Vol. 6, Chapter IV (Cont’d) – Gerrit de Groote and the Brothers of the Common Life


It was fortunate for the progress of religion, that mysticism in Holland and Northwestern Germany did not confine itself to the channel into which it had run at Groenendal. In the latter part of the fourteenth century, and before Ruysbroeck’s death, it associated with itself practical philanthropic activities under the leadership of Gerrit Groote, 1340-1384, and Florentius Radewyn, 1350-1400, who had finished his studies in Prag. They were the founders of the Windesheim Congregation and the genial company known as the Brothers of the Common Life, called also the Brothers of the New Devotion. To the effort to attain to union with God they gave a new impulse by insisting that men imitate the conduct of Christ.  Originating in Holland, they spread along the Rhine and into Central Germany.

Groote was born at Deventer, where his father had been burgomaster. After studying at Paris, he taught at Cologne, and received the appointment of canon, enjoying at least two church livings, one at Utrecht and one at Aachen. He lived the life of a man of the world until he experienced a sudden conversion through the influence of a friend, Henry of Kolcar, a Carthusian prior. He renounced his ecclesiastical livings and visited Ruysbroeck, being much influenced by him. Thomas à Kempis remarks that Groote could say, after his visits to Ruysbroeck, “Thy wisdom and knowledge are greater than the report which I heard in my own country.”

At forty he began preaching. Throngs gathered to hear him in the churches and churchyards of Deventer, Zwolle, Leyden and other chief towns of the Lowlands. Often he preached three times a day. His success stirred up the Franciscans, who secured from the bishop of Utrecht an inhibition of preaching by laymen. Groote came under this restriction, as he was not ordained. An appeal was made to Urban VI., but the pope put himself on the side of the bishop. Groote died in 1384, before the decision was known.

Groote strongly denounced the low morals of the clergy, but seems not to have opposed any of the doctrines of the Church. He fasted, attended mass, laid stress upon prayer and alms, and enforced these lessons by his own life. To quote an old writer, he taught by living righteously — docuit sancte vivendo. In 1374, he gave the house he had inherited from his father at Deventer as a home for widows and unmarried women. Without taking vows, the inmates were afforded an opportunity of retirement and a life of religious devotion and good works. They were to support themselves by weaving, spinning, sewing, nursing and caring for the sick. They were at liberty to leave the community whenever they chose. John Brinkerinck further developed the idea of the female community.

The origin of the Brothers of the Common Life was on this wise. After the inhibition of lay preaching, Groote settled down at Deventer, spending much time in the house of Florentius Radewyn. He had employed young priests to copy manuscripts. At Radewyn’s suggestion they were united into a community, and agreed to throw their earnings into a common fund. After Groote’s death, the community received a more distinct organization through Radewyn. Other societies were established after the model of the Deventer house, which was called “the rich brother house,” — het rijke fraterhuis, — as at Zwolle, Delft, Liége, Ghent, Cologne, Muenster, Marburg and Rostock, many of them continuing strong till the Reformation.

A second branch from the same stock, the canons Regular of St. Augustine, established by the influence of Radewyn and other friends and pupils of Groote, had as their chief houses Windesheim, dedicated 1387, and Mt. St. Agnes, near Zwolle. These labored more within the convent, the Brothers of the Common Life outside of it.

The Brotherhood of the Common Life never reached the position of an order sanctioned by Church authority. Its members, including laymen as well as clerics, took no irrevocable vow, and were at liberty to withdraw when they pleased. They were opposed to the Brethren of the Free Spirit, and were free from charges of looseness in morals and doctrine. Like their founder, they renounced worldly goods and remained unmarried. They supported the houses by their own toil.

To gardening, making clothes and other occupations pertaining to the daily life, they added preaching, conducting schools and copying manuscripts. Groote was an ardent lover of books, and had many manuscripts copied for his library. Among these master copyists was Thomas à Kempis. Classical authors as well as writings of the Fathers and books of Scripture were transcribed. Selections were also made from these authors in distinct volumes, called ripiaria — little river banks. At Liege they were so diligent as copyists as to receive the name Broeders van de penne, Brothers of the Quill. Of Groote, Thomas à Kempis reports that he had a chest filled with the best books standing near his dining table, so that, if a course did not please him, he might reach over to them and give his friends a cup for their souls. He carried books about with him on his preaching tours. Objection was here and there made to the possession of so many books, where they might have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. Translations also were made of the books of Scripture and other works. Groote translated the Seven Penitential Psalms, the Office for the Dead and certain Devotions to Mary. The houses were not slow in adopting type, and printing establishments are mentioned in connection with Maryvale, near Geissenheim, Windesheim, Herzogenbusch, Rostock, Louvaine and other houses.

