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Understanding Individuality in the Book of Margery Kempe

By: Aparna Chaudhuri

This is an essay about reception and the Book of Margery Kempe. The parataxis is inelegant, but necessary to my purpose, which is not to discuss how the Book was or continues to be read in actual fact. The story of the Book’s modern discovery, editing and analysis has been admirably told by Marea Mitchell, while that of its medieval reception must necessarily remain very short, for the small set of excerpts printed as "a schort treatise of contemplacyon" by Wynkyn de Worde c. 1501 and reprinted by Henry Pepwell in 1521 is all that modern readers had or knew of the Book until the rediscovery of the Salthouse manuscript in the library of an English manor in 1934. But the Book itself is preoccupied with issues of understanding and interpretation, and it is these that form the subject of this essay. They crystallize, in the first place, around Margery, whose identity as visionary is built around a constant and taxing visibility, dictated by Christ himself: "Dowtyr, I wyl not han my grace hyd that I given the, for the more besy that the pepil is to hyndryn yt and lette it, the mor schal I spredyn it abrood and makyn it knowyn to all the world." (56: 273) Margery’s is a highly public role of working spiritual reform in her fellow-Christians. Like any apostolic mission, it exposes the bearer to rejection, abuse and danger.

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