Kempe, Margery: Primary Sources

views updated



SOURCE: Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe, translated by B. A. Windeatt, pp. 161-67. London: Penguin, 1985.

In the following excerpt from The Book of Margery Kempe, written c. 1436, Kempe relates her examination by the archbishop. Kempe addresses the charge that she should refrain from sharing her revelations with others because she is a woman; she also upbraids the clerics who attack her for speaking out, causing many of them to change their minds about her.

There was a monk who was going to preach in York, and who had heard much slander and much evil talk about the said creature. And when he was going to preach, there was a great crowd of people to hear him, and she present with them. And so when he was launched into his sermon, he repeated many matters so openly that people saw perfectly well it was on account of her, at which her friends who loved her were very sorry and upset because of it, and she was much the merrier, because she had something to try her patience and her charity, through which she trusted to please our Lord Christ Jesus.

When the sermon was over, a doctor of divinity who had great love for her, together with many other people as well, came to her and said, 'Margery, how have you got on today?'

'Sir,' she said, 'very well indeed, God be blessed. I have reason to be very happy and glad in my soul that I may suffer anything for his love, for he suffered much more for me.'

Shortly afterwards, a man who was also devoted to her came with his wife and other people, and escorted her seven miles from there to the Archbishop of York, and brought her into a fair chamber, where there came a good cleric, saying to the good man who had brought her there, 'Sir, why have you and your wife brought this woman here? She will steal away from you, and then she will have brought shame upon you.'

The good man said, 'I dare well say she will remain and answer for herself very willingly.'

On the next day she was brought into the Archbishop's chapel, and many of the Archbishop's household came there scorning her, calling her 'Lollard' and 'heretic', and swore many a horrible oath that she should be burned. And she, through the strength of Jesus, replied to them, 'Sirs, I fear you will be burned in hell without end, unless you correct yourselves of your swearing of oaths, for you do not keep the commandments of God. I would not swear as you do for all the money in this world.'

Then they went away, as if they were ashamed. She then, saying her prayers in her mind, asked for grace to behave that day as was most pleasure to God, and profit to her own soul, and good example to her fellow Christians. Our Lord, answering her, said that everything would go well.

At last the said Archbishop came into the chapel with his clerics, and he said to her abruptly, 'Why do you go about in white clothes? Are you a virgin?'

She, kneeling before him, said, 'No, sir, I am no virgin; I am a married woman.'

He ordered his household to fetch a pair of fetters and said she should be fettered, for she was a false heretic, and then she said, 'I am no heretic, nor shall you prove me one.'

The Archbishop went away and left her standing alone. Then for a long while she said her prayers to our Lord God Almighty to help her and succour her against all her enemies both spiritual and bodily, and her flesh trembled and quaked amazingly, so that she was glad to put her hands under her clothes so that it should not be noticed.

Afterwards the Archbishop came back into the chapel with many worthy clerics, amongst whom was the same doctor who had examined her before, and the monk who had preached against her a little while before in York. Some of the people asked whether she were a Christian woman or a Jew; some said she was a good woman, and some said not.

Then the Archbishop took his seat, and his clerics too, each according to his degree, many people being present. And during the time that people were gathering together and the Archbishop was taking his seat, the said creature stood at the back, saying her prayers for help and succour against her enemies with high devotion, and for so long that she melted all into tears. And at last she cried out loudly, so that the Archbishop, and his clerics, and many people, were all astonished at her, for they had not heard such crying before.

When her crying was passed, she came before the Archbishop and fell down on her knees, the Archbishop saying very roughly to her, 'Why do you weep so, woman?'

She answering said, 'Sir, you shall wish some day that you had wept as sorely as I.'

And then, after the Archbishop had put to her the Articles of our Faith—to which God gave her grace to answer well, truly and readily, without much having to stop and think, so that he could not criticize her—he said to the clerics, 'She knows her faith well enough. What shall I do with her?'

The clerics said, 'We know very well that she knows the Articles of the Faith, but we will not allow her to dwell among us, because the people have great faith in her talk, and perhaps she might lead some of them astray.' Then the Archbishop said to her: 'I am told very bad things about you. I hear it said that you are a very wicked woman.'

And she replied, 'Sir, I also hear it said that you are a wicked man. And if you are as wicked as people say, you will never get to heaven, unless you amend while you are here.'

Then he said very roughly, 'Why you!… What do people say about me?'

She answered, 'Other people, sir, can tell you well enough.'

Then a great cleric with a furred hood said, 'Quiet! You speak about yourself, and let him be.'

Afterwards the Archbishop said to her, 'Lay your hand on the book here before me, and swear that you will go out of my diocese as soon as you can.'

'No, sir,' she said, 'I pray you, give me permission to go back into York to take leave of my friends.'

