Kempe, Margery (c. 1373–after 1438)

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Kempe, Margery (c. 1373–after 1438)

Religious pilgrim, mystic, and author of the oldest extant autobiography in the English language, a document known only in a severely excerpted form until the discovery of the full manuscript in 1934 which led to a reassessment of her controversial spiritual life and her position in the Western mystical tradition. Name variations: Margery Burnham Kempe; Margerie Kempe. Pronunciation: Kemp. Born Margery Burnham around 1373 at King's Lynn (then Bishop's Lynn) in the county of Norfolk, England; died in King's Lynn sometime after 1438; daughter of John Burnham, or de Brunham (five times mayor, alderman of the merchant guild, six times member of Parliament, coroner, and justice of the peace); nothing is known of her mother; married John Kempe (a tax-collector, miller, and brewer), around 1393; children: 14, about whom little is known; wrote with the aid of two scribes The Book of Margery Kempe between 1431 and her death.

Margery Kempe's prevailing concern was her own personal relationship to Christ. In her late years, when she was moved to record it, she made no reference to such monumental events of her time as the Hundred Years' War, the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, the spread of plague across Europe known as the Black Death, or the period of the "Babylonian Captivity" during which more than one pope reigned in the Catholic Church; Chaucer and Froissart, the great secular authors of her day, also receive no mention. What Margery Kempe gave to history was her highly personal and detailed account of the spiritual life of a woman of the merchant class living at the end of the Middle Ages, including her religious transformation. Periodically subjected to ostracism and persecution by those who found her emotional displays hypocritical and downright annoying, Kempe believed in the necessity of her suffering for the sake of maintaining her close mystical communication with Christ. She saw herself as a mirror reflecting the Passion, Christ's suffering and death on the cross. By becoming such a mirror, Kempe thought she could lead others to feel deeply the love and devotion she herself felt for her Lord.

Margery Burnham Kempe was born into a family of local prominence at Bishop's Lynn, in the county of Norfolk, England, around the year 1373. Her father was John Burnham, or de Brunham, who was alderman of the merchant guild and five times mayor, as well as coroner, justice of the peace, and a member of Parliament; nothing is known of her mother. At about age 21, Margaret married John Kempe, also a man of good social standing, as a miller, brewer and tax-collector. Kempe's own story begins with her first pregnancy, a dangerous time for any woman in a period when many did not survive childbirth. When the birth became extremely difficult, Kempe grew terrified, her fright compounded by the memory of an old sin she had never confessed to a priest, causing her to fear a death that would cause her to go straight to hell. A priest who had been called in showed her no compassion, and Kempe again neglected to confess the unnamed sin, then fell into an intense hallucinatory state, scratching and biting herself as she felt the threat and punishment of demons. As her torture reached the crisis point, she had to be tied to her bed to protect her from suicide.

In the mystical tradition, such deep spiritual suffering can be viewed as a "dark night of the soul." Passing through this difficult phase, the mystic can reach an "illumination" which allows a kind of direct communication, or union, with the absolute divinity that the mystic recognizes as God. Such via negativa mysticism, exemplified by Saint John of the Cross and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a medieval work, has traditionally been regarded more highly than more emotional, affective mysticism. Biographer Clarissa W. Atkinson warns against seeing the experience of Margery Kempe as closely allied to this type of spiritual approach which emphasizes the emptying of mind and senses to allow the soul to receive the divine. According to Atkinson, Kempe's form of mysticism preserved her own will and individual self in a way that meant she "was never very far from God, but neither was her soul 'merged' with the divine." Kempe's visions, which extended from this early period throughout her life, took the form of conversations with Christ, while her emotions helped her "to participate in divine experience through the humanity she shared with Christ."

What is particularly significant about Kempe's place in the mystical tradition is that her record of her spiritual life, The Book of Margery Kempe, was lost for five centuries, except for a severely excerpted portion, including some prayers, which was brought into print in 1501 by Wynkyn de Worde. As Karma Lochrie, another scholar interested in Kempe has noted, the absence of her full manuscript "meant that scholars constructed the story of medieval mysticism without her."

In any case, the full autobiographical work reveals that Jesus Christ appeared to Kempe, when she had reached her lowest point, bringing her safety, joy, forgiveness, peace and love. Her dramatic recovery from "madness" that followed had the appearance of a miracle, in which the young woman's formerly bizarre behavior gave way to a seemingly balanced, lucid and controlled normalcy. At this stage in the narrative, her account reveals a little of the social context of Kempe's life, when she began to show a returned interest in spending money for stylish clothes, resuming a satisfying physical relationship with her husband, and even to chide her husband as one who was beneath her socially. The impact of her salvation experience was meanwhile not forgotten. When Kempe became involved in two business ventures, as a brewer and later as a miller, she took her failures as a sign of punishment from God for her vanity and voluptuousness in seeking profitable means to support her extravagant material desires. Then, after several years, she began to take up the idea of being specially chosen by Christ and wanting to dedicate herself to loving him.

