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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

The Imitation of Christ

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THE IMITATION OF CHRIST ( Imitatio Christi ), the title of a famous medieval Christian devotional work, much used still by both Catholics and Protestants and usually ascribed to Thomas a Kempis. The "Contestation" over the author of the Imitation of Christ is probably the most considerable and famous controversy that has ever been carried on concerning a purely literary question. It has been going on almost without flagging for three centuries, and nearly 200 combatants have entered the lists. In the present article nothing is said on the history of the controversy, but an attempt is made to summarize the results that may be looked on as definitely acquired.

Until quite recently there were three candidates in the field - Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), a canon regular of Mount St Agnes in Zwolle, in the diocese of Utrecht, of the Windesheim Congregation of Augustinian Canons; John Gerson (1363-1429), chancellor of the University of Paris; and an abbot, John Gersen, said to have been abbot of a Benedictine monastery at Vercelli in the 12th century. Towards the end of the 15th century the Imitation circulated under the names of the first two; but Gerson is an impossible author, and his claims have never found defenders except in France, where they are no longer urged. The Benedictine abbot Gersen is an absolutely mythical personage, a mere "double" of the chancellor. Consequently at the present day the question is narrowed to the issue: Thomas a Kempis, or an unknown author.

The following is a statement of the facts that may be received as certain: 1. The earliest-known dated MS. of the Imitation is of 1424 - it contains only Bk. the earliest MSS. of the whole work of certain date are of 1427. Probably some of the undated MSS. are older; but it is the verdict of the most competent modern expert opinion that there is no palaeographical reason for suspecting that any known MS. is earlier than the first quarter of the 15th century.

2. A Latin letter of a Dutch canon regular, named Johann van Schoonhoven, exhibits such a close connexion with Bk. I. that plagiarism on the one side or the other is the only possible explanation. It is capable of demonstration that the author of the Imitation was the borrower, and that the opposite hypothesis is inadmissible. Now, this letter can be shown to have been written after 1382. Therefore Bk. I. was beyond controversy written between the years 1382 and 1424.

3. It is not here assumed that the four treatises formed a single work, or even that they are all by the same author; and the date of the other three books cannot be fixed with the same certainty. But, on the one hand, before the beginning of the 15th century there is no trace whatever of their existence - a strong argument that they did not yet exist; and on the other hand, after 1424 nearly each year produces its quota of MSS. and other signs of the existence of these books become frequent. Moreover, as a matter of fact, the four treatises did commonly circulate together. The presumption is strong that Bks. II., III., IV., like Bk. were composed shortly before they were put into circulation.

It may then be taken as proved that the Imitation was composed between 1380 and 1425, and probably towards the end rather than the beginning of that period. Having ascertained the date, we must consider the birthplace.

4. A number of idioms and turns of expression throughout the book show that its author belonged to some branch of the Teutonic race. Further than this the argument does not lead; for when the dialects of the early 15th century are considered it cannot be said that the expressions in question are Netherlandic rather than German - as a matter of fact, they have all been paralleled out of High German dialects.

5. Of the 400 MSS. of the Imitation 340 come from the Teutonic countries - another argument in favour of its Teutonic origin. Again, loo of them, including the earliest, come from the Netherlands. This number is quite disproportionate to the relative size of the Netherlands, and so points to Holland as the country in which the Imitation was first most widely circulated and presumably composed.

6. There is a considerable body of early evidence, traceable before 1450, that the author was a canon regular.

7. Several of the MSS. were written in houses belonging to the Windesheim Congregation of canons regular, or in close touch with it. Moreover there is a specially intimate literary and spiritual relationship between the Imitation and writings that emanated from what has been called the "Windesheim Circle." To sum up: the indirect evidence points clearly to the conclusion that the Imitation was written by a Teutonic canon regular, probably a Dutch canon regular of the Windesheim Congregation, in the first quarter of the 15th century. These data are satisfied by Thomas a Kempis.

We pass to the direct evidence, neglecting that of witnesses who had no special sources of information.

8. There can be no question that in the Windesheim Congregation itself there was already, during Thomas a Kempis's lifetime, a fixed tradition that he was the author of the Imitation. The most important witness to this tradition is Johann Busch. It is true that the crucial words are missing in one copy of his "Chronicle"; but it is clear there were two redactions of the work, and there are no grounds whatever for doubting that the second with its various enlargements came from the hands of Busch himself - a copy of it containing the passage exists written in 1464, while both Busch and Thomas a Kempis were still alive. Busch passed a great part of his life in Windesheim, only a few miles from Mount St Agnes where Thomas lived. It would be hard to find a more authentic witness. Another witness is Hermann Rhyd, a German member of the Windesheim Congregation, who also had personally known Thomas. Besides, two or three MSS. originating in the Windesheim Congregation state or imply the same tradition.

