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The Book of Margery Kempe: Introduction

1 Throughout this Introduction I will distinguish between Kempe, the author of the Book, and Margery, its protagonist. See my early essay, "Margery Kempe: Social Critic," Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 22 (1992), 159-84, which was incorporated into chapter 2 of Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions (University Park: Pennsylvania State Press, 1994).

2 In 1438 a Margery Kempe was admitted into the Guild of the Trinity of Lynn. See Meech, The Book of Margery Kempe, Introduction, p. li and Appendix III, 1, p. 358. For a discussion of the social and economic dynamics of late medieval towns, see Alice Stopford Green, Town Life in the Fifteenth Century (London: Macmillan, 1894. Reissued New York: Macmilllan, 1907).

3 For further comments of Kempe's handling of the concept of community see Staley, Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions, particularly chapters 2 and 5.

4 For these, see Michael Goodlich, "The Contours of Female Piety in Later Medieval Hagiography," Church History 50 (1981), 20-32; Thomas J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

5 On the subject of virginity, see Elizabeth Castelli, "Virginity and Its Meaning for Women's Sexuality in Early Christianity," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 2 (1986), 61-88.

6 On the subject of male scribes and the use some women writers made of the trope of the scribe, see Staley, Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions, chapter 1.

7 For full accounts of these hands and transcriptions of the annotations, see Meech, The Book of Margery Kempe, Introduction, pp. xxxv-xlv, as well as the scrupulous notes throughout his edition.

8 For comments about ink and handwriting, I would like to thank Michele Brown of the British Library, who very kindly conferred with me about the manuscript. I must, however, take full responsibility for the observations themselves, as well as for the possibility of error.

9 For a description of this ceremony, which was developed particularly in Cluniac houses in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, see Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) p. 155.

10 For a discussion of these comments as reinforcing the Book's Latinity, see Karma Lochrie, Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), pp. 119-22.

11On this subject, see A. I. Doyle and M. B. Parkes, "The Production of Copies of the Canterbury Tales and the Confessio Amantis in the Early Fifteenth Century," in Medieval Scribes, Manuscripts, and Libraries: Essays Presented to N. R. Ker, eds. Malcolm Parkes and Andrew G. Watson (London: Scolar Press, 1978), pp. 163-212; Seth Lerer, "Textual Criticism and Literary Theory: Chaucer and His Readers," Exemplaria 2 (1990), 329-345; Lee W. Patterson, "Ambiguity and Interpretation: A Fifteenth-Century Reading of Troilus and Criseyde," Speculum 54 (1979), 297-330; Paul Strohm, "Chaucer's Fifteenth-Century Audience and the Narrowing of the Chaucer Tradition," SAC 4 (1982), 3-32.

12 Meech does not note these instances.

13 For a discussion of the literary analogue for what appears an artless detail, see Gail McMurray Gibson, The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 51.

14 For a good introduction to this subject, see the collection of essays edited by G. L. Harriss, Henry V: The Practice of Kingship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

