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.

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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.

The World As It Is – A book for Subscribers

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Well actually The World as it was, as these books date from 1884 and provides a glimpse into history 130 years ago. However before looking at the book itself the main reason for selecting it is to expand on the subject of subscribers editions that I first touched on in Burghall’s Diary  That book in my collection was sold against a prospectus, ‘The World As It Is’ is a subscribers only book and helpfully whoever had the parts subsequently bound included the subscription page so we know how it was sold. After a lot of description as to the structure of the proposed two volumes the subscription page concludes as follows:

The Work will be handsomely printed on super-royal 8vo paper, and will be illustrated by above 300 engravings printed in the text; seventeen maps and diagrams printed in colours, ten coloured plates show some of the principal races of the earth and some remarkable natural phenomenons, and twenty-eight separate page engravings representing notable and remarkable localities in many lands. – making in all FIFTY-FIVE separately printed illustrations. It will be issued in Fourteen Parts, of 80 pages of letterpress, at 2s. each, or Seven Divisions in stiff paper covers at 4s. each, forming when completed two handsome large 8vo volumes. Whether viewed in the aspect of the wide range of its contents, of its educative value, its wealth of illustration, or its moderate price, this work will be found to be quite unique of its kind.

LONDON:  BLACKIE  &  SON,  49  &  50  OLD BAILEY,  EC;

GLASGOW, EDINBURGH AND DUBLIN

Capitalisation is as printed in the document, I have used bold to represent the parts highlighted in italics in the original, this is a Victorian marketing department going full tilt. For those not familiar with the abbreviations used 8vo is a standard paper size usually written as octavo. Standard octavo paper is 9 inches high by 6 inches wide (23cm x 15cm) The pages of the book are actually 9.7 inches high by 7.2 inches wide (24.6cm x 18.4cm) which is presumably where Blackie have come up with super-royal although both super octavo and royal octavo are larger than this.

The price is given as either 14 lots of 2s. or 7 lots of 4s. s. standing for shilling so a total of 28 shillings regardless of how you had the parts. Using the Bank of England inflation calculator (which unfortunately only goes up to 2016) this ‘moderate price’ was apparently more like £159.65 in 2016 or just over £168 by 2018 adding the extra 2 years inflation. Also bear in mind that like modern magazine part works you then need binders, in fact back then you definitely did as these were literally just loose pages, especially the illustrations, and came with instructions for the bookbinder as to where the pages should go. So you would buy the remarkably solid board covers available from Blackie and then pay a bookbinder to put it all together meaning you wouldn’t see any change out of the equivalent of at least £200 probably closer to £250 for your ‘moderate’ purchase. I bought the books in the mid 1980’s and according to the price still visible inside paid £2.50 for the pair at the time, the paint stains on the boards no doubt keeping the price well down. I remember the second hand bookshop where I bought them fondly, the proprietor wrote a year code letter next to the price in all his books, A for his first year of business, B for the second etc. he had been trading for getting on for 20 years by the time I bought this and if you could find anything in the shop coded A you could have it for free.

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The books are really interesting although anyone looking at them and deciding to visit a place based on the information provided would definitely have a surprise coming; for example Swanston Street in Melbourne certainly looks different nowadays :

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It’s the illustrations that I like so much and that first attracted me to these books, that and odd bits of history that you suddenly spot whilst scanning through. The United States of America is described  as a republic consisting of 38 states and 8 territories with an organised government, besides the Indian territory, the territory of Alaska and the District of Columbia. Seeing a map with Indian Territory clearly marked instead of Oklahoma emphasise the fact that the books pre-date the ‘land runs’ of settlers into the Indian lands and are a full 23 years before the Indian Territory ceased to exist altogether when the state was created in 1907.

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The smaller illustrations within the text are also beautiful steel engravings as these two pages show, one from the Amazon basin in Brazil and the other from the Transleithan Provinces of the Austrian Empire most of which is now the independent country of Hungary with the Transylvanian region making  up the western part of Romania. You do have to know some history to even start looking places up as they may well not be under the country you expect.

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Budapest is described throughout this section as two cities Buda and Pesth (the extra h is how it is spelt in the book) and when you are there the city does feel like two distinct places even now.

The colour plates are not a strong point though, the artist who did these wasn’t really of the standard of the rest so they are a bit of a let down even though the colours are still strong, the best one by a long way is the one representing China:

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The books provide a glimpse into a world that no longer exists and for that they are fascinating. In fact they document a world that was rapidly disappearing even as it was published, so I think I will conclude this essay with what is apparently a typical Dutch interior, but is definitely is a museum piece now.

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Burghall’s Diary – a record of the English Civil War

Until the advent of print on demand publications in the last decade or so the diary of Edward Burghall, vicar of Acton in south Cheshire was one of the most difficult to source of all local history accounts for that county. This was a pity as he was an eye witness to the progress of the English Civil War (1642-51) and his diary covers this entire period and once the style settles down it provides a real feel of how the county and its population was affected by the conflict.

The diary first appeared in print as an adjunct to the Chester edition of King’s Vale Royal of England by William Smith and William Webb, published by Daniel King in 1656, this book is now extremely rare and supplements like this are even rarer as they were not issued at the time but were additional extras that the publishers came up with as they found them. It was included in the combination volume of the relevant section of King’s Vale Royal with Sir Peter Leycester’s Antiquities of Cheshire published in two volumes by John Poole of Chester in 1778. The next time it is known to have been reprinted is as part of Cheshire Biographies by Barlow, printed in 1855 which is also a very difficult book to locate. After that we have to leap all the way to 1993 when it was printed for the first time as a separate book by The Tern Press of Macclesfield as a limited edition of just 200 under the title of Providence Improved and that is the copy on my bookshelves.

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As mentioned above Edward Burghall was vicar of Acton, a small village about a mile from the ancient market town of Nantwich which dominated the otherwise mainly rural surroundings in south Cheshire. Nantwich was for Parliament in the war against the Royalists so the diary does tend to cover the conflict from that side. The diary whenever it has been printed has included extracts from various years before the war which as well as illustrating the style of the diary at that time which was more of a series of notes rather than the  extended essays it became during the war also give an idea of Burghall’s belief that god shall strike down the unrighteous, there are very few examples of the righteous being blessed by god however.

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Interesting as these are is showing the beliefs and attitudes of the people at the time the diary really gets into it’s stride with the origins of the war and descriptions of military actions. Here Burghall proves to be a faithful witness of manoeuvres either seen by himself or reported by people involved in the local area and especially in the lead up to the siege of Nantwich and it’s aftermath in January 1644.

This page from May 1643 also includes a drawing by Nicholas Parry of the Crown Hotel which still looks pretty much the same now as it did then.

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Whitchurch is 14 miles (22½ km) from Nantwich so the soldiers starting at midnight marched 14 miles in 3 hours, fought a battle, won it, gained some booty from the defeated army and march 14 miles back again returning by 5 in the afternoon. Quite a days work! This isn’t the only example of similar there and back again in a day raids run out of Nantwich that are recorded in the diary; on another day they went to Chester, fought in a battle and got back a round trip of 41 miles (66 km)

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By the end of 1643, as can be seen above, the Royalists were clearly getting fed up about the way the troops from Nantwich were able to so disrupt their positions that it was decided to move against the town itself.  By then Nantwich was the only town still under Parliamentary control in the entire county so it was definitely becoming a nuisance and  skirmishes started in October that would eventually lead to the Battle of Nantwich on 25th January 1644.20180312 Burghalls Diary 6 Jan 1644

 

The battle is still commemorated in the town each year and since the 1970’s there has been a re-enactment and other entertainments suitable to the period on the Saturday closest to the 25th January and is known as Holly Holy day as back in January 1644 the townspeople wore sprigs of holly in their hats to celebrate the victory there being no other colourful plants at that time of year. I was born in Nantwich and lived there throughout my childhood which is why wanted this book so much when it came out. As I said at the beginning of this blog nowadays it is easy to get the text from more than one print on demand source both here and in America, it is always found with Memorials of the civil war in Cheshire and the adjacent counties by Thomas Malbon, of Nantwich as both books are quite short and it makes for an interesting read.

Another aspect of this book that I want to cover is how this edition came to be printed. Crowd-funding is seen by many as a modern phenomenon, sites such as KickStarter and GoFundMe are in common use now however the book business has used this model for centuries with subscribers editions and selling books against a prospectus. Printing a book was an expensive game, and still is if you want an object of quality, so subscribers would be sought to put up money in advance to ensure that the massive initial outlay was at least mainly offset before the publisher went to press. Subscribers would get the earliest editions and often their name printed in the back, also their edition may be on larger paper or have extra illustrations to make it stand out. The alternative would be a prospectus, a simple sheet of paper produced to interest buyers before publication and again persuade them to pay before the physical book exists, usually by getting a discount on the final published price. That was how Tern Press went about selling this book as can be seen below as I kept my copy of the prospectus and tucked it inside the book when I had it.

The specials were a lot more expensive (from memory about £200) but for that you got an original watercolour by the artist tipped into the book and you could choose what you wanted him to paint. I however couldn’t afford that so handed over my £48 in advance of publication and eventually received number 31 in the post.

You don’t have to be from Nantwich, or even be interested in Cheshire history to find the book interesting. Burghall eventually lost his position at Acton on the 3rd October 1663, as a fervent Parliamentarian he was always at risk after the restoration of the monarchy in May 1660, and he died in apparent poverty on the 8th December 1665.