Last reviewed: June 2018
Bishop's Lynn (now King's Lynn), Norfolk, England
The manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe was discovered in 1934 in the library of a private house; previously it was known only through extracts printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501 and reprinted by Henry Pepwell in 1521 in a collection of mystical writings. Although these early selections refer to Kempe as “anchoress,” the rediscovered manuscript—a close copy of the original—describes in vivid detail how, while remaining secular, Kempe adopted the life of a mystic and pilgrim and how this new role provoked her subsequent encounters with a largely scornful public. The Book of Margery Kempe is a unique kind of spiritual autobiography, and as such it is generally held to be the first autobiography in the English language. Kempe, however, like most middle-class women of her day, was illiterate, and so she dictated the work to two scribes, who may in some sense deserve the status of collaborators. Moreover, the book characteristically describes Kempe not in the first person but rather as “this creature.” Thus if Kempe’s book is to be regarded as autobiography, her readers’ expectations for the genre must be carefully qualified.
What is known of Kempe’s life comes largely from the book itself, although some independent facts about her life can be ascertained from archives, such as the fact that her father, named in the text as John Brunham, was five times mayor of Lynn. Because some of her activities can be specifically dated and because she refers to her age at one of these, her birth has been placed in or around 1373. The Book of Margery Kempe begins with an account of her marriage, when she was twenty “or somewhat more,” and describes the birth of her first child, after which she lapsed into a madness characterized by visions of devils and by self-mutilation. A vision of Christ ends this episode, and, after a brief period of waywardness, Kempe’s life is occupied with visions and conversations with God, and with the devout weeping which is the hallmark of her particular brand of piety.
Most of The Book of Margery Kempe describes Kempe’s life from about the age of forty onward. She says that she had fourteen children (although only one, her son, is discussed) but that she knew God wanted her to live a celibate life. After several attempts to make her husband see this point of view, she finally gets him to agree to a chaste life on condition that she pay his debts before going on a pilgrimage. This she does, and the book follows her to the Holy Land, where she has a vision of Christ’s crucifixion, and on to Rome, where she experiences a mystical marriage to God in the church of the Holy Apostles, with Mary and all the angels attending. These pilgrimages are uncomfortable for Kempe because of the treatment she endures at the hands of her fellow pilgrims, who tease and torment her. Her loud sobbing and rolling on the ground must have made her a difficult companion, but Kempe sees her persecution as being like that of the Christian martyrs and even of Christ himself; it is worth suffering because of the heavenly reward it brings.
Many of Kempe’s mystical visions are in the tradition of affective piety made popular by Richard Rolle and Walter Hilton; she also met the mystic Julian of Norwich and was familiar with the life and work of Saint Bridget of Sweden. These writers form a context for Kempe’s book that should make her loud and constant weeping and wailing for Christ’s passion and her intimate conversations with God seem less extraordinary. In fact, it seems that Kempe may have modeled her life story on those of the holy women whom she admired and whose stories had been read to her by priests. For example, she mentions Marie d’Oignies, a French mystic who wept so much that streams of water regularly came out of her eyes. Marie thus supplies an important precedent for Kempe’s gift of “holy tears.”
After her return to England, Kempe travels about wearing the white clothing and a ring betokening the spiritual state that she had earlier been granted by the bishop of Lincoln. Despite these external signs of piety, she is arrested and accused of heresy, but she always manages to talk herself out of situations, even when her interlocutor is the archbishop of Canterbury. On her journeys she meets several other famous ecclesiastical figures and visits the Brigittine convent at Syon. Back in Lynn, she achieves a growing reputation for predicting the future through her “feelings,” as she calls them—a word that she also uses to describe her continuing colloquies with God. Kempe visits all the usual pilgrimage venues in England and Europe, such as Compostella and Walsingham, and at the age of sixty accompanies her daughter-in-law on a hazardous journey to Prussia. The book concludes after this trip with several “prayers of the creature” to leave her readers with spiritual guidance.
When The Book of Margery Kempe was first discovered in the 1930’s, it was roundly dismissed as the work of a hysteric. Kempe’s“neuroses” were the focus of criticism until feminist reappraisal in the 1980’s explored her response to contemporary religious practice and her characterization of self.