Milan to Madagascar: a best seller’s back story

In 2003 the Library received a gift of a copy of De imitatione Christi (The Imitation of Christ) by Thomas à Kempis, published at Milan in 1488. We were a little awed at first. Described within the world of Quakerism (Friends Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 1, 1953 p.48) as a work with “…a circulation second only to that of the Bible”, publicity for a recent Paris exhibition on the Imitation described it as the shining light of late mediaeval devotional literature. Though over 2,000 editions of the work were published up to the early 19th century, our edition is an extremely early one – published only 15 years after the Latin editio princeps of 1473.

De Imitatione Christi by Thomas à Kempis, Milan, 1488 (TEMP MSS 988/1)

‘De Imitatione Christi’ by Thomas à Kempis, Milan, 1488 (TEMP MSS 988/1)

Pages from De Imitatione Christi by Thomas à Kempis, Milan, 1488

Pages from ‘De Imitatione Christi’ by Thomas à Kempis, Milan, 1488 (TEMP MSS 988/1)

The book was William Penn’s copy. On the final page is his signature – “W[illia]m Penn 1691/2…”:

William Penn's signature

William Penn’s signature from ‘De Imitatione Christi’ by Thomas à Kempis, Milan, 1488
(TEMP MSS 988/1)

Photograph of ivory portrait bust of William Penn made by Silvanus Bevan (1691-1765)
(MSS ACC 11109)

We know that in 1693 Penn recommended the work to Sir John Rodes, of Derbyshire, as part of a Christian’s necessary learning. Our volume also has the signature of Penn’s great grandson, Granville Penn (1761–1844), who inherited most of the family property. Most of the Penn family library was sold in 1872: we have a copy of the sale catalogue (Puttick & Simpson, Catalogue of … of books, manuscripts… from the libraries of William Penn and his descendants, London, 1872; Library reference Box 193/2), listing a number of copies of the Imitation, including this very Milan edition of 1488.

Documents accompanying the gift helped us to verify the book’s ownership and travels. There is an 1877 letter referring to its purchase by Joseph Radley (1835–1903), then teaching at Friends School, Wigton, Cumbria.  His son Joseph F. Radley (1864–1935) later owned it. After teaching at Wigton, like his father, Joseph (the younger) worked for seven years in Madagascar for the Friends Foreign Mission Association (FFMA).  Then, in 1895, he resigned from the FFMA and from the Society of Friends, joined the Anglican Church and was ordained as a priest.  He returned to Madagascar, serving the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel there for over 30 years. While serving both missionary societies over a lifetime in Madagascar, he had Penn’s copy of the Imitation by him, along with a 19th century facsimile edition.  Using these, in collaboration with Rabary (a notable Malagasy Quaker), he produced the first translation of the Imitation into Malagasy, printed by the Quaker-founded FFMA Press at Antananarivo in 1928. A copy of this Malagasy edition was included in the gift to us.

‘Ny Fanarahana ny dian’i Kristy’ translated by Joseph F. Radley, Antananarivo, 1928.
Malagasy edition of ‘De Imitatione Christi’ by Thomas à Kempis, Milan, 1488. (TEMP MSS 988/3)

A few years after we received Penn’s copy of the Imitation, it became apparent that there were more Quaker connections. In 1990 we had been loaned a seemingly unrelated collection –  trade records and account books of the Quaker book and antiquities dealer Henry Thomas Wake (1831–1914), of Derbyshire (TEMP MSS 995). They were not scheduled for listing as a priority, until some descendants undertaking biographical and genealogical work requested digital copies. To accompany the copies, a handlist had to be written, and in the process the story of the purchase and resale of the à Kempis volume became clear.

In 1872 Wake recorded his purchase of “… from Puttick and Simpson … many things relating to W. Penn – chiefly books and MSS…”, exactly corresponding to the printed Puttick & Simpson Penn sale of 1872 (above). Wake’s trade books also record the later sale of the volume to Joseph Radley in 1874-1875.

Henry Thomas Wake trade book, 7 March 1872 (TEMP MSS 995/6)

Henry Thomas Wake trade book, 7 March 1872 (TEMP MSS 995/6)

The Library holds several other editions of, and commentaries on, the Imitation, including various 18th century editions translated by John Payne and works by the American Quaker and spiritual writer, Douglas Steere (1901–1995).

Understandably, the precious 1488 volume is fragile. The binding is damaged, but, provided our handling instructions are complied with, it can be made available for inspection by readers, by arrangement.

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2 Responses to Milan to Madagascar: a best seller’s back story

  1. GINA MARIPOSA says:

    What a wonderful acquisition! I certainly would have enjoyed sampling a bit of the text.

    • Library of the Society of Friends says:

      Thanks for your comment Gina. If you’re interested in reading more of the text of De Imitatione Christi, there are several editions still in print, and it’s also available online. Try the version on the Project Gutenberg website, which can be read online or downloaded to a computer or ebook reader. It’s also available as a free audio recording from LibriVox on the Internet Archive.

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