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An Augustinian monastery situated about four miles south of Zwolle on the Issel, in the Kingdom of Holland

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Windesheim, an Augustinian monastery situated about four miles south of Zwolle on the Issel, in the Kingdom of Holland. The congregation of canons regular, of which this was the chief house, was an offshoot of the Brethren of the Common Life and played a considerable part in the reforming movement within the Catholic Church in Holland and Germany during the century which preceded the Reformation. The Brethren of the Common Life, who did not form an order or congregation strictly so called, had become obnoxious to the mendicant friars, and the object of their attacks. To remedy this, Gerard Groot, when on his deathbed (1384), advised that some of the brethren should adopt the rule of an approved order (Chron. Wind., 263). His successor, Florence Radewyns, carried this advice into effect. Six of the brethren, carefully chosen as specially fitted for the work, among them John, elder brother of Thomas a Kempis, were sent to the monastery of Eymsteyn (founded 1382) to learn the usages of the Augustinian Canons. In 1386 they erected huts for a temporary monastery at Windesheim, and in March of the following year commenced the building of a monastery and church, which were consecrated by Hubert Lebene, titular Bishop of Hippo and auxiliary of Utrecht, on October 17, 1387. At the same time the six brethren took their vows. The real founder of the greatness of Windesheim was Johann Vos, the second prior (1391-1424), under whom the number of religious was greatly increased and many foundations were made. The first of these were Marienborn near Arnheim and Niewlicht near Hoorn (1392). These two houses with Eymsteyn and the motherhouse were the first members of the congregation or chapter (capitulum) as it was then called. It was approved and received certain privileges from Boniface IX in 1395. The constitutions added to the Rule of St. Augustine were approved by Martin V at the Council of Constance. An annual general chapter was held at Windesheim “after the fashion of the brethren of the Carthusian Order“, at which all the priors proffered their resignation. The prior of Windesheim was the superior prior, or head of the congregation, with considerable powers. After 1573 a prior-general was elected from among the priors of the monasteries. The choir Office at first followed in general the Ordinarium of Utrecht (for the reform of the Windesheim liturgical books by Radulfus de Rivo, Dean of Tongres, see Mohlberg, op. cit. infra). The Windesheim Breviary was printed at Louvain in 1546.

The life of the canons was strict, but not over-severe; we are told that a postulant was asked if he could sleep well, eat well, and obey well, “since these three points are the foundation of stability in the monastic life”. The constitutions exhibit in many points the influence of the Carthusian statutes. The canons wore a black hood and scapular, with a white tunic and rochet; the lay brothers were dressed in gray.

By 1407 the congregation numbered twelve monasteries. In 1413 it was joined by the seven Brabant houses of the Groenendael Congregation, of which the famous mystic Ruysbroek had been a member, and in 1430 by the twelve houses of the Congregation of Neuss in the Archdiocese of Cologne. When the Windesheim Congregation reached the height of its prosperity towards the end of the fifteenth century, it numbered eighty-six houses of canons, and sixteen of nuns, mostly situated in what is now the Kingdom of Holland, and in the ecclesiastical Province of Cologne. Those which survived the Reformation (they still numbered 32 in 1728) were suppressed at the end of the eighteenth or beginning of the nineteenth century. Uden in Holland is the only survivor at the present day (Heimbucher, 11, 43). The destruction of Windesheim itself began in 1572, when the altars in the church were destroyed by the people of Zwolle; the suppression came in 1581. There are now practically no remains of the buildings. The last prior of Windesheim, Marcellus Lentius (d. 1603), never obtained possession of his monastery.

The Windesheimers numbered many writers, besides copyists and illuminators. Their most famous author was Thomas a Kempis. Besides ascetical works, they also produced a number of chronicles, of which we may mention the “Chronicle of Windesheim” by Johann Busch. An emendation of the Vulgate text and of the text of various Fathers was also undertaken. Gabriel Biel, “the last German scholastic”, was a member of the congregation. A number of books were translated into German, and, besides the regular monastic library, a library of German works was established in each house for lending to the people. The chief historical importance of the Windesheim Canons lies in their reforming work. This was not confined to the reform of monasteries, but was extended to the secular clergy and the laity, whom they especially sought to bring to greater devotion towards the Blessed Sacrament and more frequent communion. The chief of the Windesheim monastic reformers was Johann Busch (b. 1399; d. 1480). This remarkable man was clothed at Windesheim in 1419. At the chapter of 1424 Prior Johann Vos, who knew his own end was near, especially entrusted Busch and Hermann Xanten with the carrying out of his work of reform (Chron. Wind., 51). Grube gives a list of forty-three monasteries (twenty-seven Augustinian, eight Benedictine, five Cistercian, and three Premonstratensian), in whose reform Busch had a share; perhaps his greatest conquest was the winning to the side of reform of Johann Hagen, for thirty years (1439-69) Abbot of Bursfeld and the initiator of the Benedictine Congregation known as the Union of Bursfeld. In 1451 Busch was entrusted by his friend Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, legate of Nicholas V, with the reform of the North German monasteries, and with such labors he was busied till shortly before his death.

Similar work on a smaller scale was carried out by other Windesheimers. Some Protestant writers have claimed the Windesheim reformers as forerunners of the Protestant Reformation. This is a misapprehension of the whole spirit of the canons of Windesheim; their object was the reform of morals, not the overthrow of dogma. The conduct of the communities of Windesheim and Mount St. Agnes, who preferred exile to the non-observance of an interdict published by Martin V, exemplifies their spirit of obedience to the Holy See.


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