Margery Kempe is a hot mess. But we love her, anyway.
This lady isn't your standard-issue Christian mystic. She doesn't live in an isolated cell attached to a church, as an anchoress. She's not a nobly born, educated young woman who brings a large dowry to the convent she enters as a nun. She can't read or write. She's not even a virgin.
In fact, Kempe describes herself as a stuck-up, grabby person who's full of herself and thinks her hubby got lucky because he married the daughter of the mayor. Yeah, well, she married him, anyway, because even if he didn't have enough social status to please her, he did have a hot bod, which she liked enough to have fourteen kids with him. Margery Kempe may be no Julian of Norwich, but she's also, as John Kempe accuses, "No good wife" (I.11.58).
None of this is very promising for a late fourteenth-century woman who aspires to spiritual union with God, but that's okay. Margery's just making it up as she goes.
We're not here to condemn Margery Kempe. We'd rather celebrate the fact that this quirky character didn't get swallowed up by all those voices from the past that "fit the bill": male, ecclesiastical, educated, celibate. So why didn't Margery Kempe march quietly into the obscurity of history like most women of her time?
As with most things, Kempe's account of her life survives by pure luck—and perhaps by sheer perseverance. Consider this: there's only one extant copy of the manuscript that contains The Book of Margery Kempe. That particular manuscript copy disappeared sometime after 1501, when Wynkyn de Worde published a short version of it. It resurfaced in 1934, when a flustered Colonel W. Butler Bowden couldn't find his ping-pong paddles and found Margery's autobiography in his de-cluttered cupboard. That's right: ping-pong saved Margery from the flames of history.
The account of Kempe's conversion experiences and spiritual communion with Christ feels kind of drunk and wobbly, just like Kempe herself feels when her heart is "enflamed with the fire of love" for God. Her practice of affective piety—that's intense physical and emotional involvement in the life of Christ and his mother—often overwhelms her and causes her to weep or shriek uncontrollably in the most inappropriate of situations.
Some might say that Colonel Butler Bowden did no great favor for students and professors when he found that manuscript. After all, Kempe does spend A LOT of time sobbing and screaming, which can get on the nerves of even the most determined scholar. But despite her dubious qualifications as a mystic, Kempe does offer something unique in her narrative—you just have to push past the noise.
Kempe's unusual and fraught production process creates a non-chronological account of feelings and experiences recalled in the relative peace of her "retirement life" (she doesn't write down her memories until over twenty years after the fact). Because she couldn't write without help, she recalls everything—direct speeches, images, contexts, emotions, conversations—from her memory. The result is an oddly detailed yet impressionistic narrative, which feels spontaneous and unspoiled by tinkering.
So despite Margery Kempe's wild unsuitability as a mystic, wife, author, or advisor, her book keeps finding its way to college campus bookstores all over the world. Maybe her candor and plain language continue to attract readers. Or maybe it's because she conceals almost nothing, including mortifying struggles with sexual desire. Unlike most people seeking validation or hoping to make a case for their own saintliness, Kempe doesn't even omit experiences—like a very near attempt at suicide—that could make her look bad.
And while her in-your-face tears do freak people out, they're still kind of cool to read about. You know, sometimes it's just like, "What could she be crying about NOW?" And that's fun. If her goal was simply to have a claim on the ear of the future, Margery Kempe certainly got her wish.
You might be hesitant to spend spring break on the beach with The Book of Margery Kempe, but we really think you should.
Passersby will think you're intellectually beautiful because you're reading the first autobiography written in English.
Your women's studies friends will point out that it was written by a woman, and your street cred will rise when you notice that Kempe's work raises some big questions about the female voice in history, not to mention questions about your the ability to determine for yourself the purpose and direction of your own life.
All your old school friends will want to know about Kempe's perseverance in the face of oppression (a.k.a. bullying), because they've been there. They'll also appreciate the drama of Kempe's backstory: fourteen kids, mental illness, bad reputation, second marriage to God the Father. It's like a medieval Jerry Springer, with Jesus.
And ultimately, although you'll wear through your sunscreen long before you can find a unified narrative thread in this baby, you'll still probably be awed by Kempe's strength, her astonishing conversations with the divine, and her ability to throw love in the face of wickedness.
So consider traveling with old Marge. Despite—or because of—her sobbing and totally inappropriate public behavior (kind of like some of your friends on vacay), you'll probably end up caring more than you'd think about Margery Kempe and her messy life.
Check out the University of Rochester's digital edition of the original Middle English of Kempe's Book, including a helpful introduction.
History of King's Lynn
Whether it's called Bishop's Lynn (as in Kempe's day), King's Lynn, or just plain Lynn, Kempe called it home. Check out the lay of the land with this website.
Kempe Goes Digital (or, How We Almost Lost the First Autobiography in English)
So there's only one copy in the world of the manuscript containing The Book of Margery Kempe, but fear not: the British Library has made it available online. This article also tells the story of the discovery and preservation of the manuscript.
Julian and Kempe and Benedict
Pope Benedict XVI mentions Kempe in connection with the great female mystic Julian of Norwich in an address during a General Audience in 2010. It's interesting to see how Kempe is viewed by the Catholic Church—especially in contrast with Julian. (Spoiler alert: the Church likes Julian better.)
Shaking Things Up
Elizabeth MacDonald writes about Margery Kempe to promote her book Skirting Heresy: the Life and Times of Margery Kempe.
Elizabeth MacDonald discusses her first book, The Life and Times of Margery Kempe.
Margery Kempe and her Miraculous Journeys
Scroll down the page to find the mp3 of BBC Radio 3's program on The Book of Margery Kempe. Warning: turn your sound down a bit before hitting play.
A Merry Melody in the Ear
Kempe is way sensitive to sound, especially the heavenly music that she hears in her ears at moments of spiritual favor. This collection of medieval pilgrimage music will give you a good sense of the liturgical music that Kempe was likely to have heard in the outside world.
The British Library has digitized and provides free access to Brit. Lib. Add. MS. 61823—yup, that's the only surviving manuscript of the Book of Margery Kempe. This manuscript was probably made as a copy of the original version, and its production was probably overseen by Kempe herself.
Okay, okay: this is a blog with words. But if you make it to the bottom, you'll be rewarded with some pretty awesome Kempe inspired memes.