A shorte treatyse of contemplacyon, by Margery Kempe
In September 1934 an extraordinary discovery was made. While looking for ping-pong balls in a cupboard in their Georgian house near Chesterfield, the Butler-Bowdon family came across a book whose cover ‘had been eaten away, presumably by a mouse’. It was none other than the lost Book of Margery Kempe.
The Book is the earliest autobiography in English. It was written in 1436–38 by Margery Kempe, who lived in the East Anglian town of Lynn in the early 15th century and was at various times a horse-mill owner and a brewer, but later in her life became a visionary and mystic. Her remarkable Book records ‘hyr felyngys and revelacyons and the forme of her levyng’ [her feelings and revelations and the form of her living], allowing us a window onto the life of an ordinary, middle-class person in a prosperous town in late-medieval England.
Before this chance discovery, the only known version of the text was seven pages of extracts known as A shorte treatyse of contemplacyon, printed by Wynkyn de Worde (the successor of William Caxton, England’s first printer) in London, in 1501. What you can see here is the 1521 reprint of this edition, made by Henry Pepwell.
Who was Margery Kempe?
Everything we know about Margery comes from her own account. She was unable to read or write and so she dictated her Book to an ‘amanuensis’ – a scribe who heard what she said and wrote it down for her. The autobiography is therefore written in the third person. In it, Margery is described as the ‘creatur’ [creature].
Margery married when she was about 20 years old, giving birth to her first child soon after. The birth was difficult, and afterwards she ‘went owt of hir mende’ [went out of her mind]. Today we might recognise this episode as a bout of post-natal depression. During this time she had a vision of Jesus, who appeared at the end of her bed and spoke to her and offered her words of comfort. After this, Margery experienced several failures in her life: two businesses which she ran collapsed. She interpreted this as a sign that she was being punished by God and decided thereafter to devote her life to God.
What is distinctive about this edition?
The printed edition of Kempe’s Book is significantly shorter than the manuscript version, which is 18 times longer. Not only has the text been drastically cut down by someone, but the ordering of the text has been changed. The result is that the work has a very different character to the manuscript version.
The person of Margery has been quietly obscured, and the text has been reframed. Whereas in the manuscript version Margery is a larger-than-life character, who roars and wails and boisterously communicates her devotion, in Pepwell’s printed edition she is a listener and not a speaker. The text has a quieter and more contemplative mood – it focusses on Margery’s experiences in the 1420s, thereby removing the descriptions of her pilgrimages or harassment as a supposed heretic. Instead, it is the voice of Christ which dominates the text, which is structured as a dialogue, or ‘colloquy’. In this way, the work is a metaphor for the way in which women’s experiences have so often been cut down, re-framed and controlled by men throughout history.