Thursday, 28 April 2016

Books by Earliest Women Writers Bought Together for First Time

The Wellcome Collection is exhibiting manuscripts from the first female writers in the English language (Julia of Norwich and Margery Kempe) together for the first time in a new exhibition. The ‘This is a Voice’ exhibition aims to cast a spotlight on the meaning and emotions conveyed through the patterns of rhythm, stress and intonation in non-verbal forms of communication.

The Book of Margery Kempe, which was digitised by the British Library in 2014, is dated between 1436 and 1438. It is the story of a middle-class Norfolk woman’s life, and is widely seen as the first autobiography in English. Her book chronicles her domestic tribulations as the mother of 14 children, her extensive pilgrimages to holy sites in Europe and the Holy Land, and her mystical conversations with God, all dictated to a scribe as she claimed to be illiterate.

Margery Kempe’s manuscript lay hidden from 1520 to the 1930s, when it was discovered during a game of ping-pong. Whilst searching for a replacement ball the book fell out of a cupboard.

The Revelations of Divine Love by the 14th century anchorite, Julian of Norwich, was written after she claimed she had experienced a series of mystical visions in 1373. Her writings indicate that she was probably born around 1342 and came from a privileged family.

She believed that God sees us as perfect and waits for the day when human souls mature so that evil and sin will no longer hinder us.

Julian first wrote a short version of her book, of which only one copy is believed to have survived, and then a longer version about 20 years later, of which only three copies survive. She is considered to be the first female writer to work in the English language.

Incredibly the two women met each other during their lives, with Margery Kempe visiting Julian of Norwich for advice on her visions.

Anthony Bale, Professor of Medieval Studies at Birkbeck University of London said “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,”

“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.”

Author and psychologist Charles Fernyhough was part of the team who put the 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 manuscripts are on display until the end of July.

No comments: