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  • From The Book of Margery Kempe:The Trials and Triumphs of a Homeward Journey
  • Marie Nelson (bio)

Margery Kempe (c. 1373-1438), the author—not the writer—of The Book of Margery Kempe, lived—when she was not traveling to the Holy Land or Assisi, the Shrine of St. James at Compostela, the Chapel of St. Bridget in Rome, or to Norway, Danzig, or Aachen—in the prosperous East Anglian town of Lynn.1 She was the daughter of John Burnham, who, she did not hesitate to say when required to identify herself, was five times mayor of Lynn; the wife of John Kempe, a respected burgess; and the mother of fourteen children. Her adversaries saw Margery Kempe as a heretic, a Lollard, and hence a danger to the social order. She saw herself, if not as a potential saint, at least as a servant of God who lived a life comparable to that of St. Bridget of Sweden.

Richard D. Altick tells the story of how The Book of Margery Kempecame to be made accessible to readers of our time (1960:298-300). As he presents it, the twentieth-century discovery of Margery Kempe's story of her own life seems to have been almost inevitable. Altick begins by tracing the first part of the Book to be set in print to an eight-page leaflet called A Shorte Treatyse of Contemplacyon . . . Taken Out of the Boke of Margerie Kempe of Lynn. This small part of Margery's life history was published by Wynkyn de Worde in about 1501 and reprinted in a collection of religious treatises in 1521. Then in 1910, almost four centuries later, Professor Edmund Carter published The Cell of Self-Knowledge, a collection that contained some of Margery's reflections. This publication came at a time of growing interest in mysticism and the contributions of women to the literature of religious experience. And then, in 1934 Colonel William Erdeswick Ignatius Butler-Bowdon, [End Page 214] in whose family a manuscript had been "from time immemorial,"2 took that manuscript to the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington for identification. There, Altick's story continues, the librarian "consulted three of the best authorities on medieval devotional literature" (299). They could identify neither the book nor its author, but Evelyn Underhill, one of the three authorities, suggested that the American scholar Hope Emily Allen, who was doing research as a recipient of a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies in London at the time, be consulted. Having read Carter's 1910 reprint, Allen knew immediately that Butler-Bowdon's manuscript was the "Book of Margery Kempe." The book was subsequently published, first in modernized form and then, in 1940, edited by Professor Sanford B. Meech and Hope Emily Allen, as number 212 of the Early English Text Society series.3

The story of how the book came to be written does not communicate a comparable sense of inevitability. Margery herself seems never to have learned to write. This does not necessarily mean that she was "illiterate" in the sense in which we use the word today.4 It was not unusual, Josephine K. Tarvers points out in "The Alleged Illiteracy of Margery Kempe" (1996), for women of Margery Kempe's social class to be able to read pious works aloud to each other and keep business records, to read basic correspondence, and "probably to compose their own correspondence." Tarvers presents the possibility that Margery employed scribes not because she was totally illiterate, but because she felt a need for their training in "the language and rhetorical forms that she lacked" (113-14).

Margery Kempe felt a strong sense of obligation to share her revelations, but did not begin to engage in the process of recording them [End Page 215] until twenty years after her first one. In Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions (1994), Lynn Staley considers the possibility that the twenty-year delay between the time of that revelation and the time she began to dictate her book to her first scribe was related to the intensity with which people suspected of Lollardy were persecuted during the intervening years. Staley also observes that...


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