1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas à Kempis (Thomas Kammerken)

Thomas à Kempis
(Thomas Kammerken)
German Augustinian monk and mystic
(1380-1471)




THOMAS A KEMPIS, (c. 1380-1471), is the name by which Thomas Hammerken (Hanimerchen, Malleolus) is commonly known. He was born in 1379 or 1380 in the town of Kempen, lying about 15 miles north-west of Dusseldorf, in one of the many patches of territory between the Meuse and the Rhine belonging to the archiépiscopal principality of Cologne. " Ego Thomas Kempis," he says in his chronicle of the monastery of Mount St Agnes, "scholaris Daventriensis, ex diocesi Coloniensi natus." His father was a poor hard-worked peasant ; his mother " ad custodiam rei domestical attenta, in opere alacris, in victu sobria, in potu abstemia. in verbo pauca, in factis pudica," as her son fondly says, kept a . dame's school for the youn.er children of the town. John and Gertrude Hammerken had two sons, John and Thomas, both of whom found their way to Deventer, and thence to Zwolle and to the convent of Mount St Agnes. Thomas reached Deventer when he was barely twelve years old, was taught by a dame the beginnings of his learning, and in a few months to his great joy entered the classes of. Florentius Radewyn. After the fashion of the time he was called Thomas from Kempen, and the school title, as was often the case then, pushed aside the family name. Thomas Hammerken was forgotten ; Thomas a Kempis has become known to the whole Chris-tian world.

This school at Deventer had become famous long before Thomas a Kempis was admitted to its classes. It had been founded by Gerhard Groot, a wealthy burgher (see GROOT), who had been won to pious living mainly through the influence of Ruysbroeck, the Flemish mystic. It was at Deventer, in the midst of this mystical theology and hearty practical benevolence, that Thomas a Kempis was trained. Gerhard Groot was his saintly ideal. Florentius Radewyn and Gerhard's other early disciples were his heroes ; their presence was his atmosphere, the measure of their lives his horizon. But he was not like them ; he was not an educa-tional reformer like Radewyn, nor a man of affairs like Gerhard. He liked bonks and quiet corners all his days, he says ; and so, when conviction of sin and visions of God's grace came to him in tho mediaeval fashion of a dream of the anger and forgiveness of the Virgin, Florentius told him that a monk's life would suit him best, advised him to join the Augustinian order, and sent him to Zwolle to the new convent of Mount St Agnes, where his brother John was prior. Thomas was received there in 1399, he professed the vows in 1407, received priest's orders in 1413, became sub-prior in 1425, and died on the 8th of August 1471, being ninety-one years old.

The convent of Mount St Agues was poor, and most of the monks had to earn money to support their household by copying MSS. Thomas was a most laborious copyist: missals, books of devotion, and a famous MS. Bible were written by him ; and the weightiest argument of those who deny that he is the author of the Imitatio Christi is that he was a copyist. He also wrote a large number of original writings, most of them relating to the convent life, which was the only life he knew. He wrote a chronicle of the monastery and several biographies—the life of Gerhard Groot, of Florentius Radewyn, of a Flemish lady St Louise, of Groot's original disciples; a number of tracts on the monastic life—The Monk's Alphabet, The Discipline of Cloisters, A Dialogue of Novices, The Life of the Good Monk, The Monk's Epitaph, Sermons to Novices, Sermons to Monks, The Solitary Life, On Silence, On Poverty, Humility, and Patience; two tracts for young people— A Manual of Doctrine for the Young, and A Manual for Children; and books for edification—On True Com-punction, The Garden of Roses, The Valley of Lilies, The Consolation of the Poor and the Sick, The Faithful Dispenser, The Soid's Soliloquy, The Hospital of the Poor. He has also left behind him three collections of sermons, a number of letters, some hymns, and the Imitatio Ghristi, if that be his. These writings help us to see the man and his surroundings, and contemporary pious records make him something more than a shadow. We see a real man, but a man helpless anywhere save in the study or in the convent,—a little fresh-coloured man, with soft brown eyes, who had a habit of stealing away to his cubicnlum whenever the conversation became too lively; somewhat bent, for it is on record that he stood upright when the psalms were chanted, and even rose on his tiptoes with his face turned upwards; genial, if shy, and occasionally given to punning, as when he said that he preferred Psalmi to Salmones; a man who perhaps led the most placid uneventful life of all men who ever wrote a book or scribbled letters. It was not that he lived in uneventful times: it is impossible to select a stormier period of European history, or a period when the stir of the times made its way so well into the obscurest corners. Bohemia, Huss leading, was ablaze in revolt at one end of Europe; France and England, then France and Burgundy, were at death-grips at the other. Two popes anathematized each other from Avignon and from Bome, and zealous churchmen were at their wit's end to concoct ways and means, by general councils of Constance and Basel and otherwise, to restore peace to a distracted church, and to discipline the clergy into decent living. But Thomas knew nothing about all this. He was intent on his copying, on his little books, and on his quiet conversations. His very biographies are colourless. He had not even the common interest in the little world coming up to the convent gate which most monks may be supposed to have. His brethren made him ceconomiae prefectus, but he was too " simple in worldly affairs " and too absent-minded for the post, and so they deposed him and made him sub-prior once more. And yet it is this placid kindly fresh-coloured old man who is commonly said to be the author of that book the Imitation of Christ, which has been translated into more languages than any other book save the Bible, and which has moved the hearts of so many men of all nations, characters, and conditions of life.





