A birth in a Medieval Household

Margery Kempe

Here begins a short treatise and a comfortable for sinful wretches, wherein they may have great solace and comfort …

Margery Kempe (1373 – 1483) was the daughter of a merchant in King’s Lynn. In 1393 she married a man from Norfolk, called John Kempe, with whom she had 14 children inside 21 years. During her lifetime she famously conducted a long series of mystical conversations with Christ beginning with the pain she experienced after her first child was born. Later she went on a series of pilgrimages, which took her into basically every holy corner of the known world – from Jerusalem to Santiago de Compostela.

During her lifetime she dictated the story of her life and her mystical experiences to clerics. The result of this – the Book of Margery Kempe – was for a long time known only from extracts. However, in 1934 a manuscript – probably a copy of the original – was found in a private library of the Butler-Bowdon Family in Lancashire. Since then medievalists, theologians, church historians and just plain spiritualists have mined her writings intensely in order to get a sense of the life and times of this psychologically and spiritually complex woman.

Book of Margery Kempe © British Library 35v
Book of Margery Kempe
© British Library, Add MS 61823, fol 49v

In short: The Book of Margery Kempe has become a major text in medieval studies, famed for its first‐person account of a lay woman’s quest for spiritual authority and mystic revelation in a period when many in England were imprisoned, and in some cases burned, for heresy. As opposed to another lay mystic from the same time, the Swede Birgitta of Vadstena, she belonged to the urban middle classes. (Birgitta of Vadstena was married to a Swedish magnate; furthermore her writings exist only in a Latin translation produced by her confessor).

The Book of Margery Kempe survives in a single manuscript: London, British Library, MS Additional 61823.

It stands to reason that an extensive literature exists, trying to get a feeling for this extraordinary woman (see below). Also a number of teaching editions have been published in recent years. Until now, however, these editions have all been based on the critical edition from 1940 by Sanford Meech and Hope Emily Allen [1] which followed the common editorial practice from around 1940, without offering a diplomatic transcription as a foundation for future scholars and editors.

Margery Kempe from Kings Lynn
Margery Kempe from King’s Lynn.
Carving in the church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn

The goal of the project is – apart from presenting a complete digital facsimile of The Book of Margery Kempe to publis “a transcription that solves many of the problems when print is used to represent medieval manuscripts”. According to the initiators of the project: “modern transcriptions of medieval manuscripts have always faced compromises in their attempts to translate scribal practices to conventional typefaces and to readers unfamiliar with these practices.

Visitors to the site will thus for the first time be able see the text of The Book of Margery Kempe stripped of annotating hands or preserved with these annotating hands in individual layers.

Visitors will also see in the transcriptions fairly exact representations of medieval scribal practices including special characters, medieval punctuation, and abbreviations that transform or expand with a simple click (or tap). Scalable high‐resolution facsimiles of the manuscript – already available at the website of the British Library – offer many other opportunities for  visitors to investigate this important text.


The Book of Margery Kempe

The digital edition of the Book of Margery Kempe from the British Library


The book of Margery Kempe: Scholarship, Community and Criticism
Marea Mitchell
Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005
ISBN 978-0-8204-7451-9 pb

Re-reading Margery Kempe in the 21st century
Valentina Castagna
Oxford : Peter Lang, 2011)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2011. 101 pp.
ISBN 978-3-0343-0642-3 pb.  (Softcover)
ISBN 978-3-0351-0212-3 (eBook).

An Introduction to Middle English Language and Texts
By R.D. Fulk
Ontario: Broadview Press 2012
ISBN-10: 1551118947
ISBN-13: 978-1551118949


A Birth in a Medieval Household. From: Astronomical Treatise 1490, BL MS Arundel 66 f. 148

[1] The book of Margery Kempe, ed. by Sanford Brown Meech with notes and appendices by S. B. Meech and H. E. Allen, Early English Text Society Original Series, 212 (London : Oxford University Press, 1940).


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