Though Kempe speaks of "high contemplation" and spiritual communion with just about every saint in heaven, when it comes right down to it, she's always the woman from Bishop's Lynn. She wants to live the contemplative life, but she's constantly compelled to participate in worldly life, whether by the command of Jesus Christ or by her desire to speak with holy people about her experiences.
As a result, Kempe's voice sounds more like a slightly wacky neighbor telling you about her latest travels rather than like a theologian expounding on the mysteries of the Trinity. Case in point? Her friendly interactions with Richard of Caister, Vicar of St. Stephen's Church in Norfolk. Allow us:
She greeted the Vicar, asking him if she could—in the afternoon, when he had eaten—speak with him for an hour or two of the love of God. He, lifting up his hands and blessing himself, said, "Bless us! How could a woman occupy one or two hours with the love of our Lord? I shan't eat a thing till I find out what you can have to say of our Lord God in the space of an hour." (I.17.74)
Richard himself is surprised by her matter-of-fact way of declaring such a lofty theme for discussion, and finds it pretty easy to engage in the kind of playful banter that will make him her one of her spiritual BFFs.
So there's some debate over whether this work can really be attributed to Kempe herself, since her male scribes would have had ultimate control over what actually got recorded on her behalf. Then there's the question of Kempe's authorization of the final text. How could she approve the contents if she couldn't actually read them? Despite these still unsolved questions, The Book of Margery Kempe is generally accepted as a non-first person account of the good old Marge's life.
As with most medieval texts, the title of this autobiography is not part of the original manuscript. It was likely given its descriptive title when it was first printed in short form by Wynkyn de Worde in 1501.
As a title, The Book of Margery Kempe gives us the basics of what we need to know, but no more. All it really tells us is that this book has something to do with someone called Margery Kempe. We have to read on to find out why we should care.
Kempe ends her narrative in a typical way for a hagiography (that's the fancy word for a text about a saint's life) or a mystical work. She tells us a little about her prayer technique, and she ends with a short (and kind of indifferent) prayer for grace for herself and the audience. After nearly 300 pages of crying, it's a bit of a let down, really.
Margery Kempe hails from Bishop's Lynn in northwestern England, a town just about 97 miles north of London and about 41 miles slightly northeast of the large and prosperous trade town of Norwich.
Norwich was also, in Kempe's day, a happening place for spiritual growth. It held the Norwich Cathedral, seat of the Bishop of Norwich and shrine to the murdered boy-saint William. And more importantly for Kempe, the great English mystic Julian of Norwich lived in a small cell attached to St. Julian's Church.
Kempe also travels extensively—sometimes disastrously—throughout England. She journeys to Canterbury Cathedral (think Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) and more than once to Lambeth Palace in London to seek the help of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
And because Margery Kempe is such a rebel, we can plot on a map all the places where she was arrested: Leicester (75 miles east of Bishop's Lynn), Hessle (97 miles north), and again on the way home from Lambeth Palace in London.
Kempe also makes her way, largely unaccompanied, on an epic journey to Jerusalem. She stops in Venice on the way out and back, and then she spends an extended time in Italy visiting religious sites. On the way to Rome, Kempe visits Assisi, home to the saintly Francis and Clare.
But while she's gone, Kempe mostly resides in Rome, taking the time to weep in major churches such as St. John Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore, and Saint Peter's Basilica. She also visits St. Bridget's hospice and convent and several other churches before returning to England.
Kempe's later bursts of wanderlust take her on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, and to Prussia (with an emergency landing in Norway) with her very hostile, extremely unwilling daughter-in-law. From there, she has to make her way across war-torn Europe into Calais, on the coast of France, where she would take ship again on—thank heavens—the last sea voyage of her life.
Since Kempe's work deals with mystical experience, it's tough right from the get-go. After all, this lady is trying to share intimate and highly symbolic communications with the divine—that's a pretty heavy subject. There's also the matter of chronology—or lack of it. Kempe is not interested in telling a unified story with a pretty beginning, middle, and end. She wants to convey her life's purpose and share highly emotional religious experiences. So basically, there's lots of room for hard work and confusion in this one. But don't worry: Margery Kempe is probably praying for you, so you'll get through it.
