The Perilous Passage of The Book of Margery Kempe

It is my pleasure to welcome Dr. Julie A. Chappell, as my guest blogger this morning. Feel free to pose any questions as comments, and I’ll post Julie’s responses!

A little background on Julie: Julie A. Chappell received her Ph.D. from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1989. She is a professor of English and lives and writes in central Texas. She is the editor and translator of The Prose Alexander of Robert Thornton (Peter Lang 1992). With Kamille Stone Stanton she has edited two collections of scholarly essays on eighteenth-century literature and culture, Transatlantic Literature in the Long Eighteenth Century (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2011) and Spectacle, Sex, and Property in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture (Forthcoming from AMS Press). Her monograph, Perilous Passages: The Book of Margery Kempe, 1534-1934 was released by Palgrave Macmillan in September 2013. Julie is also a poet and memoirist. Her collection, Faultlines: One Woman’s Shifting Boundaries, was published by Village Books Press in October 2013. Her memoir of her years as the sheriff’s daughter is in progress.

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First of all, I want to thank Candace for inviting me to do this guest blog! As we all know, she is a wonderfully engaging writer of mystery/detective fiction as well as a solid scholar of all things medieval!

Whether writing scholarship or historical fiction about this fascinating period of history, we must be careful researchers and detectives ourselves. My own detective work unraveled the mystery of the path by which the fifteenth-century manuscript book that we know as The Book of Margery Kempe made its way to the modern world. That is the subject of my book, Perilous Passages: The Book of Margery Kempe, 1534-1934 (Palgrave 2013) and this blog post.

The research for this book required me to be as much detective as scholar. Like any good detective, I had to ask myself many questions from the very beginning.

Was it the Colonel in the Library with the candlestick? Or the Colonel in the ping pong cupboard with a box of matches?

Like any good English mystery, this one began with a body purportedly found in the library of an English manor house belonging to a member of a gentry family of some antiquity. The body in their library was a textual body, a manuscript, itself of some antiquity. The discovery of this body, as in other English mysteries, is also clouded in a mystery. Was it actually found in the library of that manor house in Lancashire, as the Colonel first asserted, or in a cupboard near an ancient fireplace in another manor house belonging to this family in Derbyshire, as his son would contend later? And how had this manuscript body arrived at the Colonel’s Lancashire or Derbyshire homes?

Evidence on the body itself told at least part of its story: it was written down in the fifteenth century by a man named Salthows whose family may have lived in Norfolk near the hometown of the woman, Margery Kempe, whose story the manuscript told. But neither the scribe nor Margery Kempe could be connected with the family in whose manor house this manuscript body was found in 1934. The manuscript body, possibly created in Norfolk, had somehow made its way to Yorkshire after or at the time of its being written down by Salthows. An inscription not in the hand of Salthows offered another trajectory for investigation, as did a series of marginal glosses in red ink, in at least two distinct hands.

mountgrace.ruins.chapelThat inscription was in a sixteenth-century hand, not Salthows’ fifteenth-century one, and attested to its last, confirmed medieval whereabouts at Mount Grace Priory, a Carthusian monastery in the North Riding of Yorkshire. This monastery had been defamed, dissolved, and dismantled by December 1539 along with all the rest of the religious houses in England. Where, then, had the manuscript gone? How did its body pass from charterhouse to manor house during the King’s reformation, in full swing by 1534, five years before Mount Grace ceased to be?

My pursuit of the lost years between charterhouse and manor house began with my perusal of the glosses made in the margins of the manuscript body. One hand in particular who wielded the second red-inked pen and wrote his letters so uniquely from the others, so hurriedly, offered another clue. His clue was the first toward determining the final passages of this manuscript body. What was it though in Margery Kempe’s story itself that made the red-inked writer careless with his pen? What caused him to rush through his reading to amend the text? What witnesses could be brought to bear on the relevance of Margery Kempe’s story to the Carthusians nearly 100 years later?

The witnesses, medieval and modern, were telling different stories. Fiction mixed with fact (which I was beginning to suspect was a slippery notion). Red herrings proliferated.