9. More than this: the tradition existed in Thomas a Kempis's own monastery shortly after his death. For John Mauburne became a canon in Mount St Agnes within a few years of Thomas's death, and he states more than once that Thomas wrote the Imitation. 10. The earliest biographer of Thomas A. Kempis was an anonymous contemporary: the Life was printed in 1494, but it exists in a MS. of 1488. The biographer says he got his information from the brethren at Mount St Agnes, and he states in passing that Bk. III. was written by Thomas. Moreover, he appends a list of Thomas's writings, 38 in number, and 5-8 are the four books of the Imitation. It is needless to point out that such a list must be of vastly greater authority than those given by St Jerome or Gennadius in their De Viris Illustribus, and its rejection must, in consistency, involve methods of criticism that would work havoc in the history of early literature of what king soever. The domestic tradition in the Windesheim Congregation, and in Mount St Agnes itself, has a weight that cannot be legitimately avoided or evaded. Indeed the external authority for Thomas's authorship is stronger than that for the authorship of most really anonymous books - such, that is, as neither themselves claim to be by a given author, nor have been claimed by any one as his own. A large proportion of ancient writings, both ecclesiastical and secular, are unquestioningly assigned to writers on far less evidence than that for Thomas's authorship of the Imitation. Internal arguments have been urged against Thomas's authorship. It has been said that his certainly authentic writings are so inferior that the Imitation could not have been written by the same author. But only if they were of the most certain and peremptory nature could such internal arguments be allowed to weigh against the clear array of facts that make up the external argument in favour of a Kempis. And it cannot be said that the internal difficulties are such as this. Let it be granted that Thomas was a prolific writer and that his writings vary very much in quality; let it be granted also that the Imitation surpasses all the rest, and that some are on a level very far below it; still, when at their best, some of the other works are not unworthy of the author of the Imitation. In conclusion, it is the belief of the present writer that the "Contestation" is over, and that Thomas a Kempis's claims to the authorship of the Imitation have been solidly established.

The best account in English of the Controversy is that given by F. R. Cruise in his Thomas d Kempis (1887). Works produced before 1880 are in general, with the exception of those of Eusebius Amort, superannuated, and deal in large measure with points no longer of any living interest. A pamphlet by Cruise, Who was the Author of the Imitation? (1898) contains sufficient information on the subject for all ordinary needs; it has been translated into French and German, and may be regarded as the standard handbook.

It has been said that the Imitation of Christ has had a wider religious influence than any book except the Bible, and if the statement be limited to Christendom, it is probably true. The Imitation has been translated into over fifty languages, and is said to have run through more than 6000 editions. The other statement, often made, that it sums up all that is best of earlier Western mysticism - that in it "was gathered and concentered all that was elevating, passionate, profoundly pious in all the older mystics" (Milman) is an exaggeration that is but partially true, for it depreciates unduly the elder mystics and fails to do justice to the originality of the Imitation. For its spiritual teaching is something quite different from the mysticism of Augustine in the Confessions, or of Bernard in the Sermons on the Song of Songs; it is different from the scholastic mysticism of the St Victors or Bonaventure; above all, it is different from the obscure mysticism, saturated with the pseudo-Dionysian Neoplatonism of the German school of Eckhart, Suso, Tauler and Ruysbroek. Again, it is quite different from the later school of St Teresa and St John of the Cross, and from the introspective methods of what may be called the modern school of spirituality. The Imitation stands apart, unique, as the principal and most representative utterance of a special phase of religious thought - non-scholastic, non-platonic, positive and merely religious in its scope - herein reflecting faithfully the spirit of the movement initiated by Gerhard Groot, and carried forward by the circles in which Thomas a Kempis lived. In contrast with more mystical writings it is of limpid clearness, every sentence being easily understandable by all whose spiritual sense is in any degree awakened. No doubt it owes its universal power to this simplicity, to its freedom from intellectualism and its direct appeal to the religious sense and to the extraordinary religious genius of its author. Professor Harnack in his book What is Christianity? counts the Imitation as one of the chief spiritual forces in Catholicism: it "kindles independent religious life, and a fire which burns with a flame of its own" (p. 266).

The best Latin edition of the Imitation is that of Hirsche (1874), which follows closely the autograph of 1441 and reproduces the rhythmical character of the book. Of English translations the most interesting is that by John Wesley, under the title The Christian's Pattern (1735). (E. C. B.)

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'The Imitation of Christ'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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