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13.03.08, von Habsburg, Catholic and Proestant Translations of the Imatio Christi, 1425-1650

13.03.08, von Habsburg, Catholic and Proestant Translations of the Imatio Christi, 1425-1650

The Imitatio Christi's claim to be a classic of western religious literature is well founded. With over 800 surviving manuscripts dating to within a century of its composition, at least 639 printed editions between 1500 and 1650, and translation into languages both predictable (English, French, Dutch, German) and exotic (Ukrainian, Chinese), the text was easily the most widespread work of late medieval devotion (2, 184). That Pope Sixtus V (d. 1590) offered an indulgence to anyone who read the work in Japanese translation is a further testament to its ubiquity (194).

Given this success, one would be tempted to identify the Imitatio as a universal work of literature, one that was and is able to transcend the temporal and cultural confines of its origins. And indeed some historians have done so. How else could a text that emerged from the late medieval devotio moderna appeal to monastic reformers, both Catholic and Protestant lay readers, and the Jesuits? But the author of the work under review, Maximilian von Habsburg, warns against just such a view. He argues that "The success of the Imitatio cannot be explained by separating it from its contemporary culture...One can only fully appreciate the Imitatio's appeal by relating different editions to the religious cultures from which they emerged" (2).

Influenced by historians such as Caroline Walker Bynum, John van Engen, Brad Gregory, R. N. Swanson, and Eamon Duffy, von Habsburg is more interested in piety than doctrine and attempts to situate devotional forms, in this case the printing and translation of the Imitatio, in their social contexts. This emphasis on piety allows von Habsburg to reveal something often obscured by the dust of doctrinal scuffles--the strong parallels between late medieval and early modern spirituality (247).

To do this von Habsburg focuses on the history of the text itself-- when, where, and by whom the text was printed and translated. Aside from the raw data provided by this survey (usefully summarized in a short title catalogue at the end of the book), he also takes as his evidence editorial prefaces and careful comparisons of different Latin editions as well as translations of the text into English and French. Such an approach allows von Habsburg to gain much more nuanced insight into the history of the text than the mere counting of editions would allow. Using this method, von Habsburg advances four main arguments: that the origins of the text in the devotio moderna aided its rapid diffusion; that early translators adapted the text for a lay audience; that Protestant editors and translators removed overtly Catholic language to make the text palatable to Protestant readers; and that previous historians have underestimated the parallels between the piety of the Imitatio and that of the Jesuits.

von Habsburg agrees with the general consensus that Thomas á Kempis was the author of the Imitatio, but he is ultimately not much interested in the author debate (2-4). Of greater importance for von Habsburg is that the text clearly emerged from the devotio moderna, a late medieval reform movement that under the early leadership of Gerard Groote (d. 1384) promoted the idea that lay men and women could live communal lives of reading, prayer, and contemplation without monastic vows. The men and women in these communities became known as the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life. After Groote's death, part of the movement did form a monastic wing under the rule of St. Augustine, the Windesheim Congregation. Thomas spent time with the Brothers of the Common Life in Deventer and later became an Augustinian canon in the monastery of Mount St. Agnes where he supervised the novices (37).

Far from a unified work, the Imitatio was a compilation of four books. The first lamented the depths of human depravity and weakness and taught the reader contempt for worldly values; the second gave instructions for developing an interior spiritual life; the third was an extended dialogue between a disciple and Jesus; and the fourth helped prepare the reader for worthy reception of the Eucharist. Previous historians, notably Regnerius Post, have argued that the Imitatio was written exclusively for monks. Obedience, humility, patience, suffering, silence, and a contempt for worldly values are held up as the essential virtues of a good Christian, while Book Four is addressed explicitly to priests. Although von Habsburg admits that the text contains scattered references to the monastic life, he argues that the Imitatio was intended for all members of the devotio moderna, the Augustinian canons, the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, and even the lay men and women drawn to the movement. According to von Habsburg, the values identified by Post as monastic had equal relevance to lay men and women drawn to the spiritual life (43-47).

von Habsburg in my opinion understates the amount of explicitly monastic language in the Imitatio. Book One is littered with explicit references to monasticism (I. 9, 17, 18, 19, 25) and several passages in Book Three imply that the disciple engaged in dialogue with Christ is in fact a monk (III. 10). For example, towards the end of Book Three, when the disciple accepts his cross, he states, "I have received the cross, yes, I have accepted it from Your hands. You have placed it upon me and I will support and sustain it until I die. The life of a good monk is indeed a cross, but it is also his guide to paradise. Now that we are on our way, we must not go backward nor abandon our purpose" (III. 56) [1].

Any effort to identify the originally intended audience for the work as a whole, however, is doomed by the text's heterogeneous origins. As von Habsburg himself notes, the Imitatio is not a unified work, but rather a collection of four books each of which once existed independently and which are themselves composed of loosely connected aphoristic expressions, short commentaries, or dialogues. The flexibility of the Imitatio, a text that simultaneously appealed to both monastic and lay audiences, is at least partially due to the fact that different passages were originally written for different audiences and only later collected together.

In Chapter Four, von Habsburg traces the spread of the Imitatio in Europe up to 1530. The emergence of the devotio moderna in the Netherlands gave the text easy access to Dutch, German, and French markets, while the movement's emphasis on the spiritual benefits of copying devotional works ensured the steady production of new copies. The rapid expansion of the Windesheim Congregation helped bring the text to large areas of Belgium, the Netherlands, and northwestern Germany (53). The Imitatio was well-positioned, therefore, to benefit from the printing press. Early printers were quite conservative and tended to print what they knew would sell. First printed in 1472 in Augsburg, the Imitatio was printed more than 100 times, in both Latin and the vernacular, before 1530 (62-63). In addition to love of profit, personal feelings of piety among printers and patronage from the wealthy and powerful also helped to ensure a steady stream of printed editions.

In Chapter Five, a close examination of English and French translations of the Imitatio reveal that translators were not entirely faithful to the original text. In both England and France, an early translation that was relatively faithful to the Latin was superseded by a later translation that catered more directly to a lay audience. von Habsburg notes that translators adapted the text for lay consumption by removing monastic terminology, moderating some of the more severe passages in order to emphasize God as a God of love, and adding both emotional reflections on Christ's suffering and short explanatory phrases.

Chapters Six–Eight are perhaps the most fascinating portion of the book. Here, von Habsburg turns to the fate of the Imitatio in the Protestant world. How could a book so steeped in late medieval spirituality succeed among Protestants? In Lutheran and Calvinist areas, it did not. Luther was supposedly unaware of the work, but the Imitatio's consistent references to human merit and the value of suffering would have smacked of works righteousness to Lutheran readers. In southwestern Germany, Zurich, and England, however, the text found a readier reception. Amazingly, 15 of the 16 German editions of the Imitatio between 1531 and 1559 were printed in Protestant centers (113). The first Protestant translation, most likely the work of Caspar Schwenckfeld, was printed in 1531. Leo Jud, a prominent Zurich reformer, undertook a translation of his own that was printed for the first time in 1539. Sebastian Castellio, a Protestant humanist, translated the Imitatio into classical Latin in 1563; his edition became the source text for Edward Hake's translation into English in 1567. Hake's printer, Henry Denham, would later commission another English translation from Thomas Rogers (111- 118).

Just as Catholic translators adapted the text to a lay audience, Protestant translators adapted the text to theirs. Predictably none of them included Book Four, but they also modified the text in the first three books. "Fidelity to a specific author was replaced by the necessity of being faithful to the Bible" (127). Protestant translators removed anything that did not conform to Protestant doctrine such as references to monasticism, intercessory prayers to saints, purgatory, and human merit. They also intensified the Christocentricity of the text by adding in the word "Christ" wherever possible. Suitably purged of its "papist" elements, the accessibility of the text, its emphasis on silent contemplation, its criticism of human depravity, its call for repentance and humility, and its Christocentric spirituality were attractive to a Protestant audience (146). Remarkably, however, the Protestant translators did not add explicitly Protestant elements to the text; what was left was a book that was neither explicitly Catholic nor Protestant. Some copies of Schwenckfeld's translations have provenances from Jesuit colleges (144).

