An epic production of a new American play about Margery Kempe of Lynn is coming to Lynn Minster on September 22 with an album of songs composed for it by local storytelling-folkmusic band the Penland Phezants.
'Skirting Heresy' by the New York journalist Elizabeth Macdonald, tells the remarkable story of Margery, an illiterate medieval housewife and mother of 14 who had visions of heaven and hell, wrote (by dictation) the first autobiography in English and spent a good deal of her life accused of heresy.
Margery lived in troubled times at the turn of the 15 C, in the heyday of Hanseatic Lynn, the daughter of Lynn merchant, MP, royal agent and mayor John Brunham. Brunham's status possibly saved his daughter from a heretic's bonfire and from the powerful enemies she made - including the Archbishop of York and the Mayor of Leicester.
Elizabeth Macdonald's play sets Margery's story in an England still reeling from the impact of the Black Death, the Peasants' Revolt, and a combined political, economic and religious crisis which ushered in extreme legislation, like the Statute of Heresies Act of 1400, under which Margery's own parish priest William Sawtrey became the first man to be burned for his beliefs in England. This was also a period of desperate personal searching with Mother Julian of Norwich offering guidance to many, including Margery, born the same year Julian had her famous visions.
The show songs feature a ballad each from key characters in Margery's life. Burgess John Kempe's bewildered view of his wife's visionary experiences and unlicensed pilgrimages all over Christendom in her borrowed nun's robes is given the vivid context of his Lynn waterfront workplace. Her merchant father John Brunham mocks his daughter's otherworldliness but the last laugh may well be on his own clownish belief in a world without meaning. Julian of Norwich, walled up in an authorised anchoress's cell with the burial service read over her, offers a contrast with Margery's walkabout unauthorised holiness. Margery's parish priest William Sawtrey dies for a more common-sense, less sacramental and magical, Christianity - the Lollard (or 'proto-Protestant') heresy - which Margery spends the opening chapter of her Book, and quite a lot of her life, denying, though she certainly shares the Lollards' belief in a direct experience of God without priestly intercession.
Two ballads give Margery's own point of view. "Margery of Lynn (This Booke I Weep In Blood)" describes how her visions changed the conventional fashion-chasing girl and 'bourgeois' wife and mother to an extraordinary woman out of her class and gender and - by any standard measure - her mind. In 'A Lynn Carol, her timeless vision of a 'most seemly, most beauteous, and most amiable' loving man is shared - among Christmas tree lights and a robin singing - with a modern Lynn checkout girl, suggesting Margery may not be so remote from ordinary experience after all.
Margery's Book has been a set text on University courses in America for some time and this academic interest has recently spread to her own country, with a Conference about her at Oxford University last April at which a Margery Kempe Society was founded. The good news for her home town of Lynn is that Elizabeth Macdonald's play attempts to bring this growing interest to a more general public, examining a formative period of English history for its fortitude and its common sense solutions to catastrophe, and confusion. And with a visionary and implacable Lynn woman at its centre.
Performances of the show songs are available on an online album, packed with pictures, links and information about Margery and other characters: https://thepenlandphezants.bandcamp.com/album/songs-for-skirting-heresy-the-life-and-times-of-margery-kempe
The physical CD will be released at the September 22 at the premiere of 'Skirting Heresy' at Lynn Minster. The songs will be performed by the actors in the play and auditions for this exciting and epic production are at Marriott's warehouse Second Floor on July 28 and July 29. For further information, contact True's Yard museum.
Tracks 1 and 2 from 'Songs for Skirting Heresy' on YouTube: