Two Women in Conversation: Margery Kempe’s daughter-in-law and her possible influence on the writing of the Book.

by Santha Bhattacharji

The Book of Margery Kempe, Chapter 18, British Library, Add. MS 61823. Credit: The British Library.

This post[i] explores a possible ‘starting point’ for the writing of The Book of Margery Kempe (written c. 1438)[ii], sometimes described as the first autobiography in English. The Book records Margery Kempe’s mystical experiences, embedded in the narrative of her life. What is unusual about Margery is that she was not a nun or Beguine, but a married woman with fourteen children, who lived out her whole life outside the cloister. She lived at a time of political instability within the Church, which was trying to suppress heretical movements such as the Lollards in England and Hussites in Hungary, making any religious writings by a lay woman particularly suspect.[iii] In addition, Margery, like many lay women of her time, appears to have been to some extent illiterate, making her dependent on other scribes, the most important one being a male priest. However, the priest is Margery’s second scribe, who writes up a fair copy of Book 1 of The Book of Margery Kempe and adds Book 2.  This paper explores some issues surrounding the writing of the first draft of the Book, and therefore focusses on Margery’s first scribe. In particular, it explores the possible input of Margery Kempe’s German daughter-in law into the making of the Book.

So, what triggered — what was the starting-point — for the writing of this unusual religious text?

 It would be plausible to take Church politics as the most obvious starting-point: the bishops wanted an orthodox account of religious experience by a lay woman to set against the Lollard emphasis on the ability of women to both teach and preach the faith. Margery tells us that she discussed her mystical experiences with archbishops, bishops and doctors of divinity, and “Summe of these worthy and worshepful clerkys … bodyn hyr that sche schuld don hem wryten and makyn a booke of hyr felyngys and hir revelacyons. Sum proferyd hir to wrytyn hyr felyngys wyth her owen handys.”[iv] (Some of these worthy and worshipful clerics …bade her that she should have them written down and make a book of her feelings and revelations. Some offered to her to write down her feelings with their [v] own hands).

 The various political, theological and social undercurrents of the time, which may have informed the text, have been well set out in Lynn Staley’s monograph Dissenting Fictions.[vi] However, Margery tells us she rejected the offers of help from bishops, and instead situates the eventual composition of the Book, some twenty years later, within her family, who wish to understand her experiences. To what extent and in what sense Margery was illiterate is a matter of intense debate;[vii] what is certain is that she herself emphasizes her absolute dependency on someone to write her book for her:

Than had the creatur no wryter that wold fulfyllyn hyr desyr ne geve credens to hir felingys unto the tym that a man dwelling  in Dewchlond whech was an Englyschman in hys byrth and sythen weddyd in Dewchland and had ther bothe a wyf and a chyld, havyng good knowlach of this creatur and of hir desyr, meved I trost thorw the Holy Gost, cam into Yngland wyth hys wyfe and hys goodys and dwellyd wyth the forseyd creatur tyl he had wretyn as mech as sche wold tellyn hym for the tym that thei wer togydder. And sythen he deyd.” (Then had this creature no writer who would fulfil her desire or give credence to her feelings, until the time that a man dwelling in Germany, who was an Englishman in his birth and afterwards got married in Germany  and had there both a wife and a child, having good knowledge of this creature and her desire, moved I trust through the Holy Spirit, came into England with his wife and his goods, and dwelt with the aforesaid creature until he had written as much as she wanted to tell him  during the time that they were together. And afterwards he died.)[viii]

This man has been convincingly identified[ix] with her son, who is described in almost the same terms at the beginning of Book 2, who comes home to visit her with his German wife, and then dies.[x] We should note the role of the German wife here. We are told that it was the wife’s interest in her mother-in-law’s experiences which led to the son’s visit home:He enformyd hys wife of hys modyr in so meche that sche wolde leevyn hir fadyr and hir modyr and hir owyn cuntré for to comyn into Inglonde and seen hys modyr. He was ful glad therof and sent word into Inglond to hys modyr to certifyin hir of hys wyfys desyr.” (He informed his wife about his mother, to such an extent that she wanted to leave her father and her mother and her own country in order to come to England and see his mother. He was full glad of this and sent word to England to his mother to inform her of his wife’s desire.)[xi] This paper argues that the starting-point for the Book of Margery Kempe, therefore, is the desire of two women to communicate together about religious experience.

