The Imitation of Christ – Miniatures #2

ioccover Another miniature, though not as small as the Complete Shakespeare set, The Imitation of Christ was written anonymously in the Netherlands in about 1420. Though anonymous, it is usually attributed to Thomas à Kempis. It is a book of spiritual guidance to inspire the inner life of one who wishes to follow Christ. Humility, purity of heart and silence are strongly advised.

The edition here is a facsimile of the first edition in English, translated in about 1450, and printed in 1504 in London. The introduction to the edition reads:

This is a reduced facsimile of the first English translation (William Atkinson’s). The reproduction was made from the edition in the British Museum, printed by Wynkyn de Worde. The little book has therefore a double interest. It is the earliest translation into our language of a world-famous devotional classic, and it is at the same time a specimen of the work of one of our most famous early printers.


The original was printed by Wynkyn de Worde, who had worked with Caxton in the late 15th century, and who took over his printing press after Caxton’s death. The majority of the book was printed using movable type, with a number of woodblock illustrations and decorative drop capitals.

To the modern reader, at first sight, the text appears totally unreadable, but close inspection reveals that it is indeed written in English, an English whose spelling is mighty peculiar, but which contains many recognisable words. In my opinion, it is clearer than Chaucer’s language in the Canterbury Tales – a work which predates this translation by about 70 years. No-one nowadays, however, would read this book for its spiritual content. Many relatively modern translations of The Imitation of Christ are available. The book is, as the printer’s introduction implies, more an exemplar of the printer’s skill and a source book of medieval English.


This book is just 11 cm (4.5″) by 7.5 cm (3″) in size, less than 2.2 cm (⅞”) thick. Physically, it is clear that the binding is modern. It was, in fact, printed in 1921. I cannot find any other copy for sale anywhere on the internet, from which I must assume that it was not published in large quantities.

And the remains of its dustcover reveal that it was on sale in Britain at a cost that, compared with average wages, would today be about £12.

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