The schools conducted by the Brothers of the Common Life, intended primarily for clerics, have a distinguished place in the history of education. Seldom, if ever before, had so much attention been paid to the intellectual and moral training of youth. Not only did the Brothers, have their own schools. They labored also in schools already established. Long lists of the teachers are still extant. Their school at Herzogenbusch had at one time 1200 scholars, and put Greek into its course at its very start, 1424. The school at Liége in 1524 had 1600 scholars. The school at Deventer acquired a place among the notable grammar schools of history, and trained Nicolas of Cusa, Thomas à Kempis, John Wessel and Erasmus, who became an inmate of the institution, 1474, and learned Greek from one of its teachers, Synthis. Making the mother-tongue the chief vehicle of education, these schools sent out the men who are the fathers of the modern literature of Northwestern Germany and the Lowlands, and prepared the soil for the coming Reformation.

Scarcely less influential was the public preaching of the Brethren in the vernacular, and the collations, or expositions of Scripture, given to private circles in their own houses. Groote went to the Scriptures, so Thomas à Kempis says, as to a well of life. Of John Celle, d. 1417, the zealous rector of the Zwolle school, the same biographer writes: “He frequently expounded to the pupils the Holy Scriptures, impressing upon them their authority and stirring them up to diligence in writing out the sayings of the saints. He also taught them to sing accurately, and sedulously to attend church, to honor God’s ministers and to pray often.” Celle himself played on the organ.

The central theme of their study was the person and life of Christ. “Let the root of thy study,” said Groote, “and the mirror of thy life be primarily the Gospel, for therein is the life of Christ portrayed.” A period of each day was set apart for reflection on some special religious subject, — Sunday on heaven, Monday on death, Tuesday on the mercies of God, Wednesday on the last judgment, Thursday on the pains of hell, Friday on the Lord’s passion and Saturday on sins. They laid more stress upon inward purity and rectitude than upon outward conformities to ritual.

The excellent people joined the other mystics of the fourteenth century in loosening the hold of scholasticism and sacerdotalism, those two master forces of the Middle Ages. They gave emphasis to the ideas brought out strongly from other quarters, — the heretical sects and such writers as Marsiglius of Padua, — the idea of the dignity of the layman, and that monastic vows are not the condition of pure religious devotion. They were the chief contributors to the vigorous religious current which was flowing through the Lowlands. Popular religious literature was in circulation. Manuals of devotion were current, cordials and praecordials for the soul’s needs. Written codes of rules for laymen were passed from hand to hand, giving directions for their conduct at home and abroad. Religious poems in the vernacular, such as the poem on the wise and foolish virgins, carried biblical truth.

Van viff juncfrou wen de wis weren

Unde van vif dwasen wilt nu hir leren.

Some of these were translations from Bernard’s Jesu dulcis memoria, and some condemned festivities like the Maypole and the dance.

Eugene IV., Pius II., and Sistus IV. gave the Brothers marks of their approval, and the great teachers, Cardinal Cusa, D’Ailly and John Gerson spoke in their praise. There were, however, detractors, such as Grabon, a Saxon Dominican who presented, in the last days of the Council of Constance, 1418, no less than twenty-five charges against them. The substance of the charges was that the highest religious life may not be lived apart from the orders officially sanctioned by the Church. A commission appointed by Martin V., to which Gerson and D’Ailly belonged, reported adversely, and Grabon was obliged to retract. The commission adduced the fact that there was no monastic body in Jerusalem when the primitive Church practised community of goods, and that conventual walls and vows are not essential to the highest religious life. Otherwise the pope, the cardinals and the prelates themselves would not be able to attain to the highest reach of religious experience.

With the Reformation, the distinct mission of the Brotherhood was at an end, and many of the communities fell in with the new movement. As for the houses which maintained their old rules, Luther felt a warm interest in them. When, in 1532, the Council of Hervord in Westphalia was proposing to abolish the local sister and brother houses, the Reformer wrote strongly against the proposal as follows: “Inasmuch as the Brothers and Sisters, who were the first to start the Gospel among you, lead a creditable life, and have a decent and well-behaved community, and faithfully teach and hold the pure Word, such monasteries and brother-houses please me beyond measure.” On two other occasions, he openly showed his interest in the brotherhood of which Groote was the founder.