15 The growing literature on gender and the subject of civil, religious, and domestic authority is vast and no note can do it justice. However, see, for example: David Aers, Community, Gender, and Individual Identity: English Writing, 1360-1430 (London: Routledge, 1989); Alcuin Blamires, "The Wife of Bath and Lollardy," Medium Ævum 58 (1989), 224-42; Natalie Zemon Davis, "Woman on Top," in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975), pp. 124-51; Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer's Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); Louise O. Fradenburg, "The Wife of Bath's Passing Fancy," SAC 8 (1986), 31-58; Thomas Hahn, "Teaching the Resistant Woman: The Wife of Bath and the Academy," Exemplaria 4 (1992), 431-40; Elaine Tuttle Hansen, "The Wife of Bath and the Mark of Adam," Women's Studies 15 (1988), 399-416; Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), pp. 280-317; Barrie Ruth Straus, "The Subversive Discourse of the Wife of Bath: Phallocentric Discourse and the Imprisonment of Criticism," ELH 55 (1988), 527-54; Paul Strohm, Hochon's Arrow: The Social Imagination of Fourteenth-Century Texts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), chapter 7, "Treason in the Household."
Written probably in the late 1430s, The Book of Margery Kempe is one of the most astonishing documents of late medieval English life. Its protagonist, who represents herself as its ultmate author, was not simply a woman but a woman thoroughly rooted in the world.1 She evinces the manners and the tastes neither of the court nor of the nunnery, but the piety, the culture, the profit-oriented values, and the status-consciousness of the late medieval town. As a member of the powerful guild of the Holy Trinity in the prosperous East Anglian town of Bishops Lynn, Margery Kempe wrote from a secure position within the very world she subjects to such careful scrutiny.2 Kempe examines the fundamental conflicts and tensions of that world by describing Margery's gradual and voluntary movement away from worldly prestige. Margery's disengagement from conventional female roles and duties — and consequently her daring rejection of the values of her fellow townspersons — is a response to her growing commitment to her spiritual vocation. Her attempt to gain personal, financial, and spiritual autonomy is a tale of radical reversal that touches us on many different levels. Margery does what very few are able finally to do, and the fact that she does so as a woman enhances the force of her story — she breaks away.

Her story begins conventionally enough. She is married, soon thereafter conceives her first child, goes on to bear fourteen children and presumably to assume the responsibilities of a wife and mother whose position in late medieval society is assured by the longstanding reputation of her father, John Burnham, and the lesser but nonetheless worthy repute of her husband, John Kempe. However, that conventional story is fissured early in Margery's life by a personal vision of Jesus that comes to her shortly after the birth of her first child. The Book records not the anxious efforts to secure worldly goods that we can find in the letters of the Pastons, but Margery's efforts to dissociate herself from the acquisitive and restrictive values of what we now recognize as middle class life. The Book tells a tale of conflict between Margery and key figures of the late medieval world who were invested with spiritual and secular authority — priests, bishops, and mayors — as well as with her husband and her fellow townspersons. Her personal relationship with Jesus leads her to espouse a radical social gospel that threatens the very basis for town life, for Kempe intimates that an orientation towards profit, an investment in qualities like stability and hierarchical ordering, and an urge toward conformist codes of dress and behavior underlie the medieval conception of community.3 What Kempe therefore presents Margery as threatening is the concept of community, that tacit covenant with uniformity that too often defines human relations.

As "modern" as such an account of the life of Margery Kempe sounds, Kempe grounds her work in the conventions of medieval female sacred biography.4 Throughout the annals of sanctity, holy men and women were presented as breaking with or as challenging the institutions of family and society. The issue of sexuality was a particularly important one for female saints, for by their wishes to lead celibate lives, women signified their espousal of a new and less socially defined existence.5 Unbound by the physical and patriarchal strictures of marriage, they could cultivate a spiritual relationship to God whose terms were frequently described by their hagiographers as freer — and, in fact, far more amatory — than any available to them as actual wives. That this freedom was carefully circumscribed and superintended by the Church is integral to the story of women's religious movements in the Middle Ages, since it is more often through the writings of the confessors or spiritual guides of such women that we know of their lives. Those lives are radical, in the sense that they are designed to challenge the tepidity of contemporary devotion, yet also conventional, since the very devotion that turns the holy person into a fit example contains the effect of that challenge when it is recorded by a male member of the institutional church.6

