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22.08.01 Kalas/Varnam (eds.), Encountering “The Book of Margery Kempe”

22.08.01 Kalas/Varnam (eds.), Encountering “The Book of Margery Kempe”

Encountering “The Book of Margery Kempe,” the collection of essays edited by Laura Kalas and Laura Varnam, had its genesis in the 2018 conference “Margery Kempe Studies in the 21st Century,” which brought together Clarissa Atkinson with the current scholars whose essays appear in this volume. As Kalas and Varnam note, their choice of the word encounters was strategic, since the word encompasses the generative ideas of representation and discovery, temporal and atemporal, both within The Book and in the multiple scholarly approaches to a text whose importance has continued to grow since Hope Emily Allen identified it in 1934. Hilton Kelliher’s lively account in the British Library Journal of the near destruction of this long-sought manuscript offers a riposte to those of us who might prefer a cabinet where the ping-pong balls and the bats are organized to one stuffed with “an undisciplined clutter of small leather bound books.” [1] It is that joyous and creative “clutter” that Kalas and Varnam celebrate in this volume of encounters that are by turns textual, critical, historical, and performative, the categories under which they group the essays.

The three essays that comprise Textual Encounters underline the degree to which the Book draws upon and re-formulates the conventions of medieval spiritual writing. In “Before Margery: The Book of Margery Kempe and its antecedents,” Diane Watt suggests we read the Book after reading earlier epistolary and hagiographic writing by English nuns, such as those letters written to Boniface (c. 675-754) during his Christian mission to the continent or Hugeburc of Heidenheim’s account of St. Willibald’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land (760-80). To these English examples, I would add the fourth-century European pilgrim Egeria, whose account of her journey to and around the Holy Land enriches our understanding of the later pilgrimage described in the Book. Liz Herbert McAvoy and Naoë Kukita Yoshikawa in “The intertextual dialogue and conversational theology of Mechthild of Hackeborn and Margery Kempe,” suggest the ways in which Kempe’s either first- or second-hand encounter with The Boke of Gostely Grace, the Middle English translation of Mechthild’s collaborative Liber specialis gratiae, informs both Margery’s travels on the continent and the underlying theology of the Book. Josephine A. Koster (“The prayers of Margery Kempe: a reassessment”) argues, as I did in Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions, that the prayers that end the text are presented by the scribe as a separate treatise and need to be considered as authorizing gestures. [2] She details the ways these prayers appropriate and re-work contemporary prayers.

The four essays devoted to Internal Encounters mine the narrative intensity of the Book and the techniques that undergird it. In “The Book of Margery Kempe: autobiography in the third person,” Ruth Evans argues that Kempe’s use of the third person serves as a screen, at once inscribing Margery’s divided life and preventing us from experiencing a “knowable life” (83). Johannes Wolf, in “Margery Kempe as de-facement,” elaborates upon one aspect of Evans’s interest in the impasse inherent in The Book’s deployment of the autobiographic mode. Wolf analyzes the “framed” character of the text as both scribal copy and narrative and the critical and diagnostic commentary upon it that evinces our “de-facement” of Margery Kempe, as well as our own forgetfulness (“de-facement”) of The Book’s effect upon its readers. In “Margery Kempe, oral history, and the value of intersubjectivity,” Katherine J. Lewis, employing the methodologies of oral history to examine the dynamics of the confessional process, argues for Kempe’s “decisive role in determining both the content and the form of the Book” (121). Though not directly responding to Lewis, in “‘A booke of hyr felyngys’: exemplarity and Margery Kempe’s encounters of the heart,” Laura Varnam prioritizes Margery’s feelings, which Varnam aligns with “pre-existing methods of ‘stirring’” the emotions (141), as constituting a key element of the strategy underlying the Book’s appeal to its readers.

Part III, “Encountering the World,” contains essays that extend our historical understanding of Kempe and her book. Susan Maddock in “Margery Kempe’s home town and worthy kin,” returns to the archives of King’s Lynn, broadening the search to include manuscripts inaccessible to Sanford Brown Meech and expanding it both socially and geographically to include artisans and the connections among Lynn families outside of town. She also reinvestigates known figures like Alan of Lynn. Maddock concludes by describing Kempe as a “reliable witness” (179) to the events she describes and, more important, as embracing rather than resenting the changing social order in her home town. In “A women’s network in fifteenth-century Rome: Margery Kempe encounters ‘Margaret Florentyne,’” Anthony Bale and Daniela Giosuè posit the identity of the Margaret Florentyne, whom Margery first encounters in Assisi, as “Margherita degli Alberti (d. after 1417), a member of the wealthy Alberti banking family. They thus set Margery Kempe within the ambit of female patronage, filling out the hints throughout the Book of female figures who support or cherish her and thus add texture to the social world she describes. Dorothy Kim in “Margery Kempe, racialised soundscapes, sonic wars, and cosmopolitan Jerusalem,” argues that Margery imports back into England the Jerusalem noise of her tears, sign of her devotion to Christ, and hence imposes a “racialised soundscape” upon “white” East Anglia. Kim might also think about the hands annotating the manuscript, which, as I suggest in my introduction to my edition of the Book, point up and amplify Margery’s tears and noise. [3] In “The materialisation of Book II: elements of Margery Kempe’s world,” Laura Kalas details “Kempe’s maturing encounters…with the natural world,” arguing that in this second book the natural elements and the landscapes traversed are “entangled in Kempe’s spiritual self,” (236-37) and that this book is an end-of-life activity suggesting Kempe’s relationship to the natural world.

