Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438) is known for dictating The Book of Margery Kempe, a work considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language. This book chronicles, to some extent, her extensive pilgrimages to various holy sites in Europe and the Holy Land, as well as her mystical conversations with God. She is honoured in the Anglican Communion.
She was born Margery Brunham in King's Lynn (then Bishop's Lynn), Norfolk, Kingdom of England. Her father, John Brunham, was a merchant in Lynn, five-time mayor, and Member of Parliament. His mercantile fortunes may have been negatively affected by downturns in the economy, especially in the wool trades, of the 1390s. The first record of her Brunham family is the mention of her grandfather, Ralph de Brunham in 1320 in the Red Register of Lynn. By 1340 he had joined the Parliament of Lynn At the age of 20, Margery Brunham married a Norfolk man named John Kempe. She had 14 children with him.
Margery Kempe was born in Bishop’s Lynn (currently King’s Lynn) in Norfolk, England circa 1373. Her father, John Brunham, served as a mayor of Lynn at least five times, served as a member of Parliament six times, became a coroner, and justice of the peace. Margery’s brother, Robert, became a member of Parliament in 1402 and 1417. Margery and her family lived as bourgeois citizens in Lynn. No records remain of any formal education that Margery may have received, and as an adult, a priest read to her various “works of religious devotion” in English which suggests that she was unable to read them herself, although she seems to have learned various texts by heart and she owned several books. However, instead of allowing her lack of literacy to remain as a barrier to her religious devotion, she took it upon herself to memorize scripture. According to Jane Beal in her analysis of Kempe’s life, Margery was taught the Paternoster (the Lord’s Prayer), Ave Maria, the Ten Commandments, and other “virtues, vices, and articles of faith”. At around twenty years of age, Margery married John Kempe, who eventually became a town official in 1394. Margery and John had at least fourteen children, some who possibly died during infancy. However, there are records of their eldest son, John, surviving to adulthood. During the course of her marriage, Margery’s brewing and corn milling businesses failed. It is suggested that these events caused her to become devoted to Jesus and to the concept of religious salvation.
Kempe was an orthodox Catholic Christian and, like other medieval mystics, she believed that she was summoned to a “greater intimacy with Christ” through multiple visions and experiences she had as an adult. After the birth of her first child, Margery went through a period of madness for nearly eight months. During her madness, Margery claims that she envisioned numerous devils and demons attacking her and commanding her to “forsake her faith, her family, and her friends” and that they also compelled her to commit suicide. Then, she also claims that she had a vision of Jesus Christ in the form of a man who asked her “Daughter, why have you forsaken me, and I never forsook you?”. Margery affirms that she had visitations and conversations with Jesus, Mary, God, and other religious figures and that she had visions of being an active participant during the birth and crucifixion of Christ. These visions and hallucinations physically affected her bodily senses, causing her to hear sounds and smell unknown, strange odours. It is also revealed that she would often hear a heavenly melody that made her weep and want to live a chaste life. According to Beal, “Margery found other ways to express the intensity of her devotion to God. She prayed for a chaste marriage, went to confession two or three times a day, prayed early and often each day in church, wore a hair shirt, and willingly suffered whatever negative responses her community expressed in response to her extreme forms of devotion”. Margery was also known throughout her community for her constant weeping as she begged Christ for mercy and forgiveness.
In her article, Beal also reveals that Margery had a vision of Christ speaking to her, reassuring her that he had forgiven her sins and that “He gave her several commands: to call him her love, to stop wearing the hair shirt, to give up eating meat, to take the Eucharist every Sunday, to pray the rosary only until six o'clock, to be still and speak to him in thought…” and that He also promised her that He shall “give her victory over her enemies, give her the ability to answer all clerks, and that [He] will be with her and never forsake her, and to help her and never be parted from her”. According to Beal, Margery “did not live as a nun,” but carried out “her life of devotion, prayer, and tears in public”. Indeed, Margery’s visions provoked her public displays of loud wailing, sobbing, and writhing which frightened and annoyed the commoners and clergy. At one point in her life, she is even imprisoned by the clergy and town officials and threatened with the possibility of rape; however, it is revealed that Margery does not record being sexually assaulted. Finally, during the 1420s Margery dictated her Book of Margery Kempe which illustrates her visions, mystic, religious experiences, and her “temptations to lechery, her travels, and her trial for heresy”. Margery’s book is also considered to be the first autobiography written in the English language.
