(c1373 - after 1438)
Margery Kempe: Her Life and the Early History of Her Book
by Charity Scott Stokes
©Mystics Quarterly, 25 (March/June 1999)
THE BOOK OF MARGERY KEMPE:
© Sarah Stanbury and Virginia Raguin
|Imposing form on a period of time is what
beauty demands, but so does memory. For what is formless cannot be grasped,
or committed to memory.
Milan Kundera, Slowness
| For an Introduction to The Book
of Margery Kempe we need look no further than the Proem, in
which the Priest who wrote down her book between 1436 and 1438 outlines
the life of Margery Kempe as well as the story of how her book came to
be written. Providing an unusually detailed record of the writing of a
book in the 15th century, the Priest explains the particular hurdles facing
Kempe as an illiterate woman determined to record her spiritual autobiography.
The Priest tells how Kempe, whom he refers to in third person as "this
creature" throughout the Book, engaged first one man who was a poor
transcriber, writing her dictated text in a hybrid mix of German and English
that others could barely read, and then himself, and of his own response
as a nervous apostle, willing to write her book but afraid of the consequences
of writing down the life of such a controversial figure as Margery Kempe.
Yet we might well ask why the Priest has chosen to record these details about the production of the Book. Most manuscripts that have survived from late medieval England tell us little about the history of their production. Why does the Priest tell us that Margery Kempe first dictated her story to a German, who then died? That she then took the manuscript to a priest who couldn't make sense of it, since it was written in a language that was neither good German nor good English? That since Kempe was so widely slandered the Priest became anxious and begged off the project, causing her to take her book to another man, who eventually gave up on it in frustration? Or that the Priest finally decided to fulfill his promise to her, and in spite of failing eyesight and faulty eyeglasses, he eventually succeeded, able to understand the transcription, and was suddenly gifted with sight that made him able to see well enough to write down Kempe's story?
Why the Priest's has chosen to explain in such detail how the Book came to be written may lie in the emerging status of English as a national language in the early fifteenth century. In Kempe's lifetime English was rapidly becoming the language of both public and private affairs. By recording Kempe's difficulties in finding a willing and learned amanuensis who would write down her story for her in English that could be read by others, the priest points to Kempe's shrewd awareness of the importance of the written word. As homely in its detail as the Book itself, this Proem also delivers an extraordinary account of the difficulties facing a woman in the 15th century who had a story to tell but lacked the tools of literacy with which to write it. Often called the first autobiography in English, her Book marks the achievement of one woman who was able to commemorate her life through the authority of public script. As a life story dictated by a woman who was illiterate or at best semi-literate, the Book also holds a highly unusual position among texts surviving from the late Middle Ages. Her illiteracy no doubt also contributes to the curiously naive tone that characterizes her Book. The Priest clearly seems to be aware that The Book of Margery Kempe is not the work of a Lydgate, a Gower, or a Chaucer.
By describing Kempe's repeated clashes with men in her efforts to record her life in book form, the Priest also introduces us to the conflicts that will be a key feature of her Book. Among the many struggles with male authorities that the Book will record, her final accomplishment, recorded retrospectively by the Priest, is also her most important. Kempe's dictation of her Book is clearly the supreme achievement of a life devoted to making herself heard.
In addition to offering a history of the production of the Book, the Priest also provides a literary critique or guide to reading it. Certainly one of the motivations behind the Proem lies in the Priest's recognition that The Book of Margery Kempe is in many ways an unusual kind of text, and one whose form and even whose very existence requires explanation. How should one go about reading this text, the Priest appears to ask? Toward the end of the Proem the Priest explains that the text is not chronological, but rather follows the logic of memory. The fact that her narrated text concerns events that occurred years before accounts for the lapses in chronological order, but also assures us of their truth: memory, he suggests, has selected out only those events that "sche knew ryght wel for very trewth."
This explanation that memory rather than chronology structures the Book also invites us to see memory as a principle of form for reading The Book of Margery Kempe. As the epigraph by Milan Kundera suggests, memory itself is architectural; it requires form and demands that we build spaces or imaginative space/time structures to house it. The close kinship of memory and domestic architecture is brilliantly utilized in the memory systems of classical rhetoric, which instruct on the uses of architectural visualization as an aid in memorization; it haunts cyberspace and contemporary fantasy in the quirky line from W. P. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe, made into the motion picture Field of Dreams, "If you build it he will come," where "he" who will come is "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, the baseball player from the halls of memory, who will come to a baseball diamond built for him in an Iowa cornfield. The Book of Margery Kempe also offers such a record, in which places serve as memorial sites on which events from her past can spread and stretch and live out their stories. Events in the Book take place; they occur in a town called N, which we eventually discover to be Kempe's home town of Lynn, an important seaport on England's North Sea, or in Norwich, or in York or London; even more specifically, they occur within churches in these cities, so that the Book offers a detailed map of East Anglian and Yorkshsire parishes and cathedrals in the 15th century. Even within parishes, cathedrals, and priories, Kempe locates her memories according to place, often telling us with great precision where particular visions or conversations occur: she is within the Prior's Chapel, she is praying in the chancel at St. Stephen's Church in Norwich, she is in a chapel of St. James; she prays in St. Margaret's Church in a chapel of the Gesine.
By naming places and giving architectural form to memory, Kempe not only structures her own Book through a kind of memory system, but also structures memory through her own history within the public domain. Her book is a carefully crafted testimony to a life lived away from the domestic world; and domestic interiors are replaced, instead, by the public spaces of the church and even the privileged domains of the male clergy, such as priories and the chancels and private chapels of major parishes and cathedrals. By locating the events of her life within important public buildings, and often even in spaces that would have been "men only," she both domesticates and also lays claim to those spaces. Her habit of naming spaces without including distinguishing details, such as the images in stained glass, panel painting, or carving that doubtless decorated those interiors, effects a dramatic kind of distillation or homogenization: one space is much like another; she appears to be as "at home" in the nave of St. Margaret's, her home church in Lynn, as she is at Lambeth Palace in London, the residence of the Archbishop. At the same time, however, Kempe's travels also map the architecture of public power. The Book can be read as drama in which the life of an individual woman, Margery, or "this creature," shares the stage with a cast of well-known public figures, on a stage set of places that would be familiar to all. As Lynn Staley has argued, we should distinguish between "Kempe" the author and "Margery" the character on this stage. Named spaces provide the imaginative backdrop to the events that Kempe records and that Margery enacts; and even if Kempe does not detail the furnishings, the naming of the locations in which events from her life have occurred invites us to flesh out the interiors. To understand the structure of The Book of Margery Kempe, we would do well to enter the places that she names as she commits her life to textual memory.
The Priest's attention to the occasional lapses in chronological ordering in the Book in favor of the events that have remained in Kempe's memory more than twenty years after events occurred also points, even if by a backhand glance, toward general principles of chronological structure at work in her text. The Book roughly follows a life story. While Kempe attaches stories from her life to specific parishes and cathedrals, both in England and on the Continent and the Holy Land, those anecdotes are themselves carefully grouped. One effect of this chronological grouping is to bring her own life story into conformity with traditional vitae or lives of virgin martyrs and of married holy women, such as St. Bridget and Mary of Oignies. Another related effect is to describe an evolving and developing relationship to public authority, to her family, and to Christ. And while the Book may appear to be lacking in form, a series of stories with little in the way of coherent principles of ordering a concern that the Priest appears to express in his long explanation of the process of composition and his tips for reading Kempe maps her life through a series of negotiations or deals with others in a lifelong struggle to achieve public acceptance for her own form of passionate piety.
click here for the structural outline