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The Book of Margery Kempe, is the earliest known autobiography of an English person, written in the English language.
This is a seven-page, printed pamphlet of extracts from a much longer medieval manuscript (handwritten) book.
The Book is valuable in that it records the popular religious beliefs and practices of ordinary medieval people.
For centuries, Kempe’s book was known only from excerpts published in this Wynkyn de Worde pamphlet, as the original was thought to have been lost.
Wynkyn de Worde, one of the earliest printers of books in London, produced the pamphlet. The original manuscript was written by a local priest, who may have been her confessor, Robert Springold, using the words of Margery Kempe. For centuries Kempe’s book was known only from excerpts published in this Wynkyn de Worde pamphlet, as the original was thought to have been lost. In 1934, the only known manuscript was found and is now in the British Library.
Are there links to current religious practices or a modern equivalent?
Autobiographies are very popular in bookshops today. Often, they are ‘ghost-written’ by another writer, who interviews the subject of the book and writes up their words. This is similar to the process in this case, where Margery Kempe could not have written the text herself as she was illiterate. Instead, she relied on someone else, to whom she may have dictated her words. The manuscript was edited by four others after it was finished, largely to make corrections.
The Book of Margery Kempe (c.1438), is the earliest-known autobiography of an English person, written in the English language and is particularly significant because it describes the life of a woman from that period. It tells of the religious conversion of a middle-aged, Norfolk housewife, a mother of fourteen children, and the eventful life of visions and pilgrimages that followed. It is noteworthy that, although she related her religious experiences, Margery Kempe was not a holy person. The Book is valuable in recording the popular religious beliefs and practices of ordinary medieval people, in which vivid imaginative identification with the life of Christ was encouraged, especially with his human sufferings in the flesh.
Details of Margery Kempe on Wikipedia.
Trans. by B A Windeatt
2000, Penguin Classics
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the English mystic Margery Kempe (1373-1438), whose extraordinary life is recorded in a book she dictated, The Book of Margery Kempe.