KEMPE, MARGERY (c. 1373–c.1440), English pilgrim, autobiographer, and professional holy woman. Kempe was the daughter of a prosperous merchant of King's Lynn, England. Although happily married, she tended to have hysterical fits during which God spoke to her. At about the age of forty, having had fourteen children, she persuaded her husband that God wished them to take a vow of chastity. By this time the Deity was conversing agreeably with her nearly every day. Her meditations tended to concentrate on the Passion and to bring on wild lamentations, uncontrollable floods of tears, and rollings on the ground. These were widely acceptable signs of grace in the Middle Ages, but there were always some who declared her a fraud. Such charges were dangerous, as they several times led to her arrest as a heretic and a narrow escape from burning. For about twenty-five years, Kempe was a perpetual pilgrim, visiting not only every shrine in England but also the Holy Land, Rome, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and various northern German centers, gradually establishing a reputation as a prophetess and seer among the less learned.
Kempe's importance for history lies in her autobiography, the first in English, a book intended for the edification of nuns. Although full of moralizing and sermons, it has a saving shrewdness and interest in the world. In the course of her travels, Kempe had numerous alarming encounters and met a host of people, from the archbishops of Canterbury and York, the holy Julian of Norwich, and innumerable friars to a wide range of fellow pilgrims and lesser government officials. It was her wish to write a mystical treatise, such as the famous Cloud of Unknowing, but what she did, in her autobiography, was to lay the fifteenth-century world before the reader in all its violence and piety; its blend of the spiritual and the venal, ignorance and learning, feudalism, democracy, and petty officialdom; its magnificence and utter filth. Here is the authentic background to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. No other medieval document enables one so clearly to realize what it was actually like for a humble pilgrim to live and to travel in fifteenth-century Europe.
The Book of Margery Kempe, edited by Hope E. Allen and Sanford B. Meech (London, 1940), is the text dictated by Kempe to a priest about 1438, in the original spelling and fully annotated. The narrative is confused in many places, and the reader will be greatly assisted by the only modern study, Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe, by Louise Collis (New York, 1964), also published under the title The Apprentice Saint (London, 1964). This biography places Kempe's adventures in their proper historical perspective, relating them to the wider political, social, and religious issues of the day.
Louise Collis (1987)
English mystic and author of The Book of Margery Kempe, the oldest extant autobiography in English; b. Lynn, Norfolk, c. 1373; d. sometime after 1439. The daughter of John Brunham, who was five times mayor of Lynn, she married John Kempe, burgess, in 1393. Vain and ambitious, she tried to support her extravagances by trade, first by brewing, then by a horsemill. The failure of both undertakings, together with an attack of madness suffered after the birth of her first child, turned her gradually to prayer and penance. The madness, which did not recur, was cured, she tells us, by a vision of Christ seated on her bed and saying: "Dowtyr why hast thou forsakyn me and I forsoke never the."
In 1413, having borne her husband 14 children, she separated from him by mutual consent, to live a religious life in the world. Soon after, having visited many English shrines and holy persons (among them Julian of Norwich), she set out for the Holy Land. On her return journey she spent six months in Italy (1414–15), where she was better understood than among the English pilgrims, who did not appreciate her unusual vocation—"boystrous" crying, exclusively religious conversation, and rebuke of her neighbors' faults. Throughout her life she suffered taunts of Lollardy that occasionally developed into formal accusations. In 1417–18 she visited Santiago de Compostela. In 1425 she returned to Lynn to nurse her husband until his death in 1431. Thereafter, she traveled to Norway and Danzig (1433–34).
Unable to write herself, she had set down by the aid of two clerks, c. 1431–38, a vivid and frank account of her travels, temptations, mystical experiences, and deep compassion for sinners. Her book, known only in extracts till 1934, when a manuscript was discovered in the Butler-Bowden family, has undoubted value as a literary and human document, and as a picture of medieval life. Margery herself remains a controversial figure: by some considered a victim of religious mania; by others, a genuine mystic.
Bibliography: The Book of Margery Kempe, critical ed. s. b. meech and h. e. allen (Early English Text Society 212; 1940); modernized version ed. w. butler-bowdon (New York 1944). e.i. watkin, "In Defense of Margery Kempe," Poets and Mystics (New York 1953) 104–135. d. knowles, "Margery Kempe," The English Mystical Tradition (New York 1961) 138–150. l. collis, Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe (New York 1983).
[m. n. maltman]
Sandra M. Dunkin