Study Guide

The Book of Margery Kempe Summary

By Margery Kempe

The Book of Margery Kempe Summary

First, a friendly warning: this book is not constructed chronologically. What follows here is a re-constructed version of the plot timeline, just so your head won't explode. However, you shouldn't expect things to happen in the order that they do in the following short summary.

Carry on.

Book I

Margery Kempe begins her story with her marriage to John and her first childbirth, which is painful and leaves her doubting that she'll survive. She pitches into a wicked bad episode of post-partum depression when her confessor is a jerk to her and doesn't give her the chance to confess a terrible sin. She later thinks demons want to devour her, she struggles to resist suicide, and she's finally rescued by the appearance of a surprisingly hot Jesus at her bedside.

But she doesn't get the message. When she recovers, she's still vain and money-grubbing, so she starts a brewing business. It fails. She starts up a mill. The horses won't work for her. People say she's cursed.

Kempe realizes that she's a great big sinner and needs to do penance. She fasts, prays and weeps ALL. THE. TIME. Kempe has her first direct experience of heaven now, when she hears a pleasing song in her ears and understands that it's the angels and saints partying in heaven. She can't stop talking about it, and the townspeople don't like it very much.

Yeah, well, Kempe is pretty pleased with herself. She's good at self-denial and thinks that her newfound awesomeness is totally due to her personal strength. At this time, she also tries to make her husband give up sex. It doesn't work. Things otherwise go well for Kempe for about two years, but then God gets tired of her conceited ways. He sends her three horrible years of temptations (we're talking sexual temptations). Kempe is utterly humiliated when a local man propositions her and then tells her he was only joking after she consents.

Kempe finally gets it: she needs help from the big J. C. J. C. tells her that contemplation is way better for her spiritual life than formulaic prayers, and he encourages her to lie still and think. She eventually has her first mystical vision. In it, she participates in the birth and childhood of Mary, Jesus's mother. Her emotional involvement in this type of meditation increases the frequency of her weeping in public places, which becomes more problematic as time goes on.

She seeks the opinion of as many holy and learned people as possible to determine whether her visions are truly from God. In this process, she speaks with local clerics, as well as with the holy Richard of Caister and the great female mystic Julian of Norwich. They all assure her that she's on the right track.

Jesus tells Kempe that he wants her to go on pilgrimage to the Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela in Spain. But before she leaves, there's an important score to settle: she has to get her husband to agree to let her go alone and to take a vow of chastity for the rest of their lives. After some serious financial bargaining, Kempe gets her wishes. Her husband John goes with her on several local pilgrimages and finally takes a vow of chastity in front of the Bishop of Lincoln.

To make her pilgrimage easier, Jesus forgives all of Kempe's sins before she leaves and tells her that she will make a safe journey. He also tells her that she will have friends and good help on the way. But it doesn't start out like that. The other pilgrims on the ship do not like Kempe's screaming during meditation, and they begin to persecute her. There is one English priest who is particularly awful to her.

By the time they get to Venice, Kempe finds herself without good companionship and without most of her money. But all of this is redeemed when she reaches Jerusalem. It's a mystic's wonderland, and Kempe spends most of her time there "ravished" into the spiritual realm every time she visits a place where Christ walked. And now, she not only weeps but "cries" or screams when she has visions.

On the return trip, Kempe stays in Italy for many weeks. During this time, she has a hard time with her fellow Englishmen, but she bonds with the Italians. She visits holy places and finds an awesome German confessor named Wenslawe, who can, by miracle, only understand English when it is spoken by Kempe. Jesus commands her to give away all her money while she's in Rome and live as a pauper, which she does. She grows spiritually, and God the Father shows his approval by marrying her in a bizarre wedding ceremony in her soul.

Our girl makes it back to England only with the help of God and a nice English priest. She stays in Lynn only long enough to display her new habit of screaming during visions, and then she's off again on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Nothing much happens until the return journey, when she is arrested multiple times on suspicion of Lollardy, a heresy and a burnable offense.

Brought before Church officials, Kempe's all like, "Lollardy? LOL. I may be doing my own thing, but let me tell you: my own thing is totally orthodox." She answers well in all inquiries and ultimately makes it back home—but she has to go off to London to get a letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury saying that she is not a Lollard and that everyone should step off. Back in Bishop's Lynn, Kempe pursues her spiritual life, makes lots of enemies and a few friends, and through prayer prevents a fire from consuming the parish church.

Towards the end of his life, John Kempe—who is living alone since his wife has chosen to pursue a solitary contemplative life—falls down the stairs in his home and splits his head open. Kempe has to come to his side to nurse him. She detests doing it, because he is troublesome and detracts from her prayers, but she does it for God's love.

Book II

Kempe tells the story of her son and his conversion experience. After he becomes a sober husband and father, she tells her own story to him. It's possible that he writes it down and is her first scribe. The son brings his wife to visit with Kempe and John, but he falls ill immediately and eventually dies. John dies soon after.

Kempe's son's widow stays on with her mother-in-law for eighteen months in England, but she's eager to get back to her home in Prussia. All the screaming will get to you after a while. Though Kempe only intends to accompany her daughter-in-law to the ship, Jesus intervenes and tells her to go all the way to Germany with her.

She does so, and it's a horrible experience. It turns out that the daughter-in-law doesn't like Kempe very much. On top of hat, the territories Kempe has to traverse are ravaged by war, and she can't find proper company to make the journey safely. Eventually, she gets together with a penniless friar and makes it back to England. Her confessor is totally peeved that she left England without his permission, but Kempe is able to patch things up and get on with her contemplative life—and, we imagine, with the writing of her book.