Kempe meliorates the inherent radicalism of the Book by the ways in which she frames the experience it recounts. We do not come directly to the life of Margery, but enter it through two prefaces, the work of the scribe who supposedly recorded Margery's oral account of her memories. These prefaces serve to locate the text within the series of conventions associated with female sacred biography. By identifying the spiritual lessons Margery's career is designed to provide and by underlining the ways in which her story provides solace for those who need evidence of God's mercy and comfort, the prefaces link Margery to the community of the faithful. Furthermore, the prefaces place in the foreground the story of Margery's own spiritual growth, the quality of which is signified by the request of churchmen that she make a book out of her "feelings." Finally, the presence within the text of the Book's scribes bearing witness to Margery's veracity implicitly assimilates it to sacred biography in which the lives of holy women — such as Mary of Oigniès — were verified by male scribes (see prefaces, as well as chapters 88, 89, part 2, chapter 1). The combined effect of such prefatory remarks, like the scribal testimonials within the text, creates an elaborate fiction that joins Margery to communal values by establishing a series of shared expectations. The Book presents itself as a token of communal regard for the spiritual example of Margery herself; if she appears to break away from the community, her break is not so radical as to place her outside it. Rather, she functions as an example of spiritual growth for those who long for increased devotion. By setting up the classic outlines of the story, the prefaces create a perspective that foreshortens the distance between reader and subject.

The manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe bears eloquent testimony to Kempe's fundamental understanding of the conventions within which she situated her work. Copied, probably slightly before 1450, by someone who signed himself Salthows on the bottom portion of the final page, the manuscript contains annotations by four hands.7 Since the first page of the manuscript (British Library, Additional 61823) contains the rubric, "Liber Montis Gracie. This boke is of Mountegrace," it is likely that some of the annotations are the work of monks associated with the important Carthusian priory of Mount Grace in Yorkshire. Although the four readers largely concerned themselves with correcting mistakes or emending the manuscript for clarity, there are enough remarks about the Book's substance to warrant our attention. Two of these annotators are especially interesting, since their comments suggest ways in which the Book was read and why it was preserved.

The first set of comments is made in a small neat brown hand of the fifteenth century whose ink and handwriting look similar to those of the chapter headings, if not to the hand of Salthows himself.8 In general, this set of comments points out events in a way that would be meaningful to a reader with a certain degree of monkish decorum. Margery's first cry (chapter 28) is highlighted by the words, "nota de clamore," a noun that describes the "noise" of penitential grief that could be heard in monasteries after the consecration of the host.9 When Margery seeks to be clothed in white (chapter 30), the writer inscribed "nota de vestura" in the margin and "nota de confessione" when Margery makes her confession to St. John (chapter 32). The writer also designates as a miracle the German priest's ability to understand Margery's English (chapter 33) and, a few pages later, notes her marriage with the Godhead. Opposite the tale of the priest, the bear, and the pear tree, which Margery tells the Archbishop of York, is the word "narracion." As terse as the comment appears, it nonetheless sets the fable apart formally as a separate tale. If, in fact, this hand is the same as that of the chapter headings, the comments suggest a rubricator who was most interested in organizing the text by making what might well seem strange familiar to a monastic reader. If Margery's unorthodox behavior, her unlicensed clothing, her private confession to a saint whom only she can see, and her idiosyncratic relationship to God and to the priesthood can be defined in recognizable terms, the Book can be more easily understood by a monastic reader as a record of devotion.

The set of comments in red ink, which can be dated to the early sixteenth century, bespeaks a more complicated and multi-leveled response to the text the reader had before him.10 First, since this set of comments is probably the latest, this reader approached a text that had already been emended for clarity or marked for emphasis. His comments are both a response to the text itself and to the reactions of earlier readers. For example, he seems compelled to signal his agreement with the set of comments in brown ink by either marking or circling most of them. In the case of the fable of the priest, the bear, and the pear tree, the red hand not only circles the brown "narracion" but draws a downward pointing caret leading to the words, "of þe preyst and þe pertre," thereby seconding the earlier reader's sense that Margery's exemplum should be set apart as a tale. He is similarly drawn to echoing the text at certain points, writing "abundance of loue," in the right margin near the end of chapter 56 opposite "habundawns of lofe," or, in chapter 57, writing "charitem eius" and "wel of ters" in the outer margin of the folio containing those words.

