishmash, not one well-defined organisation. But they had two very clear convictions.

procession flagellants 1349

Procession of Flagellants
-click to magnify-

First of all they believe that everything is God: the earth, everything present on that earth, the universe, all life, everything is God. You could say: God is the sum of all there is. God doesn't exceed this. When a person dies, he is absorbed into the all, and the 'I' (the person, his identity) gets destroyed. One will eventually be absorbed, dissapear in the all.

Secondly they are very engaged in focussing internally, nowadays we could call it meditation. Because of that inward orientation, one becomes, according to them, not only one with God, no you even become God. And as soon as you realise that you are God, like everything in the universe after all is God according to them, then they reason as follows: I realise now that I am God, so that means that I can't commit a sin anymore, so there's no longer a need to engage in virtues or good works or my fellow man or society. Sitting stil, turning inwards, and feeling that your are God is all that still matters.

What is John of Ruusbroec's opinion on this movement, the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit? In a way, you could say, what they describe resembles mysticism: through inward orientation you start to experience the divine. That sounds plausible, in the area of mysticism. But, Ruusbroec says, that is exactly what makes it so dangerous.

He extensively writes about this at the end of the Inward Life in the Brulocht. First of all he says: this resembles mysticism, it seems that this person finds God, but that isn't really the case. He calls the experience of the Brothers of the Free Spirit 'false mysticism' or 'an incomplete mystical experience'. After the break we will read the paragraph about this in the Brulocht, and it will become completely clear. But in any case, Ruusbroec regards this as an incomplete mystical experience.

Secondly, according to Ruusbroec, the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit draw the wrong conclusions. They claim that after turning inward, you'll experience that you yourself are God, and subsequently you can't commit a sin anymore, so morally you can do or don't do whatever you want. There's no longer need to practise vitues or have love for your neighbour, the only thing they pursue is 'to rest in yourself'. At the end of the Inward Life Ruusbroec calls this 'false emptiness'. These ideas completely go against Ruusbroec's belief, we already read a littlebit about last week, because crucial for him when it comes to growing spiritually, are the growth of virtues and love and interacting conscientiously with your fellow men.

I hope you now have a clear picture of the world Ruusbroec lived in and how he reacts to the developments during his lifetime. His basic thought is that the common people aren't educuated enough spiritually by the church and that clergymen don't live by example. Also the people are misled by heresies, like the Free Spirit movement, that obtain a lot of followers, because people don't find anymore what they're looking for within the church.

So Ruusbroec writes with a deliberate goal. With his books he wants to spiritually educate the common people and to lead them to a personal, inward oriented religious experience.


This last hour we discussed the horrible fourteenth century (both social and religious developments) and Ruusbroec's response to his time. By sorting out the things Ruusbroec (1293-1381) does and does not reacts to, the goal of his writings, why he wrote his treatises, becomes more clear.

•  The 14th century is referred to as a disastrous, horrible centery or the insane 14th century. Important developments and disasters within society are:

  • Hundred Years' War (1337-1453)
  • power struggle nobility - cities
  • famines (1315-1317)
  • the plague (1347-1351)
  • peasant's revolts (1332, 1358, 1381)
•  Important developments, conflicts and disputes within the church and religious thinking are:

  • poverty Christ becomes heretical (1323)
  • pope in Avignon (1309-1377)
  • Western Schism (1378-1417)
  • breach believing - thinking (what one can prove)
  • theology also wants to be a science, leads to:
    breach theology - devotion
•  Ruusbroec criticises both the church and the monasterie and expresses a strong opinion about the ideal of poverty.

  • Clergymen don't teach the people anything about spiritual life and they neither show it through their actions.
  • He reproaches the priests and monks for hypocrisy, haughtiness, desiring earthly possessions and power, not attending mass, excessive eating and drinking and not sharing your wealth.
  • He praises these beggar's orders for their fundamental principles (poverty) and the Carthusians and the women who live in enclosed religious orders, for not going into the world.
•  Like the Carthusians, Ruusbroec wants to spread spiritual ideas among the people, so using the local language. They want to meet the spiritual need of the people, because those who are responsible (priests, pastors, monks) don't do it.

•  Furthermore there was great need for spiritual education in Diets, Middle Dutch, because new religious movements, according to Ruusbroec, spread misconceptions and heresies among the people.

•  According to the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit everything is God and by turning inward (meditation) one becomes God. Then they can't commit a sin anymore and there's no need anymore to engage in virtues or good works or their fellow man. All that matters then is resting within yourself.

•  Ruusbroec calls this 'false emptiness' and 'false mysticism'. According to his doctrine, spiritual experiences urge a person to search for self-knowledge, knowledge of God, virtues and love for one's neighbour.

•  So the goal of Ruusbroec's writings is the education of the people - because the glerymen neglect this, while religious sects are spreading heresies.

After the break

After the break we will read more about all of this in the Brulocht. Then it will become clear why Ruusbroec uses the word 'false mysticism' to describe the Free Spirit.

In this part, the Inward Life in the Brulocht, Ruusbroec will describe his view on man, one of the most important foundations of his doctrine and an astonishing image - that proves to seamlessly fit into the medieval cosmology.

We will end with a beautiful image, the famous paragraph in which grace flows 'from the inside out'.

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 6/7 in Dutch: De verschrikkelijke veertiende eeuw.


©  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