Spiritual Classics

The Book of Margery Kempe
(1436)
Margery Kempe

Until the twentieth century, all the world knew of The Book of Margery Kempe were brief extracts taken from the original manuscript, which had been lost. Then in 1934, a full copy of the original book came to light in a private English library*.

The Book is considered the first autobiography in the English language. As RW Chambers has noted in an introduction to the work, nearly every document at the time of its writing was in Latin or French, Latin because it was the tongue of medieval officialdom, and French at the insistence of Britain's Normal rulers after the conquest of 1066. But away from London, where Margery lived, many people even of the middle class had not bothered to be schooled in either official language, and in the author's case she had not learned to read or write at all. Thus her life story was dictated to a scribe in the only tongue she had ever known - vernacular English.

In two parts totaling 99 chapters, the work is even today of substantial length. It charts Margery's transformation from housewife to celebrated mystic, and gives an amazing insight into medieval Britain. No dressed-up 'life of a saint', it is an honest account that she clearly hoped would set the record straight and win over her doubters.

Town princess

Born in 1373, Margery was the daughter of John Brunham, a parliamentarian and five-time Mayor of Bishop's Lynne (now King's Lynn) in Norfolk, a port in the East of England. At the age of 20 she married a young merchant, John Kempe, and quickly became pregnant. The child was the first of 14.

After the birth Margery became mentally ill ('hindered by the devil' as she describes it) and was tied up in her own house for apparently manic behavior involving food. But during one of the episodes she had a vision of Jesus robed in purple silk, who said to her: "Daughter, why hast thou forsaken Me, and I forsook never thee?" The vision, she relates, showed her how close God is even in our deepest tribulations, and brought her back to sanity.

Yet the visitation was not really enough to make her change her ways. She continued to wear flashy dresses so that men might find her attractive, and liked to boast of her 'high-born' relatives. In her own words: "She would not take heed of any chastisement, nor be content with the goods that God had sent her, as her husband was, but ever desired more and more." For the sake of 'pure covetousness' (i.e. greed) she started a brewery, quite a substantial operation, but after a few years lost much money over it. When later her mill also failed due to the non-cooperation of the horses, Margery took it as a sign of God's displeasure with her, and vowed to walk the way of the Lord from then on.

Chaste goodwife

While lying in bed with her husband one night, Margery heard a beautiful, heavenly melody. This celestial music made her wonder why she had ever sinned, and from that point on she would often declaim: "It is full merry in Heaven." The incident had the effect of turning her off sex, and she told her husband that from now on her thoughts and devotion would be only to God. He respected her sentiment, and agreed they should give up their lovemaking - "but not yet". Margery continued to let him have his way, but her heart was somewhere else. She fasted and wore a hair shirt, and continually wept for her sins, often to the extreme annoyance of people who believed she was just 'turning it on' to attract attention. This inevitably lost her the friendship of many who preferred the old Margery.

Things come to a head with her husband when they are walking along a roadside in the heat of the summer. John asks Margery a hypothetical question: if a man came along and threatened to cut off his head unless they returned to their normal sex life, what would she choose? When she replies that she would rather see him slain, he says 'Ye are no good wife'. But they strike a bargain in which he agrees not to make advances on her - while she agrees to pay off his debts before heading off on a pilgrimage.

Margery feels that she has now transcended the vain wants of the world, and that "all fleshly lust had wholly been quenched in her". Though she has some further temptations, God lets her know He is supporting her and she becomes celibate for good. Some years later her husband finally gets the message and also takes a vow of chastity.

Tears and travels

Margery was famous for two things: her fits of weeping and her travels. Yet it was not until her forties, having had the 14 children, that she began her roving life of pilgrimage and visits to meet well-known church figures and mystics. In 1414 she journeyed to the Holy Land and also spent time in Rome for the canonization of her beloved St Bridget, returning home the following year. In 1417 she sailed for Spain and took a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, and in her later infirm years again crossed seas on pilgrimages to Aachen and Danzig. She also traveled to holy sites and churches within England. These travels were generally undertaken alone and in discomfort, and usually with little money.

