First autobiography in English
An eight-page pamphlet was published by Wynken de Worde in a 500-copy edition
A Short treatise of contemplation taught by our Lord Jesu Christ, taken out
of the book of Margery Kempe of Lynn
. All but one copy, in University College,
Cambridge, perished, and scholars placed Margery among the English mystics of
the period, of whom there were many, such as Hilton, Rolle, and Juliana of
Norwich. In 1934, Miss Hope Emily Allen was allowed to look at a manuscript in
the library of Col. Butler Bowdon of Pleasington Old Hall in Lancashire. A scholar
of Robert Rolle, she soon discovered that it was the book from which de Worde
had derived his pamphlet, but that it was not a book of devotion. Instead, it was a
rather massive autobiography; the first written in English, and one of the few deep
personal insights we have into the life and thoughts of a member of the middle
class of the period. It gave us an amazing picture of a peculiar person.
II: Birth and youth (1373-1393)
Margery Kempe was the daughter of John Burnham, five times mayor of the town
of Lynn, a flourishing town of Norfolk.
One could digress upon the growth of the prosperity of Lynn: The flatness of East
Anglia, the draining and development of the salt marshes, the growth of the wool
industry in the thirteenth century coincident with the towns of Flanders
outstripping their own sources of raw materials; the use of tides and currents to
reach either Flanders or the Low Countries, the increased importance of the town
with the growth of the Hanseatic League.
There is little remarkable about Margery's youth to be noted, except for two things.
The first is that, for some reason or another, she was not taught to read. This was a
normal accomplishment for a middle class girl of the times, since society was
becoming generally literate, at least among the well to do. This was to affect
Margery later in life, throwing her upon her own mental resources to an unusual
degree, for better or for worse. One could also develop the theme of the
importance of the ability to read in avoiding self-delusion. The second remarkable
thing is something of which we know little, since it was a secret sin, of which
Margery would not speak. More than likely it was something relatively minor, and
there is some reason to believe that it was in the nature of a sexual pecadillo. It
was, however, to have an immense effect upon Margery's later life.
In 1393, Margery married John Kempe, a young merchant of the town, and a
member of the same Corpus Christi guild as her father. Marriages were not exactly
made in heaven at this time, but Margery and John seemed to get along well
together. He was understanding and kind, and Margery took immense pleasure in
physical love. This being the case, it was not unusual that she quickly became
III:Struggle for Freedom (1394-1413)