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The Book of the Maidservant

The Book of the Maidservant

3.5 2
by Rebecca Barnhouse

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Johanna is a serving girl to Dame Margery Kempe, a renowned medieval holy woman. Dame Margery feels the suffering the Virgin Mary felt for her son, but cares little for the misery she sees every day. When she announces that Johanna will accompany her on a pilgrimage to Rome, the suffering truly begins. After walking all day, Johanna must fetch water, wash clothes,


Johanna is a serving girl to Dame Margery Kempe, a renowned medieval holy woman. Dame Margery feels the suffering the Virgin Mary felt for her son, but cares little for the misery she sees every day. When she announces that Johanna will accompany her on a pilgrimage to Rome, the suffering truly begins. After walking all day, Johanna must fetch water, wash clothes, and cook for the entire party of pilgrims. Then arguing breaks out between Dame Margery and the other travelers, and Johanna is caught in the middle. As the fighting escalates, Dame Margery turns her back on the whole group, including Johanna. Abandoned in a foreign land where she doesn't even speak the language, the young maidservant must find her own way to Rome.

Inspired by the15th-century text, The Book of Margery Kempe, the first autobiography in English, Rebecca Barnhouse chronicles Johanna's painful journey through fear and anger and physical hardship to ultimate redemption. Fans of Karen Cushman and other medieval historical fiction will be spellbound.

Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Jennifer Lehmann
Johanna, a servant in the home of Dame Margery Kempe, is just learning how to manage her mistress's more trying characteristics. The excessively pious woman breaks into loud sobs over the suffering of the Lord on a regular basis and frequently shares the revelations He gives her about the behavior of others. When Dame Margery decides to make a pilgrimage to Rome, Johanna is chosen to go with her. Already away from her sister and father, she must now make a long and potentially dangerous trip. The group of pilgrims they join includes several intriguing characters, some who become strong friends and welcome companions, others who bring more tension and danger. The interaction of this engaging group against the background of a fifteenth century pilgrimage creates a familiar, yet interesting, window into a world worth exploring. The details about the way life was lived at that time are clear yet delicately woven into the narrative. The pacing at the beginning of the book may be slow for readers not already interested in historical fiction. While the characters and their relationships with each other are developed fully and in good time, Johanna's relationship with her father and sister is revealed unevenly, leaving the resolution unsatisfying. The events are based on the first autobiography written in English, The Book of Margery Kempe, who described this trip and her complaints about her maidservant. Written from a reverse point of view, this trip comes alive for today's audience. Reviewer: Jennifer Lehmann
VOYA - Laura Woodruff
Young Johanna, living in fifteenth-century England, has been placed in the household of wealthy Dame Margery Kempe, an irritatingly devout woman given to loud displays of weeping for the sufferings of the Virgin Mary although she regularly abuses her servants. Dame Margery announces she will make a pilgrimage to Rome, and Johanna will accompany her as her personal maid. Johanna, who has never set foot outside her small town, prepares fearfully for a journey that quickly becomes one of drudgery and hardship. Dame Margery, greatly disliked by the other pilgrims, consigns Johanna to group servant and finally leaves them all, abandoning her. Evil pilgrim Petrus often beats Johanna and attempts to rape her in Venice, forcing Johanna to flee and use her wits to get to Rome. Despite betrayals, injuries, and near starvation, Johanna eventually finds sanctuary and a measure of peace in Rome's English hospice. This debut novel by a professor of medieval history is based upon the first autobiography in English, The Book of Margery Kempe. Johanna, who actually existed and is less attractively treated in that tome, becomes a real girl with her own point of view in this novel. Earthy, authentic, and engrossing, this fast-paced, easy read belongs on the shelf with Karen Cushman's The Midwife's Apprentice (Clarion, 1995/VOYA August 1995) and Catherine, Called Birdie (Clarion, 1994/VOYA June 1994). Reviewer: Laura Woodruff
School Library Journal
Gr 7–10—Stories about pilgrimage have caught the imagination of readers since the days of Chaucer, and this one is based on the The Book of Margery Kempe, from the early 1400s and considered to be the first autobiography published in English. Barnhouse creates a lively protagonist in the character of Johanna, Lady Margery's serving girl. Unnamed and much maligned in the medieval account, Johanna takes on a life of her own here, recounting the hardships of the journey as she accompanies her difficult and loudly pious mistress to Rome. The sights, sounds, and deprivations of travel in the late Middle Ages—blistered feet, bug-infested beds, rain-soaked wool cloaks, moldy food—are all brought vividly to life along with the unlikely traveling companions who band together for protection but are constantly on one another's nerves. Above all, the story is Johanna's, and it constantly points out the vulnerability of a peasant girl whose survival depends in equal parts on luck, wit, and exhausting labor. In the end, she reveals a few secrets of her own character that will have today's young readers feeling a kinship with her. Pair this story with Kevin Crossley-Holland's Crossing to Paradise (Scholastic, 2008), include it in a unit on the medieval world or The Canterbury Tales, or simply suggest it as a rousing adventure tale and coming-of-age story.—Connie C. Rockman, Stratford Library Association, CT
Kirkus Reviews
In the author's note that follows Barnhouse's absorbing novel, readers learn that it was based on the first autobiography ever written in English, a woman's account of a pilgrimage from England to Rome in the 15th century. The author became fascinated by the woman's maidservant, who was inexplicably maligned by her mistress, and decided to retell the story from the domestic's perspective. Readers of this lively first-person tale, packed with fascinating historical detail, will be glad that she did. Maidservant Johanna is an engaging lass, hardworking and ingenious, who serves a mistress so pious yet uncharitable that she seems unhinged to modern eyes. In the course of Johanna's adventure, she comes to terms with the emotionally difficult familial circumstance that surround her indenture. But the heart of the story is the pilgrimage, a dangerous journey filled with privation and hardship, one that opens Johanna's eyes to a wider world and challenges her to grow in competence and stature. (Historical fiction. 10-13)
Publishers Weekly
Inspired by the life of the medieval religious mystic Margery Kempe, first-time novelist Barnhouse imagines the life of the maidservant who accompanied her on a pilgrimage from Lynn, England, to Rome. Thirteen-year-old Johanna has been hired out to Dame Margery, who hears the Lord's voice and feels the Virgin Mary's suffering so deeply that it brings her to daily bouts of weeping. A likeable and believable narrator, Johanna also suffers—with aching longings for her family and their life together—but does her best to serve her ill-tempered mistress and to endure the hardships of the pilgrimage. These prove especially harsh, as she finds herself obliged to serve the other pilgrims, as well: a varied lot of holy and not-so-holy characters, including a warmhearted university student on whom she develops a crush. Maintaining her fortitude and fighting her homesickness are Johanna's greatest ordeals, until she suddenly must flee alone to Rome and the drama quickens. Barnhouse adeptly weaves the gritty details of medieval life into an engaging, adventure-filled story. Ages 10—13. (Oct.)

