E. Ann Matter

title.none: Biggs, ed., The Imitation of Christ (Matter)

identifier.other: baj9928.9909.004 99.09.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: E. Ann Matter, University of Pennsylvania,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Biggs, Brendan, ed. The Imitation of Christ: The First Translation of the 'Imitatio Christi'. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. vii, 249. $65.00. ISBN: 0-197-22312-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.09.04

Biggs, Brendan, ed. The Imitation of Christ: The First Translation of the 'Imitatio Christi'. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. vii, 249. $65.00. ISBN: 0-197-22312-5.

Reviewed by:

E. Ann Matter
University of Pennsylvania

The late medieval spiritual guide usually known as The Imitation of Christ has had a lasting influence on European Christian culture. This little book was written in late medieval Netherlands, probably by the Augustinian canon Thomas a Kempis, although other authors have also been suggested at various points. Modern editions are still in print in many languages, and still sell to a general audience. One paperback edition in English claims that this work is, after the Bible, the "best known and best loved book in Christendom." This is quite a claim for a book originally written in Latin in the fifteenth century!

Certainly, the importance of the Imitatio Christi is closely linked to western Christian concepts of reparation through voluntary suffering, the idea that a Christian's earthly pilgrimage should be linked to and understood in terms of the sufferings of the incarnate God, Jesus of Nazareth, undertaken for human sins. In that guise, it has become something of an icon with a readily understood meaning. For example, when Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss reads it, she models her own personal asceticism on the words of its Teacher. In its vernacular versions, The Imitation of Christ breaks out of confessional and national boundaries, and brings home a powerful message of the Christian life to Italian Catholics as much as to English evangelical Protestants.

Because of the rich variety of ways The Imitation of Christ has been received, it can be used as a type of mirror for vernacular spirituality of specific times and places. The appearance of this fine critical edition of the first English version will be a useful primary source for English spirituality of the late fifteenth century. There are several specific criteria of this version of the English text that will be of interest to scholars of literature and theology.

First of all, the theology of this version is interesting. Even though the anonymous translation clearly dates from before the movement for autonomy in the English church, this first English version follows a pattern common to the "Protestant" editions of The Imitation of Christ, namely the exclusion of Book IV, the treatise on the Blessed Sacrament. The first three books ("Counsels on the Spiritual Life," "Counsels on the Inner Life," and "On Inward Consolation,") focus on the nature of sin in the world, and the affective relationship with Jesus that is the beginning of spiritual freedom, and the ultimate union that might be possible for some through the model of Jesus. In this way, The Imitation of Christ comes close to being a work of Christian mysticism. But Book IV brings this affective spirituality into the heart of eucharistic theology, emphasizing what some Protestants have seen as a grossly carnal understanding of "union" with God. The second English translation, that of William Atkynson in 1503, also was limited to the first three books, although a translation made from a French version of Book IV by Lady Margaret Beaufort was added to a second printed edition in 1504. Only the third English translation, a 1531 edition by Richard Whytford, Brigittine monk of Syon Abbey, had all four books from the start (Preface, p.vii). This new edition presents the translation as it appeared in the late fifteenth century, without Book IV. It relies on four manuscript witnesses:

1. Cambridge, University Library, MS Gg. i. 16 (from the last quarter of the fifteenth century).

2. Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 678 (formerly F. 5. 8) (second half of the fifteenth century, in the hand of a Carthusian named Stephen Dodesham, at Sheen Charterhouse in Surrey, with corrections by another hand).

3. Glasgow, University Library, MS Hunter T. 6. 18 (no. 136) written in 1502 by William Darker, also a Carthusian monk of Sheen Charterhouse.

4. Cambridge, Magdalene College, MS F. 4. 19, from the turn of the sixteenth century.

There was an earlier edition of this text in the EETS series done by J. K. Ingram in 1893. Ingram based his edition on the Dublin manuscript, with readings from the Cambridge University Library copy. He obviously did not know the two later manuscripts used by Biggs. Furthermore, Ingram added the texts of the Atkynson-Beaufort translation (and so Book IV) to his edition of The Imitation of Christ.

The fact that Biggs has shown that this text continued to be copied without Book IV should be received with interest by scholars of medieval English religious history. Why was Thomas a Kempis's eucharistic discourse edited out of this earliest English version? Might this devotional work be linked to a specific movement of English piety? Two of the copies are from a Carthusian context, but might the original have been linked to a very different group? Biggs argues (lxxvii) that this version was intended for a literate audience, and does not seem to have been widely known. If this is true, this new edition will open the way for further understanding of the nature of private devotions in late medieval England.