In the seven decades since its discovery by the Colonel in the library (or not), the manuscript body has been removed from the manor house and settled, without doubt, in a library, the foremost repository of English books, the British Library. There I spent hours, days, weeks re-reading Kempe’s story and those of the scribal hands—the one who wrote the story down in brown ink (purportedly Salthows) and the ones (unnamed) who glossed the margins in red ink—different hands, different ink, different periods of time—at least a hundred years from the time Margery Kempe’s story, written in brown ink, graced the paper body.

Over these years, many scholarly hands have opened the pages of Kempe’s story to make determinations about it. We knew immediately its importance as an “eyewitness” to the late medieval world, to the ways of lay and religious alike. Even more significantly, over time, this story had revealed volumes about medieval women and religion, by virtue of one woman’s journey to spiritual union with God, Margery Kempe of Lynn, who made her own perilous passages from merchant’s wife to God’s bride.

Since Kempe’s earthly body remained only in her Book, I searched that manuscript body for clues to its journey over nearly 400 years. Clues lurking redly in its margins led me first to Carthusian monks and their books. In the first chapter of Perilous Passages I explore the connection between Margery Kempe’s life as revealed in her Book and the Carthusians who left their revelatory clues in the margins. One monk’s inscription of Mount Grace ownership on a leaf that bound the manuscript body into its final shroud introduces the second chapter’s investigation of the depth of these bookmaking monks’ involvement. My first passage posits the manuscript body out of Mount Grace and into the ill-fated London charterhouse. Bodies of Carthusians and other religious and lay folk in the 1530s litter the path in the third chapter which establishes the critical passage of the manuscript body from the Carthusians to an ever extending Catholic family. One son of this ancient family, situated largely in Rutland and Leicestershire, was a London Carthusian monk during Henry VIII’s assault on religious houses. fourth chapter investigates the family network created through faith and marriage which protected the body so well all trace was lost even in the family itself. The final chapter posits how the Colonel, one descendant of that family, managed to retrieve the now nameless body from its resting place in the library or the cupboard. Without knowing its true identity, he provided the passage of this manuscript body into the hands of Hope Emily Allen, who would identify the body and name it The Book of Margery Kempe.

Of course, I sat for hours and days going through every pen mark in Margery’s Book (now at the British Library); I perused maps of Tudor and modern England; I read copious letters and papers from the reigns of kings and queens of medieval and early modern England; I unrolled sixteenth-century parchment rolls once perused by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell; I looked through a box of bits and pieces of documents and seals from the London Carthusian house so devastated by Henry VIII’s first reforming tactics in 1534; I read primary documents from Margery’s late medieval world through the eighteenth-century one of the Butler-Bowdon’s; I walked the grounds of the beautiful ruins of Mount Grace Priory, where the Carthusians cherished the words of Margery Kempe’s life story. By thinking backwards from what was certain, the possession of an ancient, English gentry family, to that of the Carthusians at Mount Grace Priory in Yorkshire, I pieced together evidence one pen scratch, one rubricated word at a time to reveal the perilous passages of one medieval book. It was a marvelous adventure!

mountgrace.ruins.cell.chapelNote: Julie provided the photos above: the Mount Grace Priory chapel as it looks today, an aisle of the church at St. Mary’s Abbey in York, another ruin thanks to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, and just above, part of the wall enclosing the individual cells at Mount Grace–I say “cells,” but each was a lovely attached house with its own small garden and enclosed walking area.

If you’re unfamiliar with Margery Kempe, check out Candace’s previous post, Upcoming Events, for a brief description of her life.

2 Comments on “The Perilous Passage of The Book of Margery Kempe

  1. Rereading this, I’m caught up yet again in the excitement of following the different scribes, especially the one who was clearly writing in haste–I imagine him glancing over his shoulder. I can’t wait to read the book! (It’s coming.)

    The first time I sat down in the British Library with a manuscript I was surprised by the experience of the marginal notes, how intimate they seem, how the personality of the writers formed as I worked. It’s unlike anything else. Do you miss the chase? Are you working on another mystery?


  2. Pingback: March is Women’s History Month! | A Writer's Retreat

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