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Margery Kempe

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Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438) is known for writing 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 Asia.

Early life

She was born Margery Brunham in King's Lynn (then Bishop's Lynn), Norfolk, Kingdom of England and married at the age of 20 to a local man named John Kempe, with whom she had 14 children. Her father, John Brunham, was a merchant in Lynn, five-time mayor, Member of Parliament and merchant whose fortunes may have been negatively affected by downturns in the economy, especially in the wool trades, of the 1390s.

Her vision and its impact

Following the birth of her first child, Margery fell ill and feared for her life. After a failed confession that resulted in a bout of self-described "madness," Margery Kempe claimed to have had a vision that called her to leave aside the "vanities" of this world. Having for many weeks railed against her family, and friends, Kempe reports that she saw a vision of Jesus Christ at her bedside, asking her "Daughter, why hast thou forsaken Me, and I forsook never thee?" From that point forward, Kempe undertook two failed domestic businesses — a brewery and a grain mill — both common home-based businesses for medieval women.

Though she had tried to be more devout after her vision, she was tempted by sexual pleasures and social jealousy for some years. Eventually turning away from what she interpreted as the effect of worldly pride in 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 negotiated a celibate marriage with her husband, and began to make pilgrimages around Europe to holy sites — including Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela. The stories surrounding these travels are what eventually comprised much of her Book, although a final section includes a series of prayers. The spiritual focus of her Book is on the mystical conversations she conducts with Christ for more than forty years.

From 1413 to 1420, Margery also visited important sites and people in England, including Philip Repyngdon the Bishop of Lincoln, Henry Chichele the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Julian of Norwich. She also went to Rome, where she stayed at the Venerable English College in 1416. Her thoughts concerning these trips and her revelatory experiences make up much of her book, but a key focus is also her persecution by civil and religious leaders. The last section of her book deals with a journey in the 1430s to Norway and the Holy Roman Empire, where she visited the Holy Blood of Wilsnack. Two different scribes did the writing for Margery, under her strict supervision.

Kempe's significance

Part of Margery Kempe's significance lies in the autobiographical nature of her book: it is the best insight available that points to a female, middle class experience in the Middle Ages. Kempe is admittedly unusual among the more traditional holy exemplars of her time, such as Julian of Norwich. Margery, in fact, described her visit to Julian in her anchorhold in Norwich, and describes how they together discussed Margery's visions as to their orthodoxy, deciding that because they led to charity, they were of the Holy Spirit.

Though Kempe is often depicted as an "oddity" or even a "madwoman," recent scholarship on vernacular theologies and popular practices of piety suggest she was not, perhaps, as odd as she appears. Rather than being the ramblings of a madwoman, her Book is revealed as a carefully-constructed spiritual and social commentary. As Swanson (2003) explains, in an imprecise date in the 1420s, a man took up the task of writing down the life of this then little-known Norfolk woman, and although he died before completing the task, the script was continued by another scribe. In the text, it is claimed that first her dying son wrote out the book, but in fact the priest who then took up the work found the original version to be written in strange Germanic forms and in a foreign handwriting. Margery's daughter-in-law, with her at this time, was from Danzig, with its special devotion to St Bridget of Sweden and the Revelationes, and it is more likely she who is the scribe, rather than the dying son. The outcome was The Book of Margery Kempe.

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 herself read or write, but Leyser notes how religious culture was informed by texts, as was that of her more well-known contemporary Julian of Norwich, noting how there is some evidence that the Incendium Amoris by Richard Rolle influenced Margery Kempe; Walter Hilton has been cited as another possible influence on Kempe. Among other books that Margery had read to her were, repeatedly, the Revelationes of Birgitta of Sweden and, in fact, her pilgrimages carefully copy those of that married saint, who had had eight children.

Kempe and her Book are also significant because they record 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's adherence to the teachings of the institutional Church is challenged by both church and civil authorities, most notably the Bishop of Lincoln and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, who acted rigorously against heresy, enacting laws that forbade allowing women to preach, for example.

Kempe was tried several times for such illegal acts as allegedly teaching and preaching on scripture and faith in public, and wearing white clothes (interpreted as hypocrisy on the part of a married woman). She proved her orthodoxy in each case.

In the 15th century, a pamphlet was published which represented Kempe as an anchoress, and which stripped out of her "Book" any potentially heterodoxical thought and dissenting behaviour. Because of this, scholars believed that she was a vowed religious holy woman, like Julian of Norwich, and were surprised to encounter the psychologically and spiritually complex woman described in the "Book."

In 1438, the year her book is known to have been completed, a Margeria Kempe, who may have been Margery Kempe, was admitted to the Trinity Guild of Lynn.

The last record of her is in the city of Lynn in 1438, and it is not positively known when and where she died. Her book remained essentially lost until a manuscript was found by Hope Emily Allen in the private library of the Butler-Bowdon family in Lancashire in 1934.

External links


  • Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Edited by Sanford Brown Meech with prefatory note by Hope Emily Allen. EETS. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940.
  • Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Ed. Lynn Staley. TEAMS. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996.
  • Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe: A New Translation, Contexts and Criticism. Trans. and ed., Lynn Staley. New York: Norton, 2001.
  • Arnold, John and Katherine Lewis. A Companion to the Book of Margery Kempe. Woodbridge Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 1994.
  • Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern.
  • Glenn, Cheryl. “Popular Literacy in the Middle Ages: The Book of Margery Kempe.” In Popular Literacy: Studies in Cultural Practices and Poetics, ed. John Trimbur. (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001).
  • Leyser, H. (2003). Women and the word of God. In D. Wood (ed.). Women and Religion in Medieval England. Oxford: Oxbow. pp32–45. ISBN 1-84217-098-8
  • Lochrie, Karma. “The Book of Margery Kempe: The Marginal Woman’s Quest for Literary Authority.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 16 (1986): 33–55.
  • Staley, Lynn. Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.Wood (ed.). Women and Religion in Medieval England. ISBN 1-84217-098-8
  • Swanson, R. (2003). Will the real Margery Kempe please stand up! In D. Wood (ed.). Women and Religion in Medieval England. Oxford: Oxbow. pp141–65 ISBN 1-84217-098-8
  • Watt, Diane, Secretaries of God. Cambridge UK: D S Brewer, 1997.
  • Watt, Diane, Medieval Women's Writing. Cambridge UK: Polity, 2007.

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