Product Details

Random House Children's Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt


My mistress says you mustn't stare into the fire lest the devil look out at you from the flames. "He'll see into your soul," she says.

My mistress says a great many things about the devil.

But before cockcrow, when my mistress is still abed and I'm sitting on my heels coaxing the embers into life with my breath, I stare into the fire with no fear of the devil. The devil, I think, wakes up when my mistress does.

Before then, the house is quiet and my face is warm with the fire I'm making. I stare into the coals and the new little flames licking blue and yellow around the kindling, and I don't see the devil or the mouth of hell. I see summer and yellow sun, and in the smooth flames curling around the wood, I see clear water flowing through rushes the way it did in the stream when I was a little girl.

I've just long enough for a memory of splashing in the stream with my big sister, Rose, before the rafters tremble with the sound of my mistress stirring above.

Cook limps heavily into the kitchen and casts a baleful eye at the upstairs room. "There'll be weeping today, you mark me," she says, and busies herself with the pots.

It's a big house, this, for my mistress's father was five times Lord Mayor of Lynn and an alderman of the Holy Trinity Guildhall, too. The mistress doesn't let it be forgotten, not by the servants nor by the goodwives of the town, for all that she's a religious woman.

"She'll be wanting you," Cook says.

I lean forward to give the fire one last breath, although it doesn't need it. For one more instant, it's summer and I'm with Rose and the sun is warming my face.

Then I rock back on my heels and stand, letting the cold air settle around me. I heave the bucket of water I've brought in and start up the stairs.

I'm halfway up when the weeping begins.

"Ah, sweet Jesu," my mistress calls out, and then she is crying in earnest, great heaving sobs. "My sweet Lord," she cries.

I hover on the stairs. Up or down?

"Johanna!" My mistress shrieks my name from her room and up I scurry. I've been here long enough to know the consequences if I don't.

I open her door with my foot, swinging the heaving bucket into the room. She's sitting on her bed, her face in her hands, the tears coming fast. The water from my bucket goes into the hand basin with only a river or so spilled out, and then her foul-smelling night bucket is in my hands and I'm on the stairs again.

