Margery Kempe

From Academic Kids

Margery Kempe (ca. 1373 - ca. 1439 or 1440) is known for writing The Book of Margery Kempe, a work considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language.

She was born Margery Brunham in King's Lynn, Norfolk, England and married at the age of 20 to a local man named John Kempe, with whom she had 14 children. Her father, John Brunham, was a merchant in Lynn, sometime mayor and alderman whose fortunes may have been negatively impacted by downturns in the economy, especially in the wool trades, of the 1390s.

At around the age of 35, after a failed confession that resulted in a bout of self-described "madness," Margery Kempe had a vision that called her to leave aside the "vanities" of this world. Having for many weeks railed against the institutions of family, marriage and church, Kempe reports that she saw a vision of Christ at her bedside, asking her "Daughter, whyhave you forsaken me, and I never forsook you?" From that point forward, Kempe undertook two failed domestic businesses--a brewery and a grain mill--both common home-based businesses for medieval women. Though she had tried to be more devout after her vision, she was tempted by sexual pleasures and social jealousy for some years. Eventually turning away from what she interpreted as the effect of worldly pride in her vocational choices, Kempe more fully responded to the spiritual calling that she felt her earlier vision required. Striving to live a life of commitment to God, Kempe negotiated a chaste marriage with her husband, and began to make pilgrimages around Europe to sites that were holy to her, if not to others. The stories surrounding these travels are what eventually comprised much of her Book, although a final section includes a series of prayers.

From 1413-1420, Margery went to the Bishop of Lincoln, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Julian of Norwich, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Rome, and Jerusalem. Her thoughts concerning these trips and her revelatory experiences make up much of her book, but a key focus is also her persecution by civil and religious leaders. The last section of her book deals with a journey in the 1430s to Norway and Germany. Two different scribes did the writing for Margery, under her strict supervision.

Part of Margery Kempe's significance lies in the autobiographical nature of her book: it is the best insight available that points to the middle class experience in the Middle Ages. Kempe is admittedly unusual among the more traditional holy exemplars of her time, such as Julian of Norwich. Though Kempe is often depicted as an "oddity" or even a "madwoman," recent scholarship on vernacular theologies and popular practices of piety suggest she was not, perhaps, as odd as she appears compared to more traditional, cloistered holy women.

Kempe and her "Book" are also significant because they record the tension in late medieval England between institutional orthodoxy and increasingly public modes of religious dissent, especially those of the Lollards. Throughout her spiritual career, Kempe's adherence to the teachings of the institutional Church are challenged by both church and civil authorities, most notedly the Bishop of Lincoln and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, who acted rigorously against heresy, enacting laws that forbade the translation of the Bible into English and teaching laypersons to read scripture. Kempe was tried several times for such illegal acts as allegedly reading scripture, teaching and preaching on scripture and faith in public, and wearing the white clothes of the consecrated virgin. She proved her orthodoxy in each case, but came dangerously close to heterodoxy in her challenging responses to clerical authorities. Had Kempe's book been fully extant prior to the Reformation, it would likely have been destroyed. The fact that it was lost until 1934 is undoubtedly the only reason it is available to us today. In the 15th century, a pamphlet was published which represented Kempe as an anchoress, and which stripped out of her "Book" any potentially heterodoxy thought and dissenting behaviour. Because of this, scholars believed that she was a vowed religious holy woman, like Julian of Norwich, and were surprised to encounter the psychologically and spiritually complex woman described in the "Book."

The last record of her is in the city of Lynn in 1439, and it is not positively known when and where she died. Her book remained essentially lost until a manuscript was found in a private library in Lancashire in 1934.

External links

Sources: Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Edited by Sanford Brown Meech with prefatory note by Hope Emily Allen. EETS. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940.

Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Ed. Lynn Staley. TEAMS. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996.

Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe: A New Translation, Contexts and Criticism. Trans. and ed., Lynn Staley. New York: Norton, 2001.

Dinshaw, Caroline. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern.

Glenn, Cheryl. “Popular Literacy in the Middle Ages: The Book of Margery Kempe.” In Popular Literacy: Studies in Cultural Practices and Poetics, ed. John Trimbur. (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001).

Lochrie, Karma. “The Book of Margery Kempe: The Marginal Woman’s Quest for Literary Authority.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 16 (1986): 33-55.

Staley, Lynn. Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.


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