The Book of Margery Kempe

The earliest autobiography in English and by that most marginalised section of the population in historical texts (especially medieval history) a woman.  The book is a remarkable document all the more so from the fact that it was ‘lost’ for many centuries. It was known to have existed because of a seven page extract published by Wynkyn de Worde circa 1501 but the original manuscript which dates back to the 1430’s was believed to no longer exist. However in 1934 a copy was found in the collection of an old Catholic family the Butler-Bowdens, it is not the original dictated by Margery (as she could neither read nor write) but certainly a very early copy and a remarkable survivor. The book was first published in 1936 and the manuscript was acquired by the British Library in 1980. It is split into two books, the first has eighty nine chapters but it turns out that the person she dictated that to had such terrible handwriting that nobody could read it. In the four years it took to find somebody to rewrite this main section she dictated another ten chapters that were added as book two.

My copy is the first Folio Society edition of 2004 and uses the edited, and updated from medieval English, version by professor Windeatt, which was first published by Penguin Books in 1980, it has a lovely cover by Chris Daunt who also provided a dozen engravings included within the text.

20190430 Margery Kempe 1

In the medieval period a woman was effectively the property of her husband and this is illustrated many times in the book such as within chapter 51 when Margery is in York

Then the worthy doctor said to her “Woman, what are you doing here in this part of the country?”
“Sir, I come on pilgrimage to offer here at St William’s shrine”
Then he went on “Do you have a husband?”
She said “Yes”
“Do you have a letter recording his permission?”
“Sir” she said “my husband gave me permission with his own mouth”

As well as the need to have permission we see here Margery’s habit of referring to herself in the third person, when she is not doing so then she uses ‘this creature’ as the usual term regarding herself. Margery had by this time travelled to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago (Spain) on a couple of trips all without her husband. In fact he was probably enjoying the breaks from her presence as she has to be the most annoying person I have ever read about and frankly like a lot of her travelling companions I would also have spent a lot of time trying to get away from her.  On her way to Jerusalem from England her companions had abandoned her several times or insisted that she ate separately from them when she was present and in Italy they went so far as to book a ship across the Mediterranean and leave their lodgings without telling her in a desperate attempt to get away.

So why was she so irritating? Well Margery started having visions after her first child was born and would very loudly express them, calling out to all the members of the Holy Trinity and speaking to them as well as quite a few saints in churches dedicated to them. That she clearly believed that she was having these conversations is beyond doubt and she was no longer interested in anything else but aspects of her faith.

And those who knew of her behaviour previously and now heard her talk so much of the bliss of heaven said to her. “Why do you talk so of the joy that is in heaven? You don’t know it, and you haven’t been there any more than we have.” And they were angry with her because she would not hear or talk of worldly things as they did, and as she did previously.
And after this time she never had any desire to have sexual intercourse with her husband, for paying the debt of matrimony was so abominable to her that she would rather, she thought, have eaten and drunk the ooze and muck in the gutter than consent to intercourse, except out of obedience.
And so she said to her husband; “I may not deny you my body, but all the love and affection of my heart is withdrawn from all earthly creatures and set on God alone.

Alongside the visions she also took to weeping and crying whenever she was in a holy place or with a religious person regardless of rank and this would also be loud often involving throwing herself to the ground to bawl like a toddler. This naturally made her a difficult person to be around especially if you are trying to observe the peace of a holy site. When she got back from her pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Rome she would cry around fourteen times a day as she ‘remembered the passion’ as during a vision there she had seen herself with the body of Christ on the cross as though she had actually been present at the crucifixion.

For me, one of her most irritating features though is the total fixation on herself during the book. She travelled across Europe to Rome and onto Jerusalem taking well over eighteen months from late 1413 to Easter 1415 yet she records nothing of the places she went to or the trip itself. This journey alone would have made a fascinating book, she would certainly had a vast number of interesting experiences and a first hand record of Europe and the Holy Land from six centuries ago by an ‘ordinary’ woman as opposed to nobles and royalty would be invaluable to historians. She mentions that she spent twelve weeks in Venice before taking the boat to Jerusalem but that is it, who she met, where she went and what she saw during that time we learn nothing.

But that is not to say that book does not have a lot to recommend it, Margery’s responses to being challenged, even by the highest authority show a quick wit and can be quite funny and despite being frustrating at times to a modern reader, especially the passages where she is conversing with God I’m glad I read it. I’ll finish with a passage from chapter sixty which shows her at her feisty best…

There was a lady who wanted to have the said creature to a meal. And therefore, as decency required, she went to the church where this lady heard her service and where this creature saw a beautiful image of our lady called a pieta. And through looking at that pieta her mind was wholly occupied with the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the compassion of our Lady, St. Mary, by which she was compelled to cry out very loudly and weep very bitterly, as though she would have died.
Then the lady’s priest came to her, saying “Woman, Jesus is long since dead.”
When her crying had ceased, she said to the priest, “Sir, his death is as fresh to me as if he had died this same day, and so, I think, it ought to be to you and all Christian people, We ought always to remember his kindness, and always to think of the doleful death that he died for us.”

and that told him.

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