Yeah, it's a little awkward to talk about Margery Kempe's "writing style," because, strictly speaking, she's not the one putting pen to paper here. She's dictating to her scribe, probably a male cleric, who may or may not have used a heavy editorial hand during the writing of the narrative.
Even so, there are still moments in the text when we glimpse a funky turn of phrase or use of image that screams "MARGERY KEMPE!" rather than "CLERICAL INTERFERENCE!" The most obvious moments of this happen when Kempe handles figurative language, as in the following passage:
"Daughter, you are obedient to my will, and cleave as fast to me as the skin of a stockfish sticks to man's hand when it is boiled, and you will not forsake me for any shame that any man can do you." (I.37.127)
This is Jesus praising Kempe's humility and obedience. Notice that he conveniently uses "homely" or familiar terminology with her—hey, a girl from a seaport town knows the properties of stockfish skin—and not obscure, theological, fancy-pants language.
Kempe treats us readers in a similar way. She has no intention of dancing around any issue, including things that are clearly TMI: "She lay beside her husband, and to have intercourse with him was so abominable to her that she could not bear it..." (I.4.50). Yeah, she doesn't mince words, even if she isn't writing them herself.
You might think that because Kempe starts her life out as a wife and mother that she would naturally be drawn to the image of Christ as husband—and you're right. Kempe clearly wants to separate herself from her worldly husband, John, so that she can lavish all her love and attention on Jesus the way she knows best. She tells the wicked Mayor of Leicester as much when she proclaims that Jesus is the only man she loves.
But the image of the spiritual bridegroom isn't just for wives like Kempe. It first appears in the Song of Songs, a lovely and wonky book of the Old Testament written as a poetic conversation between a groom and his bride.
Christ brings this particular bridegroom up in his Parable of the Ten Virgins and specifically names himself as the bridegroom in Mark 2:19. St. Paul picks up the image and runs with it, using it to describe the mystical union between Christ and his church, or between Christ and an individual soul (check out 2 Corinthians 11:2-4). In fact, in mystical literature in general, romantic love is pretty often used as a metaphor for divine love.
While Kempe is enthusiastic about mystical union with Christ, she doesn't handle the figurative language very gracefully. She understands the general concept of Christ as husband, but she's also got to deal with Christ as Son, and with the the fact that he insists on calling her "daughter" whenever they speak.
So when Christ tries to explain why he has to be so "familiar" with Kempe, we get this gem of figurative weirdness:
"Therefore I must be intimate with you, and lie in your bed with you. Daughter, you greatly desire to see me, and you may boldly, when you are in bed, take me to you as your wedded husband, as your dear darling, and as your sweet son, for I want to be loved as a son should be loved by the mother, and I want you to love me, daughter, as a good wife ought to love her husband." (I.36.126-127)
If that leaves you feeling uncomfortable, you're on the right track. Kempe means to tell us that Christ demands all her love and attention—but the image of the bridegroom gets muddled up with other ways of identifying and relating to Christ.
Kempe's use of the image to describe her spiritual union with her heavenly spouse is not just erotic (like the Song of Songs)—it's downright physical, as when Jesus encourages her to kiss and hug him in bed (I.36.127) or when he speaks to Kempe about sleeping together without shame (I.86.254). Okay, so he what he wants is for her to do all of these things "in her soul," but still. Awkward.
Even more awkward is the actual wedding ceremony that takes place in Kempe's spiritual sight. Kempe has a strong devotion to—and even, as we've seen, a physical love for—Jesus because of his humanity. So when God the Father decides that he wants to marry Kempe, our main girl actually gets pretty distressed. God kind of forces her into wedlock and then offers this confusing speech:
"I take you, Kempe, for my wedded wife...provided that you are humble and meek in doing what I command you. For, daughter, there was never a child so kind to its mother as I shall be to you, both in joy and sorrow, to help you and comfort you." (I.35.123)
Again, Kempe fumbles for the language that can best describe the everything that God is to her, and in this case, she's trying to describe how she's maturing in her spirituality by becoming more intimate with the boss of the Trinity. It's easy to get frustrated with Kempe's handling of a delicate image like this, but keep this in mind: Kempe can't read. She's learned about this trope simply through hearing it in sermons or in Bible readings.
