IN his dedication1 of the first English translation of this book, "To the Verie Venerable, His most honored deare Lady Marie Tredway First Abesse of Sion. Canonesses Regulars of S. Augustins Order established at Paris. And to her vertuous daughters," the Rev. "Thomas Carre" (for forty years their chaplain) wrote thus: "I tooke the libertie in the year 1636. To addresse unto you the following of Christ under the name of Thomas of Kempis your brother: where I told you that if that truth should chance to be contested you should rather use prescription then processe &c. ... I now returne to you againe with another present of the same Authour and brother, which is contested by none."
1 Written in 1663, shortly after the parliament of Paris had adjudged Thomas a Kempis to be the undoubted author of the "Imitation of Christ."
The words "contested by none" are perhaps stronger than one would nowadays care to use; but the matter is one which cannot be fitly discussed in a short introduction like the present. Those who are curious about it will find it exhaustively treated by Dr. M. J. Pohl, in an essayl published in 1895, and at pages 385 to 397 of his edition of the text.
I shall here take the question of authorship for granted, and shall confine myself to setting out a few facts about Thomas a Kempis which may possibly be of interest to those using a book so much more subjective in its form than the "Imitation "; and to a brief account of former translations of it into English.
Thomas a Kempis was so called from Kempen,2 the place of his birth.
1 "Ueber ein in Deutschland verschollenes Werk des Thomas von Kempen" (Kempen, A. Wefers'sche Druckerei).
2 Kempen (Rhein) is a small town, lying about fifteen miles north-west from Diisseldorf, in one of the patches of territory between the Rhine and the Meuse formerly belonging to the archiepiscopal principality of Cologne. It is now included in Rhenish Prussia, has a population of about six thousand souls, and is an important railway junction. "Kempen"and "Kempis"are variants of the same word. In Germany and Holland, during the Middle Ages, place-names ending in t and en were latinized by changing those endings into is. The is does not appear to have been inflected; and both in documents written in Latin, and in ordinary speech, either form, e.g., " Kempen " and "Kempis," seems to have been used indiscriminately.
His family name was Haemerken.1 His parents (John and Gertrude) were in humble circumstances. He was born in 1380, and had a brother, John, fifteen years older than himself. Soon after his birth his brother left Kempen, and a few years later joined the "Brotherhood of the Common Life " a at Deventer. When
1 The Latin form of the name is "Malleolus"; englished it would be "Little-hammer." John Haemerken the elder is believed to have been a worker in metal, and he was probably also known as John Hamer. In the monastery chronicles Thomas's elder brother is not called Haemerken, but is referred to as "John Hamer," "John Hamer de Kempis," "John a Kempis," "John Kempis," or "John Kempen."
3 The '' Brotherhood of the Common Life," founded by Gerhard Groot, was approved by Pope Gregory XI in A.D. 1376. Its principles were that, although its members should not be bound by perpetual vows, they should live in obedience and chastity, should have everything in common, should earn their own livelihood, and should spend their leisure in prayer and in works of charity. When dying (of the plague) in 1384, Gerhard Groot named Florentius Radewyn as his successor, and advised the adoption by the Brotherhood of the rule of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, with a condition that those only should be admitted to the Order who were prepared to work for their living. Effect was given without delay to these instructions; and in 1387 a monastery was founded at Windesheim, a place lying about four miles to the south of Zwolle (the now chief town of the province of Overyssel) in the diocese of Utrecht. Two new Houses and one already existing Augustinian foundation soon placed themselves under the jurisdiction of the Prior of Windesheim; and in A.D. 1395 the Windesheim community was by Pope Boniface IX constituted an autonomous congregation, to which convents in other dioceses might associate themselves. The Augustinian canons of Holland, Germany, and the north of France largely availed themselves of this permission, with the result that, by the absorption of existing foundations, and the establishment of new (of which Agnetenberg was among the chief), the Windesheim congregation numbered in the early days of the sixteenth century more than eighty affiliated Houses of men and women. There was also another branch of the Brotherhood (chiefly lay and educational) with its headquarters at Deventer. Both branches suffered greatly in the troublous times of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and at the close of the eighteenth century only one House of each branch was in existence. Both were suppressed by a decree of the Emperor Napoleon I, dated 14 November, 1811. The last surviving brother died at Zevenaar in 1854.
