Article abstract: Thomas is credited by most historians with writing The Imitation of Christ, the most important piece of devotional literature produced by the late medieval pietistic movement called the devotio moderna and one of the most influential religious works in history. Some scholars claim that this work has been more widely read than any Christian work other than the Bible.
Thomas Hemerken of Kempen—better known as Thomas à Kempis—was born in 1379 to a blacksmith named John Hemerken and his wife, Gertrude, who ran a school for children and apparently began her son’s education. In 1392, at the age of thirteen, Thomas left his family to attend the chapter school in Deventer. That town was home to a number of the Brethren of the Common Life, followers of an ascetic religious movement known as the devotio moderna (modern devotion), founded between 1374 and 1384 by Gerhard Groote (1340-1384) and most prominent in Holland, the Rhineland, and central Germany. Thomas did not come to Deventer because of the movement, however, and—contrary to a common misconception—he never became a member of the Brethren. Still, he accepted the ideals of the devotio moderna, was befriended by Groote’s successor, Florentius Radewyns (c. 1350-1400), and lived in a hostel which the Brethren owned. When he left the school in Deventer in 1399, on the verge of adulthood, he was well versed in Latin and knew some philosophy, though little of theology.
Thomas was reared at the end of the catastrophic fourteenth century, which brought to Europe famine, the Black Death (bubonic plague), economic disruption and decline, the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), conflicts between inept monarchs and greedy aristocrats, and popular uprisings, such as the French Jacquerie and the English Peasants’ Revolt. There were also disturbing problems within a church increasingly politicized during the Middle Ages. Its image suffered greatly between 1305 and 1376, when the Papacy was transplanted from Rome to Avignon and lay mired in corruption, and even more so when there ensued in 1378 a papal schism, with two rival (French and Italian) popes and then, from 1409 to 1417, three. Meanwhile, the upper clergy’s wealth aroused criticism, while the reforming orders of recent centuries—the Cistercian monastics and the Dominican and Franciscan friars—had lost much of their original vitality. Disillusioned with ecclesiastics and demoralized by disasters which some attributed to God’s wrath toward the Church, many Europeans clamored for reform or sought spiritual consolation outside ordinary avenues. Yet conciliarist reformers failed to replace the pope with a council, and the challenge which John Wyclif and Jan Hus posed to the Church’s worldliness and to fundamental doctrines about revelation, the sacraments, and papal authority, the Church branded as heresy.
The devotio moderna avoided that stigma, despite its resemblance to an earlier generation of ascetic—and often heretical—spiritualists, the Beghards and Beguines. Its founder, Groote, the well-educated son of a wealthy cloth merchant, was loyal and orthodox. Following a serious illness in 1372, he lived for a time in a monastery near Arnhem belonging to the austere eremitic order of Carthusians, whose asceticism he adopted (although he did not become a monk). In 1374 he donated a house he had inherited in Deventer to a group of religious women who became known as the Sisters of the Common Life, and over the next decade a similar group of Brethren emerged. Both groups devoted themselves to a common life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, although they took no formal vows and belonged to no established order. In 1387, however, some adherents of thedevotio moderna known as the Windesheim congregation adopted and rigorously observed the rule of the Augustinian canons. Thomas’ older brother, John, became prior of St. Agnietenberg, one of the order’s houses near Zwolle. In 1399 Thomas visited him there and became a monk, though he was not invested until 1406. Ordained a priest in 1413 or 1414, Thomas served unsuccessfully as procurator and subprior before moving on—with better results—to a career as a copyist, preacher, and writer of hymns and treatises. Aside from being exiled with his fellow monks to Ludingakerk from 1429 to 1431 and a brief stint in Mariaborn, he remained at St. Agnietenberg for the rest of his life.
As is illustrated above, the particulars of Thomas’ long life (he died at the age of ninety-two) are well known, something which often cannot be said for much less obscure figures in medieval history. The only important exception is the mistaken notion that he was one of the Brethren, when in fact he was a monk for his entire adult life. Whereas a Brother or Sister of the Common Life might abandon with comparative ease the life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Thomas’ vows were formal and permanent, though in any case he showed little inclination to return to the world once he had left it. Contemporary observers reveal that the adult Thomas, described as of medium build and dark complexion, was quiet by nature and most fond of reading, study, and contemplation. Indeed, the great value of a life of prayerful, meditative, monastic devotion is a theme found throughout his work. Even the limited involvement of the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life in the ordinary world—which must have seemed particularly wicked to a monk living at the end of the fourteenth century and the beginning of the fifteenth—was more than Thomas wanted.
Given that the basic facts about Thomas’ life are clear, it is ironic that the most important part of his life’s work—his authorship of Imitatio Christi (c. 1427; The Imitation of Christ, c. 1460-1530)—is the one most subject to doubt and controversy. Ever since the fifteenth century, there have been those who question whether Thomas is, in fact, the author of The Imitation of Christ. His authorship is accepted by the late R. R. Post in The Modern Devotion: Confrontation with Reformation and Humanism (1968), generally considered the definitive work on the devotio moderna. Post notes, however, that claims have been made on behalf of a number of writers, often along essentially nationalistic lines. For a long time many French scholars favored Jean de Gerson (also known as Jean Charlier), the reform-minded chancellor of the University of Paris at the beginning of the fourteenth century, although by the twentieth century such claims had diminished. A number of Italians have suggested Giovanni Gersen (whose name, Post observes, is suspiciously like Jean de Gerson’s); it is impossible, however, to prove even the existence of this man, who was supposedly abbot of Santo Stefano, a Benedictine monastery in Vercelli in northern Italy. The Belgians, Dutch, and Germans have generally accepted that Thomas wrote The Imitation of Christ, but a vocal minority has given credit instead to the founder of the devotio moderna, Gerhard Groote. Since the 1920’s the application of textual criticism has given renewed vigor to the debate, with various scholars supporting Groote, Giovanni Gersen, and Gerard Zerbolt (one of the Brethren associated with Radewyns in Deventer), although Thomas is still the most commonly accepted author.
Thomas was in any case quite a prolific writer, producing biographies of Groote, Radewyns, and other important figures in the devotio moderna, as well as a number of devotional works—although none of the others was of the quality of The...
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