Margery was not able to control her tearful visions of Jesus on the cross, and people naturally thought - given the woman she had been - that the crying fits were either a false display, or worse, the work of the devil. Even now we may think the outbursts to have been the work of a drama queen, but as Barry Windeatt (The Book of Margery Kempe, Penguin, 1985. Introduction by Barry Windeatt) has noted, this expression of divine calling was not uncommon in her era. The French mystic Mary of Oignies (d. 1213) was a weeper, as was Blessed Angela of Foligno (1249-1309) and Dorothea of Montau (1347-94). The last two, like Margery, had been mothers and wives.

Proving her case

Margery was also accused of being a Lollard, a heretic who wanted to reform the church, which at the time was punishable by burning at the stake. She relates a journey taken to York where she was detained by the Archbishop for fear of corrupting the townsfolk. She was made to answer on the articles of faith, but was luckily well-versed in church dogma and was allowed to leave town. Although unlettered, she notes that she could equal 'in wit and wisdom' the learned clerks and priests of the time.

Such independence and defiance, at a time when most English women were at home weaving, made Margery a threat to the established order, and for her pains she was scorned, ridiculed and threatened. She had to continually prove that she was indeed a woman of God, and the Book is filled with the efforts of 'this creature', as she describes herself, to win people over.

In reading Margery's story it is difficult not to also think of Teresa of Avila, who a century later had uncontrollable 'raptures', or visions of Jesus, and had to defend herself against male church skeptics. Teresa used famously sensual language to describe her love for the Lord, and in the Book Margery reveals a similar sort of love. She recounts a conversation with Jesus in which he apparently said to her: "My dearworthy daughter, I swear by My Majesty that I shall never forsake thee. And, daughter, the more shame, despite, and reproof that thou sufferest for My love, the better I love thee, for I am like a man that loveth well his wife."

These comforting words from an invisible presence were all Margery needed to continue her new Christian life. They enabled her to hold her head high and stick to her spiritual guns.

The Lord's lover

The Book does not contain much reflection by Margery on her life as a whole, but in simply getting it down on paper she is able to show how a vain and prideful harridan could be turned into a woman of God. She looks back with horror at her former vanities and lax morality.

This objectivity could only have been won, you would think, if she had indeed seen and felt real spiritual truths. Margery lived at the same time as the famous 'anchoress' (saintly recluse) Julian of Norwich, and the Book records their meeting. Julian wrote the classic meditation Revelations of Divine Love, and was clearly Margery's superior in theological learning and insight, but Margery's book also contains many subtle theological points that you would not expect from an illiterate woman. In Margery, God finds not a mindless devotee but one who is prepared to actually think about her faith and the impact that it has had on her life.

Final word

At a time when demure piety was the model of a good woman, Margery Kempe was clearly a 'handful', and her outspoken nature got in the way of her credibility. Yet the beauty of her story is that spiritual insight can come to anyone, not just the quietly devout, and the Book is one of literature's outstanding accounts of transformation through religion.

The Book is not a modern-style autobiography where everything happens in neat chronological order, so it takes some getting used to. Those who persevere will find it frequently amusing and a unique first-hand view into pre-Shakespearean England, when the great Catholic monasteries still stood and before the institution of Protestantism under Henry VIII. Some editions are written in a more contemporary style, but this has to be weighed against loss of some of the rich medieval feeling of the original language.

The Book ends abruptly with Margery back home in Lynn, where she lived into her sixties. Her husband had become senile and died some time before her.

*The library of my grandfather, Col. William Butler-Bowdon, whose translation of The Book of Margery Kempe from Middle English was published in 1936 by Jonathan Cape.

 

Source: 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose, Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)

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From The Book of Margery Kempe:

"And so it was twenty years and more from the time this creature had her first feelings and revelations, ere she did any writing. Afterwards, when it pleased Our Lord, He commanded her and charged her that she should get written her feelings and revelations and the form of her living, that His goodness be known to all the world."

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