The commentator is also concerned with the coherence of the text itself. For example, chapter 16 ends with the sentence, "rede fyrst the xxi chapetre and than this chapetre aftyr that"; lest a reader not understand those instructions, the words "it begynnes thus," along with the opening words of chapter 21, are written in red. When, in chapter 17, Kempe refers to the Incendium Amoris, the red hand notes "of R. hampall" — referring to Richard Rolle of Hampole, a well-known spiritual author of the fourteenth century — in the margin. When in chapter 62 the Book says that Margery's priest read of a woman called Maria de Oegines, the hand writes "Maria de oegines" and below it "liber" and a few lines down echoes the reference to "The Prykke of Lofe" in the outer margin. When it describes the leper woman to whom Margery ministers in chapter 74 as beset by impatience with her sickness, the red hand remarks, "nota, A sotel and a sore temptacion. In sich a case we shold be more strange and bold a-ga[n]ste our gostly enmy."

This reader also supplies a running gloss on the Book that locates it within the contexts and concerns of works of contemporary piety. In fact, most of the comments in red ink are directed toward elucidating the "affective" emphasis of the text, as his care to distinguish key texts of late medieval piety, such as the Incendium Amoris and The Pricke of Love, suggests. In chapter 35, when the Book describes Margery as experiencing a "flawme of fyer," this reader not only writes "ignis divine amoris," and draws a picture of this fire of divine love, but a few lines later notes an acceptable literary source for such feelings by writing, "so s. R. hampall." Several times he draws a red heart in the margin near a remark about Margery's heart, thus highlighting the verbal reference with an emblem of devotion. He also delineates the exact nature of Margery's feelings, using such terms as "ebrietas sancta" (chapter 41), "amor impatiens" (chapter 45), "fire of love" (chapter 46), "langor amoris" (chapter 57), or "langyng love" (chapter 74, 81), all of which link Margery to the school of Richard Rolle.

Furthermore, he demonstrates his own passionate involvement with those parts of the text that concern Margery's spiritual fervor and charity. Near the end of chapter 59, when Kempe describes Margery as privileged to feel a little of Christ's pain, the reader writes "laudes deo" in the outer margin as he does at the end of chapter 70. He ends chapters 66, 75, and 84 with the words "deo gracias," chapter 60 with three rousing red "Amens," and part 2, chapter 2 with "Amen." In chapter 76, where Kempe describes John Kempe's injury, the reader writes "her husband" in the outer margin and later in the chapter notes her charity in caring for him. Near the end of chapter 77, he brackets a conversation between Christ and Margery from the point where Christ says that he must "have compassyon of thi flesch" to "answeryd owr Lord to hir," putting the words "manheyd of cryst" in the outer margin beside the first word in the sequence. In the second part, in which there are fewer descriptions of the nature of Margery's piety, there are correspondingly fewer responses to the text by this reader whose interests are very clearly oriented toward the symptoms or manifestations of affective devotion.

The many corrections and comments recorded in red ink seem less a privately directed response to the Book than one adumbrated with other readers in mind.11 The reader consistently attempts to make sense of certain parts of the text, providing more up-to-date spellings and clarifying citations. His emphasis on the affective nature of Margery's piety shapes the experience of reading for subsequent readers by shifting our attention away from potentially disruptive elements in the Book. The challenge to authority implicit in Margery's experiences is downplayed by highlighting those characteristics that link Margery to the conventions of spiritual ecstasy. In so doing, he subtly imposes genre on the Book, occluding sections of the text — or of Margery herself — that do not fit into the pattern of acceptable female devotional experience. He is thus less interested in the plot of the Book than he is in the symptoms of Margery's religious fervor. The plot, which comprises far more of the narrative than do descriptions of Margery's feelings, records Margery's ongoing conflicts with figures of authority as well as her ultimate freedom from their control, so that the comments in red serve to distract attention from the Book's underlying radicalism. By pointing up the Book's devotional elements, the reader seeks to guide subsequent readers towards a carefully controlled response, one that obviates the radical social gospel submerged in Kempe's narrative. While this can be described as a preference for piety, it also testifies to a distaste for the potential disorderlinessdramatized in an account of a woman who abandons conventional roles to become poor and itinerant for the sake of her private vision of Jesus.

