A fourteenth century educational revolution in the Netherlands gave a great boost to the early development of the Dutch economy, according to a study by Semih Akçomak, Dinand Webbink and Bas ter Weel, which is published in the June 2016 Economic Journal.

Their research explores the impact of Geert Groote who used his personal wealth to set up communities – known as the Brethren of the Common Life (BCL) – teaching adults and children how to read and write. His initiative – which formed the basis for modern education in the Netherlands and many other places – was largely responsible for the country''s early high levels of literacy, urban growth and future economic prosperity.

The effects of this educational revolution could still be felt centuries later and were the overture to the Dutch Golden Age. The study empirically traces the BCL''s impact and demonstrates the strong causal relationship between investments in education and economic development, often far into the future.

How it all began

Geert Groote (Deventer, 1340-84) witnessed the moral decline within the Catholic Church with great sorrow. He used his family fortune to set up communities teaching adults and children how to read and write. The first of these BCL communities was founded in Deventer, which subsequently led to other such communities in various locations around the Netherlands.

The BCL movement was able to blossom because it operated from within the Catholic Church. Its motives were of a religious nature. The communities were similar to monasteries, which, in addition to their religious function, also educated people. The brethren were self-supportive by translating and producing books. Members were not required to take vows and lived within the local community.

Groote translated the Bible into Dutch so that people could read it for themselves. He encouraged them to lead simple and God-fearing lives. Furthermore, as citizens learned to read, they also became more aware of Church rules and regulations. Those who could read and write also became more economically independent, which increased trade levels. This economic independence made the repression under the rule of Spain particularly painful.

Economic effects

The investments initiated by Geert Groote are interesting from an economic perspective for three reasons.

First, literacy in cities with BCL communities around the year 1600 was up to 30% higher than in other cities, and education had become institutionalised. The BCL introduced the eight-class system, teaching language and arithmetic. These cities also produced a larger number of books in the period before 1500. The share of books produced in these cities was about 3% higher than elsewhere.

Second, the population of BCL cities grew up to 50% faster than those in other cities over the period from 1400 to 1560. This would strongly suggest that BCL did lead to economic prosperity. This prosperity was driven by investments in education. Therefore, the importance of education for economic growth was already evident in the Middle Ages in Europe.

Finally, literate people make for critical citizens. Spain, which ruled the Netherlands with an iron hand in the sixteenth century, did not feel confident about the Dutch situation. And when in 1566, the Iconoclastic Fury raged through the Netherlands, it became clear that the population had had enough of being under the yoke of their oppressors.

Around the time of the Dutch Revolt (1572), the influence of the BCL was declining. Their ideology had become widely accepted and many of the brethren were being influenced by the Reformation. Together with Pope Pius V''s demand that the BCL complexes be turned into regular monasteries, this led to the end of the movement.

Nevertheless, the BCL were responsible for the early high levels of literacy in the Netherlands, heralding the strong economic growth that preceded the Golden Age. This also was the start of social reform, enabling the Netherlands to free itself of the yoke of Spanish rule and to become one of the world''s superpowers in the seventeenth century.

''Why Did the Netherlands Develop So Early? The Legacy of the Brethren of the Common Life'' by Semih Akçomak, Dinand Webbink and Bas ter Weel is published in the June 2016 issue of the Economic Journal. Semih Akçomak is at the Middle East Technical University. Dinand Webbink is at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Bas ter Weel is at CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis and Maastricht University.