‘The Book of Margery Kempe‘ is a medieval manuscript that survives in hand copied form, and has been digitized by the British Library for public viewing online. The material book is, however, locked away in the vaults of the library for only the selected few to hold in their hands. Whether you read it as the dictation of an actual medieval woman to a scribe or, as Lynn Staley suggests, the dissenting fiction of an author named Kempe, the resilience and tenacity of Margery, the person or protagonist, cannot be denied.
I used this remarkable woman as the basis for my project because her text engages with my understanding of the book in a variety of forms. Compiled in the 15th Century, it deals with some of the preoccupations of book culture, such as, authorship (as it was written by a scribe, on vellum and bound in traditional leather binding), the commentary tradition (as it was annotated by a number of additional scribes, most likely clergy) and it reflects the religious culture of medieval pilgrimage, whereby, the travelling book bag would have been an essential piece of kit for the discerning pilgrim. In it’s pages a recipe for dragges has been discovered, the elements of which point towards the Grimoire and other forms of ‘low magic’ and finally, every fleck of dirt that has gathered on the pages of the manuscript can be observed in high definition, thanks to the digital revolution.
The narrative offers an interesting insight into medieval life, especially that of the medieval woman and at a time when religious fervor was at it’s height. Margery was prone to weeping and sought to express her Affective Piety with vigor and authority, much to the distaste of those she came into contact with. She was tried for heresy and used her patronage as ‘the daughter of the Mayor of Lynn’ to great affect on numerous occasions.
As I have mentioned previously with regards to the recording of her manuscript, the account is thought to have been dictated and is confusing in parts, much of which is written out of chronological order. This sense of dis-organisation is reflected symbolically in my project, with the dis-organised layout of the six booklets that I compiled.
The inside coverings and occasional misprint of text explore the haphazard nature of the original manuscript and the copious smudges of black ink serve to display the temperamental nature of the printing process.
Margery’s voice has always been disputed by scholars. She was not the direct ‘writer’ of the book but the dictator and, therefore, subject to scribal interpretation. When I considered this, my immediate response was that Margery’s voice could be heard in the text alone, in the remarkable events that her scribe was recalling and in the manner in which the story is relayed. I took the topography of a woman’s face and wrote the opening narrative from ‘The Book of Margery Kempe‘ to symbolize the strength of words alone in representing the authenticity of voice within a text.
This was then placed in the centre circle of a larger piece of work which traces the pattern of Chartres Cathedral in France, a pilgrimage walk which people still do every Friday to this day. It was the significance of the the Cathedral design that led me to construct my own version of this pilgrimage walk using the text from Margery’s first pilgrimages in England to mark the lines where the path leads.
This pilgrimage map wraps the six booklets which were constructed in numerical order, and represent the various places in Europe Margery visited during her life. Inside these booklets the narrative is interrupted by markings on the pages i.e. tear stains where she wept profusely, burn holes where she was tried for heresy and threatened with burning at the stake etc.
Each booklet is bound using the coptic sewing method and held together with two small strips of cloth which have been glued to the cardboard and covered over with random prints of pages disregarded in earlier preparations of the project. The outer coverings are covered in a printed copy of the digital code which makes up the cover page of the online version of the manuscript. These sheets have been ripped up and placed in a random fashion by way of symbolizing how the beauty of code can merge with the beauty of the text with seamless authority.
I copied the pages that related to Margery’s pilgrimages and grouped them into six distinct events. The six groupings reflect the six petals of the inner circle in Chartres Cathedral labyrinth, that is the Rose, which John James suggests “is the Lamb, described in Revelation as being the centre of the Heavenly Jerusalem.” (James 2)
On the front of the booklets I glued a map of Europe as it looked during the medieval period. When laid out in the correct numerical sequence, the booklets come together to form a complete map as Margery would have known it. Her pilgrimages that took place in England correspond with the piece of map that has been attached to that particular section of the text and this has been done for all the other pilgrimages as far as was possible, save for one repeated journey to Italy.
I was keen to reconstruct the experience of the scribe and used quill and ink to number my booklets and put the place names that she visited on each of the front covers. This was a highly enjoyable experience, if somewhat messy. I found it very difficult to get the ink to spread evenly as I wrote and suffered many failed attempts before I came to the finished piece.
Every element of my project has a purpose and meaning behind it and expresses my desire to experience some of the elements of medieval life. For example, the recipe for dragges was recently deciphered by Kalas Williams so I purchased the necessary ingredients and set about making them for myself. The sugared mixture hardens quickly and broke my measuring spoon in the process.
A small leather pouch was constructed from hide to carry the dragges in, and was then attached to my larger book bag which houses the six booklets and Labyrinth map, the construction of which I will continue to describe in my next blog.