In addition to these sets of comments suggesting the urge to control responses to the text, in at least two places the scribe himself may have acted as an editor.12 In the first of these, in chapter 64, he simply substitutes the word charite for the phrase token of lofe, which he brackets with marks of deletion; the sentence thus reads, "Wher is a bettyr charite than to wepyn for thi Lordys lofe?" Second, in chapter 81, Kempe describes Margery as ministering to the Virgin Mary directly after Jesus' death: "Than the creatur thowt, whan owr Lady was comyn hom and was leyd down on a bed, than sche [mad for owr Lady a good cawdel and browt it hir to comfortyn hir, and than owr lady seyd onto hir, `Do it awey, dowtyr. Geve me no mete but myn owyn childe.' The creatur] seyd agen, `A, blissyd Lady, ye must nedys comfortyn yowrself and cesyn of yowr sorwyng."' The section in brackets has been crossed through in ink that appear to be the same color as the original. It is clear that whoever crossed out the famous incident of Margery making a hot drink for the Virgin was careful to preserve grammatical sense. These instances are possibly even more significant if they were made by the same hand that I have labelled the small brown hand, for, taken together, they would provide evidence of a fifteenth-century reader, perhaps Salthows, who sought to provide a gloss or guide that rendered the Book more decorous. Quite possibly, the incident of the "hot caudel" bothered this reader because it seemed to impose too much fictional homeliness on the gospel story.13 Where the set of comments in red ink highlights descriptions of spiritual ecstasy that are extraordinary, this reader seems eager to downplay the extraordinary by providing commonly understood terms like "clamor" or "vestura" to describe Margery's unconventional behavior.

The comments recorded throughout the manuscript of the Book are important because they suggest ways in which medieval texts were seen as communal and therefore as meriting commentary that linked them to the values of the communities in which they were housed and read. In the truest sense, they were living documents, and the margins of medieval manuscripts bear witness to the perceived relevance of the written word. Thus, those aspects of the Book that threaten communal values fade into the background before the privileging of Margery's emotive female piety. If the Book's earliest readers sought to find a use for it that linked it to the concerns of a monastic community, their intense interest in it ought to be of use to us, the Book's latest set of readers. Though we can choose to read it as a pre-feminist manifesto, such a stance is as guided by our own communal values as is that of the reader who wielded red ink over the manuscript before him. How do we use this text in ways that allow us to exercise courtesy both to its author and her agency and to our own critical concerns and values?

I suggest that we begin by acknowledging an author for The Book of Margery Kempe. Though frequently characterized as the first autobiography in English, we might instead think of it as a fiction (the first novel?), and hence as the work of a self-conscious author, Kempe, who employed a character called Margery for as many and as varied purposes as Chaucer used Geoffrey throughout his poetry or as Langland used Will in Piers Plowman. Like Chaucer and Langland, Kempe's focus is a broad one. Through Margery and a story whose foundation in reality is probably both as true and as tenuous as Geoffrey's or Will's, Kempe examines key issues of late medieval England. She sets the story of Margery's spiritual growth and her growing personal autonomy unambiguously within the context of the late medieval town. In so doing, she implicitly scrutinizes the foundations of medieval urban life. By directing our attention to the ways in which Margery's behavior frequently violates communal values, she dramatizes the disparity between social myths and social realities.