Our Lord would say [to me]…daughter, I have ordained thee to be a mirror amongst them, to have great sorrow, so that they should take example by thee, and have some little sorrow in their hearts for their sins, so that they might there-through be saved.

—Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe never took up the cloistered life, and in her marriage to John Kempe she gave birth to 14 children. At some point during these years, she had an experience of music that she found so spiritual, she thought she was hearing the sounds of paradise. Moved by this, she approached her husband about her desire to live a more spiritual life, proposing that they live together in chastity. John Kempe at first refused to agree, while Margery took up a regimen of penance, fasting, and prayer that became a disruption to the family, and persisted in weeping whenever she heard music that recalled the sounds of her heavenly vision. At her parish church of St. Margaret's, she took to crying out, weeping and throwing herself onto the floor, displaying passionate, almost erotic, behavior common to the ecstatic mystical tradition known at that time on the European Continent. In Bishop's Lynn, Kempe's behavior made her an outlandish spectacle, subjected to gossip and avoided by many, while John Kempe continued to insist on his marital rights, and the family grew. Kempe's book, written years later, includes almost nothing, however, about the family.

In the 15th century, eccentric behavior like Kempe's could be dangerous, attracting charges of religious heresy. In 1417, after her theatrical outbursts had begun to include the chiding of parishioners and priests for their spiritual failings, she was arrested twice and tried for Lollardy. The Lollards were followers of John Wycliffe, active during the late 14th and early-15th centuries, who were denounced as heretics, and burned, primarily for their denial of the orthodoxy of transubstantiation (the communion wafer and wine offered during Mass were believed to become the actual body and blood of Christ). Lollards also denounced the clergy as corrupt and accepted lay people in the reading and interpreting of scripture, preaching, and administering the sacraments. Kempe's behavior was not found to be heretical, but socially it remained extreme. Still eager to declare herself spiritually wedded to Christ by observing marital chastity, she prayed to the Lord for a miracle to change her circumstances. When one was not forthcoming, she succumbed to temptation, finding herself attracted to a young man she saw outside her church. Coldly rebuffed when she offered to spend the night with him, she attributed the pain she felt to punishment for her presumptuousness in expecting a miracle.

Taking a more conventional approach, Kempe next sought the advice of the saintly vicar of St. Stephen's of Norwich and attained an audience with the famous anchoress Julian of Norwich , renowned for her piety and intellect. Julian spent her days mostly in prayer and silence, living the more traditional spiritual life of a religious recluse, never leaving her cell. It was a contemplative existence that allowed a woman to express religious enthusiasm in a hidden, and therefore acceptable, way. In Julian, Kempe found considerable support for her claim to grace, and began to undertake a number of spiritual pilgrimages, first in England, and then to Jerusalem, Rome, Germany, and Spain.

In England, Kempe was accompanied on her travels by her husband John, who still resisted the idea of ending their physical relation. But by 1413, when they had been married 20 years, and Margery Kempe was probably 40, the couple had struck a bargain: if Margery, who had come into an inheritance from her father, would pay her husband's debts and agree to join him for dinner on Fridays instead of observing her regular fasts on that day, John would live with her in chasteness. That year, the couple took their vow of chastity before the bishop of Lincoln, and in 1414 Kempe departed on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Visiting Jerusalem and the sites where Jesus had been born, lived and died, Kempe drew startled attention with her public tears and bellowing cries. Moving on to Rome, she earned further derision when she declared her chastity and espousal to Christ by wearing white clothes—a practice at the time considered unthinkable for a married woman—and a ring signifying her love for Jesus.

Abroad, Kempe aroused the same suspicions of hypocrisy, or worse, that neighbors in Lynn had ascribed to her. In the Middle Ages, many pilgrims undertook their excursions for more than the spiritual benefits that would accrue. All would receive a plenary indulgence from the Church meant to guarantee a swift passage to heaven at the time of their death, without a sojourn in purgatory. Besides this spiritual insurance policy, pilgrims could see the world and gain the admiration of their acquaintances. Among those who made the trip with Kempe, there were those who were comfortably devout but had come to expect some leisure away from constant prayer and self-edification. Such companions objected to Kempe's insistence on injecting her devotions into dinner conversation, or found her extravagant expressions of emotion irritating at every holy stop. Expelled from the group more than once, she was always taken back into their company, since even her worst critics were not sure of the weight carried by her devoutness. Once, when she decided to wait for another ship, they even delayed their sea passage to accompany her. Given the precariousness of medieval travel, it was not wise to flaunt a possible messenger of God, who might embody their protection against disaster.

