Thomas A Kempis, a German ascetic writer, born at Kempen, near Cologne, in 1379 or 1380, died at Mount St. Agnes, near Zwolle, July 26, 1471. His family name was Hammerken, "Little Hammer " (Lat. Malleolus, a surname bestowed on him by several writers). At the age of 13 he entered the school conducted at Deventer by the "Brothers of the Common Life," and in 1396 became an inmate of the house of Brother Florentius Radewin, superior general of the order. In 1400 he began his nov-iceship at the monastery of Mount St. Agnes, near Zwolle, of which his brother John was prior, and in 1413 was ordained priest. It is thought that he composed about this time the short treatise on the eucharist which now forms the fourth book of the " Imitation of Christ." In 1425 he was elected sub-prior of the monastery, and was charged with the spiritual direction of the novices. In 1429 he and his brethren were forced to migrate to Lune-kerke, in Friesland; but they returned to Mount St. Agnes in 1432, when Thomas became treasurer of the monastery. In 1448 he was again elected sub-prior, and held this post till his death. Like all his brethren, Thomas devoted himself in a special manner to the study of the Scriptures and the transcription of Biblical manuscripts.
Besides his most famous work, De Imitatione Christi, and several ascetic treatises, he wrote the chronicle of the monastery of Mount St. Agnes down to 1471. The continu-ator of this chronicle says of him: " Brother Thomas a Kempis endured great poverty, labors, and trials from the foundation of this monastery. He transcribed the whole of our Bible, with many other books for our own use and for strangers. He also wrote for the benefit of young people several little treatises, in a plain and simple style, but rich in practical wisdom. During several years he applied himself lovingly to the contemplation of Christ's passion, and was a great comforter of persons distressed or tempted." He owes his worldwide fame to the book entitled De Imitatione Christi, which has been many times translated into every civilized language, including Greek and Hebrew; there are upward of 60 different versions in French alone, and 500 different editions of it issued within the present century are found in a library at Cologne. The most remarkable modern edition is one in seven languages, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, German, English, and Greek (Sulzbach, 1837). Its authorship has been ascribed to Jean Gerson, chancellor of the university of Paris, and to Gersen or Gesen, an Italian abbot; and the question has been debated somewhat with reference to national honor and the interests of ecclesiastical orders.
The external evidences in favor of A Kempis are the facts that he is mentioned as the author by three writers nearly his contemporaries, that copies exist written in his own hand, and that in one ancient copy he is stated to be the author. There is said also to be a striking likeness in style and refined piety between this and the devotional works of which he is certainly the author. The first volume of the Prolegomena of a new edition of Be Imitatio Christi, after the autograph of Thomas a Kempis, by Hirsche (Berlin, 1873), was followed in 1874 by the Latin edition itself; and a second volume of the Prolegomena, with facsimiles of documents, is in course of publication. This edition is regarded as finally settling the question of the authorship of the work in favor of A Kempis. The only complete edition of the writings of Thomas a Kempis is by the Jesuit Sommalius (3d ed., Antwerp, 1615). There is a German translation of his complete works by Silbert (4 vols., Vienna, 1834). The best biography is that of Mooren, Nachirichten uber Thomas a Kempis (Crefeld, 1855). See also Silbert, Gersen, Gerson oder Kempis? (Vienna, 1828). (See Gerson.)