Margery Kempe is a woman who has continued to divide and fascinate since the publication of ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’ in the 15th Century. She is said to have been born in the 14th Century to a wealthy merchant in Kings Lynn, and apparently had led a fairly cushy life until she made the radical decision to devote her life to Christ.
Margery Kempe had intense visions of Jesus Christ, followed by periods of emotional disturbance – the same thing that happens to some people today. Her Book, by which we know her now, dates from about the same time as Julian of Norwich, her friend and mentor.
I came across her story last year and spent many hours discussing Margery and her motives with other history lovers. During these discussions, it struck me how easily Margery has been dismissed as ‘mental’ due to her eccentric behaviour. This seems quite a widely held opinion as just yesterday, I came across a blogger who believed Margery was ‘bat-s*** crazy’. While I can’t say I disagree entirely with the blogger, I think it’s sad that the Margery has been more dammed than celebrated.
In wake of this, here are four reasons why Margery’s eccentricity and infamy are worth celebrating.
She Took The Path Less Travelled
Born to a wealthy merchant in Kings Lynn, Margery’s prospects were pretty good. She was likely to marry well and remain an eminent member of Norfolk society. While she did marry at the tender age of 20 and produce many children, this did not stop her from achieving her religious potential. She decided to throw off her marriage shackles and take a route to mysticism that was renowned as being very ‘un-English’. Unlike the well-known and respected mystic, Julian of Norwich, whose background is remarkably similar to Margery, she did not take a ‘low-key’ approach to mysticism. Instead of circling her beliefs around scripture and visions, she took her cue from European mystics who were renowned for very physical reactions to visions.
Pages from the works of Margery Kempe.
Furthermore, Margery risked more than just her reputation by deciding to travel the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, without a companion. The journey itself was long and arduous and she was often accompanied by people who disliked or mocked her. I can’t help but thinking (and I hope you agree), the woman had guts.
She Went The Whole Hog
There is having faith, and then there’s Margery. Margery was what you might call a ‘super-fan’ of Catholicism. The pilgrimages to Jerusalem were just the tip of iceberg and she experienced Godly ‘visions’. Her wailing sobs, crying fits and uncontrollable seizures were just some of the side-effects of her devotion to Christ (not to mention the strange sexual undertones.) During her hallucinations, many of the onlookers, religious men and travellers in her book are described as uncomfortable with the scenes. Did this deter Margery? Did it heck! Her belief never wavered and she carried her religious convictions throughout life.
She Was An Enigma
Who was Margery? Is Margery’s book an autobiography, a historical or fictional work, or what? Why was the book written? These are questions that have no definitive answer and continue to fascinate historians and divide opinion. Knowing there was a Margery Kempe in Kings Lynn during the 14th Century does not provide evidence that some or any of the things she said or did actually happened. The entire work could be a fantastic story written to instruct or teach rather than be a true autobiography. Despite this and whatever you choose to believe, Margery remains an enigma that deserves study.
This beautiful depiction from ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’ shows her both giving birth and having her first ‘vision’.
Remember Her Name
I apologise for the Breaking Bad reference but it couldn’t be helped, however, I wholeheartedly believe that Margery should be remembered for her ability to fascinate authors, historians, philosophers and really, anyone who comes across her. Her story has the ability to create more questions than it does answer, allowing her name to live on without certainty of who she was or why she did the things she did. This is so captivating that I believe Margery’s name will live on (longer than Breaking Bad).