Design and Authorship in the Book of Margery Kempe

By Fredell, Joel | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

Design and Authorship in the Book of Margery Kempe


Fredell, Joel, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


The Book of Margery Kempe has emerged in the past twenty years as the most important literary text by a woman in medieval England. This work, apparently the first autobiography in English and a remarkable documentary source for its place and time, now stands second only to Chaucer as a late medieval text taught regularly in classrooms throughout the United States and the United Kingdom. Despite its importance a key question about its authorship remains: is this book primarily Margery's work in its choices of content and narrative order, or are her words significantly reshaped by her male clerical amanuenses? (1) This question has prompted a long and passionate discussion, evolving into positions starkly illustrated by an exchange between Nicholas Watson and Felicity Riddy. Watson, by confronting the problem of the scribe head-on, would like to return agency to the historical Margery shaping her Book. (2) Riddy prefers that we see the Book as an artifact that illustrates problems of female identity but does not offer direct access to the life or voice of the historical Margery; according to Riddy, Lynne Staley's distinction between the historical Kempe and her narrative persona Margery in the Book (in the service of arguments about female identity) is a backhanded effort to return authorial control to the historical woman as well. (3)

Despite this thorough critical airing, it is still very useful to return to the manuscript evidence, since the problem of reconstructing Margery Kempe is not limited to modern scholarship: Margery's near-contemporaries were actively engaged in the same quest, using the same strategy of selecting textual moments which support their version. These attempts include Wynkyn de Worde's pastiche of excerpts from Margery's Book, as well as a cluster of early responders to the sole surviving manuscript witness to the Book. These annotations reveal a variety of readings literally inscribed on Margery's story, both complementary and contending. Among these annotators is the scribe Salthows himself, the producer of our surviving copy. His annotations yield crucial clues to the scribe's view of Margery, and potentially to the shaping of Margery's story in the one Book we have. These manuscript sites are, I argue here, the best place to examine the construction of Margery Kempe's identity as an artifact that has come down to us, and as a resource to recover what we can of her agency.

It is tempting to see the Book of Margery Kempe as a work produced in close accord with Margery's own narrative structures even though she admits that her "boke is not wretyn in ordyr" since "sche had for-getyn [th]e tyme & the ordyr whan thyngys befellyn" (5). (4) However, the version of Margery's Book printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501 suggests the potency of an overt editorial presence. This work, entitled "A short treatise of contemplation.. .taken out of the book of Margery Kempe of Lynn," pieces together some twenty-eight paragraphs in seven pages, taken from nineteen different sections of the Book, apparently drawing on a copy very much like the unique manuscript from the Butler-Bowdon family. (5) These paragraphs transform Margery's Book into a pair of dialogues (with Christ about the rewards of contemplative practice) which bookend a short narrative (wherein Margery has a vision of the Passion and discovers the path of contemplation through compassion, contrition, and compunction). This printed extract of Margery's Book demonstrates clearly that Margery's text, her story, her very identity can be manipulated by a process of selection and arrangement. Such selections seem to be embedded in the Butler-Bowdon Book as well: chapters 63 to 75 and 77 to 89 (the final chapter of Book 1), for instance, largely abandon chronological structure for a redundant set of visions with little apparent connection to the linear form and content of Margery's biography before this point. (6) Wynkyn's Margery constitutes a parallel model for dislodging visionary moments from earthly biography: his Margery offers a familiar version of affective lay devotion that we will see highlighted by some of the Book's annotators, and as I will argue, by scribe Salthows himself.

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