by Audra Cox
Margery Kempe wrote what she believed to be the first woman’s autobiography of her time entitled, The Book of Margery Kempe. First published in 1501, this story details Kempe’s personal experience with spiritual warfare, celibacy, traveling across Europe and the Middle East, and attempting to live in as saintly a way as possible. The only surviving manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe belonged to Carthusians at Mount Grace Priory in Yorkshire in the 15th century. The annotations inside of the manuscript suggest recognition of Margery’s spiritual transcendence. However, when the manuscript was rediscovered in 1934, the response from the religious critics was vastly different (Lawton). The Book of Margery Kempe is believed to be one of the two most important Middle English works written by women–the second being the works of Julian of Norwich (Evans). Being illiterate, Margery dictated the story to her priest, almost twenty years after she started experiencing the “spiritual warfare” she would battle all her life (Medina). Because of this, many people discredit her claims, as the priest could have altered her words to make them more acceptable and aligned with the religious and social beliefs of the time. More recent scholars believe that the character of “Margery Kempe” is at least partially fictional, and speculate that her life might better be taken as a parable (Lawton).
Some details are known of her life: Kempe was born in 1373, in the town of Lynn, England, and was the daughter of John Brunham; the name of her mother went unrecorded. Brunham was the mayor of King’s Lynn many times over, which afforded her a comfortable lifestyle in her early years (Medina). At the age of twenty (1393), Margery married an established businessman, John Kempe. Over the course of their marriage, she gave birth to fourteen children. After the birth of her first child, it is suspected that Kempe may have experienced what is known today as Postpartum Depression, which caused her to hallucinate and act in odd ways which her neighbors interpreted as Satanic possession (Medina). When the season of motherhood passed, and she finally achieved a celibate state after an agreement with her husband, Kempe traveled around England, then across Europe and the Middle East, stopping at major capitals and religious sites in Rome, Compostela, Prussia and Jerusalem. Her date of death is unknown, but it is speculated that she died sometime after her husband in 1436 (Medina).
Although The Book of Margery Kempe in its entirety is over 336 pages, we focus below on the most commonly excerpted chapters which cover the birth of her first child, her attempt (and failure) as a business owner, coming to an agreement about celibacy with her husband, and her pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Her story begins with a pregnancy, shortly after marriage, and the birth of her first child. . Soon after she’s given birth, she is plagued with visions of demons, who tempt her into sin, and tell her that God has turned away from her, leaving her to fall endlessly into evil. Kempe is tormented with these events for over two years without relief. She then sends for a confessor so that she may confess her sins and share her inner turmoil, but she is met with criticism and damnation. This event leaves her feeling helpless and alone, causing her to spiral into the temptations of the devil and to live solely in sin. At this time Kempe also experiences self-loathing, and a deep depression that even causes her to attempt to inflict wounds upon herself. One night while she is laying in bed, Jesus comes to her asking “Daughter, why have you forsaken me and I never forsook you?” Believing that Jesus had never left her, Kempe is struck with gratitude for the mercy and grace of God. She then vows to live a life as holy as possible.
After Kempe resolves to live a new and holy lifestyle, she decides that sex is too much of a temptation for her and causes her life to be “unclean”. Convinced living a life of celibacy is the right decision, she goes to her husband John, and pleads with him to allow her to embark on this new journey. Initially, John refuses, stating that he would be forced to commit adultery if they could not sleep together. After some time, John comes up with some conditions that would cause him to give up having sex with his wife, if she agrees. The conditions of turning to a celibate lifestyle were: she would have to pay his debt when she journeyed to Jerusalem and they would have a meal together Friday nights, which would cause Margery to break her fasting. After some praying, she consents to pay his debts, but she refused to break her fasting. John then agrees to these new conditions. She is then overcome with joy that she can finally fulfill this desire she feels God had imprinted upon her.
Sometime later, Kempe journeys around Europe on a spiritual quest. While she is in Jerusalem, her group goes to visit many sacred places. It is at a temple and again at the Mount of Calvary, that she is overcome with vivid images of Jesus being mocked, beaten, and hung on the cross. Overcome by grief, Margery weeps and wails very openly and loudly at the sight of her savior being humiliated. Over the course of her trip, these images and her mourning ensue. Margery, after giving all her money to the poor, begs her way back home. Still she weeps and wails openly causing her neighbors to become distressed.
Evans, Ruth. “Book of Margery Kempe, The (c.1430).” The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English, edited by Lorna Sage, et al., Cambridge University Press, 1st edition, 1999. Credo Reference.
