The Alleged Illiteracy of Magery Kempe: A Reconsideration of the Evidence
Tarvers, Josephine K.
Medieval Perspectives, XI (1996)
Margey Kempe’s illiteracy taken for granted by most scholars of medieval and women’s literature.For instance, Clarissa Atkinson calls it “a most unusual autobiography, not least because the author could not read or write. Barry Wmdeatt, Margery’s modern translator, calls her “a self-confessedly illiterate woman late in life. ..[who is]a medieval English woman of unforgettable character,undeniable courage and unparalleled experience” . The critical literature contains many instances of what might be called the “plucky illiterate” school of Kempe criticism, which celebrates the achievements of a woman who by modern critical standards should not have been able to compose her own text. Each of these references is a triumph for the writer who created this fiction: Margery Kempe herself. A careful review of the evidence will reflect that Margery nowhere tells us directly that she is illiterate, and in fact indicates on a number of occasions otherwise.The illiterate MargeryKempe,as the evidence shows, is a creation of our own desires, not of historical fact.