"Come back, you stupid girl."

I stop. Even when she's full of the passion that Our Lady Mary suffered for her poor son, my mistress notices things. You'd think she'd be blinded by her tears.

"The fire, Johanna."

I set the buckets down and creep into the room again. I had thought to come back for the fire later, when I brush her hair and pin up her headdress—after the weeping has abated. But my mistress likes to be warm and toasty while she shares Our Lady's pain.

The bellows crouch beside the fireplace. I mend the coals with the tongs, then blow them into flames with the bellows. Already, while my mistress was sleeping, I've brought up the coal. Also, I've scoured the bottles and pots left from yesterday. And brought in the water for Cook and for me, lots of water, fetched from the Common Ditch, a long walk through the ooze and muck of the streets in the chill damp of the morning.

My mistress feels such compassion for Our Lord, she cries and cries at the thought of him on his rood. You'd think she could spare some compassion for me. Almost June and still the mornings are cold as midwinter.

She interrupts her weeping to say, "Don't dally before the fire, you wicked girl. The devil creeps into the souls of those who dally."

She should know.

I escape down the stairs to haul the iron pots of water to the fire for washing. Linens today.

When I lived by the river, off in the Fens, after my mother died giving birth to a baby who didn't live to see the sunrise, my sister Rose did the washing. Back then, I really did dally, kicking my heels in the stream, weaving sedges together to make birdcages, trying to catch silvery minnows with my bare hands, fashioning pipes of reeds. I thought I was working, but Rose was doing it all. Now that she's married to a farmer, she knows even more about work.

Dame Margery thinks she's overburdened, what with the Lord's suffering on her shoulders, but she knows nothing of burdens. Cook and I and poor little Cicilly know about burdens. Cicilly has a cough, so Cook and I have conspired to let her sleep longer. Just so she's visible by the time the mistress sweeps downstairs.

Since our household broke up at Michaelmas—Rose going off with her farmer, my father going to harvest the bishop's fields, and me going into service for Dame Margery here in town—Cook has been all the family I have. Cook and Cicilly. Piers, who does the men's labor, treats me too ill to be family. He grabs my braids and sometimes my skirts in a way I don't like at all. Besides, he smells.

But Cook can laugh. She's a sly one, Cook is, when her joints aren't making her limp and groan.

"Come, Johanna," she says. "Here's her morning meal to be taken up. Enough for her and whatever saint is visiting today."

It's when I'm up the stairs, handing her the trencher, that my mistress changes my life again, for the second time in a year.

"God has told me to go on pilgrimage to Rome," Dame Margery says. "I'll need a maidservant. Cicilly's too young; Cook is too old. You'll go with me, Johanna."

My mouth drops open. A pilgrimage to Rome? With my mistress?

"The Lord doesn't hold with idleness. Get on about your duties," she says, her mouth full of bread.

I tear down the stairs as fast as I can.

Meet the Author

REBECCA BARNHOUSE teaches and writes about medieval topics and about children's literature set in the middle ages. Her books include Recasting the Past: The Middle Ages in Young Adult Literature and The Book of the Knight of the Tower: Manners for Young Medieval Women. You can visit her Web site at RebeccaBarnhouse.com to find out more.

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The Book of the Maidservant 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
PidginPea More than 1 year ago
I wasn't sure what to expect from The Book of the Maidservant, but the wonderful writing and the swiftly moving plot sucked me in from the very beginning and didn't let me go. The action builds rapidly as Johanna finds herself facing one adventure after another, meeting wonderful friends and terrible enemies along the way. I'm not very familiar with medieval history, but Barnhouse definitely brought the time period alive. You can see and hear and smell everything right along with Johanna, both the good and the bad. As Johanna travels with the pilgrims, you get to experience medieval Europe through the eyes of a young girl, who must serve the party but still tries to preserve her own independence as much as she can. Johanna struggles with her faith throughout the book in very realistic and age-appropriate ways. In a world and time where being a good and devout Christian is of great importance, she tries hard to keep her thoughts and actions kind, despite the many injustices being done to her. As she gets into increasingly difficult situations, she starts to feel like God and the saints have abandoned her. As she deals with all of this, the book never feels preachy. It simply allows you in to Johanna's thoughts as she tries to figure things out on her own. The Book of the Maidservant was one of the best books I've read in a while. It's a wonderful work of middle grade historical fiction: realistic and educational while remaining very interesting and relatable. { Full review originally posted on my blog, PidginPea's Book Nook. }
Anonymous More than 1 year ago