35. The Imitation of Christ. Thomas à Kempis

… mild saint

À Kempis overmild.

 — Lanier.

The pearl of all the mystical writings of the German-Dutch school is the Imitation of Christ, the work of Thomas à Kempis. With the Confessions of St. Augustine and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress it occupies a place in the very front rank of manuals of devotion, and, if the influence of books is to be judged by their circulation, this little volume, starting from a convent in the Netherlands, has, next to the Sacred Scriptures, been the most influential of all the religious writings of Christendom. Protestants and Catholics alike have joined in giving it praise. The Jesuits introduced it into their Exercises. Dr. Samuel Johnson, once, when ill, taught himself Dutch by reading it in that language, and said of its author that the world had opened its arms to receive his book. It was translated by John Wesley, was partly instrumental in the conversion of John Newton, was edited by Thomas Chalmers, was read by Mr. Gladstone “as a golden book for all times” and was the companion of General Gordon. Dr. Charles Hodge, the Presbyterian divine, said it has diffused itself like incense through the aisles and alcoves of the Universal Church.

The number of counted editions exceeds 2000. The British Museum has more than 1000 editions on its shelves.

Originally written in the Latin, a French translation was made as early as 1447, which still remains in manuscript. The first printed French copies appeared in Toulouse, 1488. The earliest German translation was made in 1434 and is preserved in Cologne, and printed editions in German begin with the Augsburg edition of 1486. Men eminent in the annals of German piety, such as Arndt, 1621, Gossner, 1824, and Tersteegen, 1844, have issued editions with prefaces. The work first appeared in print in English, 1502, the translation being partly by the hand of Margaret, the mother of Henry VII. Translations appeared in Italian in Venice and Milan, 1488, in Spanish at Seville, 1536, in Arabic at Rome, 1663, in Arminian at Rome, 1674, and in other languages.

The Imitation of Christ consists of four books, and derives its title from the heading of the first book, De imitatione Christi et contemptu omnium vanitatum mundi, the imitation of Christ and the contempt of all the vanities of the world. It seems to have been written in metre. The four books are not found in all the manuscripts nor invariably arranged in the same order, facts which have led some to suppose that they were not all written at the same time. The work is a manual of devotion intended to help the soul in its communion with God. Its sententious statements are pitched in the highest key of Christian experience. Within and through all its reflections runs the word, self-renunciation. Its opening words, “whoso followeth me, shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life,” Joh_8:12, are a fitting announcement of the contents. The life of Christ is represented as the highest study it is possible for a mortal to take up. He who has his spirit has found the hidden manna. What can the world confer without Jesus? To be without him is the direst hell; to be with him, the sweetest paradise.

Here are counsels to read the Scriptures, statements about the uses of adversity and advice for submission to authority, warnings against temptations, reflections upon death, the judgment and paradise. Here are meditations on Christ’s oblation on the cross and the advantages of the communion, and also admonitions to flee the vanities and emptiness of the world and to love God, for he that loveth, knoweth God. Christ is more than all the wisdom of the schools. He lifts up the mind in a moment of time to perceive more reasons for eternal truth than a student might learn over books in ten years. He teaches without confusion of words, without the clashing of opinions, without the pride of reputation, — sine fastu honoris, — the contention of arguments. The concluding words are: “My eyes are unto Thee. My God, in Thee do I put my trust, O Thou Father of mercies. Accompany thy servant with Thy grace and direct him by the path of peace to the land of unending light — patriam perpetuae claritatis.”

The plaintive minor key, the gently persuasive tone of the work are adapted to attract serious souls seeking the inner chamber of religious peace and purity of thought, but especially those who are under the shadow of pain and sorrow. The praise of Christ is so unstinted, and the dependence upon him so unaffected, that one cannot help but feel, in reading this book, that he is partaking of the essence of the Gospel. The work, however, presents only one side of the Christian life. It commends humility, submission, gentleness and the passive virtues. It does not emphasize the manly virtues of courage and loyalty to the truth, nor elaborate upon Christian activities to be done to our fellow-men. To fall in completely with the spirit of Thomas à Kempis, and to abide there, would mean to follow the best cloistral ideal of the Middle Ages, or rather of the fourteenth century. Its counsels and reflections were meant primarily for those who had made the convent their home, not for the busy traffickers in the marts of the world, and in association with men of all classes. It leans to quietism, and is calculated to promote personal piety for those who dwell much alone rather than to fit men for engaging in the public battles which fall to men’s usual lot. Its admonitions are adapted to help men to bear with patience rather than to rectify the evils in the world, to be silent rather than to speak to the throng, to live well in seclusion rather than set an example of manly and womanly endeavor in the shop, on the street and in the family. The charge has been made, and not without some ground, that the Imitation of Christ sets forth a selfish type of religion. Its soft words are fitted to quiet the soul and bring it to meek contentment rather than to stir up the combatant virtues of courage and of assistance to others. Its message corresponds to the soft glow of the summer evening, and not to the fresh hours filled with the rays of the morning sun. This plaintive note runs through Thomas’ hymns, as may be seen from a verse taken from “The Misery of this Life”: — 

