Rebecca Krug: Melodye So Swet and Delectable
A scholar of medieval literature, Associate Professor Rebecca Krug this spring published Margery Kempe and the Lonely Reader, about the illiterate woman who composed one of the English language's first memoirs, known as Kempe's Book. Like her previous monograph Reading Families: Women's Literate Practice in Late Medieval England, it focuses on readers coming to understand the world and themselves through the books they encounter. Krug teaches courses such as The Story of King Arthur, Popular Literature in the Middle Ages, and Medieval Dream Visions; in her new book's acknowledgements, she thanks students "who have read some or all of [Kempe's] Book with me," and continues: "I wish I could name them all, because their thoughts—as well as the opportunity to respond to those thoughts—shape my argument in so many ways." Krug did include in her bibliography the writings, published and not, of several former graduate students, who took to social media to express their delight.
What is the book about, and how did you start the project?
Margery Kempe was a 15th-century lay woman with no formal education. She was unable to write with her own hand and relied on "listers"—people who read to her aloud—to study written works. Yet, despite her illiteracy, she came to compose one of the first English-language books that we categorize as a memoir or life-writing.
Margery Kempe and the Lonely Reader is about the historical situations and personal circumstances that made this possible. I began the project with a question: how did it become possible, desirable, necessary for Kempe to write her Book? My argument is that Kempe wrote the Book, finally, as a revisionary act: she came, after many years of engagement with written culture as an aural reader and listener, to feel compelled to produce her own book of consolation, a type of devotional writing found in late medieval religious culture that taught readers how to find spiritual comfort and, most importantly, how to feel about one's spiritual life. She did so out of a desire to experience spiritual comfort and out of the impulse to find, sustain, and interact with fellow believers who, like Kempe, were also looking to live lives of intense, devout engagement. Kempe's decision to write was tied to her belief in the validity and truthfulness of emotional experience. As the Book explains, "sche wolde not for al this world sey otherwyse than sche felt [italics added]." She wrote a book about, by, and for herself.
I argue that her Book's reader, like Kempe herself, is both "outside" of the life that is represented and simultaneously drawn into the represented experience of self. The Book draws attention to the provisional nature of every attempt to capture the truth of experience: Kempe reads, re-reads, and revises the truth of this "creature," who she is and was (and believes she will in some way continue to be). In doing so, the value the writer finds in this process of constant reinterpretation is extended to the reader. To put it another way, her subject is her own life and her experiences but her representation of that self, as found in the Book, is constructed to reach out to and include the reader: "I write about my own life," Kempe might have said, "but it could just as easily be your life."
What were the joys and challenges of writing this particular book? Where did it take you?
I was fortunate to study the manuscript of Kempe's Book at the British Library in London. The manuscript has now been digitized and includes some very charming "initials" such as the one (right) that I like to imagine represents one of Kempe's scribes.
The greatest challenge (but also the most interesting experience) was spending so much time "inside" another person's head. Kempe is fascinating, but it was sometimes difficult for me to stop thinking from her point of view after working so closely with her Book.
Favorite quote from Margery Kempe's writings?
When Kempe requests an audience lasting "an hour or two hours" to speak with Richard Caister, vicar of St. Stephens Norwich and a celebrated religious figure, about her spiritual experiences, Caister drops everything to talk with her. According to the Book he remarks, "Benedicité. How could a woman occupy an hour or two hours [in talking about] the love of our Lord? I shall never eat a meal until I know what you can say of our Lord God for an entire hour!"