The Book, however, has a broader focus than that of merely local conflicts. Kempe places Margery not only in towns associated with the Wycliffite heresy (Leicester, Bristol, York) but also in a period of national anxiety over the issue of religious heterodoxy. During the reign of Henry V, when most of the action takes place, there was a growing need to define nationhood in terms of uniformity.14 By presenting Margery as living out a vernacular gospel, as appearing sometimes to preach that gospel, and as challenging the authority of confessors, priests, and bishops, Kempe sketches in the outlines of a nation where conformity has become an end in itself and where anyone, particularly a woman, who seeks to imitate the Christ-like life has trouble finding tolerance, much less approval. Just as she explores the materialistic and conformist nature of the England of Henry V, Kempe provides a sharp look at the ecclesiastical institutions of the day. By blurring the distinction between the ecclesiastical and secular spheres, Kempe suggests ways in which churchmen too often resemble their secular counterparts in their desire for conformity, worldly status, wealth, and power.

It is important, however, to keep in mind that Kempe's presentations of town life, of national identity, and of ecclesiastical institutions are themselves fictions and may or may not reflect contemporary realities. We need to understand these presentations within the context of the Book itself and its account of upheaval. By choosing a female protagonist, Kempe at once underlines the revolutionary aspect of her narrative and contains it.15 Woman's long association with the subjective, the experiential, and the radical allows Kempe to employ Margery as a lens through which to examine the very basis for authority in social and ecclesiastical relationships. However, woman was also relieved of any truly revolutionary threat by her relative lack of legal status. In Margery's case, her piety and her orthodoxy, recognized by significant members of the church, further prevents her from occupying a more troubling social dimension. Since it is Kempe who created Margery, we can only return to the author and her shrewd sense that she could use such a figure to explore a whole range of issues loosely gathered under the rubric of "authority," and thereby offer a picture of late medieval England that is, finally, an analysis of the rationale for the hierarchies upon which the notion of community was founded.

To return to those earlier commentators on the manuscript of the Book who provided the first readings of this text, we can certainly praise them for their understanding of genre and for their astute sense of the conventions of sacred biography and devotional prose. They tell us much about Kempe's awareness of the need to situate her book in a specific context and about her awareness of the contemporary public for her book. But we can also provide new marginal comments or questions that emerge from what we are coming to understand about the shape and tensions of the late medieval world. While we should be careful about reading into the Book our own preoccupation with the strategies of feminist politics as they are worked out by more modern writers, we should not ignore Kempe's use of the language of gender to point up theissue of authority, both sacred and secular. It is our very willingness to discover dislocations and tensions, along with our increasingly sophisticated methods of historical and critical inquiry, that allow us to ask questions of this text that perhaps earlier readers could not begin to ask. Let us neither sanitize the Book and thus avoid ways in which the text offers a searching look at the sacrosanct institutions of late medieval life nor fail to take seriously those institutions and the ideals upon which they were based. Instead, let us come to it ready to recognize its richness, its built-in contradictions, its uneasy negotiations between the needs of the individual and the pulls of communal life, in short, to appreciate Kempe's genuine mastery of the arts of prose fiction. Let us, finally, recognize in Kempe a writer who employed the fiction of the holy woman (often seen merely as a "female hysteric" by modern critics) as a persona. Such a guise allowed her to inhabit a space within the status-conscious town of Lynn even as she made a story about her ability to extricate herself from codes of behavior that have nothing to do with the freedom of the spirit lived out by Christ and the disciples.

Go To The Book of Margery Kempe, Book I, Part 1



Select Bibliography

British Library MS Additional 61823, formerly the property of Colonel William Erdeswick Ignatius Butler-Bowden, whose family possessed the manuscript since at least the mid-eighteenth century. The manuscript contains two bookplates, both those of Henry Bowden, born in 1754. The sentence written in a late fifteenth-century hand at the top of the verso of the binding leaf of the manuscript, "This boke is of Moutegrace," indicated that earlier the manuscript belonged to the Carthusian monastery of Mount Grace in Yorkshire. The manuscript was identified by Hope Emily Allen in 1934.


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