Most wonderful would it be

If one did not feel and lament

That in this world to live

Is toil, affliction, pain.

Over the pages of the book is written the word Christ. It is for this reason that Protestants cherish it as well as Catholics. The references to mediaeval errors of doctrine or practice are so rare that it requires diligent search to find them. Such as they are, they are usually erased from English editions, so that the English reader misses them entirely. Thomas introduces the merit of good works, transubstantiation, IV. 2, the doctrine of purgatory, IV. 9, and the worship of saints, I. 13, II. 9, II. 6, 59. But these statements, however, are like the flecks on the marbles of the Parthenon.

The author, Thomas à Kempis, 1380-1471, was born in Kempen, a town 40 miles northwest of Cologne, and died at Zwolle, in the Netherlands. His paternal name was Hemerken or Haemmerlein, Little Hammer. He was a follower of Groote. In 1395, he was sent to the school of Deventer, under the charge of Florentius Radewyn and the Brothers of the Common Life. He became skilful as a copyist, and was thus enabled to support himself. Later he was admitted to the Augustinian convent of Mt. St. Agnes, near Zwolle, received priest’s orders, 1413, and was made sub-prior, 1429. His brother John, a man of rectitude of life, had been there before him, and was prior. Thomas’ life seems to have been a quiet one, devoted to meditation, composition and copying. He copied the Bible no less than four times, one of the copies being preserved at Darmstadt. His works abound in quotations of the New Testament. Under an old picture, which is represented as his portrait, are the words, “In all things I sought quiet, and found it not save in retirement and in books.” They fit well the author of the famous Imitation of Christ, as the world thinks of him. He reached the high age of fourscore years and ten. A monument was dedicated to his memory in the presence of the archbishop of Utrecht in St. Michael’s Church Zwolle, Nov. 11, 1897. The writings of à Kempis, which are all of a devotional character, include tracts and meditations, letters, sermons, a Life of St. Lydewigis, a steadfast Christian woman who endured a great fight of afflictions, and the biographies of Groote, Florentius and nine of their companions. Works similar to the are his prolonged meditation upon the Incarnation, and a meditation on the Life and Blessings of the Saviour, both of which overflow with admiration for Christ.

In these writings the traces of mediaeval theology, though they are found, are not obtrusive. The writer followed his mediaeval predecessors in the worship of Mary, of whom he says, she is to be invoked by all Christians, especially by monastics. He prays to her as the “most merciful,” the “most glorious” mother of God, and calls her the queen of heaven, the efficient mediatrix of the whole world, the joy and delight of all the saints, yea, the golden couch for all the saints. She is the chamber of God, the gate of heaven, the paradise of delights, the well of graces, the glory of the angels, the joy of men, the model of manners, the brightness of virtues, the lamp of life, the hope of the needy, the salvation of the weak, the mother of the orphaned. To her all should flee as sons to a mother’s bosom.

From these tender praises of Mary it is pleasant to turn away to the code of twenty-three precepts which the Dutch mystic laid down under the title, A Small Alphabet for a Monk in the School of God. Here are some of them. Love to be unknown and to be reputed as nothing. Love solitude and silence, and thou wilt find great quiet and a good conscience. Where the crowd is, there is usually confusion and distraction of heart. Choose poverty and simplicity. Humble thyself in all things and under all things, and thou wilt merit kindness from all. Let Christ be thy life, thy reading, thy meditation, thy conversation, thy desire, thy gain, thy hope and thy reward. Zaccheus, brother, descend from the height of thy secular wisdom. Come and learn in God’s school the way of humility, long-suffering and patience, and Christ teaching thee, thou shalt come at last safely to the glory of eternal beatitude.



