[Sunflower logo of the Kansas Heritage
Group]Margery Kempe (1373- post 1438)

First autobiography in English

I: Background

An eight-page pamphlet was published by Wynken de Worde in a 500-copy edition entitled A Short treatise of contemplation taught by our Lord Jesu Christ, taken out of the book of Margery Kempe of Lynn. All but one copy, in University College, Cambridge, perished, and scholars placed Margery among the English mystics of the period, of whom there were many, such as Hilton, Rolle, and Juliana of Norwich. In 1934, Miss Hope Emily Allen was allowed to look at a manuscript in the library of Col. Butler Bowdon of Pleasington Old Hall in Lancashire. A scholar of Robert Rolle, she soon discovered that it was the book from which de Worde had derived his pamphlet, but that it was not a book of devotion. Instead, it was a rather massive autobiography; the first written in English, and one of the few deep personal insights we have into the life and thoughts of a member of the middle class of the period. It gave us an amazing picture of a peculiar person.

II: Birth and youth (1373-1393)

Margery Kempe was the daughter of John Burnham, five times mayor of the town of Lynn, a flourishing town of Norfolk.

One could digress upon the growth of the prosperity of Lynn: The flatness of East Anglia, the draining and development of the salt marshes, the growth of the wool industry in the thirteenth century coincident with the towns of Flanders outstripping their own sources of raw materials; the use of tides and currents to reach either Flanders or the Low Countries, the increased importance of the town with the growth of the Hanseatic League.

There is little remarkable about Margery's youth to be noted, except for two things. The first is that, for some reason or another, she was not taught to read. This was a normal accomplishment for a middle class girl of the times, since society was becoming generally literate, at least among the well to do. This was to affect Margery later in life, throwing her upon her own mental resources to an unusual degree, for better or for worse. One could also develop the theme of the importance of the ability to read in avoiding self-delusion. The second remarkable thing is something of which we know little, since it was a secret sin, of which Margery would not speak. More than likely it was something relatively minor, and there is some reason to believe that it was in the nature of a sexual pecadillo. It was, however, to have an immense effect upon Margery's later life.

In 1393, Margery married John Kempe, a young merchant of the town, and a member of the same Corpus Christi guild as her father. Marriages were not exactly made in heaven at this time, but Margery and John seemed to get along well together. He was understanding and kind, and Margery took immense pleasure in physical love. This being the case, it was not unusual that she quickly became pregnant.

III:Struggle for Freedom (1394-1413)

Childbirth was at that time a far more difficult proposition then than now. Pain was regarded as the curse of Eve, and no attention was paid to the agony or to the possibility of complications. Gynecology and obstetrics were not only ignored, but the suggestion that there should be some concern in these fields was regarded as evidence of a sick mind. As a consequence many women died in childbirth -- and many more went mad.

Even if one survived the birth, childbed fever -- a term almost unknown now -- killed a significant percentage of mothers. Even if the mother survived, there was a good chance that the infant would die. The low life expectancy of the middle ages was largely a result of infant mortality. All in all, it was a very hard experience, and few had any real sympathy for the mother. The women deserved all of this torment, as partial expiation for the sexual pleasure which had led to the birth, and, at a greater remove, for Eve's sin of having tempted Adam and so led to humankind's fall from God's grace.

With this background, it is understandable that after her first, difficult childbirth, with a period of personal illness ensuing, and with a sickly child, Margery was somewhat disturbed. Fearing death and an eternity of exactly the sort of thing she had been experiencing -- pain without dignity or understanding -- she asked for a confessor. She wanted to confess the sin of her youth which she had never had the courage to mention before and of which she had never been absolved. Perhaps the confessor had a headache, perhaps he was in a hurry, in any case he had no sympathy with Margery, and began to bawl her out even before she got to the big sin. He yelled so much that she couldn't get to it. She broke. She tried to throw herself out of the window, screamed, blasphemed, and struck out at all who approached. John hired some keepers, who locked her in a storeroom. Here she bit through the veins in her wrists. They then chained her to the bed, and she fell to raving. She was kept tied up in the storeroom for eight months. One day Margery looked up from her bed, and Jesus Christ was sitting there. He said, "Daughter, why have you forsaken me when I never forsook you?" and went back to Heaven.

