Who wrote ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’?

The Book of Margery Kempe is undoubtedly one of the most important surviving pieces of medieval English literature. It allows us insight into a multitude of different issues: gender roles, marital relations, female authority, Lollardy, pilgrimage, fasting, the hazards of travel and contested visionary experience, to name just a few. Yet until the twentieth century very little was known about it at all. Small extracts from the Book were printed in 1501 and 1521, but in a highly sanitized form which removed any trace of the true character of its main subject.

Extracts published in 1521, labelling
Margery an ‘ancresse’

It was only in 1934, a year that also saw unique manuscripts of Le Morte d’Arthur and Kubla Khan discovered, that the sole surviving manuscript of the Book was unearthed. Like the extraordinary nature of the text itself, the manuscript had an equally unusual rediscovery; only found when members of the Catholic Butler-Bowden family were searching for ping pong balls in their Derbyshire home. Frustrated by the cluttered manuscripts in one cupboard while searching, it was decided that the entire collection of papers, believed to be old accounting books, would be thrown on the fire the next day. Just as Margery herself escaped being burnt at the stake as a heretic several times by the intervention of others, it was only a cautious friend of the Bowden’s asking to search the books before they were destroyed that saved the only surviving copy of The Book of Margery Kempe from the fire.

Most of what we know about Margery comes from this manuscript. We know she was born around 1373 in Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn) and that she came from a wealthy merchant family. At around 20 years old she married John Kempe, and proceeded to have at least fourteen children (although whether these all survived past infancy is never stated). She suffered during her pregnancy with her first child, experiencing great attacks of fever, and afterwards was terrified by visions of the devil for over half a year:

And at this time she saw, so she thought, devils opening their mouths all inflamed with burning flames of fire, as though they might have swallowed her in, sometimes pawing at her, sometimes threatening her, sometimes pulling her and dragging her around, both night and day during the aforesaid time. And the devils also cried out after her with grave threats, and told her that she should forsake her Christianity, her faith, and deny her God, His mother, and all the saints in Heaven, her good works and all good virtues, her father, her mother, and all her friends. And so she did. (Bk 1, Ch. 1)

Margery tore violently at her own skin with her fingernails, and was eventually forcefully restrained. It was only a visitation from Christ himself that saved her. From here on the Book outlines Margery’s extraordinary life, her travels to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago, as well as close scrapes with the authorities. At one stage, in Canterbury, she was harassed not only by the townspeople, but also by monks and priests. Chased out of the city, people demanded she be burnt as a Lollard, with shrieks of ‘Here’s a cartful of thorns ready for you, and a barrel to burn you with!’ (Bk 1, Ch. 13). After her many great journeys Margery was last recorded visiting the great Carthusian monastery of Sheen to engage in ‘great devotion and very high contemplation’ (Bk 2, Ch. 10) before returning home to Lynn.

A scribe adds ‘ignis divine amoris’,
a reference to Richard Rolle, and an image
of a fire to the original manuscript.

One of the most pressing issues for scholars of Margery’s Book is exactly who wrote it. There are numerous factors which make the manuscript problematic. Firstly is the fact that the entire account is written in the third person, with Margery being refered to as ‘this creature’. Added to this is the problem of the numerous scribes used when writing down the account, including one disastrous and illegible early attempt which may possibly have been written by her son. This account was then looked over by a scribe and finally rewritten by a priest. Including Margery, this brings the total contributors to the narrative to four. Much of the two books which make up the manuscript were also written towards the very end of Margery’s life, raising the possibility that some of Margery’s experiences were resituated with the benefit of hindsight. The surviving manuscript is also a copy of  the original text, made by a scribe named Salthows who may also have adjusted some of the material. Four sets of annotations on the surviving manuscript, made by Carthusian monks, also attempt to resituate the material and identify it with pre-existing writings, including those of Richard Rolle, or reinforce the message with scriptural references. We can also add to this references to Rolle, Elizabeth of Hungary, Mary of Oignies and Bonaventure made within the main narrative of the text itself. What is unclear is whether these references came from Margery, her early scribes, or Salthows when copying the text down. What we must always be aware of then is that even if the essence of Margery’s original message is preserved at the core of the text,  what we have received in the manuscript also has layers added by numerous male intermediaries.

