Margery Kempe

Margery Brunham, the daughter of John Brunham, was born in Bishop's Lynn, Norfolk in about 1373. Burnham was mayor of the town and a Member of Parliament.

Margery married John Kempe, a town official in about 1395. Margery and John had at least fourteen children.
Kempe was an orthodox Catholic and believed that she was summoned to a "greater intimacy with Christ" as a result of multiple visions and experiences she had as an adult.

Margery became a wandering preacher and was tried for heresy multiple times but never convicted. Reasons for her arrests include her preaching (which was forbidden to women), her wearing of all white as a married woman and being a Lollard (a follower of John Wycliffe).

Marjery left England, travelling via Rome to Jerusalem where she experienced increasingly strong and vivid visions. While attending church services in Jerusalem, Marjery began to cry uncontrollably, and loudly, a trait that would remain with her for the rest of her life. On the way home, Marjery became stuck in Rome. Her behaviour eventually became such a source of embarrassment to the English community in Rome decided to raise the money to get her back to England. When she arrived home, Marjery's visions continued and while some were fascinated, others shunned her odd behaviour.

Margery who was illiterate, dictated her life story to a scribe. The result was The Book of Margery Kempe, the first autobiography to appear in the English language. Margery died in about 1438.

Kempe's book was lost for centuries, However, in 1934 a copy was found by Colonel William Butler-Bowdon when he was searching through a cupboard at his country home of Southgate House near Chesterfield.

Janina Ramirez, the author of Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It (2022) has argued: "Margery tells us about the problems with medieval package holidays, caring for her sick husband and how much she craves sex."

Christine de Pisan presents her book to Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France
A woman writing in her study (c. 1405)

Primary Sources

(1) Margery Kempre, The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1400)

She many times met with men of that district who said to her, "Woman, give up this life that you lead and go and spin, and card wool, as other women do, and do not suffer so much shame and so much unhappiness. We would not suffer so much for any money on earth."

Then she said to them, "I do not suffer as much sorrow as I would do for our Lord's love, for I only suffer cutting words, and our merciful Lord Christ Jesus...suffered hard strokes, bitter scourgings, and shameful death at the last, for me and for all mankind, blessed may he be."

(2) Margery Kempre, The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1400)

On a night, as this creature lay in her bed with her husband, she heard a sound of melody so sweet and delectable, that she thought she had been in Paradise, and therewith she started out of her bed and said: 'Alas, that ever I did sin! It is full merry in Heaven.'

(3) Margery Kempre, The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1400)

Patience is more worthy than miracle-working.

(4) Margery Kempre, The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1400)

Then the lady's priest came to her, saying, "Woman, Jesus is long since dead." When her crying ceased, she said to the priest, "Sir, his death is as fresh to me as if he had died this same day, and so, I think, it ought to be to you and to all Christian people."

(5) Margery Kempre, The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1400)

She came before the Archbishop and fell down on her knees, the Archbishop saying full boisterously unto her: "Why weepest thou, woman?" She, answering, said: "Sir, ye shall wish some day that ye had wept as sore as I."

(6) Margery Kempre, The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1400)

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 say of our Lord God in the space of an hour."

(7) T. W. Coleman, English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century (1938)

As an intimate record of personal religious experience it has few equals. The marks of accuracy, sincerity, and reality are stamped on every page.

(8) Alison Torn, Margery Kempe: Madwoman or Mystic (2008)

What Kempe describes to us is a truly embodied spiritual experience. Kempe has no doubt about this, and it is this unshakeable belief that communicates itself down the centuries through the text...the question remains as to how Kempe manages to convey the phenomenological intensity of Margery's experience twenty or more years after the event? First, Kempe is an expert storyteller, and it is likely that she retold such narratives as discussed here on many occasions to many people, clergy and fellow pilgrims, through oral testimony and public performance. Second, central to the orthodox liturgy, is the conception that devotional words uttered are expressed through the senses. Extreme emotion which, in modern times, is viewed as a sign of mental instability, was a fundamental feature of spirituality, conveying both the seriousness and truth of the religious experience... With this knowledge, when we return to Kempe's text, we can listen to Margery's voice within a framework more akin to medieval England than the twentieth century West. Margery's sensory experiences are not without cultural and historical provenance, rather she draws upon a range of mystical sources grounded in religious and cultural traditions known throughout medieval Europe. Kempe's embodied descriptions cease to be tactile or olfactory hallucinations or grandiose ideas (marriage to God), but become experiences that result from spiritual passion.... As argued earlier, religiosity was sanity, whereas madness amounted to a refusal to accept the truth that was God. Furthermore, Margery's experiences are intelligible not only in terms of religious traditions, but also in her terms of her career; Kempe construes Margery as a holy mystic

(9) Derek Brewer, Medieval Literature: Chaucer and the Alliterative Tradition (1982)

Margery was more of a religious hysteric than a mystic. But she gives a vibrant account of her life as a woman to whom religion and weeping were as attractive as sex was to the Wife of Bath

(10) Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian (20th July, 2022)

Margery Kempe was a merchant's wife in early 15th-century Norfolk who was halfway through a comfortable life when she decided to give up her smart clothes and good table and marry Christ instead. Briskly informing her husband, with whom she had 14 children, that she would rather see him beheaded than have sex with him again, she set off on a series of highly idiosyncratic pilgrimages which took her as far as Jerusalem. The jury is out on whether she was experiencing post-partum psychosis or spiritual ecstasy (she claimed that all 12 Apostles had turned up for her nuptials with Jesus) but there is no doubting the outrageous originality of her voice.