A great deal of work has been done in recent years on the reception by female mystics of mystical texts written by other women,[xii] leading in turn to the production of further works. This process has been called ‘intertextual dialogue’ and, further, ‘conversational theology.[xiii] I suggest that The Book of Margery Kempe is ‘conversational theology’ seen at its starting-point of actual conversation, before even beginning the work of dictating to – or collaborating with – a scribe in the production of a written text.

The evidence in the text for the traditional identification of the first scribe with Margery’s son is undoubtedly persuasive; however, it also presents some anomalies. In this paper, I wish to explore the possibility that the anomalies might be partly explained by positing some kind of input from Margery’s German daughter-in-law into the actual writing of Margery’s book.

Margery tells us that her son arrives on a Saturday, is taken ill the next day, and dies a month later.[xiv] The first anomaly, on which many scholars , such as Barry Windeatt,[xv] have commented, is that this is a very short time for writing a whole book, especially if the scribe is terminally ill, and also considering the material demands of writing in the medieval period, which required ink, quills, a knife, as well as paper or vellum. Elsewhere, Margery records that she herself was frequently unwell during the writing of the book, and that she and her son were both frequently overcome by tears,[xvi] so the time available for writing is shorter yet again.

The first scribe produced a text that ‘was neithyr good Englysch ne Dewch, ne the lettyr was not schapyn ne formyd as other letters ben’ (neither good English or German, nor was the writing of the letters shaped or formed as other letters are).[xvii] When Margery takes the text to a local priest, asking him to make a fair copy, he is quite unable to decipher it.  He makes the helpful suggestion that Margery should take the text to a merchant friend who had received letters from the first scribe, ‘a good man whech had ben mech conversawnt wyth hym that wrot  fyrst the booke, supposyng that he schuld cun best rede the booke, for he had sum tym red letters of the other mannys wrytyng sent fro beyonden the see whyl he was in Dewchland.’[xviii] (a good man who had been very familiar with him who first wrote the book, supposing that he would best know how to read the book, for he had previously read letters written by the other man, sent from overseas while he was in Germany.) However, this man can’t read the book either. Anthony Goodman has pointed out the contradiction here: the merchant could read the man’s letters, so why can’t he read this?[xix] There may therefore be a hint here that the writer of the letters and the writer of the book were not in fact the same person.

We are told in detail what makes the Book so indecipherable.  There is first an actual scribal problem: the letters are not formed as usual.  Of course, a sick man’s handwriting might well deteriorate, but there is an emphasis on ‘shaped and formed’ here which suggests a different scribal tradition altogether. Perhaps we are dealing with German letter-forms, not English, and this would be understandable if Margery’s son had only learned to write in Germany, when he went on business there and had to report back by writing letters home. On the other hand, perhaps one would send someone on business abroad precisely because they already knew how to write. At any event, there is never any difficulty mentioned with previously reading letters from the son.  Of course, write can mean ‘have written for one by someone else’, as appears to be the case when Margery herself writes back to her son, but the letters received by the merchant are specifically ‘of the other mannys wryting’. So, the letter-forms do not appear to be those usually employed by Margery’s son.

The biggest anomaly, however, lies in the description of the language, as ‘neither English nor German’.  Why would an Englishman, writing in his mother-tongue, at the dictation of an Englishwoman speaking only in English, write down what he is hearing partly in German?  This result, it seems to me, would be more likely to be produced by someone whose native language is German, writing in the script he or she has learnt, which is not a standard English script, and writing down the English he/she is hearing as best they can; perhaps writing down unfamiliar words in German, with a view to correcting them later on, particularly if there is enormous time-pressure in getting most of the Book down at all.

