by Karen Winstead

Extract 1

Extract 2

In Chapter 68 of her Book, Margery Kempe attends a sermon given by an Augustinian friar at his order's house in Lynn. Predictably enough, when the friar speaks of Christ's passion, Margery breaks into sobs, much to the annoyance of the audience around her. The friar, however, defends Margery against their grumblings and shushings: "Frendys, beth stille," he tells them, "ye wote ful lityl what sche felyth." Although we don't know who this sympathetic friar was, we do know of one Augustinian resident at the Lynn priory whose writings indicate that he would have sympathized with Margery Kempe: John Capgrave (1393-1464). 

Capgrave was a distinguished theologian and author of a huge Latin oeuvre encompassing chronicles and Biblical commentaries. Yet he was also anxious to make religious texts accessible to those who did not have the benefit of academic training, especially women. In 1451, he translated the life of St. Gilbert of Sempringham into English so that Gilbertine nuns whose Latin was minimal could read about their order's founder. Around the same time, he obliged a local gentlewoman who had importuned him for an English life of St. Augustine with a version that paid special attention to Augustine's mother, Monica, and to the challenges she faced as a wife and mother. 

Closest in spirit to the Book of Margery Kempe is Capgrave's Life of Saint Katherine of Alexandria, written circa 1445, about a decade after Kempe had completed her Book. Capgrave, like many contemporary hagiographers, expands the traditional passio or martyrdom account into a full biography, recounting Katherine's spiritual journey from pampered royal scion to bride of Christ. In doing so, he touches on many issues that also engaged Kempe: for example, frustration with traditional gender roles and the struggle to reconcile worldly responsibilities with spiritual longings. 

Consider Capgrave's description of Katherine's thoughts at a crucial point in the story, when her plans for a scholar's solitary life are threatened by her counselors' demands that she marry so that the realm might have a king and she might have an heir. Katherine's immediate reaction is to wish she weren't queen, "for I know not how to (nor am I able to) refute the wisdom" of their arguments. To reveal her commitment to virginity, she reflects, would be to expose a part of her spiritual life that ought to remain private; yet her subjects' request is too reasonable to be peremptorily denied: 

If I conceal my intent, I'll incur the indignation of everyone present. If I deny their request here in this hall and offer no reason, I'll raise doubts. Whatever I do has risks! Yet I'm amazed that my heart is set so resolutely on something that is against my own law, the law I've sworn to uphold and defend.. . . I fully expected to live as I pleased. Now, if I want to please my mother, my kin, and my people, I  must leave my study and throw away my book, and go out hunting all fashionably dressed. You  know my heart, God: I have made an entirely different commitment. If I can keep it, I shall. (Book 2,  lines 169-190, my translation) 
Katherine's spiritual journey leads her to Christianity and culminates in a mystical marriage (extended extract) to Jesus reminiscent of the one Kempe describes in Chapter 35. Katherine's bridegroom, however, is not the intimidating Godhead but rather a handsome and personable young man who resembles the "most semly, most bewtyuows, and most amyable" Savior who visits Margery in Chapter 1. (See further explanation on the beauty of Christ in writings by Nicholas Love and Margery Kempe.) 

Capgrave's description of Katherine's mystical marriage is a prime example of the affective spirituality represented in works like Nicholas Love's Mirrour, which dwelled on the humanity of Christ. Scholars have often noted that works of affective piety tend to be conservative, aiming to satisfy the laity's craving for a more intense and personal religious experience without encouraging the sort of theologizing that might lead them to question the Church's authority on matters of faith. Capgrave's Katherine is remarkable in that it combines a thorough humanization of Christ and the saints with extensive discussion of doctrine. During her trial, Katherine addresses such weighty matters as the necessity of the sacraments, the nature of the Trinity, and the mystery of the virgin birth. Although the positions expressed are quite orthodox, it was nonetheless rare, given the Church's anxieties about the spread of heresy, for a writer of Capgrave's day to treat such topics at any length in English. Perhaps concerned that his work might attract censure, Capgrave provided an unusually elaborate (and almost certainly spurious) account of the sources of his text that would allow him to disclaim original authorship of any passages that might prove troublesome. 

There are, indeed, intriguing parallels between Capgrave's prologue to his Life of St. Katherine and the Proem introducing the Book of Margery Kempe, which, as Sarah Stanbury and Virginia Raguin note in their introduction, is "an unusually detailed record of the writing of a book in the 15th century." The Proem tells how Margery entrusted her story to an Englishman resident in Germany who traveled to Lynn to take down her words. After this first scribe died, leaving behind a text that was scarcely legible, Margery persuaded a second scribe, this one a priest, to rewrite and expand it. The entire story is then repeated in  synopsis. Capgrave gives an equally circumstantial and repetitive account (extended extract) of the genesis of his own work. He tells how an English priest searched out the long-lost life of Katherine written by one of her disciples. After much hardship, he found the vita but died before he had finished translating it into English. What he had written, moreover, was in such obscure language that it could barely be deciphered. Capgrave undertakes to render the legend into proper English and to finish it. After sketching out these events, Capgrave rehearses them with more attention to the history of the original text. 

Margery Kempe and John Capgrave had different backgrounds, upbringings, and experiences. We don't know if they knew, or knew of, each other. Nonetheless, there is clear affinity between the perspectives that their major works express. Both Capgrave and Kempe value an intellectual yet intensely affective religious experience; both, though essentially orthodox, flirt with heterodox ideas. While concerned with the heroic pursuit of holiness, they depict with special force the self-interest and commercialism of their day. Such resonances remind us that the Book of Margery Kempe did not arise in isolation but was the product of a time and place in which religious creativity could and did flourish.

For text see John Capgrave, The Life of Saint Katherine, ed. Karen A. Winstead. TEAMS. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000.

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