Margery Kempe (née Brunham) was extraordinary in many ways: after the birth of her first child (the first of 14) she had frequent visions of Jesus. She also travelled widely, was accused of heresy and finally overcame adversity and the barriers of illiteracy by having her experiences captured in writing. Yet one of the most intriguing aspects of Margery’s life story is her ordinariness. She was a middle-class woman from a prosperous town – Lynn in East Anglia. The daughter of the mayor, she had several jobs, including working as a horse-mill-owner and as a brewer. The experiences of people like this rarely survive from the Middle Ages, and it is the unashamed earthiness of Margery’s Book that has captivated readers since the discovery of the only surviving manuscript of her work in 1934.
Had it not been for this chance discovery in 1934, we would have little sense of this woman and her astonishing life. Previously, the only known text of Kempe’s Book was seven pages of extracts of the work printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501.
What does The Book of Margery Kempe reveal about Kempe's life?
Kempe’s Book is an account of her life from her first pregnancy, when she was around 20, until she was in her mid-sixties. The work is not a chronological account, so reconstructing the story of her life requires the reader to patch together pieces of information to form a coherent narrative.
She was born in around 1373, the daughter of John Burnham, who was at one time the mayor of Lynn. In around 1393 she married John Kempe. Soon after, she fell pregnant and the subsequent birth of her first child was difficult. At this time, she gave confession to a priest who admonished her for her sinful ways. Kempe found this traumatic and it induced what today we might define as a psychotic episode. During this period Jesus appeared to her and thereafter Margery recovered. In her account, her recovery is signalled when she asks her husband for the keys to the ‘buttery’, or pantry so that she might eat and drink as she had done before. There is something so charming about a woman who sits down to a hearty dinner after a mystical experience, and it is exactly these kinds of details that make Margery’s account so fascinating.
Despite rediscovering her enjoyment of food, Margery began to abstain from eating meat in around 1409, as a form of penance for her sins. Indeed, this desire for self-punishment is ever-present in her narrative. In 1413 she visited the anchoress and mystic, Julian of Norwich. Later that year she went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, travelling through Europe to get there and not returning until 1415. Two years later, in 1417, she went on pilgrimage again, this time to Santiago de Compostela. Later that year she was interrogated by ecclesiastical authorities at Leicester and underwent trials at York, Hull, Hessle and Beverley. In 1418 she returned to her home town of Lynn. In around 1432 she made her first attempts to get her Book written down. In this year both her husband and son died. The following year she sailed to Gdansk via Norway. Kempe last appears in the documentary record in 1439. We are not sure when exactly she died.
How was the Book written down?
Margery faces several challenges in attempting to record her experiences. She was illiterate and so she had to dictate the work to an ‘amanuensis’ – a scribe who listened to her words and wrote them down. In fact, three different amanuenses were involved in the project. The first was ‘an englishman’ who lived in Germany. This was probably her son. Unfortunately he died before the work was completed. After this, the work was taken up by a priest who said it was ‘so ill-written that he could make little sense of it’ and they seemed to have begun again. During the course of this, however, the priest was discouraged by malicious gossip that he had heard about Kempe and so he delayed the project for four years. He directed Kempe to a third man, who had at one time been a correspondent of the ‘englishman’ (the first amanuensis). This scribe could not understand the text. Subsequently, the priest began to suffer pangs of guilt and prayed to god to be able to understand the work, whereupon he was miraculously able to complete the Book. This convoluted story shows Margery’s admirable determination to find her voice and get her experiences recorded in the face of so many obstacles.
The only surviving manuscript was written by a scribe named ‘Salthouse’ in the 15th century. The manuscript may have been made by members of the Carthusian order, and it seems to have been read with interest: there are four sets of annotations in the book.
Further information about the life of Margery Kempe can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Article by:
- Mary Wellesley
- Gender and sexuality
Drawing on examples from Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich and Christine de Pizan, Mary Wellesley considers the experiences of women as writers and producers of texts in the medieval period, and reflects on the survival of their works.
- Article by:
- Sarah Salih
- Faith and religion
Sarah Salih explores how medieval Europeans memorialised the lives of real and fictional Christian saints, transforming them into the superheroes and celebrities of the Middle Ages.