Henry Cabot Lodge once asserted, “Nearly all the historical work worth doing at the present moment in the English language is the work of shoveling off heaps of rubbish inherited from the immediate past.” What we need, in other words, is not so much “a new perspective” as a very old one. What we need is to recover a memory of those great men and movements obscured by the fashions and fancies of the moment.
Some men’s greatness may be seen in how largely they loom over the movements they launched. But greater men are they whose movements loom large over them — even to the point of obscuring them from view.
Gerhard Groote was just such a man. It would be difficult to find a single page of modern history written about him. But it would be even more difficult to find a single page of modern history that has not been profoundly affected by him. He lived in the tumultuous days of the fourteenth century. A contemporary of John Wycliffe, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Jan Hus, he saw the scourge of the Black Death sweep a quarter of the population of the world away in a wave of pestilence; he saw France and England locked in the intractable conflagration of the Hundred Years War; he saw the Western church sundered by the Great Schism that produced two, sometimes three, sometimes even four, popes; and he saw the rise of the universities and the smothering influence of humanistic scholasticism. Churches were riven by corruption, kingdoms were shaken by instability, families were splintered by adversity, and the very foundations of Christian civilization in the West seemed to be crumbling.