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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The first book in English by a woman and the earliest autobiography by a woman are displayed together by Wellcome Collection

Medieval manuscripts by two of the earliest women writers in English, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, are being displayed together for the first time in a new exhibition.

The Book of Margery Kempe, which is dated between 1436 and 1438, is Norfolk woman Kempe’s story of her life, dictated to a scribe, and is widely seen as the first autobiography in English. The mother of 14 children, Kempe became a chaste pilgrim after experiencing religious visions, travelling to Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela while expressing her devotion to Christ through weeping and loud cries.

The 14th century anchorite Julian of Norwich wrote Revelations of Divine Love herself after experiencing a series of mystical visions in 1373. The visions included that of “a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of my hand ... I looked at it and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came to me, ‘It is all that is made.’” The book, which Julian wrote in a shorter version, describing the “shewings” she saw and interpreting them, and then in a longer version around 20 years later, is seen as the first by a woman in English.

Only one known manuscript exists of Margery Kempe’s story: its whereabouts were unknown from around 1520 until the 1930s, when it was discovered in the cupboard of a country-house during a game of ping-pong. One of the players stepped on the ball and while searching for another, the The Book of Margery Kempe manuscript fell out of a cupboard. It has been stored in the British Library ever since and was digitised by the British Library in 2014.

Julian of Norwich’s text, which includes the famous line “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”, is also rare: the short text, which she is believed to have written soon after her 1373 visions, only exists in one manuscript, also kept in the British Library, while the later text exists in three copies dating to the 17th century.

Although the two women met during their lives – Margery Kempe visited Julian of Norwich in her anchorite cell for advice on her visions – the two manuscripts have never been shown together. A new exhibition from Wellcome Collection, This is a Voice, which explores the human voice, brings them together for the first time, after the British Library agreed to the loans.

“It’s wonderful that the British Library has loaned the unique manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe to the This is a Voice exhibition – not only did Kempe describe hearing voices and sounds but she also crafted a distinctive voice for herself. It is very touching that the Julian of Norwich manuscript is displayed alongside that of Margery Kempe: the two women – who can also legitimately be called two of the earliest women writers in English – met in Norwich, probably in the year 1413,” said Anthony Bale, professor of medieval studies at Birkbeck, University of London, who recently edited and translated The Book of Margery Kempe for Oxford University Press.

“Julian’s reputation as a holy woman was already established, and Kempe visited her to see if the ‘holy speeches and conversations’ that Kempe had with God were real or not,” said Bale. “Kempe describes how Julian advised and endorsed her, and the two women had ‘much holy conversation’, over the course ‘of many days’ together.”

Bale said the two women were “very different”. “On the one hand, Julian was an anchoress, a pious hermit who had withdrawn from the world to live an ascetic life in a cell attached to a church; on the other hand, Margery Kempe was a middle-class wife, mother of 14 children, a relentless pilgrim who made her way to Jerusalem, and a controversialist whose weeping, praying, and presence antagonised many of the people around her,” said the professor.

Author and psychologist Charles Fernyhough, who is about to publish his new book The Voices Within, a look at “how we talk to ourselves”, was part of the team who put the Wellcome exhibition together. “We went to the British Library and met with the curator, and put to her that having these two manuscripts would send an incredibly important message - it would say that this experience [of hearing voices] has been around for a long time. That hearing voices isn’t new, and that it has been interpreted in more positive ways in the past ... It was such a coup for us to get [The Book of Margery Kempe] as it’s one of their most precious, prized things.”

The one surviving copy of the short text of Julian of Norwich’s book was “too valuable” to be loaned, so Wellcome Collection chose a 1625 version of the long text, said Fernyhough, which exhibits the “beautiful writing style” of its scribe.

“The manuscript of Julian of Norwich is from a later date, from the early 17th century – so it would never have actually been read with The Book of Margery Kempe,” said Bale. “But the same people – Carthusian monks and devout readers interested in mysticism – were responsible for preserving both Julian’s Revelations and The Book of Margery Kempe, two of the most important pieces of Middle English that we have.”

The manuscripts will stay on display together until the end of the exhibition on 31 July.

Wellcome Collection
183 Euston RoadLondon NW1 2BEUK.
tel: +44 (0)20 7611 2222

Courtesy of The Guardian

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