Academic journal article Magistra

The Sound of the Bellows in the Book of Margery Kemp?

Academic journal article Magistra

The Sound of the Bellows in the Book of Margery Kemp?

Article excerpt

One of the ongoing impulses of Margery Kempe studies is to uncover the ways that her text draws from other literary and non-literary models. How much of Kempe's text is a unique expression of her own, and how much of the text shows the extraordinarily rich tapestry of sources Kempe sought and to which she was exposed? The following essay contributes to this argument by exploring the possible sources of Kempe's description of the Holy Spirit sounding like a pair of bellows. It follows on (and serves as a companion piece to) an earlier essay of mine that explored the voice of the robin redbreast as the sound of the Holy Spirit.1 My purpose in this essay is to demonstrate that even in the Book's seemingly less significant details, Kempe is drawing on and engaging with established religious traditions.

Throughout the Book Kempe describes a number of sensorial ways in which she experiences the Lord. Chapter 36 addresses Kempe's aural perception of the Divine, stating that she had "divers tokenys in hir bodily heryng" that indicated the Holy Spirit, including the voices of a dove and a redbreast, as well as "a maner of sownde, as it had ben a peyr of belwys blowyng in hir ere."2 This experience lasted for many years, as "sehe had been used to swech tokeyns about xxv yer at the writyng of this boke."3 As the Middle English Dictionary indicates, a pair of bellows in the early to mid-fifteenth century could refer either to bellows for a smithy or for an organ.4 Late medieval literature, wall-paintings, and manuscript illuminations featuring bellows give evidence of the wide variety of shapes and sizes of these instruments, which ranged from small bellows used to produce wind for household fires or portable organs to large industrial contraptions supported by a wooden frame that required the weight of one's entire body to operate.5 By the end of the Middle Ages, still larger bellows could be powered by water.6

Scholars have repeatedly noted how Kempe's aural experiences of the Divine are similar to those described by more popular devotional writers such as the fourteenth century writer Richard Rolle, who refers in his Incendium Amoris to the delightful harmonies and heavenly song that can appear in one's soul and enthrall one's mind.7 Few, however, have explored whence this particular image of the bellows arises. Those that have, attribute the image to Kempe's homely, merchant-class sense of the Lord, or to possible medical afflictions such as temporal lobe epilepsy or tinnitus.8 No one has attributed her use of bellows imagery to conscious or unconscious modeling and patterning on other texts, preferring to overlook the many literate sources of the Book.

However, it may be argued that a similar image in the early fifteenth century sermon collection Jacob's Well suggests that picturing the Holy Spirit as a pair of bellows may have been a somewhat familiar image in late medieval sermon literature. The sound of the bellows therefore suggests the influence of sermon literature on Kempe's Book, or at least suggests that the image was not unique to Kempe. Thus, this is yet another instance in which Kempe models her Book on late medieval religious texts, and demonstrates that her text engages more deeply with contemporary religious culture and practices than previously thought.

Exploring the Book's description of the Holy Spirit sounding like a pair of bellows invokes the study of soundscapes of the medieval world. How exactly were these bellows imagined to sound in Kempe's Book? Were they startling loud and awe-inspiring, or were they softer and raspier? Was the Holy Spirit in Kempe's description intended to sound like the whoosh of a small kitchen bellows, the larger roar of a blacksmith's bellows, or the overwhelming thunder of the multiple bellows of a cathedral's organ? Extant literary and artistic sources give some idea of this soundscape, as well as the literal and figurative associations medieval people made with bellows. …

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

Oops!

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.