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Kempe, Margery


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 (141415), 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 141718 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 (143334).

Unable to write herself, she had set down by the aid of two clerks, c. 143138, 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) 104135. d. knowles, "Margery Kempe," The English Mystical Tradition (New York 1961) 138150. l. collis, Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe (New York 1983).

[m. n. maltman]

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