Back to Table of Contents
CHARITY SCOTT STOKES
After her return to Lynn Margery Kempe was afflicted with various illnesses for a period of eight years. Her weeping and crying were so intense when she saw the Blessed Sacrament or listened to readings or sermons on the Passion that there were times when she was excluded from church or chapel (see especially pp. 154–156). The loud cries that had begun when she visited the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 1414 continued in all for a period of ten years (pp. 137–140). She was given prophetic knowledge of who would be saved and who would be damned. Because she did not readily accept such revelatory knowledge she was punished with twelve days of lewd thoughts (pp. 144–146).
In 1421 a great fire in Lynn destroyed the Guildhall belonging to the Holy Trinity Guild of Merchants, and threatened the church which, however, was saved by a miraculous snowfall which some attributed to Margery Kempe’s prayers (pp. 162–164). She was given foreknowledge of appointments of priors to Lynn, and their movements, in the years leading up to 1422 (pp. 170–172).
Some priests and friars regarded her as a holy woman, and even Bishop Wakering of Norwich, on a visit to Lynn, tolerated her cries during his sermon (pp. 164–167). By contrast, a famous Franciscan preacher, identified as William Melton only by a marginal note in the manuscript,76 came to Lynn between 1421 and 1425, and was one of the most severe critics of Margery Kempe’s cries during sermons (pp.148–152 sq., and notes). Hostile individuals are not identified by name in the book, which may be another precautionary measure on the part of writer or amanuensis. Even the Franciscan friar would have tolerated her cries and would have urged the people to pray for her if she had conceded that the cries were caused by cardiac or other sickness (151/8–13). This she would not do.
There was a period at some time between 1422 and 1425 during which Master Alan was forbidden by the Carmelite Provincial to speak with her. The Provincial Thomas Netter’s attacks on women during this period because of their “general turpitude against the order of law and nature” were particularly vehement.77 It was revealed to her that she would speak with Master Alan again, and that he would recover from a sudden severe illness, and so it turned out. They met again at the house of a vowess in Lynn (pp. 168–170; note on 168/5, p. 328). It is reported that on this occasion he gave her a gift of a pair of knives, betokening that they would fight together once more in God’s cause, as they had done before. Gifts of knives are frequently associated in medieval and later times with bad luck, and may betoken the severing of friendship. It is possible that Alan of Lynn was under instruction to sever his link with Margery Kempe, and that she did not recognise, or did not choose to recognise, the significance of the gift of the pair of knives. However, there are also instances of positive associations with gifts of knives in medieval texts, as for instance in the list of items recommended as suitable gifts for holy men in the Ancrene Wisse.78
Margery Kempe performed works of spiritual and corporal mercy in Lynn. She comforted and prayed for the sick and the dying, and was given leave by her confessor to kiss female lepers. She assisted in the cure of a woman suffering from post-natal derangement comparable to the sickness from which she herself had suffered many years before (pp. 177–179). She cared for her husband for a number of years at the end of his life, after having lived separately so that she could devote herself to religious life and in order to put an end to the calumny of fellow citizens, who maintained that the Kempes still enjoyed conjugal relations in spite of their vows (pp. 179–181).
Liber I of The Book of Margery Kempe ends with an account of the initial writing of the first draft. It is said in the proem added by the second amanuensis to his copy of Liber I in 1436 that the first amanuensis was an Englishman who had lived abroad for a long time and had a German wife and child, that he wrote neither good English nor good German, that he returned to Lynn, and that he died after completion of the first draft (p. 4). It is said in the second chapter of Liber II, started by the second amanuensis in 1438, that the Kempes’ son who had lived abroad for many years returned to Lynn with his German wife, leaving their child in Prussia, and that he fell sick on the day after his arrival, and died within a month. His father died not long after (p. 225). The deaths of Margery Kempe’s son and husband probably occurred in late summer or autumn 1431 (note on 225/13–14, p. 342). It has often been suggested that the son was the first amanuensis, and that he wrote the first draft of Liber I while sick during the last month of his life in 1431 (note on 225/11 sq., p. 342). S.B. Meech was the first to point out that if the son was indeed the amanuensis, and if he worked on the text during the last month of his life, it would make sense to posit an earlier visit to his mother in Lynn, during which he had written the bulk of it (p. viii), rather than to assume that he could have written the whole draft as a dying man in one month. There is no evidence of an earlier visit in the text.
The account of the writing process actually suggests that the writing extended over a period of months, or even years. Several phrases suggest a slowing-down of the usual bustle of Margery Kempe’s activities: during the time of writing, she was frequently sick – but there is no mention of any sickness on the part of the scribe; her perceptions were sharpened; the Advent season came and went:
Whan ?is booke was first in wrytyng, ?e sayd creatur was mor at hom in hir chambre wyth hir writer & seyd fewer bedys for sped of wrytyng ?an sche had don |erys be-forn (216/4–7).The reference to Master Alan’s preaching of an Advent sermon during the time when the book was being written (219/17–28) suggests that the writing was in progress by the late 1420s at the latest. Master Alan was born around 1348, and although he lived into old age, at least until 1423,79 a traditional date given for his death is 1428 (note on 22/11–12, p. 268).
There is in fact no compelling reason to conjecture that the Kempes’ son was the first amanuensis. It is likely that Margery Kempe knew other Lynn men, beyond her immediate family, who had lived and married in Danzig, and other trading cities, and ultimately returned to Lynn. That it was not uncommon for Englishmen living in Prussia to be married to local women is attested by the fact that the restrictions imposed by the Prussian diet in 1402 explicitly catered for them.80 The second amanuensis records that the first amanuensis wrote as much as Margery Kempe wished to tell him during the time they were together, and that afterwards – but not necessarily immediately afterwards – he died (4/2–12). The book was entrusted – perhaps after a further time lapse – to the second amanuensis, a priest, who said he would copy it out if he could read it, but it was badly written and difficult to read. At the time Margery Kempe was under severe attack (4/21–24), so that the priest prevaricated and did not dare speak to her. This would fit particularly well with the period during the mid 1420s when she was under attack from the Franciscan friar and the Carmelite provincial. After a four-year deferral the second amanuensis said he could not read the book, and advised that it be taken to another man who had known the first amanuensis and had corresponded with him and might be able to read his writing. This third man tried unsuccessfully to decipher and copy it (4/27–40). There is no indication of the length of time the book remained with the third man. Finally the second amanuensis was vexed in his conscience because he had promised to copy the book if he could read it. A further attempt to read it, with Margery Kempe’s help, was ultimately successful, and the second amanuensis began the second draft in 1436.
Because of the wish to identify the first amanuensis with the son who returned to Lynn and died in 1431, it has often been assumed not only that the first draft was written in the space of a month but also that the four-year deferral took place between 1432 and 1436. On balance it seems most likely that the writing of the first draft began by the mid-1420s, that the amanuensis was not the Kempes’ son, that the process continued over several years – as did the re-drafting of Liber I and the writing of Liber II – and that the four-year deferral ended by 1436 at the latest, but may have ended earlier.