On a trip to the British Library this weekend I really enjoyed seeing all the early manuscripts and authors’ first drafts, but was particularly taken with The Book of Margery Kempe - the earliest English autobiography.
A former brewer and horse mill owner in East Anglia, Margery was the mother of 14 children who became a visionary and mystic. The book, written in 1440, records, “hyr felyngys and revelacyons and the forme of her levyng” (her feelings and revelations and the form of her living), providing a window into the life of an ordinary, middle-class woman in late-medieval England.
After her two businesses collapsed, Margery saw it as a sign that she was being punished by God and decided to devote herself to a religious life. She made pilgrimages all over the world, attracting attention to herself by wearing white and weeping loudly when she was moved by devotion. Suspicious locals doubted her motives, which resulted in several arrests, accusations of heresy and she was even threatened with being burnt alive in the street.
It isn’t a dry, factual account but contains plenty of great detail to help us visualise her life, for example: “It befell upon a Friday on Midsummer Even in right hot weather, as this creature was coming from York-ward bearing a bottle with beer in her hand and her husband a cake in his bosom…”.
The British Library calls it a, “startling document which often feels open, honest, unvarnished and unashamed”. And despite it being nearly 600 years old, I can see some parallels with my life story writing as Margery couldn’t read or write so dictated her book to an amanuensis – a scribe who wrote it down for her.
Margery’s life might have been a bit more dramatic than most, but I’m glad she made the effort to record it. Who knows, perhaps in another 600 years people will be reading some of the life story books I’ve helped to write!