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MK-Med-Ecc-art - 1/31/97

"Margery Kempe: A Medieval Eccentric" by Lady Isabelle de Foix.

NOTE: See also the files: religion-msg, nuns-msg, heretics-msg, pilgrimages-msg.


This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called StefanŐs Florilegium.

These files are available on the Internet at:

Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.

While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.

Thank you,
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous

by Isabelle de Foix

Margery Kempe was born in a town called Bishops-Lynn (now King's Lynn) in
Norfolk around 1373. Her father, John Brunham, served in a number of
prestigious political offices, including city mayor and member of Parliament.
Thus, her family was of some importance in Lynn. Margery was illiterate, so she
dictated her memoirs to two scribes when she was about sixty. She claimed that
she dictated her memoirs only after being pestered by some clergy to recount
"how a sinful wretch" went through a conversion experience and became a holy
woman. The result of this collaboration was the first autobiography in the
English language. There is no organization whatsoever in the book; it is a
"fricasee", a "jumble of ingredients". The book is an exceptionally honest and
graphic expression of Margery's mind. There are several very graphic reference
to sexual activities. In her preface, she stated that she did not tell her story
in chronological order; rather, she talked about each important episode in her
life when she remembered it. She discussed her chastity vows before she related
giving birth to her last child. She described in graphic detail her alleged
visions of Jesus, Mary, and several saints. She did not say anything about her
childhood; she started her autobiography with her marriage. Following the
literary custom of the period, Margery referred to herself in the third person
rather than the first. She referred to herself throughout the book as "this
creature". In the fifteenth century, "creature" meant any "creation" of God.
Everything in the book, both praise and condemnation, came straight from her
mouth. She firmly believed that she was on a divine mission to save souls.

Margery married John Kempe when she was about twenty, and gave birth to
fourteen children. Immediately after giving birth to her first child, she
experienced a mental breakdown. It has been suggested that she was afflicted
with a post-partum psychosis. This illness is characterized by severe depression
and spells of delirium. She engaged in self-destructive activities, and
antagonized her friends and family. She was tortured with lurid visions of Hell
and the Devil, until, she tells us, she received a visit from Jesus. She lapsed
away from religion again, and dressed in fine fashion. She wore fine cloaks,
slashed to reveal bright colors underneath, and "gold pipes" on her head. It is
believed that she was referring to a crespinette, a popular head-dress of the
time. To get the money to pay for her showy dress, she engaged in two business
endeavors. She became a brewer, but she knew nothing about brewing ale, and she
did not ferment the wort properly. She lost money as a result and gave up
brewing. She also tried milling, as she had a horse-mill. Her career as a miller
had quite a bizarre ending, if we are to believe the entire story..On the eve of
the feast of Corpus Christi, the servant in charge of the horses was just trying
to do his job. The horses mysteriously refused to pull in the mill. The servant
tried his best to get the horse to continue its work, but it refused. The
servant got so frustrated with the horse that he took the horse back to its
stable. Then he got the other horse, but it also refused to work the mill.
Margery told the scribe that the servant quit his job. She related that he was
frightened at any association with her, because she was regarded as an evil
women. She was involved in a sinful activity, attempting to make money. Any
desire to make money during this period was viewed as greed, and it was sinful
because the Church expected people to be content with whatever God had given
them through natural processes. Since money did not come directly from nature,
attempts to multiply it were wrong. Also, it was unconventional, to say the
least, for a woman to try anything independently of their husbands. In fact, her
husband disapproved of her business activities. Devastated at her failure,
Margery, at this point, underwent an intense religious experience.

In the pre-scientific mass psyche of the Middle Ages, religion and the
supernatural in general played a major role in people's personal lives. The
religion practiced by these people was an intense, emotional, guilt-ridden,
almost anxious brand of Christianity. This was the age of the Flagellants, who
wrapped themselves from head to toe in linen and walked the streets flailing
themselves with scourges that drew blood. Others, including St. Catherine of
Siena, took fasting so seriously that they starved themselves to death in hopes
of avoiding the fires of Hell they feared intensely. Mary of Olgnies, from
Brabant in the Netherlands, (died c. 1213) was a mystic whose story Margery was
familiar with. The similarity between the two women was uncanny. Although born
to wealthy parents, Mary led a life of great austerity. Married at fourteen, she
and her husband lived a chaste relationship. She had various mystical
experiences, during which she claimed she had visions of Jesus, Mary, and the
saints. She wept at the thought of Christ's Passion. She could not look at a
crucifix without fainting. She was asked to stop her weeping during mass by her
priest, but the more she tried to stop weeping, the more she wept. She wept when
confessing her most trivial sins. She refused to eat meat, and she always wore
white clothing, which symbolized purity. Suffering, the devout believed in the
Middle Ages, was the way to avoid eternal damnation. Even so, most of Margery's
contemporaries thought her obsession with religion was excessive; they wished
she would talk about something besides religion. Here one sees one of the more
unattractive aspects of the piety of both women--exhibiting their piety and
closeness to God, which, they claimed most people did not have.

