|JOHN CAPGRAVE AND MARGERY KEMPE
by Karen Winstead (translation Winstead)
Below is an extract from the Prologue to John Capgrave’s Life of St. Katherine of Alexandria (ed. Karen A. Winstead. TEAMS. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), lines 47ff:
There was a priest, pale and wan, who for eighteen years struggled to find your life. Finally he found it, much to his delight, way over in Greece, buried in the ground. There was never a knight in Rome or Troy more delighted with a sword or a bright, round helmet than this priest was with his discovery. He praised you so often and said that all his labor was turned to comfort, joy, and pleasure. He translated your life into English just fine, but he died before he could finish. Your passion, lady—the sharp wheel and all—he didn’t get to; it remains to be done. What’s more, his translation is hard to understand because of the strangeness of his obscure language. He’s dead now; you’ve given him his reward. Now, lady, with your help, I’d like to write your life more plainly from his book. . . .
This priest of whom I just spoke told of his desire in his prologue—how he traveled through many a land to learn about this martyr’s birth, country, language, and parentage. He worked for eighteen years, enduring cold and much hardship with fasting and prayer. At last he had a revelation—all misty and dark and clouded. He thought he saw a respectable person, dressed in fine vestments, who kept yelling: “Look at me, man! See who I am, what I show you, and why I came!” In his hand he held a very old book with rotten covers and torn, dusty leaves. He kept crying at the priest, “Look! Here’s what you’ve worked for and sought. I know well what you’ve sought and intended. Open your mouth: you must eat this book. Unless you do, you won’t get your will.”
“Mercy, lord,” this priest replied. “Spare me! How should I eat this book? The covers are rotten, the pages dark and dim—I can’t possibly get them into my mouth! My mouth is small and they are huge: they’ll break my jaws and throat. This food isn’t likely to do me any good!” “Yes,” he said, “You must eat this book. If you don’t, you’ll be sorry. Open your mouth wide and receive it boldly—it has neither clasp nor hook. Let it sink into your stomach. It won’t hurt you, neither your back nor your sides. Though your mouth may find it bitter, your womb will find it sweet, just as Ezekiel the prophet found it.”
The priest then put it in his mouth at once. It seemed sweet as honey. The other man disappeared, much to the priest’s amazement. Then, full of joy and new ideas, he awoke happy and blessed God often for his dream. Not long afterward, he dug deep in a field covered with flowers and grasses, big and small, and found the same book he’d seen when he was asleep. What balm to his bitter suffering!
It had been put there by a knight called Amilion fitz Amarak, of all Christian knights most devoted to this maiden, who had found it among old treasures in Cyprus. This all happened, the chronicle says, when Peter was King of Cyprus and Urban V was pope. There’s more: There was a clerk with this Katherine whose name is Athanasius in Latin. He taught her the rules, as he understood them, of God of heaven, of joy, and of grace, and she taught him, too, for through her he was converted to Christ and to our faith. He was her guide, the story says. He also wrote the life of this very same maiden. He was with her in her final hours and saw her martyred, as he himself attests. Of course he remembers her life! He was also her servant. Why should I belabor his virtues? He was her chancellor and her secretary. He obtained professors for her from throughout her father’s empire of great Greece to teach her the Seven Arts. This same man paid their salary. He was indeed lord and master of the court. He knew her kin and counsel. He knew her mother, father, and ancestors. He knew her holy life, her behavior, and all her holy habits while she lived here. He stood by her in her passion and saw how the angels bore her body way up to Sinai and set it down here. He saw how vengeance was wreaked on many thousands for her death. He also saw how Maxentius was killed, fell from a bridge down into a river, dying suddenly and painfully, and taken away to the fires of hell. Angels bore her; devils bore his bier. See the different rewards of virtue and of sin: One is in heaven and the other is in hell!
Long after Maxentius’s death, this same Athanasius was bishop in Alexandria, Katherine’s city. There he suffered much adversity. I don’t actually know whether he was the one who wrote the psalm called the creed, which we often recite at prime. He died there, a holy confessor, and after his death the life, the learning, and the death of this sweet flower and martyr Katherine were scarcely known until a certain clerk called Arrek sowed it anew, for he first translated this holy life from Greek to Latin.
This Arrek often heard of this maid, of her life and her death, of how she laid down her life for the love of our lord Christ, her dear spiritual spouse. This made him determined to go to that land, to know both the spring and the well, to see if anyone could explain it more clearly. He lived in that land more than twelve years to learn her language until he had, with great study, time, and effort, learned its usage thoroughly. It took him a long time to come upon Athanasius’s life of this virgin. But at last he came, so it’s said, and found it lost to memory, for heretics in that country sought out and burned as many books as they could find, both pages and covers. But—blessed be God!—they didn’t find this book at all. God didn’t wish that the noble service of his own virgin should be thus forgotten. It was over a hundred years after the death of Athanasius when Arrek obtained this work. He was long gone and dead and forgotten by everyone—both his book and he—by every man and woman in the land. This priest sought and found it for Englishmen and brought it here. Known only to nine or ten, it seldom came to anyone’s hand, and when it did, it could not be understood, because, as I said, of its obscure language. Thus, lady, your life was kept in a cage.
Nevertheless this noble priest, this very good man, accomplished much. He has shown us the way and undone the door so that we can all the better follow his steps, for though he ran hard we can overtake him, with the help and grace that this lady will obtain for us. He is now dead, this good man, this priest. He died at Lynn many years ago; he is nearly forgotten by everyone, high or low. Yet as he was dying, in his great woe, this lady, they say, appeared to him. He told him to be glad for she would reward him for his service. It seems from his speech and style that he came from the west country. He was once parson of Saint Pancras in the city of London for quite a while. He is now many miles above us; he’s our intermediary with Katherine and she’s our intermediary with our lord Jesus.
Now that he’s gone, I take it upon myself to translate this story and convey it more clearly. . . . If you want to know who I am, I come from Norfolk, from the town of Lynn. I left the world, to my profit, to join the brotherhood I’m in. God give me the grace never to cease following the footsteps of my fathers, who dedicated themselves to the rule of Augustine.