The Book of Margery Kempe
translated by John Skinner
1999 • 343 pages • Book-of-the-Month Club
I am as frankly surprised as you are that my reading has taken on a religious bent these past two weeks. I threw The Girl of Fire and Thorns into my bag yesterday morning, and only remembered once I started it that I had wanted to read it because it was the rare fantasy novel that actively deals with faith. (Verdict so far: yes, good, continue.) I’ve suddenly become dissatisfied with everything I currently have out of the library, so we’ll see if this trend keeps up when I refresh my selections. (I imagine it won’t, because I have Kieron Gillen’s Darth Vader on hold and cannot wait to read it.)
But I originally wanted to read The Book of Margery Kempe because it’s often considered the first autobiography written in English (and by a woman!). Although, of course, autobiography wasn’t really a genre in the fifteenth century—it’s more accurately an autohagiography. Still, it offers particular insight into the life of a middle-class laywoman in medieval England, as Kempe experienced her call to Christ after the birth of her first child.
Unfortunately, I don’t think I picked up the best translation of The Book of Margery Kempe. This is something I’m actively terrible about—determining which translation I ought to read of a text in a language foreign to me. I’m just not sure where to turn to for that, and overthinking my reading choices inevitably quells my desire to read. But I should have either sprung for the Oxford University Press translation or, if I had had time (what a ridiculous notion), just read the University of Rochester’s version out loud. (That’s the best way for me to understand Middle English, although I inevitably just start doing it in an Irish accent.) Instead, I grabbed whatever the library threw up as the first search result and ended up with John Skinner’s modern version from Doubleday’s Book-of-the-Month Club. This version begins with an introduction that casts some serious shade on Margery, passive-aggressively snarking about how her book isn’t linear and how her word choices are repetitive. This only continues through to the footnotes, where Margery’s errors are swiftly corrected. It’s quite readable, to be sure, but It was only while checking some dates for this review that I discovered that the original book is written in the third person, as to be more humble in the eyes of God.
I don’t know about you, but that seems like an important detail to me.
Nonetheless, despite Skinner’s side eye, Margery herself rings out loud and clear. As one of the, according to her biography in this edition, “great English mystics,” much of the narrative is composed of her prayers, conversations with God, and spiritual visions, all of which affect her so deeply that she can’t help but respond to them physically by weeping and shouting. She regularly engages in religious discourse so sophisticated, despite being illiterate, others view her as either a very holy woman or a very evil woman, as one man of the cloth tells her at one point. (Margery regularly seeks out other spiritual people to learn from them—one such friend, a priest, reads great works of religious literature to her.) She’s thrown in prison a few times under suspicion of being a Lollard. She frankly discusses her temptations of the flesh—Margery implies that her great sin is adultery—and the mental suffering she experiences. And when God tells her that something good is going to happen, she sometimes freezes up, scared that she’s misunderstanding the message or that the experience is going to suffer in comparison to her expectations.
With Margery so clear, it’s sometimes tempting to see her as a modern woman, eschewing her marriage to devote herself fully to religious life and traveling widely on pilgrimage as a lone woman. The important thing to remember about history is that it doesn’t progress in a straight line—more of a zigzag, really—and that we can’t ever truly understand what it was like to live back then. (This great article about American Civil War reenactors drives the impossibility of historical accuracy home.) That may sound pessimistic, but I think it just means that we need to understand that people’s experience of the world throughout history are both similar and very different to our experience journeying through the past. For instance, Margery is conflicted when she feels a call to become chaste, because she’s still under the spiritual command of her husband, who does not want her to do so. I would describe her experience, until she succeeds in making her vow of chastity, as marital rape. I don’t know if Margery would.
There are other, less painful reminders of this phenomenon. At one point, relates a religious allegory centered around a bear pooping, which seemed to be, if you’ll forgive the pun, cheeky to a medieval audience. Margery’s call to Christ seems to occur just after a lengthy bout of severe post-partum depression. Again, this is not something Margery would consider, and this is obviously coming through my modern, secular eyes. But it still warmed my heart to see Margery reach out to a woman suffering from the same thing, reaching out from a standpoint of having been there and defeated it.
I guess I’m just a sucker for women lifting each other up.
I rented this book from the public library.