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REVIEWS CLARISSA WATKINSON.Mystic andPilgrim: The Book and the Worldof Margery Kempe. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1983, Pp. 241. $8.95 paper. This book is a very useful study of the enigmatic character of the medieval Margery Kempe, whose vicissitudinous life is known to us by her "auto­ biography," which was rediscovered in 1933.Atkinson expressly states that she haswritten a book for thegeneralreader.She has achievedthis task by a good organization of her material, which includes eight illustrations; by a discussion of the inherent problems "in a variety of contexts"; and by suggesting "several possible approaches to the subject" (p. 9). Thus the social, historical, spiritual, and literary contexts are examined. Atkinson discusses Margery's family environment by means of such documents as the Paston letters and the Goodman of Paris.The author describes how Marg­ ery came into conflict with the established church and what problems she had to face as a married woman aspiring to sanctity. The general antag­ onism against her is explained by the medieval tradition of antifeminism, and special references include the satire, the fabliau, and the witch hunt. The author considers Margery as a genuine mystic, and in doing so, she follows a recent trend which takes medieval "feminine spirituality" more seriously than before.She pointsto some interesting links between Margery and Birgitta of Sweden and Dorothea of Montau, and she also indicates some interesting differences. She further draws our attention to the fact that the tradition of female sanctity in the Middle Ages continued well into the fifteenth century.Although she does not add any new major details to the picture of medieval affective piety, her book nonetheless presents a comprehensive and reliable perspective of the subject.She associates Marg­ ery's spirituality with that of Richard Rolle, and she is surely right in claiming that "the religious life of Margery Kempe seems neither aberrant nor even unusual but rather a complex personal response to a tradition established by some of the great medieval saints and theologians" (p.155). When she explains part of Margery'seccentricity as a postpartum psychosis, she may be right, yet, of course, there is no proof of her argument. Moreover, Atkinson considers Margery an instance of "the extension of mystical ecstasy...to many people outside a spiritual elite" (p.206), and therefore as proof of Oberman's theory of the "democratization" of mysticism. 173 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER Atkinson is less successful when she sets the Book in its medieval literary context. It is a pity that she does not make a more detailed comparison between the Book and the tradition of the medieval sermon, although she rightly emphasizes that "theFranciscan ethos and pathos color almost every aspect of the piety of Margery Kempe, from her love of sermons to the meditations that focused on homely details of Nativity and Passion" (p. 139). It would be well worth the effort to assess how extensive the influence ofthe sermons on Margery Kempe really was. It is not enough to refer to the importance ofthe warning against swearing and to the subject ofspiritual tears in medieval sermons. The further question how Margery's Book compares with a literary autobiography is the least satisfactory part of herstudy. It is here that her way ofarguing is not without contradiction. On the one hand, she claims that the Book is highly original and shows no traces ofimitation and fictional literature. In her last chapter, however, she maintains that Margery wanted to live up to her Continental models, who were known to her by their literary biographies. Unfortunately, Atkinson does not answer the question of the extent to which the Book as an autobiography has been shaped and influenced by the Continental literary autobiographies which no doubt were used by Margery as a literary model. It has to be admitted that Atkinson'sprimaryconcern is that ofthe church historian; however, since she touched upon the problem, one would have expected her to provide a detailed stylistic analysis. It is further to be regretted that the problems involved in this question are discussed with ·only a highly selective consideration of criticism on autobiography as a literary genre. Here another weak point...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 173-174
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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