The Authorship of the Imitation of Christ. This question has been one of the most hotly contested questions in the history of pure literature. National sentiments have entered into the discussion, France and Italy contending for the honor of authorship with the Lowlands. The work is now quite generally ascribed to Thomas à Kempis, but among those who dissent from this opinion are scholars of rank.

Among the more recent treatments of the subject not given in the Literature, § 27, are V. Becker: L’auteur de l’Imitat. et les documents néerlandais, Hague, 1882. Also Les derniers travaux sur l’auteur de l’Imitat., Brussels, 1889. — Denifle: Krit. Bemerk. zur Gersen-Kempis Frage, Zeitung fuer kath. Theol., 1882 sq. — A. O. Spitzes: Th. à K. als schrijver der navolging, Utrecht, 1880. Also Nouvelle défense en réponse du Denifle, Utrecht, 1884. — L. Santini: I diritti di Tommaso da Kemp., 2 vols., Rome, 1879-1881. — F. X. Funk: Gerson und Gersen and Der Verfasser der Nachfolge Christi in his Abhandlungen, Paderborn, 1899, II. 373-444. — P. E. Puyol: Descript. bibliogr. des MSS. et des princip. edd. du livre de imitat., Paris, 1898. Also Paléographie, classement, généalogie du livre de imitat., Paris, 1898. Also L’auteur du livre de imitat., 2 vols., Paris, 1899. — Schulze’s art. in Herzog. — G. Kentenich: Die Handschriften der Imitat. und die Autorschaft des Thomas, in Brieger’s Zeitschrift, 1902, 18 sqq., 1903, 594 sqq.

Pohl gives a list of no less than 35 persons to whom with more or less confidence the authorship has been ascribed. The list includes the names of John Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris; John Gersen, the reputed abbot of Vercelli, Italy, who lived about 1230; Walter Hylton, St. Bernard, Bonaventura, David of Augsburg, Tauler, Suso and even Innocent III. The only claimants worthy of consideration are Gerson, Gersen, and Thomas à Kempis, although Montmorency is inclined to advance the claim of Walter Hylton. The uncertainty arises from the facts (1) that a number of the MSS. and printed editions of the fifteenth century have no note of authorship; (2) the rest are divided between these, Gerson, Gersen, à Kempis, Hylton, and St. Bernard; (3) the MSS. copies show important divergencies. The matter has been made more difficult by the forgery of names and dates in MSS. since the controversy began, these forgeries being almost entirely in the interest of a French or Italian authorship. A reason for the absence of the author’s name in so many MSS. is found in the desire of à Kempis, if he indeed be the author, to remain incognito, in accordance with his own motto, ama nesciri, “love to be unknown.”

Of the Latin editions belonging to the fifteenth century, Pohl gives 28 as accredited to Gerson, 12 to Thomas, 2 to St. Bernard, and 6 as anonymous. Or, to follow Funk, p. 426, 40 editions of that century were ascribed to Gerson, 11 to à Kempis, 2 to Bernard, 1 to Gersen, and 2 are anonymous. Spitzen gives 16 as ascribed to à Kempis. Most of the editions ascribing the work to Gerson were printed in France, the remaining editions being printed in Italy or Spain. The editions of the sixteenth century show a change, 37 Latin editions ascribing the authorship to à Kempis, and 25 to Gerson. As for the MSS. dated before 1460, and whose dates may be said to be reasonably above suspicion, all were written in Germany and the Lowlands. The oldest, included in a codex preserved since 1826 in the royal library of Brussels, probably belongs before 1420. The codex contains 9 other writings of à Kempis besides the Imitation, and contains the note, Finitus et completus MCCCCXLI per manus fratris Th. Kempensis in Monte S. Agnetis prope Zwollis (finished and completed, 1441, by the hands of brother Thomas à Kempis of Mount St. Agnes, near Zwolle). See Pohl, II. 461 sqq. So this is an autographic copy. The text of the Imitation, however, is written on older paper than the other documents, and has corrections which are found in a Dutch translation of the first book, dating from 1420. For these reasons, Funk, p. 424, and others, puts the MS. back to 1416-1420.

