Margery of Kempe
Margery of Kempe
Circa 1373-Circa 1440
Laywoman and autobiographer
A Fulfilled Life. Margery of Kempe wrote the first English-language autobiography, commonly known as The Book of Margery Kempe (1436-1438), which relates the spiritual aspirations of a bourgeois laywoman through her mystical experiences, pilgrimages, and travels to the Holy Land, Italy, Spain, and Germany. Kempe was born circa 1373 at King's Lynn in Norfolk, England, of middle-class parents. Her father was locally active as mayor of Lynn. She married John Kempe around 1393. By the age of forty she had given birth to fourteen children and negotiated a joint vow of chastity with her husband thereafter. She was active in commercial society, having organized public work, invested capital, and run a brewing business. The last references to her occur in 1438 when she was admitted to the prestigious Guild of the Trinity, and she is mentioned again the following year. The original manuscript of her life has been lost, but it was available at Mount Grace Priory, Yorkshire, in the late Middle Ages, where several local monks added their individual comments in the margins of the text. In 1501 Wynkyn de Worde published excerpts of her book in pamphlet form. The British Library holdings include a fifteenth-century copy of her manuscript.
Visions Interpreted. Recent scholarship has revitalized understanding of her text by placing it within fifteenth-century devotional practices that focused upon corporal images of Christ. These images derived from the visual arts and drama. Margery's visions reflected habits of mind that evoked such representations as a form of devotional theater. They showed a pervasive verbal and typological indebtedness to the Meditationes vitae Christi, translated by Nicholas Love in 1410. This evidence refutes scholarly opinions that her experiences were aberrant or pathological. Her visions paid tribute to popular late-medieval texts, images, and relics as well as folk ritual magic found in mystery plays. Margery's visions included themes of conception and childbirth. In one she offers to assist St. Anne in the care of the infant Mary. When Mary wrapped her own son, Christ, in swaddling clothes, Margery received permission to do so as well. The associations between Christ's birth and death were made clear to Margery when she saw that Mary used the swaddling clothes to wrap Christ's nude body at his crucifixion. These domestic experiences are made real through Margery's visit to the Lower Church of St. Francis at Assisi where she saw the relic of the Virgin Mary's veil. Further ties with folk ritual practice are evident in her story of a woman traveling to Rome with two Franciscan friars. The woman placed an image of the Christ child on the lap of respectable wives who dress and kiss it, at which Margery was seized with sweet devotions and meditations. This female ritual evoked fruitfulness and protection from the dangers of childbirth through meditations on the events of the Nativity. These examples demonstrate how popular piety and gender informed the creation of and response to religious art.
Validating Life. Margery's text has generated scholarly discussion about its relation to the English mystical tradition and saints’ lives narratives. More recently, studies have emphasized how her autobiography relates to a search by the urban middle class for a positive and powerful identity in the late Middle Ages. Margery's narrative represents this profound dilemma of searching for spiritual validation while remaining an active member of mercantile society. It also reveals how religious authorities expressed diverse and competing views about female spirituality. Her text provided its own authorization of her claims to sanctity, evading the Church's attempts to control religious experiences. It provided a place for the female laity's experiences to be heard. Ecclesiastical and aristocratic ideologies that privileged withdrawal from the active life were challenged by lay literacy as well as religious and political reform. Margery's behaviors (such as her loud weeping) and the assertive positions outlined in her text are resolved through the affirmations she receives in her conversations with Christ and his mother. These dialogues reinterpret social and religious conventions in ways that reflect the needs of lay piety validating the active life as a means to holiness.
Mysticism and Hagiography. The book begins with an account of her spiritual crisis after the birth of her first child, the visions she receives of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and her conversations and interactions with them. Descriptions of her pilgrimages refer to the distrust of orthodoxy she encountered from religious authorities, churchgoers, and pilgrims. The historical figures she met, and their conversations, create a fascinating picture of fourteenth-century English religious culture. For instance, Margery visited the English mystic and recluse Dame Julian of Norwich, to inquire anxiously whether her own experiences were genuine. Her knowledge of the lives of other female mystics, such as Blessed Angela of Foligno (1249-1309) and Dorothea of Montau (1347-1394), clarify their place as role models. Margery's vocabulary demonstrates familiarity with popular fourteenth-century mystic texts. Throughout the autobiography her descriptions of encounters with ecclesiastical figures and the responses of the priest who served as a scribe for her words affirm that the work is a self-consciously calculated hagiographic text. As a primary source document of a self-proclaimed visionary and mystic her book represents a rare opportunity to study the interaction of popular piety and gender.
Kathleen Ashley, “Historicizing Margery: The Book of Margery Kempe as Social Text,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 28 (Spring 1998): 371-388.
Gail McMurray Gibson, The Theater of Devotion: East Anglican Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe, translated by B. A. Windeatt (Harmondsworth, U.K: Penguin, 1985; New York: Viking/Penguin, 1985).