MARGERY KEMPE: A MEDIEVAL ECCENTRIC
By Isabelle de Foix
(1997 Universitas Meridies class)
Margery Kempe was born in a town called Bishops-Lynn (now King’s Lynn) in Norfolk around 1373. Her father, John Brunham, served in a number of prestigious political offices, including city mayor and Member of Parliament. Thus, her family was of some importance in Lynn. Margery was illiterate, so she dictated her memoirs to two scribes when she was about sixty. She claimed that she dictated her memoirs only after being pestered by some clergy to recount "how a sinful wretch" went through a conversion experience and became a holy woman who aspired to canonization. The result of this collaboration was the first autobiography in the English language. The manuscript of "The Book of Margery Kempe" lay gathering dust for five hundred years until it was discovered in 1934.There is no organization whatsoever in the book; it is a "fricassee," a "jumble of ingredients." The book is an exceptionally honest and graphic expression of Margery’s mind. In her preface, she stated that she did not tell her story in chronological order; rather, she talked about each important episode in her life when she remembered it. She discussed her chastity vows before she related giving birth to her last child. She described in graphic detail her alleged visions of Jesus, Mary, and several saints. She did not say anything about her childhood; she started her autobiography with her marriage. Following the literary custom of the period, Margery referred to herself in the third person rather than the first. She referred to herself throughout the book as "this creature." In the fifteenth century, "creature" meant any "creation" of God. Everything in the book, both praise and condemnation, came straight from her mouth. She firmly believed that she was on a divine mission to save souls and gain sainthood from her subsequent acts of piety. She was familiar with the stories of several saints, and used them as her role models.
Margery married John Kempe when she was about twenty, and gave birth to fourteen children. Her first childbirth was extraordinarily difficult, and she was gripped with the fear that she might die of puerperal fever. She survived the birth, but afterwards, she experienced a mental breakdown. It has been suggested that she was afflicted with a post-partum psychosis. Severe depression and spells of delirium characterize this illness. She engaged in self-destructive activities, and antagonized her friends and family. She was tortured with lurid visions of Hell and the Devil, until, she tells us, she received a visit from Jesus. So terrible had been her fits of madness that the servants did not trust her with control of the storeroom. John Kempe insisted that she was indeed fit to run the household, and rightfully so.
At this time the young couple could not have happier; they were obviously in love. Margery delighted in fine fashion. She bought a crespinette, a hat with gold wires and pipes. She wore fine cloaks, slashed to reveal brightly colored silks underneath. To get the money to pay for her showy dress, she engaged in two business endeavors. She decided to become a brewer, which was potentially lucrative because ale was so popular at the time. Her husband was associated with her, but she was the principal. At first, she was successful, but after around three or four years the business collapsed. It is not clear how this happened; but it is known that Margery begged her husband to forgive her for not taking his advice After this, she felt that she should continue to show her status, and this required added income. This venture did not last long. Her career as a miller had quite a bizarre ending, if we are to believe the entire story. On the eve of the feast of Corpus Christi, the servant in charge of the horses was just trying to do his job. The horses mysteriously refused to pull in the mill. The servant tried his best to get the horse to continue its work, but it refused. The servant got so frustrated with the horse that he took the horse back to its stable. Then he got the other horse, but it also refused to work the mill. Margery told the scribe that the servant quit his job. She related that he was frightened at any association with her, because she was regarded as an evil woman. She was involved in a sinful activity, attempting to make money. Any desire to make money during this period was viewed as greed, and it was sinful because the Church expected people to be content with whatever God had given them through natural processes. Since money did not come directly from nature, attempts to multiply it were wrong. Also, it was unconventional, to say the least, for women to try anything independently of their husbands in late medieval England. In fact, her husband disapproved of her business activities. These activities aroused doubts over Margery’s character. Devastated at her failure, Margery, at this point, underwent an intense religious experience. She cast off her fine garb, and sought a reward far greater than impressing the townspeople with her crespinettes. Her goal for the rest of her life was nothing short of sainthood in the Catholic Church.
In the pre-scientific mass psyche of the Middle Ages, religion and the supernatural in general played a major role in people’s personal lives. The religion practiced by these people was an intense, emotional, guilt-ridden, anxious brand of Christianity. They sought to shorten the time they would spend in Purgatory by suffering here on earth. They believed that since they died as sinners, guilty of countless sins, they had to go through an intense phase of suffering in Purgatory to complete their penance. This was the age of the Flagellants, who wrapped themselves from head to toe in linen and walked the streets flailing themselves with scourges that drew blood. Others, including St. Catherine of Siena, took fasting so seriously that they starved themselves to death in hopes of avoiding the fiery punishment of Purgatory. Mary of Olgnies, from Brabant in the Netherlands, (died c. 1213) was a mystic whose story Margery was familiar with. The similarity between the two women was uncanny. Although born to wealthy parents, Mary led a life of great austerity. Married at fourteen, she and her husband lived a chaste relationship. She had various mystical experiences, during which she claimed she had visions of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. She wept at the thought of Christ’s Passion. She could not look at a crucifix without fainting. She was asked to stop her weeping during mass by her priest, but the most she tried to stop weeping, the more she wept. She wept when confessing her most trivial sins. She refused to eat meat, and she always wore white clothing, which symbolized chastity. . Even in this age of common piety, most of Margery’s contemporaries thought her obsession with religion was excessive; they wished she would talk about something besides religion. Here one sees one of the more unattractive aspects of the piety of both women--exhibiting their piety and closeness to God, which, they claimed most people did not have.
Margery shocked and annoyed many a person with her tearful form of devotion. Like Mary of Olgnies, every time she sensed the presence of divinity, she would start to cry and scream uncontrollably. She described one of her weeping experiences:
she . . . wrested her body turning from the one side to the other, and waxed all blue and livid, like the color of lead. Then folk spat at her for horror of the sickness, and some scorned her and said that she howled as if she were a dog. Banned her and cursed her.
Margery claimed that God had encouraged in her weeping spells. Those who believed her to be a holy woman interpreted the tears as the presence of God. Sympathetic priests also read her important spiritual books, and she had an excellent memory. Her faith was based on meditations on the important events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, especially the painful or tragic ones. When meditating on Jesus’ crucifixion, commonly called the "Passion" by Christians, she saw him, she tells us, with the wounds caused by the nails. When she had this vision, she would spread her arms out, weep, and yell; "I die! I die!" Margery’s religious convictions caused her much emotional pain, provoked by an intense feeling of guilt. She had committed a "sin" in her youth that she alluded to a few times but was never specific about. The "sin" was probably sexual in nature. While watching a procession at Corpus Christi mass, she became so emotional at the sight of the procession that she left the sanctuary to go to a nearby house. Here she screamed "I die! I die!" She absolutely roared with her weeping and screaming, and the people attending the mass were dumbfounded. What was wrong with this peculiar woman, they wondered? Some though that she was possessed by a devil, and some thought her drunk, but some people sounded astonishing modern by suggesting that she was merely ill. Needless to say, she disrupted many a mass with these bizarre outbursts, and became a persona non grata in many churches and holy places. She endured eight years of illness, after which her cries and weeping increased in intensity. Her obsession with religion was fueled by the belief that life on this earth was a transient experience full of pain and evil
Margery’s guilt from her sins drove her to various deeds of penance. Sometimes she confessed three times in one day. She fasted often. She frequently kept vigil at the local church. Sometimes she would go to the church at two in the morning and stay there all day. She acquired a hairshirt, and wore it frequently. She wished to live chastely with her husband, but he was unwilling. John Kempe claimed that she was trying to take his conjugal rights away from him. They finally made a "chastity agreement" while traveling together. On Midsummer’s Eve (June 23), 1413, Margery and her husband journeyed to York to see the annual Mystery Play. They left York together, heading toward another town on foot. Margery carried a bottle of beer and her husband carried some cakes. They stopped to take a rest near a large cross, as the day was white with enervating heat. They had not had relations for eight weeks; this was not to John Kempe’s liking, and he threatened to press for his conjugal rights by the roadside! Margery asked leave to say her prayers, and she was always to claim that God had given her the "trade-off" idea that suited them both. She agreed to resume cooking and drinking wine with him on Fridays in return for a chaste relationship. After this, both knelt in prayer before the large cross. Afterwards, the couple celebrated the agreement by sitting down nearby and eating together. However, due to fear of rumors and misunderstanding in the town about the nature of their relationship, they decided to live separately, although they saw each other frequently to discuss family matters. Margery, having obtained the necessary permission from her husband, then undertook a series of pilgrimages to Rome, Compostella, in Spain, and Jerusalem on her own.
It was these travels that made Margery’s compatriots suspicious of her. Margery was arrested several times by English Church authorities. She made the authorities very uneasy with her unconventional lifestyle. The rules for "proper" women in late medieval society were very rigid. They were to be either married housewives or cloistered nuns. The married women were supposed to be domestic, staying at home to manage their households, spinning wool, sewing, making butter, raising their children, and pleasing their husbands. Why was she traversing all of Christendom without her husband? No one knew, but they suspected her of being a member of a sect called the Lollards, a break-away religious sect who were angry with the corruption in the Church. They were considered a threat to the existing social structure. Since the power or the Church and the Crown were intertwined, to harm one was to harm the other. One thing was clear to these authorities: Margery may have been illiterate, but she was hardly stupid. She learned much about Christian doctrine and the saints of the church from sympathetic priests. These authorities were quite ignorant of Lollard teachings that rejected fasting, pilgrimages, and confession, which were important to Margery. This was a period of social, political and economic instability in not only England but all of western Europe, because the feudal system was falling apart and capitalism was on the rise. Labor disputes in the cities were common, and these frightened the authorities. They feared that women like Margery, who was independent and unconventional, would damage the social order. People in general feared any practice that would endanger their role in society. At one the Duke of Bedford’s retainers arrested Point Margery as an alleged Lollard. When they got to the nearest town, women emerged from their dwellings holding their spinning distaffs. They screamed "Burn the heretic! Burn the heretic!" These women feared other women who did not share their lifestyles because they perceived it as a threat to theirs. They proceeded to the next town, where they were met with people who pleaded with Margery to give up her unconventional lifestyle and "spin and weave as other women do." They also objected to her business activities. If she was capable of breaking the roles concerning her gender, might she also wreak havoc with the existing social order? The politicians of the age had a "domino theory" about heresy leading to political and social chaos. In fact, Margery was lucky to not have been burned as a heretic. King Henry V, who was crowned in 1413, was a very religious man, and he was determined to rid England of Lollards. The plot fell through and the Lollard conspirators were arrested. This only strengthened the King’s resolve. In 1414 John and Margery went to Canterbury on a pilgrimage. While at devotion Margery had one of her intense religious experiences. Public opinion concerning this matter was extremely unfavorable; the townspeople believed that she was possessed by the Devil She angered a monk by commenting on his sins to a large group that had gathered in the church. They were horrified, and demanded that she be burned as a heretic. She was about to be dragged off to be burned when two young men arrived and took charge of the situation. One of them asked if she was a Lollard. She replied in the negative, and this calmed down the dispute. In fact, Margery never questioned the teachings of the Church. The new arrivals escorted her back to the inn where she was lodging with her husband. She was also arrested in York and taken before the Archbishop there. At the interrogations at Yorkminster a cleric who had earned a doctorate at a university asked her if she had a husband She answered in the affirmative; whereupon the doctor asked her to produce a letter of his approval of her travels. She replied that he had given her the necessary permission with his mouth, and that she had come as a pilgrim. The Archbishop asked her why she always wore white--was it because she was a virgin?
"No, sir," Margery answered, "I am no virgin. I am a married woman." In fact, Margery desperately wished she had been allowed to live as a virgin. But she was not, and for a woman who was not a nun to wear white was a violation of society’s rules.
The Archbishop then ordered Margery to be bound because he was convinced that she was a heretic. It is not clear why he believed this, but he may have thought Margery’s stories about her visions constituted heresy. Not surprisingly, she had a weeping spell during the interrogation; she had been praying while the Archbishop was out of the room. The Archbishop asked her why she cried so much. She answered "Sir, you shall wish one day that you had wept as acutely as I." Many a person present was shocked to see an illiterate woman argue with the Archbishop of York. They had never seen such a thing. No one ever accused Margery of false modesty! Her spiritual egotism certainly did not help her reputation as far as the Church was concerned, but she won many supporters through her piety. The more people heard about Margery, they either revered her as a visionary or thought her an instrument of sin and heresy.
In 1421 there was a huge fire in Bishops’ Lynn. It burned down several buildings in the city. It threatened the whole town, Margery tells us. For once the townspeople encouraged her in her histrionic form of devotion, hoping for help from God in putting out the fire. A priest asked her if he should walk toward the fire holding a container with consecrated Hosts (communion wafers) in it. She advised him to do this; he walked toward the fire, holding the Hosts, and then walked back into the church, surrounded by flying sparks of the fire. Margery followed him, she tells us, and noticed the sparks. Soon she started to weep, crying out to God for mercy. Three men entered the church wearing cloaks, which were covered with snowflakes. Many of the townsfolk believed that she had performed a miracle; they believed that God had sent the snow to save Bishop’s Lynn from destruction by fire. The snow may have saved Bishop’s Lynn, but there is certainly no evidence that Margery was responsible for the storm that put out the fire. It could have just as well been a lucky coincidence.
Margery’s husband died in 1431. He died after a nasty fall down the stairs in their home in Lynn. The neighbors found him "lying with his head twisted under himself, half alive, all streaked in blood".... Shortly afterwards Margery was informed of the accident. Always responsive to the suffering of the weak and the sick, Margery broke out of her religious contemplation and rushed to their home in Lynn. She cared for him until he died. He became senile and practically unable to move. No doubt this was a difficult situation for Margery to be in. She busied herself with laundry and keeping the fire going in the house, which was expensive due to the high cost of firewood. She credited him for having great love and compassion for her. She never ceased to exercise an appealing compassion for the sick and the weak. She was once asked to visit a woman who had gone "insane" after childbirth. The new mother was unable to speak, and she became so manic that she was locked into manacles and isolated. Margery went to this lady’s home once or twice a day to pray for her. When she broke into tears; the lady’s family was convinced that Margery was in direct contact with God. After awhile, we are told, the lady began to talk. No doubt this situation reminded Margery of her own difficulties with a post-partum psychosis. However, it should be pointed out that there is no mention anywhere besides Margery’s book of this alleged miracle. It may have been an exaggeration or even a fictitious story, designed to bolster her ego. No one can doubt the sincerity of her desire to help the sick, but one can question the accuracy of her story. Perhaps Margery believed that posterity, reading the book, would consider her a saint after reading the stories. .
Margery had many difficulties on her travels--although the travelers would have told us that she was an undesirable traveling companion. It was they who found her obsession with religion annoying. She refused to discuss anything besides religion, since she regarded the world in which she lived to be and only a transient place in which there was nothing but sin and evil. She alienated many people who were initially willing to help her. At one point they told her she would have to travel by herself. They could not stand the thought of another dinner with her in their midst. On another journey, one to Jerusalem, her traveling companions wanted to enjoy the beautiful city of Venice, while Margery cared nothing for the city and would hardly crack a smile. She could not stand the idea of enjoying a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages were regarded as penance, a concept which one does not normally associate with pleasure. On one pilgrimage, she refused to remove her white clothing to get the lice off of her body; everyone else, both male and female, did remove their clothes to rid themselves of these pests once they had left a city. Margery abhorred nudity and the human body itself.33In this case, she preferred to put up with the discomforts of lice than to show her body to anyone. Several times the party she was traveling with, who but she made it to all of her destinations by finding other people to travel with her, abandoned her. Several times she gave away all of her money so she could experience the suffering that goes with poverty. In Rome she was kicked out of the English hostel where she had been staying and ended up on the streets.34 While in Rome, she was ordered to serve a pauper by her confessor. She took up residence in the woman’s pitiful hovel. She did not have a bed; she lay on the floor to sleep, covered only by her cloak. The hovel was absolutely filthy. She frequently went out to buy firewood and water for this unfortunate woman. There was the discomfort caused by vermin. Neither Margery nor the woman had money to buy food; thus Margery had to do a fair amount of begging. She firmly believed that her sufferings as necessary in order to not have to spend time in Purgatory. But she created many of the difficulties herself, for if her companions deviated from her puritanical moral standards, she gave them sermons concerning their "sinful" behavior.36 It is almost painful to imagine spending weeks, even months, with behavior like this.
As a result of this annoying behavior, Margery is known to history as an eccentric rather than a saint. She aspired to official sainthood, but it has eluded her. One requirement for canonization in the Catholic Church is documentation of two miracles by reliable historians.37 Since the only mention of any miracles comes from Margery’s book, these miracles are not adequately documented. Most importantly, no one has seen any need to start a "cause" (as the Catholic Church calls a campaign to get someone canonized) on her behalf.38 The Church requires documentation from a reliable source for any reported miracles. Instead, she has been condemned for her hysterical behavior, her religious megalomania, and unreliability by some. It has been alleged by Church authorities that her book undermines important doctrines of the Church, especially the Trinity.39 She built barriers between herself and other with her histrionic form of devotion; this behavior made many people uneasy around her, and hardly made rational discourse about her experiences even possible. To put it mildly, she was hardly a model of humility, which is a very important aspect of the scrutiny the Church carries out as part of examining a cause. When describing her visions of Jesus and the saints, she had them tell her that she was an extraordinarily holy person. In truth, she was torn between the spiritual and the temporal worlds all of her life; she only cast off her fine clothes to don a monumental ego. For all of her sacrifices, her ego was one thing she never sacrificed. For every time she helped someone she alienated someone else, hardly a behavior pattern associated with a saint.
There been much theorizing about possible psychological disorders Margery may have had. She clearly was unable to control her emotions, and she never ceased to do things that shocked other people. There has been much controversy over her claims to have had visions of Jesus, Mary, and other saints. It has been suggested that she had been a severely abused child, but there is no way to prove this. She was no doubt difficult to be around due to her quirky behavior. Still, one must credit her with immense courage, as well as her compassion for the weak and sick. She did everything within her power to help these people. Like most other members of the human race, she had her faults and her virtues. In her mind, she was an important pilgrim on this planet, desperate for release from her tortured mind and body. Reading her honest, vivid descriptions of the pain she felt throughout her life, one cannot but help that she deserved that peace that she so fervently wanted. She received it in around 1440.
Kempe, Margery, The Book of Margery Kempe (finished ca. 1436), translation by B.A. Windeatt, Penguin Books Ltd. 1985.
Cantor, Norman, Editor. Medieval Reader, a compilation of primary sources, HarperCollins, 1994
Windeatt, B.A, Introduction and End-Notes, translation of the Book of Margery Kempe, Penguin Books, Ltd. 1985
LaBarge, Margaret, A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life, Beacon Press, 1986
LeGoff, Jacques, Medieval Civilization, translation by Julia Barrow, Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1988
Collis, Louise, The Apprentice Saint, Michael Joseph Ltd. 1954
Adkinson, Clarissa, Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and the World of Margery Kempe, Cornell University Press, 1983
McEntire, Sandra, editor, Margery Kempe: A Book of Essays, article by David Lawton, "Voice, Authority, and Blasphemy in the Book of Margery Kempe", Garland Publishing, Inc, 1992
Copyright Patricia M. Hefner, 1997. This article may be copied by anyone desiring to use it for educational purposes as long as you mention my name and send me a copy of the newsletter.