The final two essays that comprise Part IV, “Performative Encounters,” put the theatrical character of the Book and, as Gail McMurray Gibson has described it, of late medieval religious culture, into conversation with the contemporary interest in performance and the theory of performance. Sarah Salih in “Writing performed lives: Margery Kempe meets Marina Abramović,” imagines an encounter between Margery Kempe and the contemporary artist Marina Abramović, whose performances memorialize her life as performance, and, as does Kempe, employs polarized audience responses to suggest a history of reception that is also a history of our response to a performance that may startle or offend us. In “Recreating and reassessing Margery and Julian’s encounter,” Tara Williams discusses the contemporary script Marge & Jules written by the Queynte Laydies, which seeks to reanimate the encounter between Margery and Julian of Norwich described in the Book. [4] Williams argues that such modern treatments “illuminate scholarly treatments of the Book,” (279) that both types of scrutiny are interpretations and allow us to re-examine the old in light of the new.

Encountering “The Book of Margery Kempe” displays the range of critical readings the Book has inspired and makes a contribution both to studies of this text and to the broader field of late medieval devotional studies, both of which intersect with the many issues integral to gender studies. The essays by Watt, McAvoy and Yoshikawa, and Bale and Giosuè anchor the techniques of the Book within such a matrix and point the way to other fruitful studies of its relationships to continental devotional and women’s culture. The essays gathered in the volume also evince our growing understanding of the artistry that undergirds a text that was once considered important but possibly artless. It is this artistry, this sure sense of the dynamics of narrative, of voice, of social and religious conventions and culture, that holds the volume itself together, giving it the implicit unity a gifted author provides to her or his later readers. Varnam’s remarks on the embedded lyric, which first appears in chapter 65, implicitly underline the strategic artfulness of the writing. Though many of us have noted the lyric in our work on the Book, Varnam focuses on it to suggest that, by repeating it, Kempe allows it to be internalized and reflective of Margery’s devotional practice, thus placing the “imagery of the heart” at the center of an exchange between Christ and the devotee and implicitly between Christ and the reader. In her historical and social trawl of the King’s Lynn archives, Maddock makes a similarly strong case for the intentionality of the Book’s architectonics, scope, and subject matter.

In the Introduction, Kalas and Varnum gesture to this importance by adumbrating the history of scholarly work on the Book, work that began with the growing awareness of medieval women’s writing and its cultural impact at a point when many of us began teaching courses on and writing about texts we had not been assigned in graduate classes. That early excitement was generated by books like Clarissa W. Atkinson’s Mystic and Pilgrim, Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff’sMedieval Women’s Visionary Literature, and, of course Caroline Walker Bynum’s books of the 1980’s (Jesus as Mother and Holy Feast and Holy Fast). [5] The then semi-primitive classrooms and hard chairs (!) of Western Michigan University, our host for “Kalamazoo,” were jammed with sessions exploring this new and heady material, sessions that spilled over into late night conversations.

Although the Introduction does mention some of these moments and many of the essays also cite them, the Select Bibliography does not. I was disappointed by the relative thinness of both the Introduction and the Bibliography, especially since the volume proclaims itself as taking the Book into the twenty-first century. As a historicist, I would have appreciated a greater degree of historical consciousness though I realize the limiting constraints of page- and word-counts. So much of what we know about Kempe’s social, cultural, and religious background we owe to those working on East Anglian literary culture, such as Theresa Coletti, Gail McMurray Gibson, and Carole Hill; and historians like Christopher Harper-Bill, Alice Stopford Green, E. F. Jacob, Carole Rawcliffe, and Norman Tanner. [6] The list is a long one, and I cannot name all the important names; however, it is possible to contextualize current studies of The Book of Margery Kempe as emerging from work that anticipated many of the points of present critical efforts. Finally, and here is the real point of such contextualization, the very importance of the Book, an importance gestured to in each of these essays, demands that we come to terms with its history--scholarly, paleographical, and cultural--in order to think through the questions it poses and the appeal it has. This is a good volume of essays with which to continue the process of exploration and the joys of discovery.



1. Hilton Kelliher, “The Rediscovery of Margery Kempe: A Footnote,” The British Library Journal, 23 (1997): 259-63. The quotation, at 206 in this article, is from a lightly edited version of a letter from Maurice Butler-Bowden to Winifred Tuck, dated 30 January 1970.

2. Lynn Staley, Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).

3. Lynn Staley, ed. The Book of Margery Kempe (Kalamazoo, MI.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996; online at <>).

4. See <>.

5. Clarissa W. Atkinson, Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and the World of Margery Kempe (Ithaca, NY.: Cornell University Press, 1983); Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, ed., Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986); Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Oakland, CA.: University of California Press, 1982), and Holy Feast and Holy Fast: the Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Oakland, CA.: University of California Press, 1987).

6. As examples of their work on East Anglia, see: Theresa Coletti, Mary Magdalene and the Drama of Saints: Theater, Gender, and Religion in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia, PA.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004); Gail McMurray Gibson, The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages (Chicago, IL.: University of Chicago Press, 1989), Carole Hill, Women and Religion in Late Medieval Norwich (London: Royal Historical Society, 2017); Christopher Harper-Bill, Norwich, 1266-1288 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Alice Stopford Green, Town Life in the Fifteenth Century, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1894); E.F. Jacob, The Fifteenth Century, 1399-1485 (Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1961); Carole Rawcliffe, Urban Bodies: Communal Health in Late Medieval English Towns and Cities (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2013); Norman Tanner, The Church in Late Medieval Norwich 1370–1532, Studies and Texts, 66 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984).