The literary controversy over the authorship began in 1604, when Dom Pedro Manriquez, in a work on the Lord’s Supper issued at Milan, and on the alleged basis of a quotation by Bonaventura, declared the Imitation to be older than that Schoolman. In 1606, Bellarmin, in his Descript. eccles., was more precise, and stated it was already in existence in 1260. About the same time, the Jesuit, Rossignoli, found in a convent at Arona, near Milan, a MS. without date, but bearing the name of an abbot, John Gersen, as its author; the house had belonged to the Benedictines once. In 1614 the Benedictine, Constantius Cajetan, secretary of Paul V., issued his Gersen restitutus at Rome, and later his Apparatus ad Gersenem restitutum, in which he defended the Italian’s claim. This individual was said to have been a Benedectine abbot of Vercelli, in Piedmont, in the first half of the thirteenth century. On the other hand, the Augustinian, Rosweyde, in his vindiciae Kempenses, Antwerp, 1617, so cogently defended the claims of à Kempis that Bellarmin withdrew his statement. In the nineteenth century the claims of Gersen were again urged by a Piedmontese nobleman, Gregory, in his Istoria della Vercellese letteratura, Turin, 1819, and subsequent publications, and by Wolfsgruber of Vienna in a scholarly work, 1880. But Hirsche and Funk are, no doubt, right in pronouncing the name Gersen a mistake for Gerson, and Funk, after careful criticism, declares the Italian abbot a fictitious personage. The most recent Engl. writer on the subject, Montmorency, p. xiii. says, “there is no evidence that there was ever an abbot of Vercelli by the name of Gersen.”

The claims of John Gerson are of a substantial character, and France was not slow in coming to the chancellor’s defence. An examination of old MSS., made in Paris, had an uncertain issue, so that, in 1640, Richelieu’s splendid edition of the Imitation was sent forth without an author’s name. The French parliament, however, in 1652, ordered the book printed under the name of à Kempis. The matter was not settled and, at three gatherings, 1671, 1674, 1687, instituted by Mabillon, a fresh examination of MSS. was made, with the result that the case went against à Kempis. Later, Du Pin, after a comparison of Gerson’s writings with the Imitation, concluded that it was impossible to decide with certainty between these two writers and Gersen. (See his 2d ed. of Gerson’s Works, 1728, I. lix-lxxxiv) but in a special work. Amsterdam, 1706, he had decided in favor of the Dutchman. French editions of the Imitation continued to be issued under the name of Gerson, as, for example, those of Erhard-Mezler, 1724, and Vollardt, 1758. On the other hand, the Augustinian, Amort, defended the à Kempis authorship in his Informatio de statu controversiae, Augsburg, 1728, and especially in his Scutum Kempense, Cologne, 1728. After the unfavorable statement of Schwab, Life of Gerson, 1858, pp. 782-786, declaring that the Imitation is in an altogether different style from Gerson’s works, the theory of the Gerson authorship seemed to be finally abandoned. The first collected edition of Gerson’s Works, 1483, knows nothing about the Imitation. Nor did Gerson’s brother, prior of Lyons, mention it in the list he gave of the chancellor’s works, 1423. The author of the Imitation was, by his own statements, a monk, IV. 5, 11; III., 56. Gerson would have been obliged to change his usual habit of presentation to have written in the monastic tone.

After the question of authorship seemed to be pretty well settled in favor of à Kempis, another stage in the controversy was opened by the publications of Puyol in 1898, 1899. Puyol gives a description of 548 manuscripts, and makes a sharp distinction between those of Italian origin and other manuscripts. He also annotates the variations in 57, with the conclusion that the Italian text is the more simple, and consequently the older and original text. He himself based his edition on the text of Arona. Puyol is followed by Kentenich, and has been answered by Pohl and others.

Walter Hylton’s reputed authorship of the Imitation is based upon three books of that work, having gone under the name De musica ecclesiastica in MSS. in England and the persistent English tradition that Hylton was the author. Montmorency, pp. xiv, 138-170, while he pronounces the Hylton theory of authorship untenable, confesses his inability to explain it.

The arguments in favor of the à Kempis authorship, briefly stated, are as follows: — 

1. External testimony. John Busch, in his Chronicon Windesemense, written 1464, seven years before à Kempis’ death, expressly states that à Kempis wrote the Imitation. To this testimony are to be added the testimonies of Caspar of Pforzheim, who made a German translation of the work, 1448; Hermann Rheyd, who met Thomas, 1454, and John Wessel, who was attracted to Windesheim by the book’s fame. For other testimonies, see Hirsche and Funk, pp. 432-436.

