Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

From Medieval Mystic to Early Modern Anchoress: Rewriting the Book of Margery Kempe

Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

From Medieval Mystic to Early Modern Anchoress: Rewriting the Book of Margery Kempe

Article excerpt

   I haue ordeynd pe to be a merowr amongys hem for to han    gret sorwe pat pei xulde takyn exampil by pe for to haue    sum litil sorwe in her hertys for her synnys pat pei myth    perthorw be sauyd. (1) 

The persistence of medieval religious writing in early modern print culture can be used to demonstrate the trajectory of early modern spirituality. (2) In constructing a relationship with the literary past, sixteenth-century readers were able to view themselves in relation to a constant religious tradition, one that emphasizes the development of a private, more interior spirituality. If a medieval text did not promote the inward, meditative devotion favored by later audiences, however, early modern redactors adapted them to emphasize the features of private devotion that were practiced in everyday worship. These textual reconstructions range from the minimal to the extreme, reflecting a cautious awareness of religious and sociopolitical values, especially since early modern editions catered to widely diverse audiences. In her seminal book, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern England, Elizabeth Eisenstein claims:

   Every manuscript that came into the printer's hands ... had    to be reviewed in a new way--one which encouraged more    editing, correcting, and collating than had the hand-copied    text. Within a generation the results of this review were being    aimed in a new direction--away from fidelity to scribal conventions    and toward serving the convenience of a reader. (3) 

Consequently, the differences between manuscripts and their later printed variations must be seen as signifying changing spiritual trends and not deliberate censorship. This article shows how the process of revision allowed early modern editors to emphasize the continuities between medieval and contemporary religiosity and concurrently to soften any tensions between the two eras. To demonstrate this, I examine two early modern incarnations of The Book of Margery Kempe: A Shorte Treatyse of Contemplacyon, printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501, and Henry Pepwell's 1521 reprint in a spiritual anthology. Even if The Book of Margery Kempe is not the text people immediately think of when they consider the nascent years of print history, its unusual metamorphosis reveals that the portability of medieval texts entailed a complex editorial process before they were disseminated to the masses.

Certainly, texts are adapted for different purposes across changing religious climes, and a comparison between the two printed editions and their manuscript antecedent demonstrates the great effort it took to resurrect The Book of Margery Kempe from the medieval past and redeploy it as a religiously conservative early modern text. (4) Textual evidence cites the year 1436 as the date when work on the Book began in earnest, and the only remaining copy of the text, identified as the Salthouse manuscript (British Library Additional 61823), is believed to have been transcribed some time in the middle of the fifteenth century. (5) Scholars may never know the extent to which the manuscript circulated, but the fact that it was transformed into two early modern editions indicates that someone thought it had merit for later audiences.

Until very recently, scholars maintained that the redaction was contemporaneous with BL Additional 61823, with most of the speculation in support of Master Robert Springold, Margery's confessor, as the most likely candidate to have either produced or commissioned the abridgment in a now-lost manuscript. (6) To maintain such a proposal, however, is to overlook the active role printers played in the production of their wares through "the vast labor of adaptation--shortening texts, simplifying them, cutting them up, [and] providing illustrations." (7) As Roger Chartier explains, this complex process of refashioning "was commanded by how the bookseller-publishers who specialized in the market envisioned their customers' abilities and expectations," and the redactor of the Shorte Treatyse utilizes each of these techniques to produce a version of Margery Kempe that would appeal to new readers. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.