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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by John Malone
 
“IN a little nook with a little book.” Good old monk of the peaceful Holland lowlands, how well you knew the best delight of man! Your own “little book” survives to us, an imperishable witness of the truth and love that lived in your gentle heart! Next to the Bible, the ‘Imitation of Christ’ of Thomas à Kempis is the book most generally read by Christian people. Of the making of books, of the love for them, and of the joy a good book gives to the children of the world, Thomas knew the full glory.  1
  Kempen, a rustic village not many miles northwest of Düsseldorf in Rhenish Prussia, was so named in old time from the flatness of the country, the campus. The parents of Thomas were very humble working-people of this place; and the family name of Hämmerken is attributed to the father’s probable position as a worker in metal. Thomas Hämmerken, sometimes called Haemmerlein, or in Latin Malleolus, the “little hammer,” was born to John and Gertrude in 1380, and was carefully schooled in virtue, patience, and poverty under their low roof-tree; until at the age of thirteen he was, according to the custom of the time, sent to try his way to a religious life. His brother John, fifteen years older, had made the name À Kempis a distinguished one amongst the “Brothers of the Common Life,” a house of Augustinian Canons Regular at Deventer in Overyssel, lower Netherlands. The chivalry of the lowly in those ages of faith expressed itself with gracious hospitality to all “poor scholars”; and we may be sure the boy who walked the long road down to the brink of the Zuyder Zee met no stint of God-speeds from the country folk. But brother John had gone from Deventer to join Gerard Groot at Windesheim, so away trudged the sturdy little wayfarer to the new journey’s end. Fondly welcomed there, he took a letter from John to Florentius at Deventer. Under the wise direction of this great man the little À Kempis entered the public school, then under the rectorship of John Boheme. While studying there the usual course of reading, writing, music, Latin, catechism, and Bible history, Thomas lived at the house of a pious lady, Zedera, widow of a knight, John of Runen.  2
  From about 1393–4 Thomas continued in the work of ordinary school life under the care of Florentius, who was the most dear friend and associate of brother John. In the mean time John à Kempis had been made the first prior of the new convent or monastery of Mount St. Agnes near Zwolle, the famous Agnetenberg, to be forever so for the life work of the rosy-cheeked schoolboy of Deventer. Zutphen, the death place of Sir Philip Sidney, is near by the schoolhouse of À Kempis. Thomas went to his brother at Mount St. Agnes in 1399, and entered upon preparation for the life of a monk of that house and rule. In addition to their priestly teaching and monastic duties, the “Brothers of the Common Life” were famous bookmakers. The beautiful manuscripts which with such devout care and worshipful art they slowly perfected with pen and brush, in the clean and wholesome scriptorium, are gems of wonderful delight in the great treasure-houses of such priceless things to us and ages of men. John à Kempis was a worthy master of his brother. They brought with them from the little smithy in Kempen a good endowment of hand cunning. The prior was a fine miniature-maker, as well as an expert in the work of producing the perfectly written books for which the monastery was growing well renowned. Thomas soon became, and remained to the end of his life in spite of age, an expert calligrapher. He was invested with the habit of the order and admitted to the priesthood at the age of thirty-four, in 1414. They did not do things in a hurry, those foregoers of our father Knickerbocker. Thomas began to write his first missal in the year after his ordination, and is said to have finished it in 1417. The first missal! What years of slow and patient practice upon lesser works there must have been! Ripe in mind and full of holy thought, Thomas, it is believed, began the ‘Imitation’ either just before or soon after his entry into the priesthood. The execution of this marvelous “booklet,” as it was called by its first readers, engaged about ten years. It was produced as a series of instructive meditations, given out from time to time to the brothers of the order. For that reason its four books are divided, yet dependent upon each other. At this time, and probably while engaged upon the ‘Imitation,’ he wrote the ‘Little Alphabet of the Monk in the School of Christ’ after Psalm cxix. This curious and somewhat droll work is sometimes called the ‘Saint’s Alphabet.’  3
  The quiet of the teachers and book-writers at Agnetenberg was rudely broken by an angry quarrel between the people of Overyssel and the hierarchy. The country was laid under an interdict for refusing to accept Zweder de Colenborgh as bishop appointed to the see of Utrecht by Pope Martin V. This dire trouble, which began in 1425, culminated in 1429 by the closing of the churches in the banned district. The monastery of St. Agnes, for obeying the order to withdraw its religious ministrations from the people, was obliged to take its people out of the disturbed and enraged province. Thomas had been elected sub-prior just before this event and he was an active aid in the guidance, on St. Barnabas’s day 1429, of the unhoused monks across the Zuyder Zee to the brother house of Lunenkirk in Friesland. Here the brothers lived until the interdict was raised in 1432 by Pope Eugenius IV. It was during this exile that John à Kempis died. He had gone from the Agnetenberg to become rector and confessor of the convent of Bethany near Arnheim, and being ill in 1431 Thomas went to him. The two were together for fourteen months, until November 4th, 1432, when the loving elder brother went a little before through the gateway of Death.  4