Lawton, D. “Kempe, Margery (c. 1373 – after 1438).” The Bloomsbury Dictionary of English Literature, edited by Marion Wynne-Davies, Bloomsbury, 2nd edition, 1997. Credo Reference. Accessed 20 Mar. 2019.
Medina, Jennifer. “Visionary or Heretic? The Controversial Margery Kempe.” csis.pace.edu. csis.pace.edu/grendel/WS3/WS-researchpaper.wps.htm . Accessed 28 Feb. 2019.
- Was Margery suffering from spiritual warfare, postpartum depression, severe mental illness or something else?
- Do you consider John a supportive husband. Why or why not?
- When John says, “Nay, that I will not grant you, for now I may use you without deadly sin and then might I not so,” in response to Margery asking for John’s consent to living a celibate lifestyle; why does John say “I may use you” ?
- If your spouse started to act like Margery, asking for you to share in a life of celibacy, would you respond like John? How would your response differ?
- What does it mean to have one’s “debt paid” in the context of this reading?
Reading: From The Book of Margery Kempe
The Birth of Her First Child and Her First Vision (excerpt)
When this creature was twenty year of age and somedeal more, she was married to a worshipful burgess and was with child within short time, as kind would. And after that she had conceived she was labored with great accesses till the child was born, and then, what for labor she had in childing and for sickness going before, she despaired of her life, weening she might not live. And then she sent for her ghostly father, for she had a thing in conscience which she had never showed before that time in all her life. For she was ever letted by her enemy, the Devil, evermore saying to her while she was in good heal her needed no confession but [to] do penance by herself alone, and all should be forgiven, for God is merciful enow. And therefore this creature oftentimes did great penance in fasting bread and water and other deeds of alms with devout prayers, save she would not show it in confession. And when she was any time sick or diseased, the Devil said in her mind that she should be damned for she was not shriven of that default. Wherefore after that her child was born she, not trusting her life, sent for her ghostly father, as said before, in full will to be shriven of all her lifetime as near as she could. And, when she came to the point for to say that thing which she had so long concealed, her confessor was a little too hasty and gan sharply to undernim her ere that she had fully said her intent, and so she would no more say for nought he might do.
And anon for dread she had of damnation on that one side and his sharp reproving on that other side, this creature went out of her mind and was wonderly vexed and labored with spirits half year eight weeks and odd days. And in this time she saw, as her thought, devils open their mouths all inflamed with burning lows of fire as they should ‘a swallowed her in, sometime ramping at her, sometime threatening her, sometime pulling her and hauling her both night and day the foresaid time. And also the devils cried upon her with great threatenings and bade her she should forsake her Christendom, her faith, and deny her God, his Mother, and all the saints in Heaven, her good works and all good virtues, her father, her mother, and all her friends.
And so she did. She slandered her husband, her friends, her own self; she spoke many a reprevous word and many a shrewd word; she knew no virtue nor goodness; she desired all wickedness; like as the spirits tempted her to say and do so she said and did. She would ‘a fordone herself many a time at their steering and ‘a been damned with them in Hell, and into witness thereof she bit her own hand so violently that it was seen all her life after. And also she rived her skin on her body again her heart with her nails spiteously, for she had none other instruments, and worse she would ‘a done save she was bound and kept with strength both day and night that she might not have her will.
And when she had long been labored in this and many other temptations that men weened she should never ‘a scaped or lived, then on a time as she lay alone and her keepers were from her, our merciful Lord Christ Jesu, ever to be trusted (worshiped be his name) never forsaking his servant in time of need, appeared to his creature, which had forsaken him, in likeness of a man, most seemly, most beauteous, and most amiable that ever might be seen with man’s eye, clad in amantle of purple silk, sitting upon her bed’s side, looking upon her with so blessed a cheer that she was strengthened in all her spirits, said to her these words: “Daughter, why hast thou forsaken me, and I forsook never thee?” And anon as he had said these words she saw verily how the air opened bright as any levin, and he sty up into the air, not right hastily and quickly, but fair and easily that she might well behold him in the air till it was closed again. And anon the creature was stabled in her wits and in her reason as well as ever she was before, and prayed her husband as soon as he came to her that she might have the keys of the buttery to take her meat and drink as she had done before.
