The First Autobiography Ever Written in the English Language

Likely, many of you reading this piece will have never heard of Margery Kempe, but her autobiography was the first recorded in the English language.

First, we must realize Mrs. Kempe was born in 1373 in Lynn (later Bishop’s Lynn and now referred to as King’s Lynn) in East Anglia (now Norfolk). She lived 72 years in a time when the English court still spoke French. In fact, Lynn became the first English town to abandon Latin and French and to adopt English as its main language. Yet, that is the matter for a different post. This one deals with Margery Kempe.

Margery Kempe (née Burnham) was the daughter of the local mayor, John Burnham. She married John Kempe when she was 20 years of age (1393) and presented him with 14 children, which I think is remarkable in itself in the late Medieval period. She reportedly had frequent visions of Jesus. She claimed a heavenly vision told her to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and she sought her husband’s permission to make this journey. She agreed to settle all his debts if he would permit her to go. Personally, I suspect she wanted to be free of being pregnant for awhile, but I cannot prove my theory, so I will stick with what we know.

We know Margery was a middle-class woman. She was illiterate, but such does not mean she did not have the mind for exploring the unusual. She held several jobs over the years, including being both a horse-mill-owner and a brewer. The thing about Margery’s life which makes it so “extraordinary” is its “ordinariness.” The British Library tells us, “The experiences of people like this rarely survive from the Middle Ages, and it is the unashamed earthiness of Margery’s Book that has captivated readers since the discovery of the only surviving manuscript of her work in 1934. Had it not been for this chance discovery in 1934, we would have little sense of this woman and her astonishing life. Previously, the only known text of Kempe’s Book was seven pages of extracts of the work printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501.”

The Book of Margery Kempe begins during her first pregnancy and provides the reader glimpses of her life until she was in her mid 60s. It is not, however, in chronological order of the events. She had thought she would die with the delivery of her first child, and so, she gave confession to a priest who rightly chastised her for her many sins. The admonishment so moved her that she experienced some sort of “episode,” in which Jesus appeared to her. “In her account, her recovery is signalled when she asks her husband for the keys to the ‘buttery’, or pantry so that she might eat and drink as she had done before. There is something so charming about a woman who sits down to a hearty dinner after a mystical experience, and it is exactly these kinds of details that make Margery’s account so fascinating.” [British Library]

Eventually, Margery began to deny herself the few pleasures of life she had once enjoyed as a sort of penance for her past and present sins. She went on her first pilgrimage in 1413. Reportedly, she suffered from frequent bouts of loud wailing and weeping, which, naturally, did not make Margery a favorite with the other pilgrims, nor to the people of Lynn when she returned home. That first pilgrimage saw Margery visiting the anchoress and mystic, Julian of Norwich. Later, in 1413, she traveled to Jerusalem. She did not return to her family until 1415. In 1417, she traveled to Santiago de Compostela.

Considered to be a heretic by many, Margery went on trials at York, Hull, Hessle, and Beverley. Eventually, she returned to Lynn in 1418.

She began seeking out someone to assist her with her book as early as 1432, supposedly to a local priest. We do not know her exact date of death, but it was after 1438.

According to Brittanica, “Her descriptions of her travels and her religious ecstasies, which often included “boystous” crying spells, are narrated in an unaffected prose style that uses such contemporary expressions as “thou wost no more what thou blaberest than Balamis asse.” Apparently illiterate, she dictated her Book of Margery Kempe to two clerks from about 1432 to about 1436. It was first published (modernized) in 1936 and in Middle English in 1940.”

“Margery faces several challenges in attempting to record her experiences. She was illiterate and so she had to dictate the work to an ‘amanuensis’ – a scribe who listened to her words and wrote them down. In fact, three different amanuenses were involved in the project. The first was ‘an englishman’ who lived in Germany. This was probably her son. Unfortunately he died before the work was completed. After this, the work was taken up by a priest who said it was ‘so ill-written that he could make little sense of it’ and they seemed to have begun again. During the course of this, however, the priest was discouraged by malicious gossip that he had heard about Kempe and so he delayed the project for four years. He directed Kempe to a third man, who had at one time been a correspondent of the ‘englishman’ (the first amanuensis). This scribe could not understand the text. Subsequently, the priest began to suffer pangs of guilt and prayed to god to be able to understand the work, whereupon he was miraculously able to complete the Book. This convoluted story shows Margery’s admirable determination to find her voice and get her experiences recorded in the face of so many obstacles.

“he only surviving manuscript was written by a scribe named ‘Salthouse’ in the 15th century. The manuscript may have been made by members of the Carthusian order, and it seems to have been read with interest: there are four sets of annotations in the book.”

Other Sources:

Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe (1373-1438)

Margery Kempe and Her Close Encounter with a Falling Beam


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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