IMITATION OF CHRIST, THE (Imitatio Christi), the title of a famous medieval Christian devotional work, much used still by both Catholics and Protestants and usually ascribed to Thomas at 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 held-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 at 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. I.; 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 ]ohann 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 borrfiwer. 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. I., were composed shortly before they were put into circulation.
It may then be taken as proved that the Imitation was composed between I3SO 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, IOO 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 145O, 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 closing 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 it 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 5. Kempis's lifetime, a fixed tradition that he was the author of the Imitation. The most important witness to this tradition is ]ohann Busch. It is true that the crucial words are missing in one copy of his “ Chronicle ”; but it is clear there were two red actions 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 at 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 at Kernpis'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.
The earliest biographer of Thomas at 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-S 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 Illnstribus, 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 difnculties 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