So let us now look more carefully at Margery’s German daughter-in-law. The text makes plain that this is no brief visit, prompted simply by curiosity or the natural desire to meet one’s in-laws.  The son hired a ship to bring themselves, their child and their goods to England, suggesting a long-term move, with due attention given to the magnitude of the daughter-in-law’s decision to leave her own country and family.[xx]  Sebastian Sobecki, in his important article discussing records of the Kempe family preserved in Gdansk, suggests that ‘goods’ may also be goods to sell, implying a commercial venture; presumably this would give them a means to support themselves.[xxi] In the event, a storm at sea leads to the decision to leave the child in Germany.

Why would Margery’s daughter-in-law be so interested in getting to know her?  Margery had already told her son a lot about her spiritual experiences.[xxii] In addition, the son and his wife lived in the Hanseatic port of Danzig in Prussia (now Gdansk in Poland) where there was a major Brigettine house.  St. Bridget’s Church, which still exists, though much rebuilt, was erected in the mid-1300s, initially as the Chapel of St Mary Magdalene.  In 1374, the funeral procession carrying the remains of St Bridget of Sweden, travelling from Rome where the saint had died back to Vadstena in Sweden, made a stop in Danzig.  The coffin was placed in the church and venerated for two weeks, before moving on. Apparently, this gave rise to a cult of St Bridget in Danzig, and the Brigettine house there was set up in 1386.  

Possibly Margery’s daughter-in-law would have had an interest in St Bridget, and perhaps belonged to a circle of people very focussed on religion and spirituality, perhaps akin to the circle around Margaret Beaufort in England fifty years later, which was centred on the Brigettine house of Syon, just outside London. The existence of such a circle in Danzig is suggested by the interest shown in Margery when she goes to Danzig with her daughter -in-law near the end of her Book and ‘had ryth good cher of meche pepil for owr Lordys lofe’ (was warmly welcomed by many people for love of Our Lord.)[xxiii]

I would like to suggest that it is the arrival of the German daughter-in law in Lynn which at least partly triggers the writing of the Book.  Margery has been wanting to get this book written for some time, but had no scribe, as we saw above. Although a priest produces a second draft for Margery, and is thus responsible for the text as we have it, it is notable that Margery does not turn to him for help in the first instance. Possibly he only arrived in King’s Lynn, her hometown, after the writing of the first draft, but the text does not give this impression. On the contrary, the priest is aware of the son having written letters to someone else in the town in the past, suggesting that the priest was already in Lynn while the son was still alive and living in Germany.

Would her son, if he could write neither good English nor good German, have been the person she would think of turning to? However, the presence of an interested female member of her family may be what persuades Margery that the time has now come to write down her experiences.  Before this moment, she  was constantly relating her experiences to spiritual directors and other clerics ‘to see if there was any deceit in them.’[xxiv] In addition, at a particularly tense moment in the Lollard movement when it had become overtly political and a threat to the King, Margery was arrested several times and tried for heresy.[xxv] Each time she was able to establish her orthodoxy and even make friends and allies of some of her interrogators, but this is a fundamentally mistrustful, adversarial and hostile context for the retelling of her mystical experiences. What interests Margery is not orthodoxy, although orthodoxy matters to her, but the growth of her intimate relationship with God, in the person of Jesus Christ.

Can we posit a possible scenario in which it is the daughter-in-law who is the chief scribe of the book? The son, we remember, is terminally ill.  Perhaps Margery is narrating her life to him and he begins the writing; the project in that sense belongs to him. But perhaps the daughter-in-law is in the room, both to care for her husband and to participate by her presence in this important process. When we look at other female visionaries of approximately the same period, such as Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena or Angela of Foligno, we find references to groups of people being present to take down their visions or teachings as they uttered them.[xxvi]  It seems reasonable to assume that the writing of Margery’s book would be an important activity absorbing the attention of anyone in the house. Margery reports that she and her scribe were frequently overcome by tears while she was recounting her experiences. The process of composing the book is therefore a shared emotional and spiritual experience, which the daughter-in-law might well want to be part of.

