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Margery Kempe

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Margery Kempe

If a woman stopped you in the street today sobbing about Christ and describing vivid hallucinations of demons, would you believe her? Most people would think she was suffering from some form of psychosis. In the Middle Ages, however, things were a bit different.

Margery Kempe was a female mystic who lived in the Late Middle Ages. She had visions of demons at age 20 that made her devote her entire life to God and she was not shy about telling people or crying because of it. However, she was much more than a weeping woman. Read on to learn about the fascinating life of Margery Kempe.

Margery Kempe Biography

Margery Kempe Biography: Early Life

Born in 1373 in Bishop’s Lynn, England (now King’s Lynn), Margery Kempe was the daughter of the mayor living a typical middle-class life. At the age of 20, she married John Kempe and, shortly after, became pregnant with her first child.

After giving birth, Margery Kempe became plagued with visions of hell and demons. She suffered for months until Jesus Christ appeared to her and said:

Daughter, why hast thou forsaken me, and I forsook never thee?" - The Book of Margery Kempe

Suddenly, she recovered and began to resume normal life, worldly pleasures and vanity included. It was only after several failed businesses that Margery Kempe came to the understanding that God was punishing her. She decided she needed to make a change and devote her life to Christ.

Margery Kempe quickly became known in her parish for her open weeping anytime she felt overpowered by her devotion to her Christ or heard music believing it came from paradise. Her parish was not too keen on this because put frankly, it was pretty annoying.

Margery Kempe Biography: Devotion to Christ

Margery Kempe had asked her husband following the birth of her first child if they could refrain from sexual relations, so she could be celibate for Christ. At the time, he said no, but after 14 children and 20 years of marriage, he finally gave in. They made an agreement that she could travel where she pleased and finally become celibate so long as she paid off his debts.

With this freedom, she was able to begin her series of pilgrimages to places she deemed holy.

We’ll get into more detail on these pilgrimages later. But first, how do we even know this much about a woman living in the 1400s?

Margery Kempe The Book of Margery Kempe Passage StudySmarterPassage from The Book of Margery Kempe, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Margery Kempe Biography: The Book of Margery Kempe

Although Margery Kempe was illiterate like most women of the time, her position in the middle class gave her the ability to hire scribes to write an account of her spiritual experiences. The Book of Margery Kempe is the product of these scribes and is widely considered the first autobiography in English.

The Book of Margery Kempe begins with the birth of Margery Kempe’s first child and describes experiences up until her mid-60s. Margery Kempe died shortly after its full revision was complete in 1438. It was lost to time until it was discovered in 1934.

Margery Kempe’s Visions

As we discussed earlier, following the birth of her first child, Margery Kempe began to have visions of hell and demons. A quote from her book definitely paints a scary picture:

Devils open their mouths all inflamed with burning lows of fire…sometime ramping at her, sometime threatening her, sometime pulling her and hauling her both night and day” - Book of Margery Kempe

There are several notable female mystics who also had intense visions and they had a great influence on Margery Kempe. In fact, before Margery Kempe went on her first pilgrimage, she visited Julian of Norwich. Margery Kempe wanted and received assurance that her visions were from God and not the demons that haunted her.

Female Mystics

Mysticism in the Middle Ages was about pursuing a personal relationship with God in non-traditional ways. Although mysticism was not limited to women, there are many examples of female mystics in the Middle Ages.

Women were not allowed to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Therefore, they had to seek out a way to have a different relationship with God. They did this by entering altered states of consciousness with visions and messages they believed were coming directly from God. They would also renounce all worldly possessions and devote their body to Christ.

Margery Kempe’s Pilgrimages

In the Late Middle Ages, people were traveling across continents more than ever because of extended trade networks and better forms of transportation. One reason people would travel was to make pilgrimages. Certain holy places even sold indulgences that granted easy passage to heaven. Influenced by Saint Bridget of Sweden, another prominent female mystic, Margery Kempe decided she wanted to make her own pilgrimages.

Margery Kempe's Pilgrimages: First Pilgrimage

As we discussed earlier, Margery Kempe’s husband granted her permission to travel in 1413. That same year, she went on her first pilgrimage to Jerusalem where she visited several holy sites. On the way to Jerusalem, she also made a stop in Rome to visit the cathedrals. In The Book of Margery Kempe, she describes her experiences with other people and how God helped her along her way.