Her Pride and Attempts to Start a Business (excerpt)
And when this creature was thus graciously come again to her mind, she thought she was bound to God and that she would be his servant. Nevertheless, she would not leave her pride nor her pompous array that she had used beforetime, neither for her husband nor for none other man’s counsel. And yet she wist full well that men said her full much villainy, for she wore gold pipes on her head and her hoods with the tippets were dagged. Her cloaks also were dagged and laid with divers colors between the dags that it should be the more staring to men’s sight and herself the more worshiped. And when her husband would speak to her for to leave her pride she answered shrewdly and shortly and said that she was come of worthy kindred – him seemed never for to ‘a wedded her – for her father was sometime mayor of the town N and sithen he was alderman of the high Gild of the Trinity in N. And therefore she would save the worship of her kindred whatsoever any man said. She had full great envy at her neighbors that they should be arrayed as well as she. All her desire was for to be worshiped of the people. She would not beware by one’s chastening nor be content with the good that God had sent her, as her husband was, but ever desired more and more.
And then, for pure covetise and for to maintain her pride, she gan to brew and was one of the greatest brewers in the town N a three year or four till she lost much good, for she had never ure thereto. For though she had never so good servants and cunning in brewing, yet it would never prove with them. For when the ale was as fair standing under barm as any man might see, suddenly the barm would fall down that all the ale was lost every brewing after other, that her servants were ashamed and would not dwell with her. Then this creature thought how God had punished her beforetime and she could not beware, and now eftsoons by losing of her goods, and then she left and brewed no more. And then she asked her husband mercy for she would not follow his counsel aforetime, and she said that her pride was cause of all her punishing and she would amend that she had trespassed with good will.
Margery and Her Husband Reach a Settlement
It befell upon a Friday on Midsummer Even in right hot weather, as this creature was coming from York-ward bearing a bottle with beer in her hand and her husband a cake in his bosom, he asked his wife this question: “Margery, if there came a man with a sword and would smite off my head unless that I should commune kindly with you as I have done beofre, say me truth of your conscience – for ye say ye will not lie – whether would ye suffer my head to be smit off or else suffer me to meddle with you again as I did sometime?” “Alas, sir,” She said, “why move ye this matter and have we been chaste this eight weeks?” “For I will wit the truth of your heart.” And the she said with great sorrow, “Forsooth, I had liefer see you be slain than we should turn again to our uncleanness.” And he said again, “Ye are no good wife.”
And then she asked her husband what was the cause that he had not meddled with eight weeks before, sithen she lay with him every night in his bed. And he said he was so made afeared when he would ‘a touched her that he durst no more do. “Now, good sir, amend you and ask God mercy, for I told you near three year sithen that ye should be slain suddenly, and now is this the third year, and yet I hope I shall have my desire. Good sir, I pray you grant me that I shall ask, and I shall pray for you that ye shall be saved through the mercy of our Lord Jesu Christ, and ye shall have more meed in Heaven than if ye wore a hair or a habergeon. I pray you, suffer me to make a vow of chastity in what bishop’s hand that God will.” “Nay,” he said, “that will I not grant you, for now I may use you without deadly sin and then might I not so.” The she said again, “If it be the will of the Holy Ghost to fulfill that I have said, I pray God ye might consent thereto; and if it be not the will of the Holy Ghost, I pray God ye never consent thereto.”
Then they went forth to-Bridlington-ward in right hot weather, the foresaid creature having great sorrow and great dread for her chastity. And as they came by a cross, her husband set him down under the cross, cleping his wife unto him and saying these words unto her, “Margery, grant me my desire, and I shall grant you your desire. My first desire is that we shall lie still together in one bed as we have done before; the second that ye shall pay my debts ere ye go to Jerusalem; and the third that ye shall eat and drink with me on the Friday as ye were wont to do.” “Nay sir,” she said, “to break the Friday I will never grant you while I live.” “Well,” he said, “then shall I meddle with you again.”
She prayed him that he would give her leave to make her prayers, and he granted it goodly. Then she knelt down beside a cross in the field and prayed in this manner with great abundance of tears, “Lord God, thou knowest all thing; thou knowest what sorrow I have had to be chaste in my body to thee all this three year, and now might I have my will and I dare not for love of thee. For if I would break that manner of fasting which thou commandest me to keep on the Friday without meat or drink, I should now have my desire. But, blessed Lord, thou knowest I will not contrary to thy will, and mickle now is my sorrow unless that I find comfort in thee. Now, blessed Jesu, make thy will known to me unworthy that I may follow thereafter and fulfil it with all my might.” And then our Lord Jesu Christ with great sweetness spoke to this creature, commanding her to go again to her husband and pray him to grant her that she desired, “And he shall have that he desireth. For, my dearworthy daughter, this was the cause that I bade thee fast for thou shouldest the sooner obtain and get thy desire, and now it is granted thee. I will no longer thou fast, therefore I bid thee in the name of Jesu eat and drink as thy husband doth.”
