English 205:
Lecture 5

Lecture 5: The Middle Ages

The Book of Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe was born in the town of Bishop's Lynn (now King's Lynn) in 1373. The daughter of a wealthy and influential man, she married at 20, and then went into business for herself, first as a brewer and then as a miller. This was unusual, but not as unusual as one might think: women often ran their own businesses. More often, they ran businesses belonging to their husbands, when the husbands were too busy, disinterested, or incompetent to do it themselves. Although it was more usual for a woman of Kempe's social and economic class not to work, poor women worked as a matter of course. And women of all classes had children, as did Margery--she had 14 of them.

The very difficult and traumatic birth of her first child plunged her into a depression; she may even have attempted suicide. She recovered after the first of what would be numerous religious visions. Her resulting religious fervor and her determination to live according to her religious beliefs caused a great deal of strife between Margery and her husband; it also caused conflict with her friends and neighbors, with whom she was not hesitant to share her wisdom.

After the birth of her fourteenth child, she negotiated an agreement of celibacy with her husband and undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Upon her return, her constant sermonizing, combined with the loud weeping which accompanied her religious worship and her visions, caused some to see her as an heretic. She had to defend herself several times, once in front of the Archbishop of York. These were not insignificant encounters; Margery was fighting not only for her beliefs and the right to express them, but for her very life: heretics were frequently executed; Joan of Arc was burned at the stake during Margery's lifetime.

As irritating as Margery Kempe must have been, her book is a remarkable record of an unconventional and controversial life.

Malory: Morte Darthur

The authorship of Morte Darthur is commonly attributed to Sir Thomas Malory, a knight born in Newbold Revel in Warwickshire, possibly around the year 1416 (although the date, like so much about Malory's life, is a matter of debate; he may have been born any time from 1396 on). Malory's great-grandfather came to England with William the Conqueror and married an heiress, thereby becoming one of the landed gentry. Malory's father was John Malory, a sheriff, justice of the peace, and Member of Parliament. His mother was Philippa Chetwynde.

Nothing is known of Malory's childhood, but in 1428, he was placed in the service of the Earl of Warwick, Richard Beauchamp, and went to war with him against France. It is probable that Malory was present when, in 1431 in Rouen, Joan of Arc was burned. He certainly fought in a number of battles, and may even have accompanied Beauchamp on a world tour. By 1445, he had returned to England, been knighted and was serving as the Member of Parliament for Warwickshire.

From this point on, there are many mentions of Sir Thomas Malory in the public records, almost all of them criminal in reference. Apparently, in 1450, Malory was arrested for several unknown offenses and imprisoned to await trial. According to the indictments against him, he escaped from prison during the night, swimming across a deep, wide, sewage-filled moat. The next night, he and a dozen others broke into The Abbey of Blessed Mary of Coombe and stole money, gold and jewelry. On January 4, 1450, he and 26 others attempted to ambush and stab Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham in Coombe Abbey Woods. He and another man robbed several individuals on August 31, 1450 and May 31, 1450. On July 30, 1450, he broke into the home of Hugh Smyth and raped his wife, Joan Smyth; on August 1, 1450, he again broke into Hugh Smyth's house, again raping Joan Smyth and this time also stealing goods and money. On Thursday, July 29, 1451, he and more than a dozen others again broke into Coombe Abbey and stole money, jewelry, and other valuables, and assaulted the Abbot, his monks, and his servants. On June 4, 1451, he stole 9 cows and 335 sheep and took them home to Newbold Revel.

How an apparently law-abiding pillar of the community became such a violent outlaw is puzzling, but it helps to take several factors into account. First, there was tremendous anger against the government for the high rate of taxation and the repressive laws, and an even greater amount of hatred against the Church. It is common for people today to assume that the people of the Middle Ages respected and revered the Church and its members, but that was hardly the case. The bishops and clergy were among the largest landowners and the slowest to institute reforms. The peasants under their control were little more than slaves, and in the 1400s, the abbots and bishops began demanding even more tithes, along with higher death duties and other fees. Riots and unrest set in motion by these frustrations were common, and the clergy were often under attack. The men who accompanied Malory on his attacks on Coombe Abbey were not all peasants; some were, like him, noblemen. It has been speculated that Malory was repossessing property he felt had been taken unfairly from members of the community.

The attack on Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham, seems to have had its roots in a long-standing dispute between the two families over a specific piece of property, and over injustices done to Malory by the Duke and members of his family (including, perhaps, the awarding of Malory's seat in Parliament to Humphrey's ally in the matter, Sir Edmund Mountford).

It is worth noting that none of the 24 local jurors called for the trial of Malory appeared; Malory was tried later, at Nuneaton; one of the presiding judges was Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham.

The most serious charge against Malory was that of rape against Joan Smyth. Legal scholars point out that the term "raptus" which appeared in the indictment against Malory can have many meanings. It can mean rape; it can also refer to abduction or any use of force. If Mrs. Smyth was restrained or removed from her house during the robbery, that would qualify as "raptus." In this case, we have no way of knowing how the term was being used.

We know that Malory served at least some of his sentence in the Tower of London. In 1454, he was released from prison on bail (a prisoner could be released before serving his full term if enough reputable and influential men were willing to put up enough cash and guarantee his good behavior), and in 1455 was pardoned by the King for any offenses he had committed before July 9, 1455. But he was back in prison again for unspecified crimes by January of 1456. This time, no bail was granted, since many of those who had previously provided guarantees were unwilling to do so again. He was back in prison again two years later "for divers causes"; and again two years after that. This time, there would be no pardon. Although some of Malory's crimes (and some of his prosecution) may have been politically motivated, by this time, he had alienated anyone of influence who might have pleaded for him.

Malory was finally committed to Newgate Gaol. He was not held in the dungeons, where he would have died in a matter of weeks. In fact, his life as a prisoner was probably not as unpleasant as one might imagine. Through his wife and family, he would have been able to buy various goods and privileges (as all but the poorest prisoners did--jailers were often quite wealthy). One of the privileges he certainly bought was the right to use books from the Grey Friars Library, which was located across the street from the prison, and was London's first library. By 1425, the huge building was filled with books, including many French and English romances and tales. Malory probably spent the better part of 20 years in prison, reading them and then writing Morte Darthur.

Malory probably finished Morte Darthur some time between March 1469 and March 1470. In March 1471 (either on the 12th or the 14th) he died. There was a terrible outbreak of the plague that year, and that may have caused his death. He was buried in Grey Friars' sanctuary.

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Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages through the 18th Century, eds. Frank Kermode, John Hollander, et al.
2. Sir Thomas Malory: His Turbulent Career, by Edward Hicks.
3. Morte Darthur, edited by John Finlayson.