Did Thomas a Kempis write the Imitation of Christ ? Had it not been for his connexion with this famous little book, Thomas would have been no better known than Gerhard Groot, Florentius Radewyn, or Jan van Ruysbroeck. The problem of authorship has given rise to the most interminable controversy the history of litera-ture has ever seen, and one which seems to be still as fresh as it was in the 17th century. It arose in this way. The author of the Imitatio sent it forth anonymously. If Thomas was the author he must have written it when he was about forty-five years of age, and it must have found its way into England and Franco within a very short space of time. Then Thomas was a copyist, a man who spent his life in copying for sale books which he had not composed. These are the only presumptions which make it likely that the Imitatio Ghristi had another author. But down till the beginning of the 17th century Thomas was almost universally esteemed the author of the Imitatio. Some MSS. undoubtedly bore the name of St Bernard, and others that of John Gerson ; but the great majority of MSS. testified to the authorship of Thomas. In 1604, however, a Spanish student of the Imitatio found a sentence from it quoted in what was believed to be a sermon of Bonaventura, who died in 1273, long before either Gerson or Thomas was born. It was after-wards proved that the sermon was not by Bonaventura, but belonged to the end of the 15th century ; still for the time it was supposed that Thomas could not have written the Imitatio, and learned men looked anxiously for a clue to an earlier author. Just then, in 1605, Bernardin Rossignoli, superior of the Jesuit college at Arona, discovered in the college library a MS. of the Imitatio without date, and bearing the title Incipiunt capitula primi libri Abbatis Johannis Gersen, De Imitatione Christi. The college had formerly belonged to the Benedictines, and it was supposed, wrongly as it turned out, that the MS. had been in the old Benedictine library, and was therefore ancient. Here then was an author, Gerson, and a MS. of the date required. The facts were, however, that the MS. was of the beginning of the 16th century, and had been brought to Arona from Genoa in 1579. Constantine Cajetan, famous for his insano devotion to the order of St Benedict, got the Arona MS. printed at Rome, declaring that the author was John Gersen, an abbot of tho order of St Benedict. Cajetan next discovered in a copy of tho printed Venice edition of tho Imitatio of 1501 a note in an unknown hand: "This book was not written by John Gerson, but by John, abbot of Vereelli." Ho also found an MS. bearing the name of John of Canabaco. Weaving these unconnected details together, Cajetan declared that the author of the Imitation of Christ was John Gerson of Canabaco, Benedictine abbot of Vereelli. Thus began the famous controversy. It has been a controversy really between the supporters of Thomas a Kempis and the Benedictines, who advocate the claims of John Gersen, a mythical personage whose very existence has been taken for granted and never proved. But, while this is the crux of the dispute, tho authorship has been claimed for a great variety of writers: —John Scotus Erigena, Bernard of Clairvaux, Giovanni Gerso (an Italian monk and philanthropist of the close of the 12th century), Pope Innocent III., Scoto Giovanni and Thomas Gallus, both abbots of Vereelli, David of Augsburg, Bonaventura, Ubertin of Cassalis, Peter de Corbario, Ludolf of Saxony, Kalkar, Humbert, Martinus Carthus, Giovanni Michele, Joannes Paumerii (the last four probably transcribers— their names are appended to single MSS. in an early printed edi-tion), John Gerson a brother of the famous chancellor of Paris, John Gerson the famous chancellor himself, John Gersen the supposed Benedictine abbot, Walter Hilton an English monk, Thomas a Kempis, John a Kempis the elder brother of Thomas, and John of Canabaco, probably John of Tambacho, a professor in the university of Prague. It will be sufficient to examine the claims of four of these candidates.

Walter Hilton, a monk of Schene (Sheen) in Surrey, who wrote several devotional books, notably Scala Perfectionis Christians, is said by Bale (Illustri. Maj. Brit. Summarium, published in 1559) to have written a treatise called Be Musiea Ecclcsiastica, and this is confirmed by Pits, who wrote much later. Tho earlier MSS, of the De Imitatione are called De Musiea Ecclcsiastica, and the earliest English MS., now in Magdalen College, Oxford, and dated 1438, bears that title. The inference has been drawn that Hilton wrote the first three books of the Imitation in England, and that Thomas copied them and added the fourth book (see Notes and Queries, March 1881). We have no contemporary evidence, however, that Hilton did write a treatise called De Musiea Ecclcsiastica, and this work may have been attributed to him because the MS. copies have been found in volumes also containing some of his devotional writings.

John Gerson, chancellor of Paris (1363-1429, see GERSON), is called the author of the Imitation in several undated MSS., and more especially in two MSS. dated 1441 and 1460. His claims have been supported on the ground of MS. evidence, the presence of Gallicanisms in the Latin of the treatise, and the common tradi-tion in France. The evidence to the contrary is so strong, how-ever, that his cause has been given up by all save by Frenchmen who, like Vert, consider it patriotic to declare themselves " pour j Gerson, Gerson, et pour la France."

John Gersen, abbot of Vercelli, is supported by the Benedictine order and by others. The first requisite here is to show that such a man ever lived, and this in spite of the pains taken has not yet been done. In all probability Gersen is a mistake of early copyists for Gerson. The MS. evidence is as follows. The earliest dated MS. claimed for Gersen gives the author J. Gers., and is dated 1441 ; the second gives the author's name in the same contracted fashion, J. Gers., and is dated 1464 ; -while two of the earlier undated MSS., those of Florence and Padolirone, call the author J. Gersen, chancellor of Paris. The other MSS. which write the author's name J. Gersen are all late or undated. In short, there is not a vestige of early evidence to connect the Imitatio with a John Gersen, and there is no contemporary evidence whatever. Gersen is a creation of Cajetan's for the renown of the Benedictine order, and the motive which has prompted Gersen's supporters finds fitting expression in the dedication to St Benedict of the latest contribu-tion to the controversy, that of Wolfsgruber (Augsburg, 1880).





Thomas a Kempis is acknowledged to be the author by most of the earliest dated MSS., by most of the earliest printed editions of the book, by a great mass of contemporary evidence, and by a great deal of internal evidence, some of a most interesting kind. Of MSS. may be mentioned the Kirchhcim MS. of 1425, the autograph of Thomas (1441), the MS. of Innersdorf (1441), and that of Liege (1444). Twenty-two printed editions in the 15th century attributed the Imitatio to Thomas. The contemporary witnesses are numerous and convincing. John Buschius of the canons regular of V indes-heim, scarcely a league from Mount St Agnes, who had met and conversed with Thomas, calls him the author of the Imitation. Brother Herman, living in a monastery of the canons regular near Halle, who had met Thomas at Windesheim, declared that Thomas was the author of the Imitatio. Similar testimony is borne by Matthias Farinator, a transcriber of the book, by Peter Schott, by Johann Lambert, cither during the lifetime of Thomas or a few years after his death. And Hirsche has produced a new contem-porary witness from an old Belgian chronicle (" Chronique do Jean Brandon, avec les additions d'Adrien de But," p. 547, published in Collect, de Chroniques Belges inédites), which says that Thomas wrote the Qui scquitur me in metre. The proof from internal evi-dence has been set on quite, a fresh basis by the studies of Carl Hirsche, who has discovered from a careful examination of the MS. of 1441 (Bibliothèque de Bourgogne, Brussels, Nos. 5855 and 5861) that the Imitation was written and pointed for the purpose of chanting. This discovery has enabled him to compare the book with other writings of Thomas as to punctuation, rhythm, and rhymes, with the result that he has incontestably proved the great similarity between the Imitation and the undisputed works of Thomas.