2. Manuscripts and editions. The number of extant MSS. is about 500. See Kentenich, p. 294. Funk, p. 420, gives 13 MSS. dated before 1500, ascribing the Imitation to à Kempis. The autograph copy, contained in the Brussels codex of 1441, has already been mentioned. It must be said, however, the conclusion reached by Hirsche, Pohl, Funk, Schulze and others that this text is autographic has been denied by Puyol and Kentenich, on the basis of its divergences from other copies, which they claim the author could not have made. A second autograph, in Louvaine (see Schulze, p. 730), seems to be nearly as old, 1420, and has the note scriptus manibus et characteribus Thomae qui est autor horum devotorum libellorum, “written by the hand of Thomas,” etc. (Pohl, VI. 456 sq.). A third MS., stating that Thomas is the author, and preserved in Brussels, is dated 1425. — As for the printed editions of the fifteenth century, at least 13 present Thomas as the author, from the edition of Augsburg, 1472, to the editions of Paris, 1493, 1500.

3. Style and contents. These agree closely with à Kempis’ other writings, and the flow of thought is altogether similar to that of his Meditation on Christ’s Incarnation. Spitzen seems to have made it at least very probable that the author was acquainted with the writings of Ruysbroeck, John of Schoenhoven, and other mystics and monks of the Lowlands. Funk has brought out references to ecclesiastical customs which fit the book into the time between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Hirsche laid stress on Germanisms in the style.

Among recent German scholars, Denifle sets aside à Kempis’ claims and ascribes the work to some unknown canon regular of the Lowlands. Karl Müller, in a brief note, Kirchengesch., II. 122, and Loof’s Dogmengesch., 4th ed., p. 633, pronounce the à Kempis authorship more than doubtful. On the other hand, Schwab, Hirsche, Schulze and Funk agree that the claims of Thomas are almost beyond dispute. It is almost impossible to give a reason why the Imitation should have been ascribed to the Dutch mystic, if he were not indeed its author. The explanation given by Kentenich, p. 603, seems to be utterly insufficient.


36. The German Theology

The evangelical teachings of the little book, known as The German Theology, led Ullmann to place its author in the list of the Reformers before the Reformation. The author was one of the Friends of God, and no writing issuing from that circle has had a more honorable and useful career. Together with the Imitation of Christ, it has been the most profitable of the writings of the German mystics. Its fame is derived from Luther’s high praise as much as from its own excellent contents. The Reformer issued two editions of it, 1516, with a partial text, and 1518, in the second edition giving it the name which remains with it to this day, Ein Deutsch Theologia — A German treatise of Theology. Luther designated as its author a Frankfurt priest, a Teutonic knight, but for a time it was ascribed to Tauler. The Preface of the oldest MS., dated 1497, and found in 1850, made this view impossible, for Tauler is himself quoted in ch. XIII. Here the author is called a Frankfurt priest and a true Friend of God.

Luther announced his high obligation to the teachings of the manual of the way of salvation when he said that next to the Bible and St. Augustine, no book had come into his hands from which he had learnt more of what God and man and all things are and would wish to learn more. The author, he affirmed, was a pure Israelite who did not take the foam from the surface, but drew from the bed of the Jordan. Here, he continued, the teachings of the Scriptures are set forth as plain as day which have been lying under the desk of the universities, nay, have almost been left to rot in dust and muck. With his usual patriotism, he declared that in the book he had found Christ in the German tongue as he and the other German theologians had never found him in Greek, Latin or Hebrew.

The German Theology sets forth man’s sinful and helpless condition, Christ’s perfection and mediatorial work and calls upon men to have access to God through him as the door. In all its fifty-four chapters no reference is made to Mary or to the justifying nature of good works or the merit of sacramental observances. It abounds as no other writing of the German mystics did in quotations from the New Testament. In its pages the wayfaring man may find the path of salvation marked out without mystification.

The book, starting out with the words of St. Paul, “when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away,” declares that that which is imperfect has only a relative existence and that, whenever the Perfect becomes known by the creature, then “the I, the Self and the like must all be given up and done away.” Christ shows us the way by having taken on him human nature. In chs. XV.-LIV., it shows that all men are dead in Adam, and that to come to the perfect life, the old man must die and the new man be born. He must become possessed with God and depossessed of the devil. Obedience is the prime requisite of the new manhood. Sin is disobedience, and the more “of Self and Me, the more of sin and wickedness and the more the Self, the I, the Me, the Mine, that is, self-seeking and selfishness, abate in a man, the more doth God’s I, that is, God Himself, increase.” By obedience we become free. The life of Christ is the perfect model, and we follow him by hearkening unto his words to forsake all. This is nothing else than saying that we must be in union with the divine will and be ready either to do or to suffer. Such a man, a man who is a partaker of the divine nature, will in sincerity love all men and things, do them good and take pleasure in their welfare. Knowledge and light profit nothing without love. Love maketh a man one with God. The last word is that no man can come unto the Father but by Christ.

