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3 years ago  ::  May 09, 2015 - 3:21AM #1
Posts: 14,591

Margery Kempe has gotten something of a bad rep over the years in terms of the reliability and credibility of her writing.

Now, a scholar has discovered a piece of evidence that he thinks establishes Margery's credibility and the reliability of her narrative: A 15th-century letter found in an archive in Gdansk and believed to have been prepared for Margery’s son, John – who dictated the earliest surviving autobiography written in English – may shed fresh light on Margery’s account of her visions and pilgrimages 600 years ago.

Only one copy of the manuscript of “The Book of Margery Kempe” survives today. The text tells of the religious visions Margery experienced after the birth of the first of her 14 children, her failings in business and callings to the spiritual life, and how she persuaded her husband to join her in a vow of chastity before embarking on a series of pilgrimages.

Kempe, who lived in Norfolk from 1373 to 1440, recounts in a preface how her story was first recorded by a scribe but was then rewritten by a priest beginning in July 1436. It tells, she declares, of “hyr felyngys and revelacyons and the forme of her levyng”.

Now professor Sebastian Sobecki at the University of Groningen has discovered a short Latin letter prepared on June 12, 1431, for a John Kempe, whom he has identified as Margery Kempe’s son. He believes the finding both anchors Margery’s narrative in reality and adds strength to the argument that Margery was a reliable author.

Sobecki contends that the letter (written in medieval Latin, so that Lincolnshire and East Anglian authorities could understand it) provides the first external piece of evidence for Margery’s son’s existence, for her claim that he visited her at Lynn, for her description of his falling into the “synne of letchery” when abroad, for her discussion of his reconciliation with her, and for her mention that – years later – he and his wife travelled to Lynn to meet her. Her son became ill shortly after arriving and died a month later.

Sobecki said the debate about Kempe’s reliability and authorship centers on the fact that she was a female, and therefore had limited, if any, command of writing.

“As a result, she had to dictate her account to a priest. On the one hand, her book often contains quite specific information; on the other, there are plenty of theological aspects and turns of phrase that betray a clerical writer. As a result, feminist critics have quite rightly argued for co-authorship: a woman’s story filtered through a male religious lens. In recent years, the historicity of the book has come under fire, and most current readers treat [it] primarily as literature, fiction even, with no certain basis in history,” he said.

The discovery of the letter reveals she was actually “an honest teller of her tale”, he said. “People have argued that the book is allegory, that she’s exaggerating, that she’s a liar – this shows she doesn’t lie. It makes her a reliable and trustworthy author, not just someone who’s dictating, and uneducated, and prone to being manipulated ... What’s important about this is that we see a real historical Margery, not just a character in one of the first novels.”

The letter also adds to the argument that Kempe’s son was the first scribe of the book, Sobecki believes.

“The upshot of my find is that Margery’s facts and dates – especially those crucial to dating her book – are confirmed. As a result, this letter contains new evidence for the son as the book’s first scribe and for Margery’s historical accuracy. The priest who gave us the book in its current form now emerges as a copy editor rather than as a writer. In other words, the discovery of this letter shows clearly that Margery’s authorship trumps that of the priest, making her account reliable and authoritative,” he said.

From a strictly historical standpoint, the letter doesn’t address the credence or actuality of Margery’s religious visions, which start at the age of 20 after the birth of her first child. “She clearly believed she had them,” said Sobecki. “But they happened elsewhere too, and some are modelled on what happened in other saints’ lives. I’m not saying she talked to Jesus – but she believed them.”

Merope | Beliefnet Community Manager
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