The Book of Margery Kempe (Oxford World's Classics)

by Margery Kempe

Paperback, 2015



Call number



Oxford University Press (2015), Edition: 1, 336 pages


The story of the eventful and controversial life of Margery Kempe - wife, mother, businesswoman, pilgrim and visionary - is the earliest surviving autobiography in English. Here Kempe (c.1373-c.1440) recounts in vivid, unembarrassed detail the madness that followed the birth of the first of her fourteen children, the failure of her brewery business, her dramatic call to the spiritual life, her visions and uncontrollable tears, the struggle to convert her husband to a vow of chastity and her pilgrimages to Europe and the Holy Land. Margery Kempe could not read or write, and dictated her remarkable story late in life. It remains an extraordinary record of human faith and a portrait of a medieval woman of unforgettable character and courage.

User reviews

LibraryThing member setnahkt
From the medieval history reading program. This is called “the first English autobiography”, which is somewhat stretching the term. Margery Kempe was a 14th century middle class Englishwoman from Lynn who had an extreme bout of postpartum depression after her first child and suddenly began
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having fits of uncontrollable sobbing every time she went to church, and then every time she had religious thoughts – which was often. She had conversations with Jesus, Mary, Mary Magdalene, St. Bridget, St. Katherine, St. John the Evangelist, and pretty much the entire calendar of saints. This went on her entire life, from around 1390 or so to sometime in the 1400s (she’s known to have been born in 1373 and lived at least until she was 65).

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.
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LibraryThing member Harrod
Well now that was interesting
LibraryThing member Cecrow
I felt obliged to try reading this first autobiographical work in the English language, and fortunately it was not as bad as I'd feared. Margery reveals almost nothing about her times (14th century England) but there's entertainment to be had in others' reactions to her incessant weeping, which I
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can well understand, and yet - since I didn't have to listen to her? - I found her sympathetic. She takes too many daring chances, subjects herself to too much humiliation for me to suspect her of being insincere in her faith.

If her story struck me as funny in places (especially when I forgot how roughshod a society she lived in that could easily make good on its death threats), it isn't out of disrespect for her devotion. I'm made skeptical by the voice of God that sounds almost nothing like him in the Bible, something she doesn't try to do in the brief second part written years later. Her insisting that she bore every trial like a meek saint is a stark contrast with the book itself, which amounts to a written defense and is sometimes even threatening to her persecutors.

Perhaps Margery suffered under a mental illness and this rationalized it for her, maybe it was at least partly an act, or perhaps she really was more blessed than most. It's an intriguing artifact, whichever your view.
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LibraryThing member KayCliff
This is the first autobiography in English. It was written in 1436, lost for centuries, rediscovered 1934, and is here translated for the first time from Middle English into fully comprehensible modern language. In it Margery Kempe describes her `madness, financial ruin, religious ecstasies,
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marital problems and dangerous treks to distant shrines' over a period of 40 years. Strong stuff.
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.
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LibraryThing member dylkit
It's probably a bit unfair to give this only two stars as it is very much of its era and closely follows the form of 'Saints Lives' type books . It isn't meant to be a tightly plotted literary masterpiece, it does not even unfold chronologically. Though I sometimes enjoyed the (unintentional) wry
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humour of some of it, on the whole I felt a bit manipulated by Margery. I would most definitely come down on the 'madness' side of any argument, but have a sneaking suspicion that may be exactly what Margery would have wanted in order to feed her martyr complex.

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.
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LibraryThing member PollyMoore3
Enjoyable not as the wisdom of a mystic (Margery had complex psychological reasons for her strange behaviour, undoubtedly), but for its homely glimpses of medieval life. And Margery even gets to meet a true mystic, Mother Julian of Norwich, who treats Margery with characteristic gentleness and
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Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

336 p.; 7.7 inches


0199686645 / 9780199686643
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