Margery Kempe Mount Zion StudySmarterPhotograph of Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, commons.wikimedia.org

Margery Kempe's Pilgrimages: Second Pilgrimage

In 1417, Margery Kempe made a second pilgrimage to the Santago del Compostela in Spain. Upon her return to England, she ran into trouble with ecclesiastical authorities in various cities before making her way home in 1418.

Margery Kempe’s Religion

Although Margery Kempe was born an Orthodox Catholic, she had several confrontations with ecclesiastical authorities throughout her life. Her public weeping and exclamations most certainly looked like heresy. Additionally, her public speaking rode the dangerous line between sharing her experiences and teaching scripture (which women were not allowed to do).

In 1418, one of the cities Margery Kempe met with ecclesiastical authorities was Leicester. There, the authorities detained her for heresy, particularly for being a Lollard. The Lollards were members of a pre-Protestant sect of Christianity led by John Wycliffe. They wished for church reform and a Bible written in the common vernacular.

Margery Kempe vehemently denied being a Lollard and talked her way out of trouble. She was let off with a warning.

Margery Kempe’s Significance

The Book of Margery Kempe gives us insight into the life of a middle-class woman in the Late Middle Ages from her own perspective which is very rare. The Book of Margery Kempe is also widely accepted as the first autobiography in English. In it, we can see the growing tension between orthodox Christianity and dissidents calling for religious reform.

On a broader scale, Margery Kempe is one of many global travelers who wrote down accounts of their journeys for widespread publication. These travel journals led to cultural diffusion as they would help readers in the traveler’s homeland understand the cultures of faraway places.

However, not all historians agree on the significance of Margery Kempe and her autobiography. With today's medical knowledge, many agree that Margery Kempe was suffering from a form of postpartum psychosis, a state of psychosis that occurs after pregnancy. Because of this and her desire to portray the miracles of Christ, not all historians agree that she is a reliable narrator.

Margery Kempe - Key takeaways

  • Margery Kempe was a Christian mystic who lived in the Middle Ages.
  • She had visions of demons that only stopped when Jesus Christ appeared to her so she devoted her life to Christ.
  • She wrote (via scribe) the first autobiography in English: The Book of Margery Kempe.
  • She made two major pilgrimages and wrote about her experiences, including confrontations with ecclesiastical authorities.
  • She is one of many global travelers who wrote of their journeys for readers back home and helped spread an understanding of other cultures.
  • Not all historians agree that Margery Kempe is a reliable narrator.

Frequently Asked Questions about Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe traveled to holy sites in Jerusalem and Spain, making stops along the way in places such as Italy and the Netherlands. 

Margery Kempe was a female mystic during the Late Middle Ages and the author of the first autobiography in English.

Margery Kempe is important because she was the author of the first autobiography in the English language. The Book of Margery Kempe gives us a unique look into the life of a female mystic. 

Many historians believe Margery Kempe was suffering from postpartum psychosis. 

Margery Kempe was a mystic because she had personal experiences with Christ through her visions. 

Final Margery Kempe Quiz

Question

Who was Margery Kempe?

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Answer

a female mystic

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Question

What happened after Margery Kempe gave birth to her first child?

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Answer

She became plagued with visions of demons and hell.

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What made Margery Kempe's visions come to an end?

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Answer

the appearance of Jesus Christ in her visions

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What was the agreement made between Margery Kempe and her husband?

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Answer

He would allow her to travel for pilgrimages and become celibate if she paid off his debts.

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Question

What book did Margery Kempe write via scribes?

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Answer

The Book of Margery Kempe

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Question

Who did Margery Kempe visit to make sure her visions were from God?

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Answer

Julian of Norwich

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Question

Where was the final destination of Margery Kempe's first pilgrimage?

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Answer

Jerusalem

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Question

Why did Margery Kempe get into ecclesiastical authorities multiple times?

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Answer

Her public displays of devotion to God and weeping seemed like heresy. Additionally, her public speaking was dangerously close to teaching scripture.  

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Question

Why is The Book of Margery Kempe important?

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Answer

It offers a look into the life of a middle-class woman and female mystic in the Late Middle Ages. It is also widely considered the first autobiography in the English language.

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Question

How did published accounts of global travel like Margery Kempe's lead to cultural diffusion? 

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Answer

They allowed readers in the travelers' homelands get a better understanding of different cultures. 

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