Margery shocked and annoyed many a person with her histrionic form of
devotion. Like Mary of Olgnies, every time she sensed the presence of divinity,
she would start to cry and scream uncontrollably. Margery claimed that God had
encouraged in her weeping spells. She was also read important spiritual books by
sympathetic priests, and she had an excellent memory. Her faith was based on
meditations on the important events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, especially
the painful or tragic ones. When meditating on the Jesus' crucifixion, commonly
called the "Passion" by Christians, she saw him with the wounds caused by the
nails. When she had this vision she would spread her arms out, weep, and yell "I
die! I die!" Margery's religious convictions caused her much emotional pain,
provoked by an intense feeling of guilt. She had committed a sin in her youth
that she alluded to a few times but was never specific about. The sin was
probably sexual in nature. While watching a procession at Corpus Christi mass,
she became so emotional at the sight of the procession that she left the
sanctuary to go to a nearby house. Here she screamed "I die! I die!" She
absolutely roared with her weeping and screaming, and the people attending the
mass were dumbfounded. What was wrong with this peculiar woman, they wondered?
Some though that she was possessed by a devil, and some thought her drunk, but
some people sounded astonishing modern by suggesting that she was merely ill.
Needless to say, she disrupted many a mass with these bizarre outbursts, and
became a persona non grata in many churches and holy places. She endured eight
years of illness, after which her cries and weeping increased in intensity. Her
obsession with religion was fueled by the belief that life on this earth was a
transient experience full of pain and evil

Margery's guilt from her sins drove her to various deeds of penance.
Sometimes she confessed three times in one day. She fasted often. She
frequently kept vigil at the local church. Sometimes she would go to the church
at two in the morning and stay there all day. She acquired a hairshirt, and wore
it frequently. She wished to live chastely with her husband, but he was
unwilling. John Kempe claimed that she was trying to take his conjugal rights
away from him. They finally made a "chastity agreement" while traveling
together. On Midsummer's Eve (June 23), 1413, Margery and her husband journeyed
to York to see the annual Mystery Play. They left York together, heading towards
another town on foot. Margery carried a bottle of beer and her husband carried
some cakes. They stopped to take a rest near a large cross, as the day was white
with enervating heat. They had not had relations for eight weeks; this was not
to John Kempe's liking, and he threatened to press for his conjugal right by the
the roadside! Margery asked leave to say her prayers, and she was always to
claim that God had given her the "trade-off" idea that suited them both. She
agreed to resume cooking and drinking wine with him in return for a chaste
relationship. After this, both knelt in prayer before a large cross. Afterwards,
the couple celebrated the agreement by sitting down nearby and eating together.
However, due to fear of rumors and misunderstanding in the town about the nature
of their relationship, they decided to live separately, although they saw each
other frequently to discuss family matters. Margery, having obtained the
necessary permission from her husband, then undertook a series of pilgrimages to
Rome, Compostella, in Spain, and Jerusalem.

Margery was arrested several time by Church authorities. It is not clear
why she irritated the authorities, but several of them believed that she was a
heretic. Since the power or the Church and the Crown were intertwined, to harm
one was to harm the other. One thing was clear to these authorities: Margery may
have been illiterate, but she was hardly stupid. She learned much about
Christian doctrine and the saints of the church from sympathetic priests Men of
the time thought women lacked the intelligence to learn these things, and she
proved them wrong. Also, her business activities and independence from her
husband aroused suspicion. If she was capable of breaking the roles concerning
her gender, might she also wreak havoc with the existing social order? The
politicians of the age had a "domino theory" about heresy leading to political
and social chaos. At one of her interrogations at Yorkminster a cleric who had
earned a doctorate at a university asked her if she had a husband She answered
in the affirmative; whereupon the doctor asked her to produce a letter of his
approval of her travels. She replied that he had given her the necessary
permission with his mouth, and that she had come as a pilgrim.

The Archbishop asked her why she always wore white--was it because she was
a virgin?

"No, sir", Margery answered, "I am no virgin. I am a married woman". In
fact, Margery desperately wished she had been allowed to live as a virgin.