In 1621 the Catholic Church placed the Theologia Germanica on the Index. If all the volumes listed in that catalogue of forbidden books were like this one, making the way of salvation plain, its pages would be illuminated with ineffable light.


37. English Mystics

England, in the fourteenth century, produced devotional writings which have been classed in the literature of mysticism. They are wanting in the transcendental flights of the German mystics, and are, for the most part, marked by a decided practical tendency.

The Ancren Riwle was written for three sisters who lived as anchoresses at Tarrant Kaines, Dorsetshire. It was the custom in their day in England for women living a recluse life to build a room against the wall of some church or a small structure in a churchyard and in such a way that it had windows, but no doors of egress. This little book of religious counsels was written at the request of the sisters, and is usually ascribed to Simon of Ghent, bishop of Salisbury, d. 1315. The author gives two general directions, namely, to keep the heart “smooth and without any scar of evil,” and to practise bodily discipline, which “serveth the first end, and of which Paul said that it profiteth little.” The first is the lady, the second the handmaid. If asked to what order they belonged, the sisters were instructed to say to the Order of St. James, for James said, “Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep one’s self unspotted from the world.” It is interesting to note that they are bidden to have warm clothes for bed and back, and to wash “as often as they please.” They were forbidden to lash themselves with a leathern thong, or one loaded with lead except at the advice of their confessor. Richard Rolle, d. 1349, the author of a number of devotional treatises, and also translations or paraphrases of the Psalms, Job, the Canticles and Jeremiah, suddenly left Oxford, where he was pursuing his studies, discontented with the scholastic method in vogue at the university, and finally settled down as a hermit at Hampole, near Doncaster. Here he attained a high fame for piety and as a worker of miracles. He wrote in Latin and English, his chief works being the Latin treatises, The Emendation of Life and The Fervor of Love. They were translated in 1434, 1435, by Rich Misyn. His works are extant in many manuscript copies. Rolle exalted the contemplative life, indulged in much dreamy religious speculation, but also denounced the vice and worldliness of his time. In the last state of the contemplative life he represents man as “seeing into heaven with his ghostly eye.”

Juliana of Norwich, who died 1443, as it is said, at the age of 100, was also an anchoress, having her cell in the churchyard of St. Julian’s church, Norwich. She received 16 revelations, the first in 1373, when she was 30 years old. At that time, she saw “God in a point.” She laid stress upon love, and presented the joyful aspect of religion. God revealed Himself to her in three properties, life, light and love. Her account of her revelations is pronounced by Inge “a fragrant little book.”

The Ladder of Perfection, written by Walter Hylton, an Augustinian canon of Thurgarton, Nottinghamshire, who died 1396, depicts the different stages of spiritual attainment from the simple knowledge of the facts of religion, which is likened to the water of Cana which must be turned into wine, to the last stages of contemplation and divine union. There is no great excellency, Hylton says, “in watching and fasting till thy head aches, nor in running to Rome or Jerusalem with bare feet, nor in building churches and hospitals.” But it is a sign of excellency if a man can love a sinner, while hating the sin. Those who are not content with merely saving their souls, but go on to the higher degrees of contemplation, are overcome by “a good darkness,” a state in which the soul is free and not distracted by anything earthly. The light then arises little by little. Flashes come through the chinks in the walls of Jerusalem, but Jerusalem is not reached by a bound. There must be transformation, and the power that transforms is the love of God shed abroad in the soul. Love proceeds from knowledge, and the more God is known, the more is He loved. Hylton’s wide reputation is proved by the ascription of Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation to him and its identification in manuscripts with his De musica ecclesiastica.

These writings, if we except Rolle, betray much of that sobriety of temper which characterizes the English religious thought. They contain no flights of hazy mystification and no rapturous outbursts of passionate feeling. They emphasize features common to all the mystics of the later Middle Ages, the gradual transformation through the power of love into the image of God, and ascent through inward contemplation to full fellowship with Him. They show that the principles of the imitation of Christ were understood on the English side of the channel as well as by the mystics of the Lowlands, and that true godliness is to be reached in another way than by the mere practice of sacramental rites.

These English pietists are to be regarded, however, as isolated figures who, so far as we know, had no influence in preparing the soil for the seed of the Reformation that was to come, as had the Pietists who lived along the Rhine.