The Imitatio attracted readers otherwise separated by deep confessional divides. Schwenckfeld, a spiritualist who broke with Luther over the doctrine of the Real Presence and sola scriptura, was attracted by the text's interiority. He found appealing the Imitatio's claim that external rites and even the Gospel itself were of no effect unless the believer was moved by the spirit (149-150). Hake and Rogers, on the other hand, were interested in establishing a devotional core for the newly established Elizabethan Church. To adapt the Imitatio to this purpose, Hake dropped Book 4 and instead substituted his own The perpetuall reioyce of the Godly, which dwelt on the Protestant sacraments, the Lord's Supper and Baptism. Hake saw the Imitatio as a way to "nurture a piety which was to be professed in a Church distinguished by a Protestant sacramental framework" (161). It is a testament to the Imitatio's flexibility that it attracted both spiritualists like Schwenckfeld, whose "conception of the church excluded the need for sacraments," and Hake and Rogers, who both promoted an institutional, sacramental Church.

As remarkable is the adoption of the text by the Jesuits, a topic discussed in Chapters Nine-Eleven. Ignatius discovered the Imitatio at Manresa during a difficult period of his life when he was devoted to extreme and punishing forms of outward piety. The Imitatio helped Ignatius overcome a spiritual crisis through its emphasis on inward rather than external piety and its insistence that believers should attribute merit to Christ rather than themselves. Convinced of the book's value, Ignatius recommended it as appropriate reading for the second week of the Exercises (181). Thanks to reverence for Ignatius and the Exercises, the Imitatio enjoyed a wide readership among Jesuits. The text was read at Jesuit colleges, printed by presses associated with the order, and translated into numerous languages (182-196).

von Habsburg criticizes previous historians, most notably John O'Malley, who saw a contradiction between the monastic values, dim Augustinian view of human nature, and emphasis on passive contemplation in the Imitatio and the active, missionary piety of the Jesuits. von Habsburg, in contrast, sees deep similarities between the Exercises and the Imitatio; both texts stress the need for solitary self-examination and share an emphasis on the suffering and Passion of Christ. The Imitatio, according to von Habsburg, was important to Jesuits because it reminded them that "the active life had to be rooted in contemplation" (214); the Imitatio provided the "inward preparation" necessary to minister successfully in the world (216). Although it is true that O'Malley saw the adoption of the text by the Jesuits as odd in some respects, he too acknowledged the importance of "the call to inwardness" to Jesuit spirituality: "It [the Imitatio] and works like it that the Jesuits cultivated were not, therefore, extrinsic to their theological enterprise, but helped undergird it." [2]

The Imitatio flourished because of its simplicity, its flexibility, and, not least, the willingness of editors and translators to alter the original text. That a text born of the devotio moderna with clear monastic overtones could, with only a few modifications, be read by devout laypersons, Protestant spiritualists, moderate Anglicans, and Jesuit missionaries reveals the devotional similarities among communities riven by doctrinal differences.

von Habsburg's book began as a doctoral thesis at the Reformation Studies Institute at the University of St. Andrews (vii), and it is clear from this book that he is a very promising scholar. The study does have two limitations that he acknowledges. First, the study of editions and translations is limited primarily to the German, French and English-speaking worlds. Second, the lack of annotations in the copies he examined also prevented discussion of the text's reception by its readers (246). There are a few instances of repetition (53, 59, 212) and some puzzling organizational choices. I am not sure, for example, why his argument that John O'Malley underestimated the parallels between the piety of the Imitatio and the Jesuits begins in Chapter Ten, but concludes at the beginning of Chapter Eleven. But these are minor quibbles. This is an important book that will be read with interest by historians of medieval and early modern religion.



1. Translation that of Joseph Tylenda, The Imitation of Christ in Four Books (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1984), 216.

2. John O'Malley, The First Jesuits (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 266.