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Researchers Decipher Recipe Believed to Treat Medieval Mystic

The find came to light thanks to a multi-spectral analysis on the manuscript of Margery Kempe’s autobiography

First page of the Kempe manuscript (British Library)
smithsonian.com

Researchers know more about the English Christian mystic Margery Kempe than most people from the 15th century, mainly because Kempe dictated what is considered by some to be the first autobiography in English. Even so, much about Kempe is still a mystery; after giving birth to her first child, Kempe began seeing visions of Jesus and devils, became a pilgrim, had several miracles attributed to her and was almost burned at the stake as a heretic. Now, researchers have solved one small mystery related to Kempe by deciphering a previously unreadable paragraph in the only surviving manuscript copy of her autobiography written probably in the late 1430s. As it turns out, the paragraph contains a recipe for a remedy that might have been prescribed to treat her erratic emotional states, reports Danuta Kean at The Guardian.

Kempe’s life began conventionally. She was the illiterate daughter of the mayor of the port city of Lynn. She married John Kempe and lived a pretty typical medieval life, even running a brewery. But after the birth of her first child, during a bout of what researchers now believe was post-partum depression, she began seeing visions of Jesus, which continued throughout the rest of her life. After giving birth to 14 children and after her brewery failed, around the age of 40 she took a vow of chastity and began taking pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Italy, Spain and Germany. She became known for crying violently at pilgrimage sites, which upset and angered many people.

While her autobiography was known from excerpts printed in other books in the 1500s, the full manuscript was not discovered until the 1930s. Alison Flood at The Guardian reports that Colonel W. Butler Bowdon was looking for a ping-pong paddle at his family home when he came across a bunch of old books in a cupboard. Upset that the books were making it hard to find his ping-pong equipment, he threatened to burn them. A friend suggested he take them to an expert instead who recognized Kempe's work; a few years later, the full text of the autobiography was published. In 2014, the British Library put a digitized copy of the manuscript online, including a passage near the end that had proved almost impossible to read.

Using multi-spectral image, Laura Kalas Williams, a Kempe researcher and postdoc at Exeter University and several colleagues recently took another look at the paragraph. The imaging allowed them to decipher the writing, which turned out to be a recipe to cure flux. Kalas believes that the prescription was likely an attempt to help stop Kempe's repeated illnesses. “I don’t think [the recipe] has been written there randomly,” Williams tells Kean. “The book tells us that at one point, she suffered a terrible episode of flux (probably dysentery) and was given extreme unction, thinking she was going to die, so the presence of this recipe at the end seems more than a coincidence.”

The recipe is for an herbal remedy called "dragges," sweets using items very expensive for the time including sugar, aniseed, fennel, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. While some have suggested Kempe suffered from epilepsy, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or extreme postpartum depression, Williams says she doesn’t think speculation 500 years later makes much sense. Instead, she says Kempe was brave for expressing her emotions publicly and passionately at a time and in a culture when women were expected to remain silent.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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