Then this creature thanked our Lord Jesu Christ of his grace and his goodness, sithen rose up and went to her husbandm saying unto him, “Sir, if it like you, ye shall grant me my desire and ye shall have your desire. Granteth me that ye shall not come in my bed, and I grant you to quit your debts ere I go to Jerusalem. And maketh my body free to God so that ye never make no challenging in me to ask no debt of matrimony after this day while ye live, and I shall eat and drink on the Friday at your bidding.” Then said her husband again to her, “As free may your body be to God as it hath been to me.” This creature thanked God greatly, enjoying that she had her desire, praying her husband that they should say three Pater Noster in the worship of the Trinity for the great grace that he had granted them. And so they did, kneeling under a cross, and sithen they ate and drank together in great gladness of spirit. This was on a Friday on Midsummer Even.
Pilgrimage to Jerusalem
And so they went forth into the Holy Land till they might see Jerusalem. And when this creature saw Jerusalem, riding on an ass, she thanked God with all her heart, praying him for his mercy that like as he had brought her to see this earthly city Jerusalem, he would grant her grace to see the blissful city Jerusalem above, the city of Heaven. Our Lord Jesu Christ, answering to her thought, granted her to have her desire. Then for joy that she had and the sweetness that she felt in the dalliance of our Lord, she was in point to ‘a fallen off her ass, for she might not bear the sweetness and grace that God wrought in her soul. The twain pilgrims of Dutchmen went to her and kept her from falling, of which the one was a priest. And he put spices in her mouth to comfort her, weening she had been sick. And so they helped her forth to Jerusalem. And when she came there, she said, “Sirs, I pray you be not displeased though I weep sore in this holy place where our Lord Jesu Christ was quick and dead.”
Then they went to the Temple in Jerusalem, and they were let in that one day at evensong time and they abide there till the next day at evensong time. Then the friars lifted up a cross and led the pilgrims about from one place to another where our Lord had suffered his pains and his passions, every man and woman bearing a wax candle in their hand. And the friars always as they went about told them what our Lord suffered in every place. And the foresaid creature wept and sobbed so plentivously as though she had seen our Lord with her bodily eye suffering his Passion at that time. Before her in her soul she saw him verily by contemplation, and that caused her to have compassion. And when they came up onto the Mount of Calvary she fell down that she might not stand nor kneel but wallowed and wrested with her body, spreading her arms abroad, and cried with a loud voice as though her heart should ‘a burst asunder, for in the city of her soul she saw verily and freshly how our Lord was crucified. Before her face she heard and saw in her ghostly sight the mourning of our Lady, of St. John and of Mary Magdalene, and of many other that loved our Lord. And she had so great compassion and so great pain to see our Lord’s pain that she might not keep herself from crying and roaring though she should ‘a been dead therefore.
And this was the first cry that ever she cried in any contemplation. And this manner of crying endured many years after this time for aught that any man might do, and therefore suffered she much despite and much reproof. The crying was so loud and so wonderful that it made people astoned unless that they had heard it before or else that they knew the cause of the crying. Abd she had them so oftentimes that they made her right weak in her bodily mights, and namely if she heard of our Lord’s Passion. And sometime when she saw the Crucifix, or if she saw a man had a wound or a beast, whether it were, or if a man beat a child before her or smote a horse or another beast with a whip, if she might see it or hear it, her thought she saw our Lord be beaten or wounded like as she saw in the man or in the beast, as well in the field as in the town, and by herself alone as well as among the people. First when she had her cryings at Jerusalem, she had them oftentimes, and in Rome also. And when she came home into England, first at her coming home it came but seldom as it were once in a month, sithen once in the week, afterward quotidianly, and once she had fourteen on one day, and another day she had seven, and so as God would visit her, sometime in the church, sometime in the street, sometime in the chamber, sometime in the field when God would send them, for she knew never time nor hour when they should come. And they came never without passing great sweetness of devotion and high contemplation. And as soon as she perceived that she should cry, she would keep it in as much as she might that people should not ‘a heard it for noying of them. For some said it was a wicked spirit vexed her; some said it was a sickness; some said she had drunken too much wine; some banned her; some wished she had been in the haven; some would she had been in the sea in a bottomless boat; and so each man as him thought. Other ghostly men loved her and favored her the more. Some great clerks said our Lady cried never so, nor no saint in Heaven, but they knew full little what she felt, nor they would not believe but that she might ‘a abstained her from crying if she had wished.
Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe: A Modern Version by W. Butler-Bowdon, 1934, is licensed under no known copyright.