After Kempe spiritually "marries" God the Father, she's given several tokens as a mark of favor—wedding presents, if you will. The most significant of these is the fire of love in her heart, which Kempe describes in this way:
Our Lord also gave her another token which lasted about sixteen years, and increased ever more and more, and that was a flame of fire of love—marvellously hot and delectable and very comforting, never diminishing but ever increasing [...]. (I.35.124-125)
Kempe also wants us to understand that while this "flame" is certainly mystical, it's also very real to her, and she feels it "as veritably as a man would feel the material fire if he put his hand or finger into it" (I.35.125). As you can imagine, this freaks her out pretty well at first, until Jesus explains things to her: "[...] this heat is the heat of the Holy Ghost [...] and you know very well that wherever the Holy Ghost is, there is the Father, and where the Father is, there is the Son [...]" (I.35.125).
Jesus's words are all very comforting, except that the fire of love causes Kempe to act in bizarre ways, which isolates her from the rest of the world. Because it is a hybrid mystical/physical feeling, Kempe often becomes overwhelmed by these sensations. In fact, this "fire" makes her behave like a drunk, "turn[ing] herself first on one side and then on the other, with great weeping and sobbing [...]" (I.41.135) or "reeling about on all sides [...] for the fervour of love and devotion that God put into her soul" (I.82.239).
Kempe can hardly help her responses when she's "all enflamed with the fire of love," but it doesn't make things easy for her. And while the fire is a token of love, it's a kind of love that wounds with its violence and leaves Kempe at the mercy of those who think she's crackers.
It makes it even more difficult for Kempe's priest-scribe-friend to support her in the face of criticism—that is, until he reads about Richard Rolle's perfectly named Incendium Amoris (that's Fire of Love to us). Once he realizes that a bona fide male mystic has experienced the same thing, it "prompted him to give credence to the said creature" (I.62.193). Problem solved. At least on that front.
Kempe introduces the idea of her soul as a room into which she welcomes God early in her narrative, when she uses an idea made popular by Julian of Norwich: "[...] she would weep and sob that many men were greatly astonished, for they little knew ho at home our Lord was in her soul" (Proem.34). She wants to explain that she knows God on an intimate level, like a friend who comes to visit, kicks off his shoes, and gets comfortable.
Kempe not only invites God into this chamber, she also calls on the female virgin saints to appear there to welcome God and to help her decorate the place to make it more proper and comfortable. We learn a little about Kempe's mystic techniques when Jesus describes what he finds when he visits Kempe's soul-chamber:
"[...] you sometimes imagine, daughter, that you have a cushion of gold, another of red velvet, the third of white silk, in your soul. And you think that my Father sits on the cushion of gold, for with him lies might and power. And you think that I...sit on the red cushion of velvet, for upon me is all your thought, because I bought you so dearly [...]." (I.86.251-52)
Although Kempe isn't usually good at handling figurative language, she does a bang-up job in constructing this chamber. Hey, this lady is talking about what she knows: home life. Fancy-pants men of the Church may not appreciate what she's saying, but she's proving that the mystical experience is open to everyone, and it can be described in any kind of language. This interior decorating job helps Kempe through a rigorous contemplative process and allows her to understand more readily what is happening when she waits in silence for God to enter her soul.
It can be weird to hear Kempe referred to as "this creature" in the text, but that's exactly what she does. The term is not meant to dehumanize her. Rather, it's an acknowledgement of Margery Kempe as a created being under the sovereignty of God. If there's any debasement meant in the term, it is certainly in the humility that Kempe feels as a penitent sinner. In any case, the use of third person here is meant to replace her first-person point of view, but it's still limited to what Kempe perceives, or to what God tells her.