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  • “The writyng of this tretys”:Margery Kempe’s Son and the Authorship of Her Book
  • Sebastian Sobecki

The authorship of The Book of Margery Kempe (henceforth The Book) has been the subject of much debate ever since the sole manuscript copy of the text was identified by Hope Emily Allen in 1934.1 This [End Page 257] article presents two pieces of new evidence relating to Margery Kempe’s son and to Robert Spryngolde, her confessor. The first item, a letter prepared for her son in Danzig (modern Gdańsk) in 1431, discloses the son’s name and the reasons for his journey to Lynn.2 This information, in turn, sheds new light on the account of The Book’s production as given in the proem. As a result, the discovery of the letter corroborates the theory that the son was Kempe’s first scribe. A second previously overlooked document shows the extent of Robert Spryngolde’s ties to Margery Kempe’s family, strengthening the case for his role as the clerical scribe behind much of The Book. Both findings help to anchor the supposedly autobiographical narrative in its immediate historical situation. Finally, I offer a revised explanation for the collaborative model behind the production of this text.

I. Margery Kempe’s Son in Danzig

At the beginning of the second part of The Book the text introduces Margery’s son, who had been working for a prominent Lynn merchant.3 The son’s personal conduct appears to have fallen short of Margery’s exacting standards, and she yearns for him to be “drawyn owt of þe perellys of this wretchyd & vnstabyl worlde.”4 Her subsequent insistence that her son “leeuyn þe worlde” produces the undesired effect of his fleeing her company so that he “wolde not gladlych metyn wyth hir.”5 A time of misrule for the son follows: he goes abroad, falls into the “synne of letchery,” contracts what may be a sexually transmitted disease, returns home, loses his job, and in turn earns a humiliating rebuke from his mother.6 Eventually, however, he abandons his “mysgouernawnce,” and, after seeking and receiving his mother’s blessings, moves to Danzig, where he marries a German-speaking woman, with whom he has a daughter.7 Years later, he pays a visit to his parents as a man transformed both in appearance and demeanour. Even Margery, at first suspicious of his new “gouernawns,” gradually realizes that her son’s conversion is genuine, to the extent that she “openyd hir hert to [End Page 258] hym, shewyng hym & enformyng how owr Lord had drawyn hir thorw hys mercy & be what menys, also how meche grace he had shewyd for hir.”8 The text states that his mother’s infectious devotion inspires in the son spontaneous bouts of piety: he goes on “many pilgrimagys to Rome & to many oþer holy placys” before returning to his wife and child as “he was boundyn to do.”9 Back in Danzig, the son’s reports stir in his wife an unstoppable wish to visit her mother-in-law, and the couple resolve to travel to Lynn with their daughter. Plans for a sea-journey are thwarted by inclement weather, and they leave their child behind with friends and end up traveling to England by land. On the day following their arrival, the son is suddenly taken ill. He remains bed-ridden for about a month before he dies.10

It has been noted before that the literary relationship between Margery and her wayward son is loosely modeled on that of Bridget of Sweden and her son Charles.11 And it could certainly be argued that the persona of Margery’s son serves as an exemplum to showcase her religious talents and, perhaps, advertise her inspirational brand of spirituality, for, after all, she predicts the punishment for the son’s promiscuous youth; she brings about his conversion to a settled, Christian life; and she makes him go on not one but a series of pilgrimages. Crucially, the son’s sudden passing is a catalyst for Book 2 itself, since it is Margery’s self-imposed mission from God of escorting her daughter-in-law to...


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pp. 257-283
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