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The book has survived in a single manuscript, BL Additional MS 61823, which by the late fifteenth century belonged to Mount Grace Carthusian Priory in North Yorkshire. The text is in the hand of one scribe, who gives his name at the end of Liber II as Salthows, presumably from the North Norfolk coastal village of Salthouse. It is not the original manuscript written by the second amanuensis, but an early copy, which palaeographical and watermark evidence assigns to the decade 1440–1450 (pp. xxxii–xlvi). The language of  Salthows and his textual predecessors bears features of the Norfolk dialect (pp. vii–xxxii). There are marginal annotations in at least four different hands, the last and most prolific of which is commonly attributed to a monk of Mount Grace. From the sixteenth century the manuscript was in private possession for several centuries.

At the end of the manuscript a folded document is bound in, being a letter granting leave to the addressee to continue to draw income from a benefice for seven years while studying at a university. The letter was sent from London in 1440 by the apostolic notary, Petrus de Monte, to the vicar of Saham iuxta Ely Norwycensis diocesis (App. I, p. 351), presumably Soham in Cambridgeshire, close to Ely, rather than Saham Toney in Norfolk. Soham, south-south-east of Ely, is closer to Ely than is Saham Toney to the north-east, four miles distant as compared with twenty-five, and both were in the diocese of Norwich in the Middle Ages. The dated letter further strengthens the evidence that the extant copy, as well as the original manuscript of the book, was written in the diocese of Norwich. It also shows that the extant copy was bound not earlier than 1440. Soham became part of the diocese of Ely in the nineteenth century.95  Vicar of Soham 1427–1442 was William Bogy (p. xliv).96  Soham is four miles east of the confluence of the rivers Cam and Great Ouse, and ten miles north-east of  Denny Abbey at Waterbeach, which lies on the Cam and also on the ancient fenland road from Cambridge to Ely. When visiting the Franciscan nuns at Denny, and when travelling from Lynn to London and back, whether by road or water, Margery Kempe took a route that brought her to within a few miles of the great church at Soham. The vicar of Soham may well have been in communication with the nuns of Denny, and have heard through them of Margery Kempe, and her book, and have acquired it through them. Denny Abbey, like the manor of Soham, had a strong connection with Pembroke College Cambridge. The abbey was granted to Mary de St Pol, Countess of Pembroke and founder of the college, by Edward III. In her widowhood she lived with the nuns at Denny, and was buried there in 1377.

If the vicar of Soham acquired the early copy of Margery Kempe’s book, and took it with him when he left Soham to embark on a period of study at one of the universities, it could have found its way from Oxford or Cambridge to Mount Grace Priory, perhaps by way of the monastic foundations at Syon or Sheen.

The Carthusian monastery at Sheen and the Brigittine Syon Abbey (initially also at Sheen) were founded by Henry V in 1415. Communications between the Carthusian houses in England, relatively few in number, were strong. At Syon Abbey there were brothers who came from Yorkshire.97  The monastery at Sheen and Syon Abbey were both important centres for the transmission of devotional and mystical texts in the vernacular, including the Revelations of St Bridget and of Julian of Norwich. The mid-fifteenth-century Syon Abbey hand of one of the manuscripts of the English version of St Bridget’s Revelations is similar, though not identical, to Salthows’s hand.98  Some of the Sheen and Syon Abbey texts are heavily annotated, in a manner very similar to that of the marginal annotations in The Book of Margery Kempe. Some of the annotations are mere corrections or emendations, but many are pious repetitions, for instance of the name of Jesus, or apt quotations from the scriptures, or they draw attention to important words and phrases in the text – amor or vow – or sum up the contents of a passage, label a virtue or a sin, name an individual who may or may not be identified by name in the text, or evaluate a piece of narrative with comments such as perfectio or discretion. A Carthusian annotator whose marginal additions to many manuscripts have been carefully examined, and who moved between Sheen, the Midlands and the north of England, is James Grenehalgh.99  It appears that he was moved from Sheen in 1507–8, first to Coventry and then to Kingston-on-Hull. His hand is not the hand of the main annotator of The Book of Margery Kempe, but further research into this circle of textual annotators and scribes might throw light on the history of the manuscript. 