  The bitter schism which had tormented the Church since the death of Gregory XI. in 1378, which had survived in rancor the great Councils of Pisa and of Constance, and the horror of the long Bohemian war, was for a time thought to be ended by the same tribunal which restored the monks of St. Agnes to their own house. One may easily imagine therefore that their home-coming was a special occasion of joy; a joy unfortunately not to last. That exemplary evidence against the pretenders who have taken occasion from his humility to filch from the monk of St. Agnes the merit of his best work, the 1441 autograph manuscript of the ‘Imitation,’ now in the Burgundian Library at Brussels, may well have been begun by Thomas as an offering of thanksgiving for the restored peace of God.  5
  In 1447 the brothers made Thomas their sub-prior for the second time. From the return to Mount St. Agnes until his death in 1471, within the last decade of a century of well-spent life, the days of À Kempis were without event beyond the routine of his teaching, writing, and priestly toil. Like all the brothers he worked to the last moment of physical endurance, and it is said of him that so perfect were his physical faculties that he never needed spectacles for even the most delicate pen tracing.  6
  A portrait is extant which represents him dressed in the habit of the Augustinians, and seated upon a rocky ledge amidst the quiet of a Dutch landscape. An open book is in his hand, another at his feet, with the words in the country’s speech, “In een hoecken mit een boecken.” This painting, now known as the Gertruidenberg portrait, was found in the abbey of St. Agnes by Franz von Tholen, about one hundred years after the death of À Kempis. It represents a stout, large-browed man of medium size, of Flemish features, with lustrous, far-away-looking, kindly eyes.  7
  Of his death Adrian de But, in his chronicle, says under the year 1471:—
          “In this year died Brother Thomas à Kempis of Mount St. Agnes, a professor of the Order of Canons Regular, who published many writings, and composed in rhythm that book on the text ‘Who followeth Me.’”
  8
  The controversy about the authorship of the ‘Imitation’ is like that about the works of Shakespeare. Its primary cause is the unassuming greatness of the writer, and his honesty to his rule of life. The fuel upon which it feeds is the incapacity of little-minded men to think of any world beyond the horizon which corrals the human herd. Volumes have been written in this curious phase of vicarious plagiarism; but the plain tale of contemporary testimony, and the undoubted autographs of À Kempis himself, put them outside the bars of evidence.  9
  The language of À Kempis is the Latin of his day, an interesting witness in the growth of modern tongues. It is not classical, but smacks strongly of the land and of the people. The knowledge of the Latin speech was far more common in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries than is generally supposed. All people not utterly ignorant had a speaking knowledge of it, and filled the current of conversation with crude translations of their common saws. À Kempis is full of the vigor of this growth of new speech. It must have seemed strange to the stickler for classic latinity at the court of Elizabeth to hear Launcelot Gobbo quoting from the ‘Imitation’: “Laun.—The old proverb is very well parted between my master Shylock and you, sir: you have the grace of God, sir, and he hath enough?”—‘Merchant of Venice,’ Act ii., scene 2.  10
  All good books paid their tribute to the mind of À Kempis. His favorites were, first of course the Scriptures, then St. Bernard, St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, and St. Thomas. Aristotle, Ovid, Seneca, and Dante furnished him from time to time with apt illustrations of his thought. A recent writer has well summed up in one happy phrase the sense of Brother Thomas’s methods and purpose, by the name “A minnesinger of the love of God.” The miscalled mysticism of Thomas is the poesy of a love which disdains all lesser objects and fixes itself to the person of God himself. There is no abstruse life problem in such a bent of soul. The aspiration towards the True, the Beautiful, and the Good, which well sung wins the poet’s bay wreath, stays not the willingness of men’s ears.  11
  The smaller works of À Kempis are—‘The Soliloquy of the Soul,’ ‘Solitude and Silence,’ ‘The Little Garden of Roses,’ ‘The Valley of Lilies,’ and a number of similar essays. He wrote also some sweet church hymns, and three books of the ‘Lives of the Canons’ and the ‘Chronicle of St. Agnes.’ The first edition of his works was published at Nuremberg by George Pirkheimer, in 1494.  12
 
 
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