The influence of male scribes on the text has been stressed by A.C. Spearing. Tracing events in the Book at which Margery was not present, but the text details regardless, Spearing believes the scribe writing the account down to be Margery’s confessor Robert Spryngolde. Drawing on several points in the manuscript when the language of the account lapses from ‘she’ to ‘us’, Spearing argues that Spryngolde was writing down Margery’s dictation and forming it into coherent passages. As a result, Spearing believes the book should be renamed in an ‘experimental envisaging’ as The Book of Robert Spryngolde about Margery Kempe. The many references to other literary figures such as Rolle and Bonaventure thus came from Spryngolde as he attempted to make sense of Margery’s experiences.

Some scholars have gone further than this in the debate over authorship. Lynn Staley has distinguished between Kempe, the author of the Book, and Margery, its protagonist. In Staley’s view, Kempe, the author, created the fictional character of Margery as a form of social criticism, using her to attack the social, economic and religious concerns of her time. She was a vessel through which the author, Kempe, could attack and criticise civil and ecclesiastical authorities. To do so she created a narrative reflecting that of Christ’s life, whereby Margery is marginalized and harassed, while the rest of society play the role of the persecuting Jews (p. 152). The depiction of Margery as a holy woman is thus a ‘screen’ through which to launch social criticism, and even the role of the scribe is a fictional construct designed to infer textual authority. The Book of Margery Kempe is therefore a work of fiction, one which describes a world the author, Kempe, is highly critical of. In Staley’s own words, ‘the world Margery flees is the world in which Kempe lives’ (p. 49)

The first page of the manuscript

Sarah Rees Jones has taken this theory even further. She argues that the Book is entirely fictional, and was rather written by a reform-minded cleric who used the character of Margery Kempe to attack moral laxity and declining clerical standards. Taking inspiration from the various models of female religious piety dominant at the time, such as that of Bridget of Sweden, this male cleric created Margery in this mould to suit his own agenda. The real subject of the Book is thus not a medieval woman, but the medieval church itself. The text was written ‘by men and for men … using the example of women as a correctional impetus’.

Clearly the complex, confusing and frustrating woman at the centre of The Book of Margery Kempe still poses problems for scholars today. To even call the text an ‘autobiography’ is problematic. It does not cover Margery’s entire life, nor is it written in the first-person- yet another example of Margery breaking conventions. It is clear that ongoing engagement with the manuscript will produce more diverse opinions and theories. Margery was a controversial figure during her lifetime, and still continues to be long afterwards.

Further Reading:  

  • A.C. Spearing, ‘Margery Kempe’, in A.S.G. Edwards (ed.), A Companion to Middle English Prose (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2004), pp. 83-98.
  • Hilton Kelliher, ‘The Rediscovery of Margery Kempe: A Footnote’, British Library Journal, Vol. 23 (1997), pp. 259-63.
  • Liam Peter Temple, ‘Returning the English “Mystics” To Their Medieval Milieu: Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe and Bridget of Sweden’, Women’s Writing, Vol. 23, No. 2 (2016), pp. 141-58.
  • Lynn Staley, Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions (University Park: Pennsylvania
    State UP, 1994).
  • Sarah Rees Jones, “‘A Peler of the Holy Cherch’: Margery Kempe and the Bishops,” in Jocelyn Wogan-Browne et al. (eds.), Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts in Late Medieval Britain (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000), pp. 377–91.

All quotations from The Book of Margery Kempe are taken from the Oxford World’s Classics edition, translated by Anthony Bale. A full facsimilie of the original manuscript, with transcription, is available here. A full Middle English edition with notes can be found here. ‘In Our Time’ recently featured an extensive programme on Margery’s life, which can be listened to here.

All images of the manuscript reproduced here are taken from materials in the Public Domain under the terms specified by the Creative Commons.