Thomas was in his thirteenth year he also left home and went in search of his brother. What befell him shall be told in his own words:
"When I reached Deventer, whither I had gone in order to pursue my studies, I asked my way to the house of the Canons Regular at Windesheim. There I found my brother. He advised my going to Master Florentius, Curate of the Church at Deventer, a devout and much revered priest, whose good report, spread throughout the Upper Provinces, had already drawn me to love him. . .' . When I presented myself before this reverend father he welcomed me at once, kept me of his charity for a while in his own house, placed me at school, and provided me with the books which he thought I needed. Afterwards he found me a home with an honourable and devout lady, who was most good and kind to me and to many other students. Being thus brought into touch with this holy man [Florentius] and his brethren, I marked well, and rejoiced in, their devout life and conversation. . . . Never before do I remember to have seen men so devout, and so full of love towards God and their fellow-men. Living in the world, they were altogether unworldly."1 "They were of one heart and one mind in God: what each possessed was held in common: and being content with plain food and clothing, they took no thought for the morrow."3 "Master John Boeme, Rector of the school, was also choir-master; and by his orders I used to sing in the choir along with my schoolfellows. Whenever I saw my patron Florentius standing in the choir, his mere presence, even though he did not look about, filled me with such awe that I did not dare to chatter."3 "It happened once, as I was near him in the choir, that he turned to the book, and joined us in singing. Being close behind me, he put his hands on my shoulders; and I stood like a statue, scarcely daring to move, so overcome was I by the great honour he had done me."1'
Later—it must have been in the year 1398— Florentius Radewyn took Thomas back into his
8 "Life of Florentius," chap, xi, § 2. 4 Ibid., § 3.
Later—it must have been in the year 1398— Florentius Radewyn took Thomas back into his own house; and our author tells the story of that part of his life thus:
"In this house some twenty priests lived together in community. . . . There were also three lay-brothers, of whom one was the procurator and did the marketing, one was in charge of the kitchen, and the third mended the clothes."1 "Here I learnt to write neatly, and studied Holy Scripture, moral philosophy, and the practice of devout meditation. . . . What I earned as a copyist I made over to the common purse, and all that I needed was provided for me by my beloved Master Florentius, who was like a father to me in all things."2
In the year 1399, moved thereto by a dream and by the advice of the saintly Florentius, he sought admission to the newly established monastery of Agnetenberg,3 of which his brother was then
1 "Life of Arnold Schoenhoven," § 2.
a Md., § 3.
3 Agnetenberg is a small wooded eminence some two miles to the north-east of Zwolle. The monastery was founded in A.d. 1398. In A.D. 1559 its revenues were appropriated to the endowment of the newly established bishopric of Deventer. In A.d. 1573 the few monks who had remained there were driven out, and the monastery was demolished by the Dutch soldiers then fighting the Spaniards. In A.d. 1581 its ruins and what was left of its belongings were granted by the States-General to the province of Overyssel. No trace of the monastery remains: what is supposed to have been its site is now a cemetery, and close to it is a small inn which is a favourite summer afternoon resort of people from Zwolle.
Prior.1 Seven years later he was professed, and in 1413—being then thirty-three years old—he was ordained priest.
At Agnetenberg he spent practically the rest of his life;2 and died there in the year 1471. In 1425 he was made Sub-Prior of the monastery, and he acted (probably in 1432) for a short time as its Procurator; but the office was not one to which he was suited, and he was soon relieved of it, and re-elected Sub-Prior. This post he seems to have resigned somewhere about the year 1456, and to have afterwards held no particular office in the monastery. From the time of his admission to the monastery till within a few months of his death he kept the monastery Chronicle; and his death is thus recorded in it by its continuator:
1 John a Kempis left Agnetenberg in 1408. He served as superior of five other houses, and died in 1432 at one of them, the convent of Bethania near Arnheim.
2 He does not seem to have left the monastery after his Profession except upon one occasion, that, namely, of an interdict laid upon the diocese of Utrecht in 1429. This interdict was resisted by many of the laity, and the monks of Agnetenberg had to choose between obedience to the interdict and quitting their monastery. They chose the latter alternative, and took refuge at Lunenkerk iu Friesland. There Thomas remained with them till 1431, when he was sent to Bethania, to attend his brother who was then in failing health. In 1432 the interdict was taken off, and the monks returned to Agnetenberg, where Thomas (after his brother's death) rejoined them.
"In the same year (1471), on the feast of St. James the Less, after Compline, died our dearly loved Brother Thomas Haemerken,1 born at Kempen, a town in the diocese of Cologne. He was in the ninety-second year of his age, the sixtythird [it was really the sixty-fifth] of his religious clothing, and the fifty-eighth of his priesthood. In his youth he was a disciple, at Deventer, ot Master Florentius, who sent him to his [Thomas's] brother, who was then Prior of Agnetenberg. He was then twenty years of age; he received the habit from his brother after six years'probation, and throughout his monastic life he underwent great poverty, temptations, and labours. He copied our Bible and many other books, some for the use of the convent, and others for sale. Further, for the edification of the young he composed divers small treatises in a plain and simple style, but full of wisdom and practical utility.
1 In everyday life he was probably known as Thomas Kempis. In the monastery Chronicle he four times refers to himself by name; once (in the record of his Profession) as "Thomas Hemerken de Kempis," on the other three occasions as "Thomas Kempis." He signs his autograph copy of the "Imitation " as "Thomas Kempis," and four out of the five volumes of his copy of the Bible (cf. note 2, page xxi) are also thus signed: the fifth volume (the New Testament, and the earliest in date) is signed "Thomas de Kempis." In the British Museum Library the works of Thomas a Kempis and the literature connected therewith are catalogued under the name "Haemmerlein."
He had a special devotion to the Passion of our Lord, and excelled as a comforter of the tempted and distressed. At length, in his old age, after suffering from dropsy of the legs, he fell asleep in the Lord. He was buried in the East Cloister, by the side of Brother Peter Herbort." 1
Thomas a Kempis is described by his contemporaries as a man of somewhat less than average height, with a brownish, high-coloured face, lit up by bright piercing eyes, the sight of which was so good that even in extreme old age he did not need spectacles.
During his sub-priorate he acted as novicemaster, and throughout his monastic life he was a laborious and beautiful copyist.2 He was no scholar in the then (Renaissance) sense of the term, nor was he a great orator; but he is said to have been always ready to preach—and preach well—after making a brief meditation, or, if tired, taking a short nap.
1 "Chronicle of Agnetenberg," page 137.
2 His most important work of this nature was a copy of the Vulgate, which it took him fifteen years to write. It is in five stately volumes, which were bound in 1576, and is preserved in the Grand-Ducal Library at Darmstadt. The medallions upon the covers of this book have been copied from those on its binding. What the handwriting of Thomas was like may be seen from specimens given of it in Dr. Kettlewell's "Authorship of the de Imitatione Christi" (Rivingtons, 1877), and from an exquisite facsimile of his autograph copy of the " Imitatio" published by Messrs. Elliot Stock and Co. in 1879.
He was ever the first to come to choir and the last to leave it. During the chanting of the Psalms he stood upright, never leaning or supporting himself in any way; and he was often noticed to be standing on tiptoe, with his eyes raised heavenwards. To one who twitted him with being fonder of Psalms than of salmon (apparently a not uncommon monkish pleasantry) he is said to have answered: "Yes, but I hate to see men not attending to them." He was happier in his cell than out of it, and took little or no interest in the affairs of the outside world. His favourite motto (see Frontispiece) is said to have been, " I sought for rest, but found it not save in a little corner with a little book." Of a true Religious, he tells us, " silence should be the friend, work the companion, and prayer the helper."' He scourged himself in his cell at least once a week, singing the while a hymn, the first words of which were " Stetit Jesus."2
Such, briefly, were the chief characteristics of the author of this book; and we may now pass on to consider the previous English "translations " of it.
1 "Spiritual Exercises," ii, 15, § I.
2 The words of this hymn are not known. It was probably of Thomas a Kempis' own composition; but it is not among the twenty hymns printed by Sommalius in his collection of our author's works.
The first is that of Father Miles Pinkney,1 who wrote under the name of "Thomas Carre." It was published in Paris in 1664, and is now very rare. Carre's translation—though every now and then a difficult phrase is shirked in it—is complete and faithful. Its fault is that it is so faithful in the way of simply turning the Latin words into Latin-English, that were it reproduced few people would care to use it.
The next in order is a Protestant translation by Henry Lee, LL.B., the first edition of which was published in 1760, and the second (identical with the first) in 1762. Its title-page runs thus: "Meditations and Prayers on the Life and Lovingkindnesses of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, in four Parts, etc. Written originally in Latin by Thomas a Kempis, and now translated into English for the Benefit of devout Christians by Henry Lee, LL.B., etc."
But in his preface the " translator " writes thus: "It will be proper to observe that as Castalio and Dean Stanhope have taken liberties, and great ones too, in many places, in their versions of the 'Imitation of Christ,' so the like and perhaps greater liberties have been taken in the translation of this work. . . . One chapter in the Second Book is wholly left out.
1 An interesting biography of Father Miles Pinkney will be found at p. 313 of vol. v of Gillow's "Bibliographical Dictionary of the English Catholics" (London, Burns and Oates).
I must remark, too, that as I have often abridged some of his sentiments, where he seems to have grown languid; so I have altered and enlarged upon others, where it was needful either to rectify some error, or to set some circumstance as far as I was able in a clearer light. ... I have inserted some particulars which he had omitted, and which were I thought necessary to be added, as well as have endeavoured for a further manifestation of the wisdom of God in the mystery of the Gospel to point out what is little attended to, the end of their being recorded; occasionally shewing also the accomplishment of the prophecies in God our Saviour, and particularly of the Psalms. Lastly, to several or most of the Prayers are added some few expressions in order to adapt them the more to the occasion, and to make them the more evident petitions for a conformity to the Son of God. 'All which' (to use Dr. Stanhope's words in his preface to the ' Christian Pattern') 'the reader hath this warning of, to prevent any objections, which might otherwise be raised against the faithfulness of the undertaking.' For I was not so desirous of servilely following the letter, in order to gain any reputation of being the faithful translator, as of preserving the spirit and following the plan, and enforcing the purpose of the author, though it could not well be done otherwise than by impartially omitting what seemed foreign to it, or by adding what I was persuaded would contribute to it."
