Wednesday 6 August 2014

The Book of Margery Kempe

"When this creature was twenty years of age, or somewhat more, she was married to a worshipful burgess [of Lynn] and was with child within a short time, as nature would have it."

The second book of my Well-Educated Mind Biographies Project took me to the turn of the fifteenth century when the Late Middle Ages was morphing into the Early Renaissance.  Margery Kempe, a married women with 14 children decides that her devotion to God eclipses everything else in her life, and embarks on a mystical journey to get as close as she can to His Love and Grace, and to conform her life to His will.  While the narrative is somewhat disjointed, springing back and forth between different episodes in Margery's life, the reader must decide:  does Margery have a special relationship with God and are her actions spiritually beneficial, or is she somewhat unbalanced emotionally and do her actions have a negative impact on those around her?

While Margery speaks of her devotion to God and of the special protection and attention he sends her way, a repeated theme runs through this book of her unusually shocking weeping and crying, and how her behaviour alienates the people around her.  In story after story, Margery weeps and wails in loud outbursts, a person or the people get irritated with her and, at the least, want her to stop and, at the most, want her imprisoned.  Margery does show a comprehension that her behaviour sows discord with those around her, and does try to moderate her reactions, but is unable to because of the force of feeling for God in her heart; she simply cannot control her response.

At first, like many people Margery met, her weeping and sobbing drove me crazy.  I think in this book she described every incident that she wailed and moaned, and I was soon in complete sympathy with the people who wanted her either run out of town or put in prison.  Yet about mid-way through the book I began to think ………..  How did Margery conduct herself as a person?  What were her traits and how did she interact with other people whom she met in life?  Yes, her life was completely given to God and he was her primary source of love and care and motivation, but the result of that love was her willingness to help and care for people, her desire to see people saved and experience God's grace like she had, and, surprisingly, her meek yet powerful words that she used against her accusers. Rarely did she respond in kind to their recriminations, intimidation or threats, but with an honest and sincere demeanour, that often would disarm them.  Did she ever hurt anyone with her behaviour?  No, she was simply annoying and, therefore, was it right to ostracize her, berate her and throw her in prison for being bothersome?

Ultimately I felt that this book said as much about the society around Margery, as Margery herself.  Their intolerance for anyone different than themselves, their impatience at her benign behaviour and their lust for vengeance was quite startling, yet when I compared it to our society today, how different was it really?  Don't we display the same intolerance, the same prejudice and the same narrow-mindedness as the people of Margery's time?   Are we exasperated or offended by people with different ideas or bothered when people behave differently than we expect?  I think, if we're honest, we'd be compelled to answer "yes".

The book also gives fascinating details of medieval life.  While we, as moderns, always tend to think women were oppressed and had no say in how they lived their lives, Margery chose to live apart from her husband, traveled around Europe often in the company of men, and quite forcefully made her own choices about the path her life would take.  Certainly she was occasionally reprimanded by priests or given advice by townspeople that she should behave like a "normal" woman, but the vast majority of people appeared to accept her lifestyle without comment and are much more concerned or annoyed with the quantity of her weeping and emotional distress.

Margery's amazing perseverance in her beliefs, and her ability to remaining faithful when she is imprisoned, ostracized, mocked and threatened, are what impacted me while reading this biography.  Her lack of anger and her tolerance towards her persecutors is truly heroic.  While I wouldn't want to be Margery Kempe, and I didn't agree with all her decisions, I can certainly see traits within her that would be beneficial in my own life, and for that, I have a reluctant admiration for her single-minded faithfulness and unquenchable spirit.


  1. Great post! I agree, this book says more about society than it does Margery. I definitely get that. I thought that remark about "normal woman" was indicative of the times, sadly.

    My prob w/ her book was the theology, which was of the medieval Catholic teaching. As far as her outbursts, they were annoying; but that's why churches have cry rooms.

    1. I tried to put myself back into her time. The Church was Catholic …… period. There were no other denominations. So while there were certain rituals that were completely unfamiliar to me as a modern person, that's just what it was back then.

      I still don't know what I think about her praying to Mary (which I did find at the end of the book) or her relationship with the saints. How I had it explained to me (years ago) by a Catholic, was that it wasn't so much praying to them, as asking for intercessory prayer ---- you might pray to God for something but you would also ask other people to pray for you too. Because the saints are studied heavily and are always in the theology, they are almost like old friends ---- I could understand that. As for speaking or praying to the dead …… I'm not sure they could be considered dead ….. aren't they alive in Christ? In any case, this is where I feel completely at a loss and frustrated that I don't know more about Catholicism. I simply cannot come at this with a modern mindset, and if I don't know more about the people I'm trying to understand, I'm certainly at a disadvantage. Sigh! I wonder if there is a good Catholicism primer out there? :-)

    2. This is my personal experience:

      I practiced Catholicism for 31 years, and I prayed to Mary - by that, I mean, I talked to her and asked her for help. I trusted in her ability to hear and see me and that she had power. (My uncle is a monk, and he also told me to pray to Mary because she had power.)

      We worshiped Mary with shrines and special days. We raised her up as an equal to Jesus. Even more, in my opinion.

      But Mary, like those who came before us, are dead, even if they are alive in Christ. That means they are no longer dead in their sins. They will live eternally with Christ.

      God warns us not to pray to the dead, that they cannot hear or see us. Catholics use Rev. 5:8 to prove that saints are praying in heaven, but I don't think that is proof that they can see or hear us. In fact, the Bible says that the dead have no remembrance of the past.

      I have relatives who pray to deceased loved ones, and ask them to watch over us b/c this is an acceptable and normal practice to Catholics. We were never taught otherwise.

      In addition, as a Catholic, we believed that "saints" were especially favored by God, like Mary, or whomever the Church deemed worthy; but Scripture tells us that believers in Christ are saints. I used to believe that saints were dead, but actually, saints are living and walking on the earth now!

      I did not learn this until after I left the Church in 2001 and got saved. Only then did I learn to read the Bible, something I never had to do as a Catholic. And I went to Catholic school for six years!

      Anyway, this subject means a lot to me b/c I want to get to the truth, and the truth is in Scripture. But Catholics are not encouraged to open their Bibles. This is very true in my family. They don't even believe that it should be taken literally.

      I would encourage you to read more about it - read from both sides - but definitely read Scripture and see what it says.

    3. Thanks for all the information, Ruth. It's very helpful to see your point of view. I will read more about it from both sides. And I may have some more questions for you!

  2. Har! All the weeping you cite makes me picture her with red hair & braids, like Anne Shirley! :)

    1. You know, I think Anne would have loved Margery ……. as a character in a book though, not necessarily as someone in real life!

  3. Now I've got to read this book! Medieval hagiography/heroism was my research interest in college. Usually stories about these people are written by others and contain many Christian tropes. The saints in these stories (both those officially canonized and those locally venerated) often do things that offend and scandalize those around them. They can be quite eccentric. In The Little Flowers of Saint Francis for example, one of the friars in Francis of Assisi's order (Juniper) runs through the streets naked and offers food to a priest in the middle of the night. He brings a lot of attention to himself. The hagiographer notes that others find his actions bizarre and offensive, but he does not condemn him. Rather, Juniper is considered one of the great followers of St. Francis. The Book of Margery Kempe sounds unique because it is her autobiography. If Juniper wrote his story I wonder what he would say of himself.

    1. I think all around us we see people condemned for acting differently (this is especially observable in the relationships of teenager girls!). I'm reading the Sayings of the Desert Fathers now and they certainly lived outside of "normal" life.

      It is definitely an interesting book to read. I hope you choose to read it!

  4. I read this section "decides that her devotion to God eclipses everything else in her life, and embarks on a mystical journey"
    and have a question: What was the reason, turning point incident that changed a housewife, exhausted mother of 14 to become a mystic visionary? This book contains information about medieval life.....but it is not a book I would readily select. I think I would search out a quiet, contemplative mystic like Belgian John of Ruysbroeck that is a little closer to home for me...(1294-1381).

    1. Well, it is speculated that post-partum depression played a role in her behaviour but really, who knows the true reason. I think this book is so interesting because it's from the viewpoint of a woman, which makes it unique and I think certainly gives it a different point of view. It's definitely worth reading.

      I'll have to check out John of Ruysbroeck!