In addition, I wonder if there might be a particularly female interest in life history, in what Karma Lochrie has called ‘a narrative exploring the intersections of truth and experience’.[xxvii] A suggestive parallel here comes from a century before, in the Life of Blessed Henry Suso by Himself, which records how The Life came to be written by a female friend of his:

‘When he came to see her, she drew from him by confidential questionings the manner of his beginning and progress in the interior life, as well as certain exercises and sufferings which he had passed through: all which he told her in spiritual confidence. As she found comfort and direction in these things, she wrote them down, to be a help for herself and others; and she did this by stealth, so that he knew not of it. Later on, when he found out this ghostly theft, he reproved her for it, and, forcing her to give up to him the writing, he burnt all of it that was there. When, however, the rest of it was given to him, and he was going to treat it in like manner, he was stopped by a heavenly message from God forbidding it. Thus what follows remained unburnt, for the most part just as she had written it with her own hand. Many good instructions were also added to it by him, after her death, in her name.’[xxviii]

We notice here that we have a woman able to write, that she is the one who thinks his life worth recording. We also note something else: he adds material later in her name. This suggests that who is actually ‘writing’ a text of this nature was a fluid concept. It has been suggested by Lynn Staley that the whole narrative of a male scribe for the The Book of Margery Kempe is an ‘enabling fiction’, placing an ‘authorising mediator’ between Margery Kempe’s work and the public.[xxix]  I would like to apply this concept not only to the second scribe, the priest who eventually produces a legible text, but also to the first scribe.  After the death of Margery’s son after only four weeks, the two women remain with each other another eighteen months,[xxx] which would have provided a far more suitable length of time for the writing up of the Book.  So perhaps, as Margery’s son became evermore ill, the daughter-in-law took over the actual scribing of the book and continued it after his death, but perhaps still thinking of it as her husband’s work that she is completing. Perhaps when Margery eventually takes the text to the priest she doesn’t want to say it was written down by a woman, or even by a family member, as that might make it sound all the more amateurish, the unlearned and therefore doctrinally suspect work of lay-people, not clerics. At the time she took the manuscript to the priest-scribe she had a particularly controversial reputation,[xxxi] and this is partly what frightens off the priest from trying to help her. So, ascribing the manuscript to ‘an Englishman settled in Germany’ might be partly an enabling device to give the work more respectability. 

Perhaps some of the distinctiveness of the Book of Margery Kempe arises not from her illiteracy or from a self-absorbed temperament, as sometimes postulated,[xxxii] but from what might be thought of as a female voice or group of female voices, those of women joined by their spiritual interests across national boundaries. The Brigettine Order, with houses across Northern Europe, would be one channel for the international transmission of these interests.  Throughout the Book, Margery shows that she considered Briget of Sweden to be her model and patron, and it is interesting that on her return from Danzig, she goes to Sheen, outside London, where there was both a Charterhouse and the Brigettine house of Syon.[xxxiii]

What might these ‘female voices’ emphasize?  I think we need to look at the area of Margery’s text which has caused most dismissive surprise in her modern readers, and that is the rather ‘domestic’ nature of her visions, which include providing good food and clean clothes for the child Mary, taking Mary and the infant Jesus into her own bed, swaddling the Christ child, and hiring lodging for Mary and her baby during the Flight into Egypt.  One could ascribe this emphasis to the tradition of meditation found in Aelred of Rievaux’s Institutio Inclusarum,[xxxiv] where a person meditating on the life of Christ is encouraged to visualise a scene and insert themselves into it in a servant role.  However, although the monastic context of Aelred’s work included an element of manual labour, the main business of doing the cooking and laundry would have been assigned to the lay-brothers or lay-sisters, not the choir monks and nuns using this method of visualisation. Thus, these practical everyday activities do not usually enter standard mystical discourse as it evolves during the Middle Ages. So, there is here a very interesting bringing of hands-on interaction with the material world, and the routine activities of everyday life, into Margery’s visionary and devotional experience.  Perhaps she can recount these without fear of ridicule in the presence of another woman. Notably, it is these everyday activities which are omitted from the extracts from Margery’s Book printed by Wynkyn de Worde 1501, which are then reproduced by Henry Pepwell in 1521 in his Miscellany, where Margery is treated on a par with Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton and the Cloud-Author.[xxxv]

A final point about style.  In Book 2 of Margery’s Book, we have an example of what Margery and her priest-scribe produced when working together, without any input from the first scribe, whoever that person was.  Book 2, although recounting Margery’s frightening journey home across war-torn northern Europe, strikes most readers as less memorable and colourful than Book 1.  In some ways it is easier to follow, because it recounts events in chronological order.  However, it is decidedly long-winded, often recounting the same procedures twice, and is strictly a record of events: what Margery got spiritually from visiting the various important shrines along her route, such as the Holy Blood at Wilsnak, we are not told.  Consequently, we must ask if some of the energy, the striking turns of phrase, and the emphasis on Margery’s interior life of Book 1 does not arise from the input or influence of the first scribe, whoever that person was.  The domesticity of some of the phrases in Book 1, such as ‘You stick to me as fast as the skin of a fish sticks to a man’s hand when it is boiled’[xxxvi] may more easily arise from two women talking together, rather than from a woman dictating to a man.

The evidence in the text for the first scribe being Margery’s son is strong; but I think the presence of her German daughter-in-law has not so far been properly considered.  It is my hope that many people will take further some of the possibilities raised in this paper.

[i] This post developed out of a paper delivered at the Leeds International Medieval Congress, July 2014. It would not exist without the encouragement of Werner Jeanrond, who was then the Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, where I was Senior Tutor. He encouraged me to resume my research, which had got submerged by my administrative duties.

[ii] Meech, Sandford Brown, and Hope Emily Allen, eds, The Book of Margery Kempe, EETS o.s. 212 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940). Other editions:  Staley, Lynn, ed. The Book of Margery Kempe (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, TEAMS, 1996); Windeatt, Barry, ed., The Book of Margery Kempe (Harlow: Longman, 2000). For a modern translation, see Windeatt, Barry, trans, The Book of Margery Kempe, Penguin Classics(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985); Anthony Bale, The Book of Margery Kempe, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: University Press, 2015).

[iii] For the Lollard context, see Arnold, John H. ‘Margery’s Trials: Heresy, Lollardy and Dissent’. In A Companion to The Book of Margery Kempe, ed John H. Arnold and Katherine J. Lewis (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2004), pp.75-93.

[iv] Meech and Allen, Book, Proem, p.3.

[v] This is sometimes translated as ‘her own hands’. However, it is highly likely that the spelling ‘her’ indicates the genitive plural, from Old English hira/hiera/ heora, and is to be distinguished from the genitive singular ‘hyr’, as in ‘hyr felyngys’.

[vi] Staley, Lynn, Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).

[vii] Key studies are: John C. Hirsh, “Author and Scribe in  The Book of Margery Kempe,” Medium Aevum 44 (1975) 145 –50; Staley, Dissenting Fictions, ch.1; Josephine  K. Travers, “The  alleged  Illiteracy  of Margery Kempe: A Reconsideration of the Evidence”, Medieval Perspectives 11 (1996); Sebastian Sobiecki, “”The Writyng of This Treatys”: Margery Kempe’s Son and the Authorship of Her Book,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 37 (2015), pp.257-283; Rebecca  Krug, Margery  Kempe and the Lonely Reader (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017); Anthony Bale, “Richard  Salthouse of Norwich  and the Scribe  of The Book of Margery Kempe,” Chaucer  Review  52, no 2 (2017), pp. 173-187.

[viii] Meech and Allen, Book, Proem, p.4.

[ix] John c. Hirsh, ‘Author and Scribe in The Book of Margery Kempe,’ Medium Aevem, 44 (1975).

[x] Meech and Allen, Book, Book 2, ch. 2, p. 225.