Much of Kempe's life is known from her Book. In the early 1430s, despite her illiteracy, Kempe decided to record her spiritual autobiography. She employed as a scribe an Englishman who had lived in Germany, but he died before the work was completed. So, she persuaded a local priest to begin rewriting on 23 July 1436, and on 28 April 1438 he started work on an additional section covering the years 1431–4.
The narrative of Kempe's Book begins just after her marriage, and relates the experience of her difficult first pregnancy. While delivering this child, she became gravely ill and feared for her life. She called for a priest to hear her confession, as she had a "secret sin" that had been weighing on her conscience for some time. The priest began to censure her before she could divulge this sin in its entirety, and then left. Fearing eternal damnation, she fell into a delusional state, where she describes seeing devils around her, and was considered a danger to herself and others. She was chained in a storeroom for six months, until, as she describes, Jesus sat down at her bedside, and asked her, "Daughter, why hast thou forsaken Me, and I forsook never thee?" She relates, at first, intending to become God's servant, but admits she could not "leave her pride nor her pompous array." Kempe undertook two domestic businesses—a brewery and a grain mill—both common home-based businesses for medieval women, both of which endured for a little while, then failed. Though she tried to be more devout, she was tempted by sexual pleasures and social jealousy for some years. Eventually turning away from her vocational choices, Kempe dedicated herself completely to the spiritual calling that she felt her earlier vision required. Striving to live a life of commitment to God, Kempe in the summer of 1413 negotiated a celibate marriage with her husband. The two formalized their agreement before the Bishop of Lincoln.
Although Chapter 15 of The Book of Margery Kempe tells of her decision to lead a celibate life, Chapter 21 tells of her learning that she is pregnant once again. Kempe gives birth to a child, her last, during her pilgrimage, and later relates that she brought a child with her when she returned to England. It is unclear whether the child was conceived before the Kempe's began their celibacy, or in a momentary lapse after it.
Possibly in 1413, Kempe visited the female mystic and anchoress Julian of Norwich. According to her own accounts, Kempe visited Julian (possibly in 1413) and stayed for several days; she was especially eager to obtain Julian's approval for the "very many holy speeches and converse with our Lord...also the many wonderful revelations, which she described to the anchoress to find out if there was any deception in them. For the anchoress was expert in such things and could give good advice." Evidently, Julian approved of Kempe's revelations, or at least did not denounce them as false, giving Kempe her most credible source that her religiosity was genuine. However, Julian does instruct and caution Kempe to "measure these experiences according to the worship they accrue to God and the profit to her fellow Christians." Julian is also the one to justify and confirm that Kempe's tears are physical evidence of the Holy Spirit in soul. At the end of their discussion, Julian finally encourages Kempe to "Set all your trust in God and fear not the language of the world."
Later in 1413 she left Yarmouth on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, via Constance and Venice, living on alms. She reached Jerusalem and visited Calvary and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. She then returned to Venice and visited Assisi and Rome. She returned to England after Easter 1415.
In 1417, she set off again on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, travelling via Bristol, where she stayed with Thomas Peverel, bishop of Worcester. On her return from Spain she visited the shrine of the holy blood at Hailes, in Gloucestershire, and then went on to Leicester. Kempe recounts several public interrogations during her travels. One of her first followed her arrest by the Mayor of Leicester who accused her, in Latin, of being a "cheap whore, a lying Lollard," and threatened her with prison. After Kempe was able to insist on the right of accusations to be made in English and to defend herself she was briefly cleared, but then brought to trial again by the Abbot, Dean, and Mayor, and imprisoned for three weeks. She returned to Lynn some time in 1418.
She visited important sites and religious figures in England, including Philip Repyngdon, the Bishop of Lincoln; Henry Chichele, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Her book consisted of her accounts related to these travels, although a final section includes a series of prayers. Her thoughts concerning these trips and her revelatory experiences make up much of her book. The spiritual focus of her book is on the mystical conversations she conducts with Christ for more than forty years.
