The Phenomena of Prayer: The Reception of the Imitatio Christi in England (1438-c.1600)
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The Imitatio Christi by Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) was among the most successful texts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Over eight hundred manuscripts survive from that period alongside hundreds of printed editions. Its popularity transcended language, nation, religious vocation and ultimately confession. Hitherto, most monographs on the Imitatio have debated the question of its authorship. This thesis joins the growing body of work that examines the features that made this text so attractive. Continuously reshaped by readers and editors, the Imitatio tradition encompasses a corpus of texts with often vastly divergent meanings. This variety emerged, in part, as a result of the text itself, which encouraged its own fragmentation, and in part from the mimetic reading habits that prevailed throughout the period of this study. This thesis takes a longue-durée perspective, situating different versions of the Imitatio within the broader tradition and considering their relationships with one another. It is argued that the Imitatio’s success was owed not to the establishment of a characteristic meaning but to a characteristic tradition of use. The text became a source for mimetic, compunctious prayer. The popularity of the Imitatio among sixteenth-century reformers shows the continuing popularity of the rhetorical characteristics of compunctious devotions. This thesis contends that, through the Imitatio, traditional religious practices continued to be important for English reformers. The text provided a focus for developing Protestant identities. For early evangelicals, its traditional formulations helped them conceal their heterodoxy, while its themes of intense devotion to the Holy Spirit allowed them to tacitly engage with reformist doctrine. For Elizabethan Calvinists, Kempis’s text was emblematic of the continuity of the true, Apostolic Church, during the era of Papal supremacy.
AuthorsHarrap, David Alexander
- Theses