Women's Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon

An International Network Funded by the Leverhulme Trust

Academics Possessed: Medieval Ideas of Authorship & the Importance of Archives

Compton prayer desk

A.S. Byatt’s Booker prize winning novel Possession (1990) opens with the dramatic discovery of drafts of two previously unknown letters in the pages of a long ‘undisturbed’ book in the London Library. The letters are in the hand of a (fictitious) famous Victorian poet. The person who finds the letters is a research assistant to an eminent professor. On a shockingly unscholarly impulse, this very junior academic steals the letters, and his act of momentary madness leads him on a journey of scholarly investigation, and of self-discovery.  Such stories are only found within the pages of a book, not in real life. Or are they?

From Ping-pong Cupboards to Gdańsk Archives: Finding Margery’s Voice

Gdańsk, Archiwum Państwowe, APG 300, 27/3, fol. 12r. Akta miasta Gdańska – Missiva, 12 June 1431.'Gdańsk, Archiwum Państwowe, APG 300, 27/3, fol. 12r. Akta miasta Gdańska – Missiva, 12 June 143

Margery Kempe’s arrival in the modern world was surprisingly quiet. In 1910, Edmund Gardner published a brief account of the East Anglian mystic as printed in 1521 by Henry Pepwall – itself a reprint of a 1501 pamphlet by Wynkyn de Worde. Garner exaggerated Kempe’s reputation for mysticism and assumed that she was an unmarried woman living in the 1290s, a certain ‘Margeria filia Johannis Kempe’ [Margery, daughter of John Kempe] found in a record from Canterbury. His conjectures were aided by the claim of his early modern printed source that Kempe had been an anchoress, a person permanently walled in in a cell attached to a church or bridge – dead to the world. A year later, the novelist and latter-day mystic Evelyn Underhill proclaimed Kempe ‘the first English mystic we can name with certainty’. And so the early twentieth century invented a saintly thirteenth-century virgin mystic and spiritual pioneer.

Rethinking the Medieval Canon

Leverhulme Trust

Why do we need to rethink the medieval literary canon?

Most people who share an interest in English Literature have heard of Geoffrey Chaucer, and some will have studied his famous poem, The Canterbury Tales, at school or university. Quite a number of his famous pilgrims, women as well as men, are well known to us. Many will recognize the figures of the Knight, the Miller, the Pardoner, and of course the Wife of Bath.

Few would disagree that such an obviously much-loved and influential author as Chaucer should be enshrined within the literary tradition. There are films about him (such as A Knight’s Tale, starring Heath Ledger), BBC television adaptations of his work, and Chaucer and his work are even the subjects of two highly successful recent works of historical fiction by Bruce Holsinger (A Burnable Book and The Invention of Fire; although really it is Chaucer’s contemporary and fellow poet, John Gower, who is at the heart of these novels).

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