Then he gave her permission for one or two days. She thought it was too short a time, and so she replied, 'Sir, I may not go out of this diocese so hastily, for I must stay and speak with good men before I go; and I must, sir, with your leave, go to Bridlington and speak with my confessor, a good man, who was the good Prior's confessor, who is now canonized.'

Then the Archbishop said to her, 'You shall swear that you will not teach people or call them to account in my diocese.'

'No, sir, I will not swear,' she said, 'for I shall speak of God and rebuke those who swear great oaths wherever I go, until such time that the Pope and Holy Church have ordained that nobody shall be so bold as to speak of God, for God Almighty does not forbid, sir, that we should speak of him. And also the Gospel mentions that, when the woman had heard our Lord preach, she came before him and said in a loud voice, "Blessed be the womb that bore you, and the teats that gave you suck." Then our Lord replied to her, "In truth, so are they blessed who hear the word of God and keep it." And therefore, sir, I think that the Gospel gives me leave to speak of God.'

'Ah, sir,' said the clerics, 'here we know that she has a devil in her, for she speaks of the Gospel.'

A great cleric quickly produced a book and quoted St Paul for his part against her, that no woman should preach. She, answering to this, said, 'I do not preach, sir; I do not go into any pulpit. I use only conversation and good words, and that I will do while I live.'

Then a doctor who had examined her before said, 'Sir, she told me the worst tale about priests that I ever heard.'

The Archbishop commanded her to tell that tale.

'Sir, by your reverence, I only spoke of one priest, by way of example, who, as I have learned it, went astray in a wood—through the sufferance of God, for the profit of his soul—until night came upon him. Lacking any shelter, he found a fair arbour in which he rested that night, which had a beautiful pear-tree in the middle, all covered in blossom, which he delighted to look at. To that place came a great rough bear, ugly to behold, that shook the pear-tree and caused the blossoms to fall. Greedily this horrible beast ate and devoured those fair flowers. And when he had eaten them, turning his tail towards the priest, he discharged them out again at his rear end.

'The priest, greatly revolted at that disgusting sight and becoming very depressed for fear of what it might mean, wandered off on his way all gloomy and pensive. He happened to meet a good-looking, aged man like a pilgrim, who asked the priest the reason for his sadness. The priest, repeating the matter written before, said he felt great fear and heaviness of heart when he beheld that revolting beast soil and devour such lovely flowers and blossoms, and afterwards discharge them so horribly at his rear end in the priest's presence—he did not understand what this might mean.

'Then the pilgrim, showing himself to be the messenger of God, thus addressed him, "Priest, you are yourself the pear-tree, somewhat flourishing and flowering through your saying of services and administering of sacraments, although you act without devotion, for you take very little heed how you say your matins and your service, so long as it is babbled to an end. Then you go to your mass without devotion, and you have very little contrition for your sin. You receive there the fruit of everlasting life, the sacrament of the altar, in a very feeble frame of mind. All day long afterwards, you spend your time amiss: you give yourself over to buying and selling, bartering and exchanging, just like a man of the world. You sit over your beer, giving yourself up to gluttony and excess, to the lust of your body, through lechery and impurity. You break the commandments of God through swearing, lying, detraction and backbiting gossip, and the practice of other such sins. Thus, through your misconduct, just like the loathsome bear, you devour and destroy the flowers and blossoms of virtuous living, to your own endless damnation and to the hindrance of many other people, unless you have grace for repentance and amending."'

Then the Archbishop liked the tale a lot and commended it, saying it was a good tale. And the cleric who had examined her before in the absence of the Archbishop, said, 'Sir, this tale cuts me to the heart.'

The said creature said to the cleric, 'Ah, worthy doctor, sir, in the place where I mostly live is a worthy cleric, a good preacher, who boldly speaks out against the misconduct of people and will flatter no one. He says many times in the pulpit: "If anyone is displeased by my preaching, note him well, for he is guilty." And just so, sir,' she said to the clerk, 'do you behave with me, God forgive you for it.'

The cleric did not know what he could say to her, and afterwards the same cleric came to her and begged her for forgiveness that he had been so against her. He also asked her specially to pray for him.

And then afterwards the Archbishop said, 'Where shall I get a man who could escort this woman from me?'

Many young men quickly jumped up, and everyone of them said, 'My lord, I will go with her.'

The Archbishop answered, 'You are too young: I will not have you.'

Then a good, sober man of the Archbishop's household asked his lord what he would give him if he would escort her. The Archbishop offered him five shillings, and the man asked for a noble. The Archbishop answering said, 'I will not spend so much on her body.'

'Yes, good sir,' said this creature, 'Our Lord shall reward you very well for it.'

Then the Archbishop said to the man, 'See, here is five shillings, and now escort her fast out of this area.'

