April 20, 2016

Manuscripts by the first ever female writers exhibited in London


A page from Margery Kempe's autobiography. Photograph: British Library

A page from Margery Kempe’s autobiography. Photograph: British Library

You may be forgiven if you haven’t heard of Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, but the works of these two inspiring women are about to receive a lot of attention thanks to a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.

Writing during the fourteenth and fifteenth century, Norwich created what is considered to be the first book in the English language ever written by a woman, and Kempe wrote the first ever biography to be penned by a woman.

Julian of Norwich’s book The Revelations of Divine Love, believed to have been written in the late 1300s, is a record of mystical devotions. After recovering from a serious illness, she described the sixteen visions that came to her during her suffering. Discovered in the 1930s, the manuscript has been stored by the British Library and is on loan to the Wellcome Collection. Take a glimpse of the original manuscript here.

The Book of Margery Kempe, written between 1436 and 1438, as dictated to a scribe, provides a unique and rare insight of a female, middle class experience in the Middle Ages. Kempe narrates her story in rough chronological order, beginning with her breakdown following the birth of the first of her fourteen children, and includes her conversion to a chaste pilgrim after experiencing religious visions.

Anthony Bale, professor of medieval studies at Birkbeck, University of London, who recently edited and translated a new edition of The Book of Margery Kempe for Oxford University Press commented, as reported in the Guardian:

“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.”

Speaking to Newsweek, Charles Fernyhough, one of the exhibition organizers, psychologist and author said:

“They should both be colossal, very famous figures… Hearing voices can be a theological experience or part of artistic creativity, with some writers hearing the voices of their characters. It is an experience which is terribly stigmatized, so it is very important that we put something into the exhibition to counter that view and to normalize such experiences.”

Editions of both books are available from Penguin and Oxford World Classics, but to experience the true impact of the original manuscripts visit the current This is a Voice exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.