ASK any reasonably well-educated person about Margery Kempe (c.1373-after 1438), or mention The Book of Margery Kempe to a well-read individual, and their immediate reaction is likely to be “Oh, yes, she was the woman who wept all the time, wasn’t she?”
Engage a little further in conversation, and — more often than not — they will tell you that she was “mad”; and they will either laugh or tut-tut, empathising with those unfortunates of the early 15th century who, standing outside St Margaret’s, in Bishop’s Lynn (as King’s Lynn was known until 1537), overheard Margery wailing from within, or at first accompanied and then abandoned her on their pilgrimages.
I am standing with those scholars whose predecessors gave Margery such a bad press for decades after her unique manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe was discovered (in 1934), and who are, at last, beginning to recognise that Margery did not deserve the calumny she received, and are setting the record straight.
FIRST, many academics, even today, make the mistake of thinking that Margery was illiterate. They read that Margery used amanuenses and a copyist to write her Book, and assume, therefore, that she couldn’t read or write — an easy mistake to make. In Book 2, however, her amanuensis records: “[John’s] mother, when she had a letter from him, and knew his desire, went to her prayers to know our Lord’s counsel and our Lord’s will,” and a few lines later we read: “Then she wrote letters to him, saying that, whether he came by land or by sea, he would come in safety by the grace of God” (2:2).
Philip Sheldrake notes, in his appendix to Julian of Norwich: In God’s sight (Books, 4 October 2019), “the use of an amanuensis was not unusual even among the educated, literate upper classes.” But it didn’t stop there: as the priest, theologian, and martyrologist John Foxe (1516/17-87) notes in his Actes and Monuments (aka Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 1563), “women of the artisan class in Norfolk were said, in 1429, to have been taught to read the scriptures in Middle English”; and Margery and her family belonged and had belonged to this class for at least two generations.
ALTHOUGH she was not good at either, Margery tried her hand at brewing and milling, and she would have needed to read and write for both these activities. Margery realises that her failures in business “were the scourges of our Lord”, caused through “her pride, her covetousness, and desire . . . for worldly honour” (1:2) — not, apparently, through her so-called inability to read and write.
Words, to Margery were important, and the recording of words, whether spoken or written — especially when spoken by Jesus, Mary, or one of the saints, in visions, or locutions — were vital. Our Lord values the writing of Margery’s Book: “Daughter,” he says, “by this book many people shall be turned to me and believe therein” (1:88).
SECOND, we read (on several occasions) that many of Margery’s acquaintances were astonished by her behaviour, at home and abroad, while others — very often on the Continent — accepted and befriended her, and made her welcome.
When we look in her Book for influences on Margery, we find on two occasions a list of texts read to her (1:17 and 58): the Liber Celestis, or Revelations, of Birgitta of Sweden (1303-73); The Scale of Perfection by Walter Hilton (1340/45-96); pseudo-Bonaventura’s Stimulus Amoris; and The Fire of Love by Richard Rolle (1300-49).
All are major works of late medieval mysticism, known in England in their Middle English translations, and all inspiring affective piety imitatio Christi and corporeal asceticism, in a tradition going back to 13th-century Northern Europe.
Other exponents of the imitatio Christi (and, indeed, the imitatio Mariae), such as Marie d’Oignies (d.1213) and Elizabeth of Hungary (d.1338), are mentioned in the course of the book; and these mystics — together with places where they, like Margery, went on pilgrimage, such as Assisi (Francis, c.1181–1226; Clare, 1194-1253, and Angela of Foligno, 1248–1309); Danzig (Dorothea of Montau, d.1394); and, of course, the Holy Land (Birgitta) — cannot have failed to influence Margery’s spirituality as she continued along “the way of everlasting life” (1:2).
THIRD, certainly two of these Continental women had a profound effect on Margery’s spirituality — not least on her tears. Marie d’Oignies’s Life (a major source for The Book), was read in Middle English by Margery’s scribe, who drew parallels between the two women’s weeping. “Elizabeth of Hungary [too] cried with a loud voice, as it is written in her treatise” (1:62). These and others put paid to the notion that Margery’s tears, sobbing, and weeping were those of either a hypocrite or an eccentric woman.
Indeed, Margery tried on several occasions to cease her crying, or, at least, to hold it in; or she retired out of places of worship or meeting so as not to disturb other people. One passage clearly states that God alone is in control of Margery’s weeping: “She sobbed wondrously and wept as bitterly as ever she did before, sometimes loudly and sometimes quietly, as God Himself would control it” (1:63).
It was one more female saint — Birgitta, wife and mother — who had the most profound effect on Margery’s emotional and spectacular behaviour: she similarly persuaded her husband to live in chastity, cared for lepers, went on pilgrimages (thereby receiving forgiveness of her sins), experienced divine revelations, wept abundantly at the Passion, and underwent a mystical marriage to God.
It is with this greater understanding that we celebrate Margery’s feast day, 9 November — especially in this (probably) 650th year after her birth.
The Revd Dr Luke Penkett is Curator of the Margery Kempe Centre, King’s Lynn, Hon. Sec. of the Margery Kempe Society, and Book Reviews Editor of Medieval Mystical Theology. His book Julian of Norwich’s Literary Legacy is published by DLT at £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop £17.99); 978-1-913657-80-2.
The 2023 Free Talks programme marking the 650th anniversary of the birth of Margery Kempe continues with lectures in King’s Lynn Minster every Monday at 6 p.m. until 9 October. kingslynnminster.org