Another possible link between Lynn and Mount Grace, more direct and secular, lies in the person of Thomas Beaufort, Earl of Dorset, who had property near Lynn and played a part in the life of the town. Like his nephew Henry V, he supported the Carthusian order. In return for his support of Mount Grace, the General Chapter of the Carthusian order in 1417 granted him right of burial in the priory church.100  He increased the Mount Grace community by the addition of five monk-chaplains. It is possible that the contacts he established between Lynn and Mount Grace continued after his death, and that a monk or priest maintaining such contacts acquired the book in Lynn and took it to Mount Grace. In this case there would be no easy explanation of the addition to the manuscript of the letter to the Vicar of Soham.

Whatever the route whereby the manuscript reached Mount Grace, it has been noted that it was unusual for manuscripts copied by Norfolk scribes in Norfolk to move far from the area while they were still in regular use: the text and transmission of the writings both of Julian of Norwich and of Margery Kempe “pose singular problems, into which further investigation of Norfolk manuscripts generally might provide some means of access”. 101 

The main annotator of The Book of Margery Kempe, commonly thought to have been a monk of Mount Grace, draws attention to similarities between Margery Kempe’s expressions of piety, including her shrieks, convulsions, leaden colour and tears, and the piety of Mount Grace mystics such as Richard Methley and John Norton. There is no indication that these displays of religious fervour aroused anxiety or censure on the part of the Carthusians. On occasion the annotator adds a marginal note  indicating that bodily contact described is gostly (214/7), and very occasionally there are deletions of whole sentences in which visions of Margery Kempe’s involvement in the re-enactment of Christ’s life or dreams of Christ’s sufferings are described (203/9–11; 208/8–10).

It is as a shorte treatyse of contemplacyon taught by our lorde Ihesu cryste that extracts were printed as a simple booklet, in the nature of a chap-book, by Wynkyn de Worde.102  This booklet has none of the worldly narrative and no mention of the shrieks and prostrations. It includes passages in which Margery Kempe was told that her silent contemplation was more pleasing to God than was her vocal prayer (89/21–25; 89/38–90/3). Given Wynkyn de Worde’s known familiarity with the piety of Syon Abbey and Sheen, attested by his printing of works associated with these houses, it seems likely that these extracts contain the “approved” essence of Margery Kempe’s book as perceived by Brigittine and Carthusian readers. Yet the chap-book format suggests that the extracts were intended as a support for lay people’s devotions. 

Pepwell in 1521 printed the same extracts in an anthology of contemplative mystical writings, perhaps with a different readership in mind.103  It was from the extracts only, reprinted in 1910, that Margery Kempe was known to post-medieval readers, until the manuscript of her book was re-discovered by H.E. Allen in the 1930s.  Pepwell’s anthology printed in the first place a Middle English version of Richard of St Victor’s Benjamin Minor, in second place Catherine of Siena’s Divers Doctrines, and in third place the extracts from Margery Kempe’s book. There followed Walter Hilton’s Treatise of the “Song of Angels”, an Epistle of Prayer, an Epistle of Discretion in Stirrings of the Soul, and a Treatise of Discerning of Spirits, very Necessary for Gostly Livers. These texts together form a manual of instruction for those striving to become “gostly livers”, with Benjamin Minor as its starting-point – “Thou shalt call together thy thoughts and thy desires, and make thee of them a church, and learn thee therein for to love only this good word Jesu ....” – and culminating in the necessary skill of discriminating between good and evil spirits, so often a matter of concern to Margery Kempe as to other visionaries, their spiritual directors, and their critics. The Epistle of Discretion in Stirrings of the Soul suggests that the intended readership for this anthology included novices in religious houses. Margery Kempe’s book could evidently be regarded by Brigittine and Carthusian readers as divinely inspired, and helpful to religious as well as to lay people.

When the manuscript of the book was re-discovered it was greeted with great interest inasmuch as it documented an era of social history in a unique manner, but also with dismay inasmuch as it claimed to be an authoritative account of spiritual life. In mid-twentieth-century Britain self-advertised revelatory experience was treated with suspicion; the worldly sections of the narrative, the protagonist’s unconcealed egocentricity and vanity, were no longer recognised by the majority of readers as necessary stages in the process of purgatio; tears, groans and convulsions were not widely acknowledged as valid manifestations of piety. Since then much progress has been made in the study of medieval spirituality, literature and history, and, as both its shared and unique qualities have come to be understood and appreciated, the account of Margery Kempe’s life has become one of the most popular of late Middle English texts.