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15.09.36, Bale, trans., The Book of Margery Kempe

15.09.36, Bale, trans., The Book of Margery Kempe

Since the announcement in the London Times on 27 December 1934 of its discovery (or rediscovery), The Book of Margery Kempe has claimed important attention from a wide variety of readers. The riches of this text are manifold. It speaks to our interest in medieval religion, both private and public; in the details of life in late medieval England; in pilgrimage; in life-writing; in women; in late medieval politics, society, and culture; and in the relationships among churchmen and -women and the laity. The scholarship that has grown up around The Book--from its earliest commentator, Hope Emily Allen, to its most recent, Anthony Bale--has approached it with great seriousness as both an historical and a literary artifact, as a rare example of a Middle English prose text whose author (or authors as Bale suggests)--though still unknown--displays a narrative skill that places him or her in the highest rank of medieval vernacular writers.

The provenance of the manuscript of The Book is a story that encapsulates a prolonged "moment" of book history. Bale's account (xxxiv-v) is both faithful to current scholarly views, recently augmented by Julie A Chappell, and suggestive of the ways in which The Book's progress from East Anglia, where it was likely written and copied, to the important Yorkshire Carthusian house of Mount Grace, to the London Charterhouse, to the network of English Catholic families represented by Everard Digby, a former Carthusian and an ancestor of the Butler-Bowdon family in whose country house in Derbyshire the manuscript was rediscovered during a house party traces an exemplary path through the inter-connected networks that comprise England's own story. [1] This is the story of English religious social history, which is critical to the history of the survival of many important medieval religious manuscripts, whose accounts of saints, images, and mystical experiences otherwise earned them casual destruction at the hands of the servants of the two English Cromwells. Though excerpts from The Book were published as mystical devotions in 1521 by Henry Pepwell, the full force of this text had to wait until the twentieth century to find a reading public.

Bale's introductory materials and explanatory notes offer a good guide to the critical, contextual, and historical scholarship important to The Book, coverage likewise apparent in his bibliography. He rightly raises the intriguing issue of authorship, an issue that is central to our experience of reading it. The Book is narrated mostly in third person and its protagonist is referred to as "this creature." Moreover, the two prefaces that form our entry into The Book focus upon the difficulties Kempe had in finding a writer for her experiences. Nonetheless, as Bale points out, and as I and others have argued, the stakes were high for women religious writers in fifteenth-century England. Even if Kempe could write, which would not have been unusual for a woman of her social status, she might have wished to disguise herself by speaking through the cover afforded by a male and ecclesiastical authority who is described as having found her worthy and then wrote down or is said to write down what she recounted. This is a subject that is important to our understanding of the late medieval English religious climate and thus under much discussion by those of us who write about medieval women and about Margery Kempe in particular. Bale does a good job of presenting the various ways of thinking about the problem, sensitive both to the academic debate and to its relevance to the historical background of The Book.

That a Kempe family lived, worked, and flourished in the area in and around Lynn (now King's Lynn, Norfolk), a mercantile and shipping center during the late Middle Ages, can be verified historically, and Bale makes good use of the historical work of Anthony Goodman's Margery Kempe and Her World. However, The Book, though it purports to be factual, seems to share with so many other works of the period a tendency to inhabit the territory between fact and fiction. Where we have learned to read Chaucer with an eye both to the actual and the authorial, The Book of Margery Kempe still awaits even sharper scrutiny, its author as shrouded as ever.

Bale's translation is careful, and, though he offers an explanation of his approach to translating the text (xxxv-vi), I wish he had included references to other translations. The Book speaks with a distinctive voice to its reader. The translator of medieval texts can choose to smooth out medieval speech, to shorten sentences, re-order subordinate clauses, and give variety or meaning to lists of adjectives, as Bale points out. According to the number or degree of those choices, the translator modernizes the text, partially modernizes it, or barely modernizes. Bale picks the middle path. Like B.A. Windeatt, I have both edited and translated The Book, so I was deeply interested in the choices Bale makes. For example, and these are random samples from chapter 29, compare:

Afterwards, she received communion on the Mount of Calvary and then she wept, she sobbed, she cried out so loudly that it was a marvel to hear it (Bale, 67).

Afterwards she received communion on the Mount of Calvary, and then she wept, she sobbed, she cried out so loudly that it was amazing to hear it (Windeatt, 107).

Afterward she was houseled on the Mount of Calvary, and then she wept, she sobbed, she cried so loud that it wonder was to hear it (Staley, 52). [2]

holy conversations that our Lord Jesus Christ intimated to her soul (Bale, 67). holy conversation in which our Lord conversed with her soul (Windeatt, 107). holy dalliance that our Lord Jesus Christ dallied to her soul (Staley, 53).

Each of these passages influences the voice a reader hears, and thus represents the translator's decision how to present, or in some cases, interpret that voice. While words like "houseled" have fallen out of common usage and words like "dalliance" now have a flatter resonance than they once possessed, both serve particular functions for The Book's author. In some cases, the decision to smooth out diction brings more clarity but takes away the rhythm, the inherent poetry of the original:

for the time it took to hear two masses (Bale, 68). during the hearing of two masses (Windeatt, 108). for the time of hearing two masses (Staley, 53).

Though I obviously stand behind my choices, I can also say that Bale has done a good job of finding a way to create his own text. If his translation of The Book does not quite capture the breathless, sinewy idiosyncrasies of the late medieval voice behind the narrative, he produces a readable translation with good explanatory material that allows a contemporary reader to meet what can be a very uncomfortable text with a degree of comfort. With her struggles with representatives of both church and state, her sometimes difficult dealings with the heterogeneous groups of people who support her, her insistence upon her personal and intimate relationship with the divine, her odd behavior and manner of dress, Margery can be as disruptive on the page as the author describes her in daily life.

Bale has presented a well thought-out volume that allows a modern reader entrance into some of the critical and historical questions The Book prompts, as well as into the very real pleasures of reading this remarkable text.



1. Julie A. Chappell, Perilous Passages: The Book of Margery Kempe 1534-1934 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

2. B. A. Windeatt, trans., The Book of Margery Kempe (London: Penguin Books, 1985); Lynn Staley, trans. and ed., The Book of Margery Kempe (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001).