During the 1420s Kempe lived apart from her husband. When he fell ill, however, she returned to Lynn to be his nursemaid. Their son, who lived in Germany, also returned to Lynn with his wife. However, both her son and husband died in 1431. The last section of her book deals with a journey, beginning in April 1433, aiming to travel to Danzig with her daughter-in-law. From Danzig, Kempe visited the Holy Blood of Wilsnack relic. She then travelled to Aachen, and then returned to Lynn via Calais and London (where she visited Syon Abbey).
In 1438, the year her book is known to have been completed, a Margueria Kempe, who may have been Margery Kempe, was admitted to the Trinity Guild of Lynn. It is not known whether this is the same woman, however, and it is unknown when or where Kempe died.
The manuscript was copied, probably slightly before 1450, by someone who signed himself Salthows on the bottom portion of the final page, and contains annotations by four hands. Since the first page of the manuscript contains the rubric, "Liber Montis Gracie. This boke is of Mountegrace," it is likely that some of the annotations are the work of monks associated with the important Carthusian priory of Mount Grace in Yorkshire. Although the four readers largely concerned themselves with correcting mistakes or emending the manuscript for clarity, there are also remarks about the Book's substance.
Kempe's book was essentially lost for centuries, being known only from excerpts published by Wynkyn de Worde in around 1501, and by Henry Pepwell in 1521. However, in 1934 a manuscript (now British Library MS Additional 61823, the only surviving manuscript of Kempe's Book) was found by Hope Emily Allen in the private library of the Butler-Bowdon family in Lancashire. It has since been reprinted in numerous editions and inspired numerous spiritual seekers, as well as scholars trying to understand the role of women in the Middle Ages.
Part of Margery Kempe's significance lies in the autobiographical nature of her book: it is the best insight available of a female, middle class experience in the Middle Ages. Kempe is unusual among the more traditional holy exemplars of her time, such as Julian of Norwich, a member of a religious order. In describing her visit to Julian in Norwich, Kempe tells of their discussion of Kempe's visions and assessment as to their orthodoxy. They decided that because the visions led to charity, they were of the Holy Spirit.
Although Kempe has been depicted as an "oddity" or a "madwoman," recent scholarship on vernacular theologies and popular practices of piety suggest she was not as odd as she appears. Her Book is revealed as a carefully constructed spiritual and social commentary. Some have suggested that her book is written as fiction and a form of artistry, implying that she intentionally “attempts to create a social reality and to examine that reality in relation to a single individual." By focusing on a single person’s experience, Staley suggests, Margery is able to explore the aspects of the society in which she lived in a realistic way. The suggestion that Kempe wrote her book as a work of fiction is supported by the fact that she regards herself as “this creature” throughout the text, dissociating her from her work. Although this is considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language, there is also evidence that Kempe may have written her book not entirely about herself or to precisely document her personal experiences, but as a work which explores the experience of one person and which sheds light on life in an English Christian society.
Her autobiography begins with "the onset of her spiritual quest, her recovery from the ghostly aftermath of her first child-bearing" (Swanson, 2003, p. 142). There is no firm evidence that Margery Kempe could read or write, but Leyser notes how religious culture was informed by texts. She had such works read to her as the Incendium Amoris by Richard Rolle; Walter Hilton has been cited as another possible influence on Kempe. Among other books that Kempe had read to her were, repeatedly, the Revelationes of Birgitta of Sweden and her pilgrimages were related to those of that married saint, who had had eight children.
Kempe and her Book are significant because they express the tension in late medieval England between institutional orthodoxy and increasingly public modes of religious dissent, especially those of the Lollards. Throughout her spiritual career, Kempe was challenged by both church and civil authorities on her adherence to the teachings of the institutional Church. The Bishop of Lincoln and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel were involved in trials of her allegedly teaching and preaching on scripture and faith in public, and wearing white clothes (interpreted as hypocrisy on the part of a married woman). Kempe proved her orthodoxy in each case. In his efforts to suppress heresy, Arundel had enacted laws that forbade allowing women to preach, for example.