The outcome of Mr. Lee's system of "translation" is that only about three-tenths of his book come from Thomas a Kempis, the rest being Mr. Lee's ; and that its title-page is therefore misleading.
We now come to another Protestant " translation" by the Rev. Dr. S. Kettlewell, two editions of which were published in 1892, and a third (after his death) in 1894.1
Dr. Kettlewell writes thus (page xlvii of the Preface, ed. 1894):
"It is necessary to notice that a translation of the 'De Vita' was made into English by Henry Lee, I.L.B., in 1760. But in this case, so much of the translator's reflections and other references to Scripture are added, that it is difficult to tell what is really Lee's and what belongs to Thomas & Kempis, to whom the whole volume is inscribed [sic]. It is most desirable, therefore, that a new translation be made of the 'De Vita,' in which rarely is there a word given but what has been written by the devout author himself. This is as necessary as the re-authentication of its real author; that the public may have some confidence that they are using a most precious and veritable treatise of the author of the ' Imitation'—Thomas 5, Kempis."
1 The reason why two editions of this book were published in 1892 was that shortly after its publication Dr. Kettlewell saw fit to cancel some ten pages of his Preface. The edition of 1894 is identical with the former edition of 1892—the cancelled pages of the Preface being replaced, and only one verbal correction made (at p. 339).
And further on in his Preface (para. 13, page li), Dr. Kettlewell writes:
"A few observations must be made about this undertaking before concluding. As in some of the former editions of the 'Imitation' it was found desirable to omit certain passages, so also has it been felt advisable to do so, even to a greater extent, in the ' De Vita.' Any words sanctioning Mariolatry, and the Invocation of Saints and Angels, or any occasional allusion to some corruption or error prevalent in the Pre-Reformation Church, are carefully excluded. Indeed three entire chapters are left out: two in the second Part, which to a certain extent repeat what had gone before; the other chapter is in the third Part, founded on Christ's appearance after His Resurrection to the Virgin Mary."
The three omitted chapters are XXVI and XXXIV of Treatise I, Part II, and Chapter VI of Treatise II, Part I.
But besides these entire chapters I have counted fifty-six (evidently intentional) omissions of words, sentences, and paragraphs, running sometimes to a whole page or more; and the statement that "rarely is there a word given but what has been written by the devout author" seems to me inadequate. I have noted forty-five passages (not infrequently running to a whole sentence at a time) in which, apart from omissions, the sense of the original has (clearly of set purpose) been altered; and some of these changes are grotesque, to use no stronger term.
As instances of what is meant, I may cite the following:
(1) At page 216, in order to avoid a reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the author's words: "Conforta me, Deus mens, in omnipressura cordis mei propter meritum sacratissimae passionis tuae et vehementes dolores et uberrimas lacrimas beatissimae matris tuae Mariae, quas ex compassione et aspectu vulnerum tuorum juxta crucetn stando et amarissime jlendo effudit"; are translated thus: "Comfort me, my God, in every trouble of my heart, by the merits of Thy most sacred Passion; and by the vehement grief and the plenteous tears, which Thou, out of compassion for me, didst pour forth on the Cross."1
(2) At page 339 (in order to get rid of a reference to the sign of the Cross), Thomas a Kempis is made to say—in a prayer addressed to God the Holy Ghost—"Against all terrors of the night, and temptations of the devil, grant me the gift of faith in Thy Cross and Passion " !2
1 For a translation of the Latin words see p. 207, lines 28 to 33.
1 A translation of the passage will be found at page 323, lines 3 to 6.
8 In Dr. Kettlewell's book, by the omission of Chapter VI, Chapter X has become Chapter IX.
Five-sixths of Chapter X,3 Treatise II, Part I are so trimmed and edited that the text is scarcely recognizable in the "translation."
From all this it seems plain that those who use either Mr. Lee's or Dr. Kettlewell's " translation," hoping to find in it a veritable treatise of Thomas a Kempis, will be disappointed, and that Father "Carre's " is the only English translation (in any true sense of the word) of the "De Vita " which has yet appeared.
That work cannot, -unfortunately, be republished; for to revise it, without re-writing it, would be practically impossible, and to reprint it as it stands would be to print something which scarcely any one would read. This fact, the appearance last year of Dr. Pohl's text, and the kind suggestion of a friend,have led to the present attempt. It has been a labour of love; and that it may be useful to those into whose hands it may come is the earnest hope of
The Translator's notes are marked thus [ ].