The Archbishop then ordered Margery to be bound because he was convinced
that she was a heretic. It is not clear why he believed this, but he may have
thought Margery's stories about her visions constituted heresy. Not
surprisingly, she had a weeping spell during the interrogation; she had been
praying while the Archbishop was out of the room. The Archbishop asked her why
she cried so much. She answered "Sir, you shall wish one day that you had wept
as acutely as I". Many a person present was shocked to see an illiterate woman
argue with the Archbishop of York. They had never seen such a thing. No one ever
accused Margery of false modesty! Her spiritual egotism certainly did not help
her reputation as far as the Church was concerned, but she won many supporters
through her piety. The more people heard about Margery, they either revered her
as a visionary or thought her an instrument of sin and heresy.

In 1421 there was a huge fire in Bishops' Lynn. It burned down several
buildings in the city. It threatened the whole town, Margery tells us. For once
the townspeople encouraged her in her histrionic form of devotion, hoping for
help from God in putting out the fire. A priest asked her is he should walk
towards the fire holding a container with consecrated Hosts (communion wafers)
in it. She advised him to do this; he walked towards the fire, holding the
Hosts, and then walked back into the church, surrounded by flying sparks of the
fire. Margery followed him and noticed the sparks. Soon she started to weep,
crying out to God for mercy. Three men entered the church wearing cloaks which
were covered with snowflakes. They told her that God had sent the snow to save
Bishop's Lynn from destruction by fire. Margery aspired to sainthood, and she
believed that this was a miracle which could be attributed to her. However,
Margery has not been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

Margery's husband died in 1431. He died after a nasty fall down the stairs
in their home in Lynn. The neighbors found him "lying with his head twisted
under himself, half alive, all streaked in blood".... Shortly afterwards Margery
was informed of the accident. She broke out of her religious contemplation and
rushed to their home in Lynn, and cared for him until he died. He became senile
and practically unable to move. Margery busied herself with laundry and keeping
the fire going in the house, which was expensive due to the high cost of fire
wood She credited him for having great love and compassion for her. After his
death, she continued her travels

Margery had many difficulties on her travels--although the travelers would
have told us that she was an undesirable traveling companion. It was they who
found her obsession with religion annoying. On the way to Jerusalem, her
traveling companions wanted to enjoy the beautiful city of Venice, while Margery
cared nothing for the city and would hardly crack a smile.. She could not stand
the idea of enjoying a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages were regarded as penance, a
concept which one does not normally associate with pleasure. On one pilgrimage,
she refused to remove her white clothing to get the lice off of her body;
everyone else, both male and female, did remove their clothes to rid themselves
of these pests once they had left a city. Margery abhorred nudity and the human
body itself. In this case, she preferred to put up with the discomforts of lice
than to show her body to anyone. Several times she was abandoned by the party
she was traveling with, but she made it to all of her destinations by finding
other people to travel with her. She regarded her sufferings as necessary in
order to not have to spend time in Purgatory.

There has been much theorizing about possible psychological disorders
Margery may have had. She clearly was unable to control her emotions, and she
never ceased to do things that shocked other people. There has been much
controversy over her claims to have had visions of Jesus, Mary, and other

It has been suggested that she had been a severely abused child, but there
is no way to prove this. She was no doubt difficult to be around due to her
quirky behavior. Still, one must credit her with immense courage, as well as her
compassion for the weak and sick. She did everything within her power to help
these people. Like most other members of the human race, she had her faults and
her virtues. In her mind, she was an important pilgrim on this planet, desperate
for release from her tortured mind and body. Reading her honest, vivid
descriptions of the pain she felt throughout her life, one cannot but help that
she deserved that peace that she so fervently wanted. She received it in around



Kempe, Margery, The Book of Margery Kempe, (1436) translation by B.A. Windeatt,
Penguin Books Ltd, 1985
Cantor, Norman, editor, Medieval Reader, a compilation of primary sources,
HarperCollins, 1994
A.F. Scott, editor, Every One a Witness: The Plantagenet Age, Scott & Findlay
Ltd, 1975


Windeatt, B.A, Introduction and End-notes, translation of The Book of Margery
Kempe, Penguin Books Ltd, 1985
Labarge, Margaret, A Small Cound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life, Beacon
Press, 1986
LeGoff, Jacques, Medieval Civilization, translation by Julia Barrow, Basil
Blackwell Ltd, 1988
Tierney, Brian, The Middle Ages, Volume II, Readings in Medieval History,
McGraw-Hill, 1992

Copyright Patricia M. Hefner, 1997. <HPGV80D@prodigy.com>
This article may be copied by anyone desiring to use it for educational purposes
as long as you mention my name and send me a copy of the newsletter.

<the end>

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