Academic journal article Magistra

The Mystery Surrounding the Book of Margery Kempe and Its Connection with the Monks of Mount Grace

Academic journal article Magistra

The Mystery Surrounding the Book of Margery Kempe and Its Connection with the Monks of Mount Grace

Article excerpt

When the manuscript of Margery Kempe surfaced in 1934, it raised a great deal of speculation. The first round of scholarship had its fair share of critics. Father Herbert Thurston wrote in 1936: "That Margery was a victim of hysteria can hardly be open to doubt,"1 and Hope Emily Allen called Margery "petty, neurotic, vain, illiterate, physically and nervously over-strained;"2 More recent scholarship is mixed in its views. Some scholars, such as Clarissa Atkinson, Deborah Ellis, Karma Lochrie and Gail McMurray Gibson, see the narrative as "extraordinary" and Margery as someone who "embraced her martyrdoms deliberately and self-consciously,"3 and still others, like Dean Inge and Graham Greene, view The Book as having "little ...which can properly be described as mystical ... certainly queer . . . having little religious significance."4

The opposing views of the book do not really surprise a regular reader. Those expecting the kind of profound insights found in similar writings of the mystics of her times come away disappointed. The narrative fails in several ways: Margery does not found an order, raise new theological questions, or expound deeply about spiritual truths. Instead, she describes a journey, her journey into the realm of the spirit. The narrative is full of emotional and personal experiences as well as normal and mundane acts. It does not appear all that inspiring. Yet, the question remains: why has this manuscript been preserved and why by monks? This essay is an attempt to uncover these reasons.

Though many articles and books have examined to some degree the various areas to be considered here, none have attempted to draw a connection between the story of Margery Kempe and the medieval concept of "journey" as taken from the abbas and ammas of the desert. This study will first consider certain aspects and customs promoted by the desert hermits and cénobites and presented in various writings handed down through the centuries. These will then be compared with Margery's narrative, suggesting which particular act Margery emulates, comparing texts side by side. Finally, it will examine the marginal glosses in the one and only manuscript that surfaced in 1934, a manuscript from the library of the monks at Mount Grace. Certain passages contained markers that the monks easily identified, and it may be concluded that such ties demonstrate why this manuscript was kept, read, copied and preserved by a monastic community. Through such insights, one can better understand and see the fulfillment of one of the passages from the narrative: "I schal flowe so mych grace inl>el>at alle I>e world xal meruelyn I>erof "(17: 14-16).

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.) (Metanolo)

Ildegarde Sutto maintains that "The element that identifies and distinguishes Christian monasticism is not therefore the search for God and union with the Absolute, but the 'way' of arriving there."5 From the first pages of The Book these "ways" dominate the journey of Margery Kempe. It says in the Proem: "Pis lytyl tretys schal tretyn sumdeel in parcel of hys wonderful werkys, how mercyfully, how benyngly, & how charytefully he meued & stered a synful caytyf vn-to hys love" (1:12-15). Further in The Book, she states that: "Sehe knew no vertu ne goodnesse; sehe desyryd all wykkydnesse; lych as Pe spyrytys temptyd hir to sey & do so sehe seyd & dede" (7:35-37), which demonstrate the sinfulness of "this creature." Such sentiments dominate the first two chapters of The Book. Terrence Kardong points out that in Cassian's spirituality "There can be no claim to love before one is purified from sin."6 The first motif brought before the reader in the manuscript, therefore, is consistent with the first step of monastic spirituality, that of a total conversion of heart.

Such sentiments echo those of the abbas and ammas of the desert, who themselves felt perpetually unworthy of God's grace. When hermits evolved into cenobites, the concept of conversion dominated their spirituality. …

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