In the 15th century, a pamphlet was published which represented Kempe as an anchoress, and which stripped from her "Book" any potential heterodoxical thought and dissenting behaviour. Because of this, later scholars believed that she was a vowed religious holy woman like Julian of Norwich. They were surprised to encounter the psychologically and spiritually complex woman revealed in the original text of the "Book."
During the fourteenth century, the task of interpreting the Bible and God through the written word was restricted to men, specifically ordained priests; to interpret God through the senses and the body became the domain of women, primarily women mystics, especially in the late Middle Ages. Mystics directly experienced God in three classical ways: first, bodily visions, meaning to be aware with one's senses—sight, sound, or others; second, ghostly visions, such as spiritual visions and sayings directly imparted to the soul; and lastly, intellectual enlightenment, where her mind came into a new understanding of God.
From the 790s it was stated as a universally acknowledged truth that women could not travel without coming into contact with men. For women vowed to a religious life, this was impermissible, therefore nuns had to abstain from pilgrimage. While women not vowed to religion faced the same implications, the religious woman was supposed to be aware of her weaknesses, and accept the resultant constraints.
Both spouses had equal rights over each other's body, so neither was allowed to retire to religious life, take a vow of chastity, or go on a crusade or a pilgrimage without the willing consent of the other
Kempe was motivated to make a pilgrimage by hearing or reading the English translation of St. Birgitta's Revelations. This work promotes the purchase of indulgences at holy sites; these were pieces of paper representing the pardoning by the Church of purgatorial time otherwise owed after death due to sins. Margery Kempe went on many pilgrimages and has been known to have purchased indulgences for friends, enemies, the souls trapped in Purgatory and herself.
In 1413, soon after her father’s death, Margery left her husband John to take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. During the winter, she spent thirteen weeks in Venice, Italy. Interestingly enough, Margery talks little about her observations of Venice in her book. This was especially ironic at the time because Venice was at “the height of its medieval splendor, rich in commerce and holy relics.” Margery’s main focus was her experience. She talks about being in a convent with nuns and taking the Sacrament every Sunday, crying during devotions and becoming viciously ill and recovering quickly. Also, she remarks about her issues with her traveling companions. Kempe’s next journey was to Jerusalem. The trip to Jerusalem was found to be expensive and she travelled their by sailing in a galley which was a boat with rowers. Margery’s decision to take a galley was because of her apparent conversation with God and her knowledge and experience in Lynn, which was a town that was on the North Sea coast on the east bank of the River Ouse. This place also exposed her to the vicissitudes of the medieval shipping industry.
Kempe’s voyage from Venice to Jerusalem is not a large part of her story overall. But, it is thought that she ended up in Jaffa, which was the usual port for people who were arriving and ended up heading inland from there. One vivid detail that she recalls was her riding on a donkey when she saw Jerusalem for the first time. In fact, Kempe brings in the detail that she nearly fell off of the donkey because she was in such shock from the vision in front of her.
During her pilgrimage Kempe visited places that she saw to be holy. She was in Jerusalem for three weeks and went to Bethlehem where Christ was born. Also, she visited Mount Sion, which was where she believed Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet. Kempe visited the burial places of Jesus, his mother Mary and the cross itself. Finally, she went to the river Jordan and Mount Quarentyne, which was where they believed Jesus had fasted for forty days and Bethany, Martha, Mary and Lazarus had lived.
After she visited the Holy Land, Kempe returned to Italy and stayed in Assisi before going to Rome. This was the second great pilgrimage site of medieval Christendom. Just like many other medieval English pilgrims, Kempe resided at the hospital of Saint Thomas of Canterbury in Rome. During her stay, she visited many churches such as San Giovanni in Laterano and Santa Maria Maggiore. She also went to Santi Apostoli, San Marcello and St. Birgitta’s Chapel. She ended up not leaving Rome until Easter of 1415.
When Kempe returned to Norwich, she ended up passing through Middelburg (today’s Netherlands). But, in 1417, she took on a journey to Santiago de Compostela. Kempe called this journey “St. James” and was the third great pilgrimage site of Western Christendom.
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