Though a familiar name, little was known about the English mystic Margery Kempe (c. 1373-c. 1440) for hundreds of years except that she had an association with the great Julian of Norwich. This all changed in 1934 with the discovery of The Book of Margery Kempein a library where it had lain hidden for four hundred years. Finding Margery's own story was important not just because of the light it shed on her life, but it also turned out to be the first known autobiography in the English language. Even more intriguing to the experts of the day, this unique document was written by a woman. But if anyone had expected to find her anything like her cloistered contemporary, Julian, they were in for something of a surprise. Far from being a typical holy woman, Margery Kempe was married and mother of fourteen children. Moreover, she had been a woman of substance, even running a large brewery for a time. After turning to religion, she traveled thousands of miles around the known world on pilgrimages to distant lands. Beyond the circumstances of her life, what's most compelling about the text is the inner Margery that emerges. Her account of spiritual awakening, far from being a blissful episode is instead full of conflict and recrimination. What good was this new way of life if it caused her such trouble? Was this really the only way to lead a holy life? Margery remained unsure of the answers. But her patience in her struggle is a wonder to behold, and an example for us today.
Margery Kempe was married, and had 14 children. She lived in Norfolk in the 14th century. After becoming a visionary and mystic she went on pilgrimages, preached, and was tried. Her `special talent', for which she was both revered and castigated, was the way in which she responded to her visions -- visions such as these:
In chapter 36, God deifies and marries Margery, inviting her to kiss him, embrace him and take him to bed' - a graphically described scene. In chapter 81, she has a vision of the crucifixion and subsequent events: `A little later, I thought I saw our Lady walking towards her home ... Once our Lady was home and resting on her bed it occurred to me to make her a nice hot drink, but when I took it to her she told me to throw it away'. (166)
The book is altogether fascinating.
On the whole, though, I am glad that I read it and it contains some interesting details about everyday medieval life and some not so everyday aspects, such as travel to foreign countries. It took a lot of sifting in order to glean those bits, though.
She must have been insufferable. Her book relates the trials and tribulations she underwent because her contemporaries didn’t like her crying. She went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Rome, Compostella, and Aachen – crying the whole way. Groups of pilgrims would pick her up out of sympathy, tolerate her for a while, and then abandon her in the middle of nowhere after they couldn’t take the sobbing any more. (She was always reassured by whatever saint she was in touch with at the time that her companions were merely hypocritically abashed by her holiness). She’s certainly annoying to the reader, as she makes practically no mention of politics, or description of her travels, or even the names of her family (she took a vow of chastity, but had 14 children; her husband was importunate).
An interesting question to me is how she survived. From what little she reveals, she was middle class (itself sort of a rarity in medieval England); she always managed to find enough money to go on pilgrimages (I don’t know how much it would cost to get from England to Jerusalem in the 14th century, but I imagine it wasn’t within the reach of the lower class). In many cases she depended on the charity of others, who must have been happy to feed her just because she couldn’t cry and eat at the same time. Another interesting observation is no one ever suggested she was mad – although madness was certainly known at the time. Instead she was repeatedly accused of being a heretic – a Lollard. (For those of you who have mislaid your copy of Peterson’s Guide to Medieval Heresy, Lollards were followers of John Wycliffe, who held that humans could understand God by reading the Bible, and didn’t need the intervention of priests. Wycliffe produced the first English translation of the Bible). Kempe was questioned several times by various authorities, including the Archbishop of Canterbury; her views were always pronounced orthodox, although it was often suggested that she go home and act like a normal woman (i.e., weaving or spinning or cooking) rather than crying all the time. She certainly makes no favorable reference to Lollardry in her book, although her direct conversations with Jesus and the saints may have been taken as bypassing priestly intervention.
Very frustrating, much as Margery must have been.