Bob Dylan, likewise, in a 1965 interview with the Village Voice placed himself among Hank Williams, Marlon Brando, Clark Kent, and Captain Marvel—the latter a 1940s Fawcett Comics character, a 12-year-old boy named Billy Batson who has the power to physically transform into the adult superhuman hero (and blatant Superman knock-off) Captain Marvel by uttering the word “Shazam.” This positioning affirms Dylan’s cognizance of and commitment to his shifting personal artifice by comparing himself directly to the magically granted half of a child’s dual identity alongside the assumed human identity of the Kryptonian Superman and the archetype of 1950s American rebellion, acclaimed performer Marlon Brando. Dylan and Margery behave here, in these instances and many others, like existential magpies, collecting attractive scraps of other people’s identities and appropriating them as part of their own. Both intentionally construct a grandiose persona, in Eldot’s terms, “legendizing” themselves. The intention is not to deceive their respective audiences but to root their lives in the fertile tradition of their heroes instead of their prosaic middle-class homes. Margery’s Book further complicates this matter, however, when one considers the ambiguity of its authorship.
The Book begins with a proem describing its composition, how it was begun by an English scribe who had been living in Prussia, where he married and had a child. He returns to England with his wife, living with Margery and recording as much of her life as she is able to tell him before he dies shortly after his arrival. The second part of the book introduces Margery’s son, working for a prominent merchant in Lynn but failing his mother’s somewhat oppressive moral standards. She insists that he “leeuyn þe worlde,” and he, in turn, runs away into a life of sexual sin before finally returning home to seek his mother’s blessing. After this, he moves to Danzig and marries a German-speaking woman, with whom he has a daughter, before returning home years later to a skeptical Margery, who eventually recognizes his conversion as authentic and inspires in him an urge to go on “many pilgrimagys to Rome & to many oþer holy placys” before returning to his wife and daughter. His wife is so moved by his account of Margery that she insists on traveling back to Lynn with their daughter to meet her mother-in-law. A storm delays their sea journey, however, so they travel by land, leaving their daughter with friends. Upon arriving in Lynn, with his wife and his goods, the son falls ill and, after being bedridden for about a month, dies. The comparison between Margery’s son and the first scribe is readily apparent, Englishmen living in Prussia who return to Lynn with their Prussian wives and die shortly thereafter, but Sebastian Sobecki’s recent article in Studies in the Age of Chaucer seems to finally confirm the longheld theory that Margery’s son and the first scribe are one and the same.
The portion of the Book recording the son’s story dates itself to 1438, but scholars, including Allen, Meech, and Windeatt, date his death to 1431. Sobecki cites a letter found in the National Archives in Gdańsk, written in Latin and dated June 12, 1431, as historical evidence of the son’s second journey to England. The letter directs English authorities to assist one John Kempe in the collection of 15 Prussian marks from one Robert Prinart. Given that the Book establishes Kempe’s son as a merchant in Danzig at this time and given that “John Kempe” is the name of both Margery’s husband and father-in-law, it is reasonable to conclude that the John Kempe of the letter, his travel coinciding as it does with the events of the Book, is, in fact, Margery’s son, which further matches exactly the description of the first scribe found in the proem. The second scribe dates the beginning of his transcription as taking place in 1436, “iiii yer or ellys mor” after the first scribe’s death. “Thus,” Sobecki claims, “the deaths of the son and the first scribe took place at the same time,” and we may believe with some confidence that they were the same person.
Yet the narration of the Book itself appears to go out of its way not to make this clarification, to intentionally create confusion by providing two very similar accounts and not linking them, a problem only compounded by the introduction of the second scribe. Lynn Staley influentially argued that the second scribe was a clever fiction of Kempe’s own devising to lend authority to her story, a narrative persona in its own right, but Sobecki returns to Sue Ellen Holbrook’s likewise influential theory that the identity of the second scribe is Robert Spryngolde, Margery’s priest-confessor who appears advising her throughout the Book. A hitherto unknown 1430 Common Pleas roll lists Spryngolde as co-executor in the will of Robert Brunhman, Kempe’s older brother, which, Sobecki argues, makes even more clear his strong social and economic ties with Kempe’s influential family. While I accept Sobecki’s theory and am thereby forced to somewhat reluctantly abandon Staley’s, the scribe’s historical reality does not necessarily negate Kempe’s ultimate authorship of the Book. Rather, the ambiguity of the second scribe’s proem regarding his own identity and that of the deceased first scribe appears intentional, not unlike Bob Dylan’s omission of his life as Bobby Zimmerman.
If Spryngolde, as appears likely, was indeed the second scribe, this anonymizing tendency begins to make a world of sense. As Sobecki explains, “Spryngolde’s proximity not just to Kempe but also the Brunhams draws attention away from her saintly life, instead embedding the protagonist in a specific local history that enhances the visibility of one of Lynn’s most prominent families. If Kempe’s book was to extend its reach beyond Norfolk, her written life had to be her own.” And so we see only scattered representation of Margery’s home and family: her father’s prominent social standing is separated from his name by dozens of pages; her evidently powerful brother, mayor of Lynn like his father, is never mentioned at all, nor are thirteen of her fourteen children; even her own name is usually foregone in favor of “creatur”—we don’t learn her maiden name until chapter 45 or her married name until the end of the second book! This distancing is not a function of the autobiographical genre and thus may not be evaluated by any criterion of authenticity; it rather serves to maximize potential readership by ensuring that the spiritual story of a woman’s life would not be overshadowed by the reputation of her friends, family, and associates. If the Book was to function as “a schort tretys and a comfortabyl for synful wrecchys,” a purpose declared in its proem, its author and scribes needed to universalize the experience of its protagonist so as not to mire it in the local politics of Lynn, hence the conspicuous removal of many distinguishing features. One can imagine the inhabitants of Lynn receiving The Book of Margery Kempe much like the citizens of Hibbing, MN received Bob Dylan, remembering her as “a fairly ordinary youth from a respectable family, perhaps a bit peculiar in [her] ways,” the 15th-century equivalent of the record store owner lamenting, “I ordered a dozen albums but even [her] relatives won’t buy them.” Her legend needed to reach further.
If the existence of de Worde and Pepwell’s printed texts is any indication, Kempe and her scribes succeeded in this goal—though in perhaps somewhat Pyrrhic victory. Margery’s legend made it to London, where it was mass-produced and billed as having been taught to a devout anchoress by Christ himself. But Margery’s life, journeys, and even her visions, the distinguishing features of her written narrative, have been removed, leaving only a very short treatise on contemplation—taken out of the Book, yes, but mutilated in the process. Yet perhaps there is a more positive nuance in the wreck, a reading in which Margery’s legend has been, in a sense, fully realized. She is no longer the daughter of John Brunham or the wife of John Kempe or the penitent of Robert Spryngolde; she is presented instead as an individual holy woman, recipient of the direct teaching of Christ, her work collected alongside that of a legitimate saint. It reads, in effect, like someone trying to compile her greatest hits without actually listening to her back catalogue. The Devout Anchoress of Lynn as a title is certainly not authentic in the sense that it is factually representative of the historical life of Margery Kempe, and it is lamentable that more of her distinctive voice is not present in the printed excerpts, but the Book itself as we have it is an exercise par excellence in such personal revision. If the goal of Kempe and her scribes was to maximize the Book’s audience by removing their particular personal histories, to erase their middle-class context and create in its place a fiction by which to comfort sinful wretches, then the Shorte Treatys of 1521 must be regarded as an unequivocal success.