Around 1431, Kempe ended her travels, returning home to stay after a fall left her husband paralyzed and in need of her care. Approaching the age of 60, she now considered making a record of her spiritual life, and, in one of her exchanges with Christ, she believed she received assurance that the time spent nursing John Kempe was equal in grace to the time she would otherwise have spent in meditation and prayer. Such work takes on what Susan Dickman refers to as "'active' versions of the quasi-religious life." In this path to holiness that she pursued, as opposed to the more widely accepted contemplative ideal, Kempe's life lends witness to the growing change from the medieval approach, separating the secular from the clerical, to a new spiritual culture which included those laity who wished to lead lives imbued with pious observance.

The dictation of Margery Kempe's autobiography began in 1432, the year after the martyrdom of another religious eccentric, Joan of Arc , in France. Kempe lived until the book was finished, in 1438, but nothing beyond that date is known. In 1501, she had probably been dead a half-century, when some of Kempe's prayers were printed by Wynkyn de Worde, demonstrating not only the spread of devotional reading among the laity, but their profitability for printers. In one sense, Kempe's life, from early on, represents the Renaissance spirit of the Reformation, in its emphasis on a personal relationship with Christ, bypassing the interpretative powers of the clergy. At another level, however, Kempe clearly remained a medieval woman, staunchly orthodox and firmly entrenched in affective piety, a tradition inspired in large part by Saint Francis of Assisi and marked by an intense emotional emphasis on the human aspects of the life of Jesus. Despite the lack of sympathy she often received from acquaintances, she always had the clear support of the mainstream clergy, who were happy to support her brand of devotion, and especially the pain of humiliation she was willing to welcome as penance that brought her closer to Christ. Traveling on the Continent, however, where the seeds of sophisticated Renaissance thinking were already sown, her out-ward displays of devotion must often have seemed a bit anachronistic and quaint. And since the discovery of her complete work, in 1934, critics have had difficulty trying to fit her strongly individualistic brand of spirituality into the traditional canon of medieval mysticism.

Influenced by holy women of her times, such as Catherine of Siena , Bridget of Sweden , Mary of Oignies and Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe probably did not differ from many lay women who were attracted both to pursuing a pious life and remaining in the world. What distinguishes her, and also makes her controversial, is the intimate portrait of her spiritual life that is offered by her autobiographical work, with its clearly delineated attributes of a particularly proud and egotistical, over-achieving, frenzied, and even schizophrenic woman. The document itself presents scholars with further difficulties. Like most women of her time, Margery Kempe was apparently illiterate, but also well-to-do enough to engage two scribes, who were most likely priests, to provide the autobiographical portrait of her as a specially chosen daughter of Christ. The fact of dictation, however, also blurs the convenient distinctions between biography and autobiography, hagiography, and mystical treatise. Recent feminist readings, including the one initiated by Hope Emily Allen , have begun to evaluate Margery Kempe anew. Past views of her, as primarily a misfit, have now been broadened for a more generous reading of her qualities, as a strong and ambitious individual, deeply spiritual but complex, whose fully assessed nature is likely to stimulate reappraisal, and even historic revision, of the Western mystical tradition and European medieval bourgeois culture.


Atkinson, Clarissa W. Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and World of Margery Kempe. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Edited and translated by William Butler-Bowden. NY: Devin-Adair, 1944.

——. The Book of Margery Kempe. Edited by Sanford B. Meech and Hope Emily Allen. London: Oxford University Press, 1940 (reprinted, 1961).

Cholmeley, Katharine. Margery Kempe: Genius and Mystic. NY: Longmans, Green, 1947.

Dickman, Susan. "Margery Kempe and the Continental Tradition of the Pious Woman," in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England: Papers Read at Dartington Hall, July 1984. Edited by Marion Glasscoe. London: D.S. Brewer, 1984.

——. "Margery Kempe and the English Devotional Tradition," in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England: Papers Read at The Exeter Symposium, July 1980. Edited by Marion Glasscoe. Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies. General editor M.J. Swanton. University of Exeter, 1980.

Holbrook, Sue Ellen. "Margery Kempe and Wynkyn de Worde," in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England: Papers read at Dartington Hall, July 1987. Exeter Symposium IV. Edited by Marion Glasscoe. London: D.S. Brewer, 1987.

Lochrie, Karma. Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Riehle, Wolfgang. The Middle English Mystics. Translated by Bernard Standring. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

Stone, Robert Karl. Middle English Prose Style: Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich. The Hague: Mouton, 1970.

Watkin, E.I. "On Julian of Norwich and In Defence of Margery Kempe," in Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies. General Editor M.J. Swanton. University of Exeter, 1979.

suggested reading:

Collis, Louise. Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe. NY: Harper & Row, 1983.

Claudia Marie Kovach , Professor of English and French, Neumann College, Aston, Pennsylvania