[xi] Meech and Allen, Book, Book 2, ch. 2, p. 224.

[xii] See Rosalyn Voaden, ed, Prophets Abroad: the Reception of Continental Holy Women in late-Medieval England (Cambridge: D.S.Brewer, 1996), which looks at the reception in England of texts principally by Marguerite Porete, Mechtild of Hackeborn, St Bridget of Sweden and Mechtild of Hackeborn.

[xiii] Liz Herbert McAvoy and Naoe Kukita Yoshikawa, “The intertextual dialogue and conversational theology of Mechtild of Hackeborn and Margery Kempe”, in Laura Kalas and L. Varnam, eds, Encountering the Book of Margery Kempe (Manchester U. P, 2021), pp. 43-62.

[xiv] Meech and Allen, Book, Book 2, ch. 2, p. 225.

[xv] Barry Windeatt, ed, The Book of Margery Kempe (Harlow: Pearson, 2000), p. 5

[xvi] Meech and Allen, Book, Book 2, ch. 2, p. 225.

[xvii] Meech and Allen, Book, Proem, p.4.

[xviii] Meech and Allen, Book, Proem, p.4.

[xix] Anthony Goodman, Margery Kempe and her World (Harlow: Pearson, 2002), p.9.

[xx] Meech and Allen, Book, Book 2, ch. 2, p. 224.

[xxi] Sebastian Sobiecki, “”The Writyng of This Treatys”: Margery Kempe’s Son and the Authorship of Her Book,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 37 (2015);

[xxii] Meech and Allen, Book, Book 2, ch. 2, p. 224.

[xxiii] Meech and Allen, Book, Book 2, ch. 4, p. 231.

[xxiv]  For example, she goes to visit Julian of Norwich for this purpose: Meech and Allen, Book, Book 1, ch. 18, p. 42.

[xxv] Meech and Allen, Book, Book 1, chs 46-55, pp 111-137.

For the political context of these trials for heresy, see Santha Bhattacharji, God is an Earthquake: The Spirituality of Margery Kempe (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997), ch. 6, pp 67-83.

[xxvi] For example, see Raymond of Capua, The Life of St Catherine of Siena, trans. George Lamb (New York: P. J. Kennedy & Sons, 1960), III, iii.

[xxvii] Karma Lochrie, Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh  (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), p.220

[xxviii] The Life of Blessed Henry Suso by Himself, trans Thomas Francis Knox (London: Burnes, Lambert and Oates, 1865), pp 5-6.

[xxix] Johnson, Lynn Staley. ‘The Trope of the Scribe and the Question of Literary Authority in the Works of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe,’ Speculum 66 (1991): 820-38.

[xxx] Meech and Allen, Book, Book 2, ch. 2, p. 225.

[xxxi] Meech and Allen, Book, Proem, p.4.

[xxxii] For example, E.I. Watkin, Poets and Mystics (London: Sheed and Ward, 1953), ch.6, 104-35, at p. 120: ‘her revelations are, almost to monotony, concerned with herself.’

[xxxiii] Meech and Allen, Book, Book 2, ch. 10, p. 245.

[xxxiv] John Ayton an Alexandra Barrett, eds, Aelred of Rievaulx’s De Institutione Inclusarum, Early English Text Society 287 (Oxford, 1984). See, for example,  ch. 14, 17-22.

[xxxv] For the text of Wynkyn de Worde’s extracts, see Meech and Allen, The Book, Appendix II, 353-7. The pamphlet itself is in Cambridge University Library, Sel 5, 27. This is the only known copy: cf. C. E. Gordon Duff, Hand-Lists of English Printers, 1501-1556 (London, 1913) I, 24. Henry Pepwell’s Miscellany survives in two copies, British Library, C. 37 and Trinity College, Cambridge; for a modern printed edition, see Edmund G. Gardner, The Cell of Self-Knowledge (London and New York, 1910).

[xxxvi] Meech and Allen, Book, Book 1, ch. 37, p.91.