The Imitatio Christi is commonly classed among the mystical writings of the 15th century, and in the opinion of writers of the most opposite schools of thought it sums up all that is best of that side of Latin Christianity which includes the theology of the Victorines, of Bernard and Bonaventura, of Eckhart, Tauler, and Kuysbroeck. Mediaeval Christianity shows two ideas of the Christian life struggling for the mastery, each with the common watchword of separation from the world. The one was modelled on Augustine's City of God, and was fulfilled in Hildebrand's conception of a spiritual empire to be raised on the ruins of political society ; the other came to light in the aspirations of Francis of Assisi, and the assimilation of Anselm's maxim that sinners can appropriate the benefits won for them by Christ by imitating the Saviour. Francis's idea of imitation was rudely picturesque. The Bible shows Christ obedient, poor, unmarried ; we can imitate the Master by keeping the vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. This crass idea of an imitation of Christ gave new force to the monastic movement, and put new meaning into its vows, and it spread in various ways through Fratricelli, Spirituales, Wycliffe's poor preachers, &c., far beyond the Franciscan order. This idea of imitation by "evan-gelical poverty" was almost spent by the 14th century, and was succeeded by the more refined conception of imitation by "renun-ciation," the watchword of the mystical movement of the 14th and 15th centuries. But by this time the conflict of the Franciscan ideal of the Christian life with Hildebrand's ideal had thoroughly rent media?.val Christendom, and there were two Christianities facing each other, a religious and a political. The breach became wider by the degradation of the papacy, and by the great schism. The "universal" of the church was lost, and had not been discovered again. The new idea of obedience was not obedience to ecclesiasti-cal superiors, but the subordination of the lower part of man's nature to the higher, and of the whole to God. This "renuncia-tion," cut off from practical sympathy with the visible church, feeding itself on a vague idea of union with Christ, might easily have fallen a prey to Buddhist and Averroist notions floating in the European atmosphere (some of the mystics did so fall away) had it not been saved by its clinging to the sacraments, the one mediaeval means of grace, and by its contact with practical Christian work. And gradually out of Eckhart through Tauler two schools arose, both of which use "renunciation" as their watchword—imitation by renunciation. The one school, that of Henry Suso, saw Christ's renunciation best exhibited in His passion, and therefore held that men can imitate by suffering ; they too have a body to mortify. The other, that of Kuysbroeck, saw Christ's renunciation in His incarnation ; so that men can renounce by contemplation, which gives us initiation into the incarnation. Ruysbroeck was Groot's teacher, and Groot taught Thomas, in whom we see the gathered wisdom of that idea of a quest for pardon by imitation of Christ which began with Anselm and came down through Franciscan revivals and mystical movements to him in the 15th century. But Thomas is far more than Ruysbroeck or Groot. He is wider and more sympathetic. He includes Ruysbroeck, Tauler, Eckhart, Bona-ventura, the Franciscans, and even the old Victorines. He sums up in his little book the heart religion of Latin Christianity

For the life of Thomas a Kempis see the Nuremberg edition of 1494, Opera et libri vitas Thoma a Kempis; Heribertus Roswelde, Vila Thonue a Kempis, 1616. The best edition of the collected works is that of Sommalius, Veil. Viri Thomve Malleoli a Kempis . . . Opera Omnia . . . in très tomos dislributa, 1759. The best, edition of the Imitatio is that of Hirsche, Berlin, 1874. A very complete list of the principal writers in the controversy may be found in Wolfsgruber, Giovanni Gersen, sein Leben mid sein Week de Imitatione Christi, 1880, p. 254 sg. For authorship by Gerson, see G. Ch Vert, Cause de limitation de Jésus-Christ, réplique et conclusions, Toulouse, 1861. For Thomas as author, see Malou, Recherches historiques et critiques sur le véritable auteur du livre de VImitation de Jésus-Christ, Tournay, 3d éd., 1858 ; Cari Hirsche, Prolegomena, zu einer neuen Ausgabe der Imitatio, Bei'lfn, 1873; and Samuel Kettlewell, The Authorship of the De Imitatione Christi, London, 1877. (T. M. L.)




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