The First Edition
[Augsburg]: Günther Zainer, [before 5 June 1473].
Thomas à Kempis, the author of the Imitatio Christi, was born to poor parents at Kempen, near Cologne. Educated at Deventer in the school of the Brethren of the Common Life, in 1399 he entered the monastery of the Augustinian Canons at Mount St. Agnes, near Zwolle in Holland, where he took priestly orders in 1413 and remained for most of his long life.
The Imitatio Christi is the classic expression of the Devotio Moderna, or “modern devotion,” a movement that responded to the widespread need for deepened spiritual life in the years before the Reformation. The ideals of the Devotio Moderna grew out of the Windesheim Congregation, a religious community of Augustinian Canons established in the Netherlands in 1387. This congregation admitted groups of devout laymen, known as the “Brethren of the Common Life,” who were followers of Geert Groote of Deventer (1340-1384). While the canons lived a reformed monastic life according to the Rule of St. Augustine, the brothers and sisters of the Common Life lived by an informal code of Christian self-discipline that relentlessly promoted personal devotion, simplicity, and humility, ideals that are expressed fervently in the Imitatio Christi.
Approximately 400 manuscript copies of the Imitatio Christi survive, including one at the Royal Library in Brussels written and inscribed by Thomas à Kempis at Mount St. Agnes in 1441. The first printed edition of the Imitatio Christi, exhibited here, came from the press of Günther Zainer, the first printer in Augsburg, ca. 1473. The Latin colophon at the end of the book praises “Thomas of Mount St. Agnes in the diocese of Utrecht, Canon Regular, whose book the Imitation of Christ in four parts was printed by Günther Zainer of Reutlingen.”