Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Archbishop Arundel: As Black As He Was Painted?

      Margery Kempe lived from around 1373 until some time after 1436 when her autobiography ends. She was alive when Geoffrey Chaucer (1342-1400) was and so her story is great for its first hand account of life around the turn of the 15th century. She lived through the regime change but did not remark upon it, possibly the turmoil did not reach her in the north or did not affect her much beyond the risk of being burned as a heretic for being a Lollard. Being accused of heresy is no small thing but she survived in spite of the many times she had to defend herself.
       Margery is a middle class woman, the religious counterpart to the Wife of Bath. She tried her hand at several businesses which failed and then she tried to make her mark on the world as a holy woman. She did live rather close to the edge and frequently strayed over it so it is no wonder that she was accused before the Archbishop Arundel and dragged before the Archbishop of York and for being a Lollard. She was guilty but she answered questions well enough to escape being burned at the stake.
     In her autobiography, she described meeting Arundel. She was sent to him because she wanted to wear the white of purity and needed permission but the Bishop of Lincoln, to whom she applied, sent her to Arundel.  So she went to London, to Lambeth Palace, and many of the Archbishop's clerks were swearing and 'spoke many reckless words' for which she rebuked them. She was told she should have been burned at Smithfield with Sawtre. Margery was also there to ask for permission to receive communion every Sunday when most people received it once a year. She reported that "he granted it full benignly, all her desire without any silver or gold, nor would he let his clerks take anything for writing or for sealing the letter." When he showed himself so kind to her, she grew a little bolder and told him about her manner of living (she was going around, praying with people) and about her tears (after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, she began weeping loudly and copiously at every church service her 'gift' for which many a priest tried to banish her from his church.).  She wrote that Arundel "found no fault therein but approved of her manner of living and was right glad that our Merciful Lord Jesus Christ showed such grace in our days, blessed may he be."
      With all this kindness, she grew even bolder and mentioned to him how rude his staff was and rebuked him as well as told him that if he did not put those rude clerics out of his service that he would have to answer to the 'higher up'. She said that he heard her out 'full benignly and meekly' and gave her a fair answer then allowed her to go. This contrasts rather sharply with the picture of Arundel that Terry  Jones painted in his book on Chaucer.
     Jones also wrote that Arundel declared war on vernacular writing and yet in the introduction to the Book of Margery Kempe, Lynn Stanley wrote that Arundel sponsored Nicholas Love's translation of Meditations on the Life of Christ showing his awareness of the need for devotional texts particularly for female readers. I have never found a hostility to vernacular writing that Jones describes: where Church authorities clamp down on secular writing in the vernacular. Some do not approve of such frivolity however there was never a determined effort to stamp it out.
     So, was Arundel the imperious, harsh, war monger as he was portrayed in Jones' book? People are far too complicated for such a simple assessment and I do not think he ever felt threatened enough by Chaucer's writing to execute him for that.


Anachronist said...

A very sharp analysis, thank you!

Kristin said...

What is vernacular writing?

The Red Witch said...

Thank you.
It is the common language of speech. Here it would be English as opposed to the language of scholarship, Latin.