She, kneeling down on her knees, asked his blessing. He, asking her to pray for him, blessed her and let her go.



Margery Kempe is often compared to fellow female mystic Julian of Norwich, with whom she was acquainted. Both women were criticized for speaking about religion, a subject on which men claimed scripturally based authority. An excerpt from Julian's "Shewings" of 1373 appears below.


For God is all that is good, and God has made all that is made, and God loves everything that He has made; and if any man or woman keeps his love from any of his fellow Christians, he does not love rightly, for he does not love all. And so, for that time, he is not safe, for he is not in peace; and he that loves his fellow Christians in general, he loves all that is. For in mankind that is to be saved is comprehended all, that is, all that is made and the maker of all; for God is in man, and so in man is all. And he that thus generally loves all his fellow Christians, he loves all; and he that so loves, he is saved. And thus I will love, and thus I do love, and thus I am safe. For I consider myself as in the person of my fellow Christians. And the more I love of this loving while I am here, the more I am akin to the bliss that I shall have in heaven without end—that is God, who of His endless love willed to become our brother and suffer for us. And I am sure that he that sees it thus, he shall be truly taught and mightily comforted, if he needs comfort.

But God forbid that you should say or take it that I am a teacher, for I do not mean that, no I never meant so. For I am a woman, ignorant, feeble, and frail. But know well, this that I saye; I have it of the showing of Him who is the sovereign teacher. But truly charity stirs me to tell you of it. For I would that God were known and my fellow Christians sped, as I would be myself, to hate sin more and love God more. Because I am a woman, should I therefore believe that I should not tell you the goodness of God, since I saw in that same time that it is His will that it be known? And that you shall see well in what follows, if it is well and truly understood. Then you shall soon forget me, a wretch; and do this so that I do not hamper you—and behold Jesus, who is the teacher of all.

Julian of Norwich. Excerpt from The Shewings of Julian of Norwich, pp. 207-08. Edited by Georgia Ronan Crampton. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval

Institute Publications for TEAMS, 1994.

Then she, going back again to York, was received by many people, and by very worthy clerics, who rejoiced in our Lord, who had given her—uneducated as she was—the wit and wisdom to answer so many learned men without shame or blame, thanks be to God.


SOURCE: Kempe, Margery. "Margery Kempe's visit to Julian of Norwich." In The Shewings of Julian of Norwich, edited by Georgia Ronan Crampton, pp. 211. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Publishing Institute, 1994.

In the following excerpt from her Book Kempe describes her visit to fellow female mystic Julian of Norwich.

And then she was bade by our Lord to go in the same city to an anchoress who is called Lady Julian. And so she did, and showed her the grace of compunction, contrition, sweetness and devotion, compassion with holy meditation and high contemplation that God had instilled in her soul, and many holy speeches and conversations that our Lord spoke to her soul; and she showed the anchoress many wonderful revelations in order to know if there were any deceit in them, for the anchoress was expert in such things and could give good counsel. The anchoress, hearing this marvelous goodness of our Lord, thanked God highly with all her heart for his visitation, counseling this creature to be obedient to the will of our Lord God and with all her might fulfill whatever he put in her soul, if it were not against the worship of God and welfare of her fellow Christians; for, if it were, then it would not be the moving of a good spirit but rather of an evil spirit. The Holy Ghost never moves anything against charity, and if he did, he would be contrary to his very being, for he is all charity. Also, he moves the soul to perfect chastity, for those living chastely are called the temple of the Holy Ghost. And the Holy Ghost makes a soul stable and steadfast in true faith and right belief. And a man double in soul is always unstable and unsteadfast in all his ways; he that is continually doubting is like the flood of the sea, which is moved and borne about by the wind, and that man is not likely to receive the gifts of God. That creature that has these tokens must steadfastly believe that the Holy Ghost dwells in his soul. And much more, when God visits a creature with tears of contrition, devotion, or compassion, he may and ought to believe that the Holy Ghost is in his soul. Saint Paul says that the Holy Ghost asks for us with mourning and weepings unspeakable, that is to say, he makes us to ask and pray with mournings and weepings so plenteously that the tears cannot be numbered. No evil spirit may give these tokens, for Jerome says that tears torment the devil more than do the pains of hell. God and the devil are forever contraries, and they shall never dwell together in one place. And the devil has no power in a man's soul. Holy Writ says that the soul of a righteous man is the seat of God. And so, I trust, sister, that you are. I pray that God grant you perseverance. Put all your trust in God and do not fear the language of the world, for the more spite, shame, and reproof that you have in the world, the more is your merit in the sight of God. Patience is necessary to you, for in that you shall keep your soul. Much was the holy talk that the anchoress and this creature had in the mutuality of their love of our Lord Jesus Christ the many days that they were together.

About this article

Kempe, Margery: Primary Sources

Updated About content Print Article