IN DEFENCE OF MARGERY KEMPE
MR. ALDOUS HUXLEY has justly charged those responsible for arranging university examinations in English Literature with obliging students of eighteenth-century literature to study the brilliant superficialities of Addison and Steele while not requiring any acquaintance with the magnificent prose in which William Law clothed his presentation of Boehme's mysticism studied in the light of his own prayer. The same must be said of the attitude of our literary pundits towards mediaeval English literature. If there is a book which deserves the close study of all concerned with English history or literature in the fifteenth century it is the Book of Margery Kempe. Yet there is little sign that its value has been appreciated. For, like the writings of Law, it is concerned with the communion of prayer between the soul and God. And that in the eyes of the modern secularist is enough to damn a book, whatever its literary merit or historical importance.
Margery's book is the first autobiography in our language. It throws a vivid light on the England of Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI. Bishops and burghers, friars and pilgrims, local officials and jailers, the man in the street and his womenfolk, men and women of many classes--all these appear in these pages as they thought, spoke and behaved. Her honest record of facts has given us a picture of mediaeval England as illuminating as the imaginary portraits of the Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman. As such it ranks with the Paston letters. But the latter lack depth. The inner life, spiritual and psychological, is beyond the ken of their earthbound writers.
The Book of Margery Kempe has come to us risen "like Alcestis from the grave" not twenty years ago. Before 1934 it was known only as the source, since lost, of twenty-eight short extracts, all concerned with Margery's spiritual experience, printed by Wynkyn de Worde about 1501 and reprinted in 1521 by Henry Pepwell as part of a collection of mystical writings reprinted in