Study Guide

The Book of Margery Kempe Language and Communication

By Margery Kempe

Language and Communication

Spoken language is pretty crucial in The Book of Margery Kempe, because guess what: like most women at the time, this lady could not read or write. (Which makes it all the more extraordinary that she's responsible for the first autobiography in English.) It wasn't uncommon for even men to be illiterate back then, but illiteracy could be a pretty big burden. We can see this through Kempe's eyes, especially when she thinks her story has been written and learns that the scribe bungled it, or when she's exiled from a good sermon because of her screaming.

Kempe relies on the spoken word for spiritual development, direct communion with the divine, companionship with other holy peopleā€”and to save her life. It's Kempe's "good words" that get her out sticky situations and make her friends in high ecclesiastical places. Without this, she would probably just be a footnote in the heresy trials of history.

Questions About Language and Communication

  1. How would you characterize Kempe's conversations with Jesus? Are they surprising in any way?
  2. How is language a barrier to Kempe's spiritual development? In what ways is it a help?
  3. In what ways does Kempe's inability to read affect her interactions with the world around her? In what ways does it affect her spiritual life?
  4. In what ways does the fact that Kempe's experiences are mediated through a male scribe affect how we read and receive her work?

Chew on This

Although Kempe's communications with the divine use conventional language and images, the housewifely familiarity with which she chats with Jesus shows us a new way of thinking about God.

Kempe's direct access to Christ and the saints is better than an education and a library card; she needs neither the approval of the male clergy nor the good will of a literate man to get her fill of holy communication and instruction.