The Book of Margery Kempe is the earliest autobiography in English.
Margery Kempe lived in the East Anglian town of Lynn in the early 15th century, and was at various times the owner of a horse-mill and a brewer, but later in her life she became a visionary and mystic. She was also the mother of 14 children. Her remarkable Book, which only survives in this manuscript, records ‘hyr felyngys and revelacyons and the forme of her levyng’ [her feelings and revelations and the form of her living], allowing us a window onto the life of an ordinary, middle-class person in a prosperous town in late-medieval England.
Everything we know about Margery comes from her own account. She was unable to read or write and so she dictated her Book to an ‘amanuensis’ – a scribe who heard what she said and wrote it down for her. The autobiography is therefore written in the third person. In it, Margery is described as the ‘creatur’ [creature].
Margery married when she about 20 years old, giving birth to her first child soon after. The birth was difficult, and afterwards she ‘went owt of hir mende’ [went out of her mind] (f. 4r – digitised image 2). Today we might recognise this episode as a bout of post-natal depression. During this time she had a vision of Jesus, who appeared at the end of her bed and offered her words of comfort. In the years following this, Margery experienced several failures in her life: two businesses which she ran collapsed. She interpreted this as a sign that she was being punished by God and decided thereafter to devote herself to a religious life.
In her new life Margery travelled extensively: she visited the Holy Land, Rome, pilgrimage sites in Germany and Santiago de Compostela in Spain. On her travels Margery often attracted attention to herself by wearing white and loudly weeping when she was moved by devotion to God. In Chapter 60 of her Book, she describes visiting the shrine of St Stephen in Norwich: ‘whan sche cam in the chirch-yerd of Saynt Stefyn, sche cryed, sche roryd, sche wept, sche fel down to the grownd, so fervently the fyer of lofe brent in hir hert’ [When she entered the churchyard of St Stephen, she cried, she roared, she wept, she fell down to the ground, so fervently did the fire of love burn in her heart] (f. 71v – digitised image 4). The people around Margery suspected her of weeping because of some kind of personal sin and asked her exasperatedly, ‘what eylith þe woman?’ [what ails you woman?] (f. 71v – digitised image 4).
Margery faced this kind of scorn and disbelief throughout her life. She was arrested several times, accused of heresy and threatened with being burnt alive in the street. Indeed, she herself had at one point doubted the validity of her visions. Early on in her spiritual quest, in 1413, she visited ‘an ankres [anchoress] … Dame Julian’ (f. 21r – digitised image 3). This was the famous recluse, Julian of Norwich. Julian and Margery spent ‘many days’ together, during which time Julian encouraged Margery to continue on her spiritual path.
What cannot be doubted, however, is the immediacy of Margery’s account. It is a startling document which often feels open, honest, unvarnished and unashamed. That it is the first autobiography in English makes it important, but the fact that it was composed by an illiterate woman makes it extraordinary.
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.