This was not an unusual thing. The Church had for many years been finding it more and more difficult to administer the sacraments in an effective manner. The waves of plagues following the Great Plague of the l340's, the administrative breakdown of the Church following the Great Schism of 1378, and the increasing venality accompanying failing discipline among clerics were causing many to seek a pathway to God outside the sacraments. One of the more important such was the Oxford professor of divinity, John Wycliffe, whose teachings laid the foundation for the Lollard and Hussite movements. His convictions were born out of study. Margery couldn't study, but she, too, had to find a way out of a sacramental system that was supposed to be essential but which offered her no help or comfort. Hence, Jesus Christ dropped in one day for a chat.

The effect was miraculous. Margery was suddenly sane once again. Although the keepers were upset, John saw and trusted her. He ordered her unchained and gave her the keys to the storeroom where she had been imprisoned. That night she sat down to supper once more mistress of her own house. She plunged back into the secular world with great joy. She bought new clothes, and became the town clothes-horse, she went into the brewing business, and for two or three years became the biggest beer-maker in town. Business declined, however, and she formed a horse milling company. This too failed, however.

These failure were the source of some humiliation for Margery. Her failures could not be for lack of business sense, since she was John Burnham's daughter and couldn't possibly lack business sense. It might have been because she couldn't read or write, but others had succeeded under such a handicap. It could have been that she had to take time out to have her second, third, fourth, fifth, and so forth child -- she had fourteen all told. This was only natural for a woman, however, and Margery was not willing to admit that was any disadvantage. She couldn't be just a housewife, was a failure as an entrepreneur, and couldn't see what else she could do. It was at this point that Jesus Christ dropped in again to mention that he were prefer her to devote herself to his service. Margery found it hard to understand why she had not thought of that herself.

Devotion to Christ at this time meant chastity, and Margery suggested to John that they should start sleeping apart. John agreed that it would be a good idea someday, but meanwhile the children kept coming. Margery finally grew desperate, and one night when John was making amorous advances, she screamed "Oh Dear Jesu Christ, Save me, Jesus!" A miracle happened, and John didn't feel amorous any more. This chastity wasn't a joke with Margery, and she found it difficult to keep up. Once she slipped so far as to proposition a young man outside church. He ran away, yelling that he would rather be cut up for the stewpot than sleep with her. Margery asked God about it, and God told her that she had to sin in order to have something to do penance for.

She began to attend church longer and more often, she began some personal fasts (For some reason, her refusing herring and snapping up pike seemed hilarious to people of her age and this story about her became extremely popular), she began to chat with God more frequently. Jesus, being only a boy somewhat younger than herself, gradually receded into the background. Most important, she began to cry. Here she began to encounter trouble, for seizures of this sort could either be the work of God or of the devil, and opinion was split in Lynn. In addition, Henry IV had succeeded Richard III and the Inquisition came to England. Margery began to search for credentials in the event she had to defend herself against charges of demonic possession or the like. Finally, in 1413, Margery's chance for freedom came.

IV: Pilgrimage to Jerusalem. (1413-1414)

John Burham had died, and left Margery a substantial inheritance. At the same time, Henry V had taken over and decided to renew the war with France. Business was bad, and John Kempe had gone into debt. Times were troubled and there were hints of a Lollard rebellion. At this point, Margery told John that she would rather see him killed than ever again yield to him. This time she had some bargaining power. John agreed to a contract of chastity and that she should be her own woman, if she would pay his debts. She agreed.

First they went to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. Now she could let herself go, and spent the whole day moaning and crying full length at the shrine. The people were amazed, and suspected her a being a Lollard, John fled to the hotel. At a local Monastery, a monk challenged her, asking what she knew of God, and she answered that she knew. The monk asked her to name his secret sin, and she replied "Lechery." He was taken aback, and asked "With single women or married." "Married," she replied, and he cried, "She is a right holy woman!" Even so, she had to slip away from Canterbury with a mob after her. It became clear to her that she needed unimpeachable credentials. Especially since God had told her to wear a white dress. She and John went to the Bishop of Lincoln. Phillip Repingdon, the cultured bishop of Lincoln, had been a student of Wycliffe's and was now very wary. He witnessed the contract between John and Margery, but told her that she should go to the archbishop of Canterbury for permission to wear white. She spent some time sermonizing at him, add he gave her money "to further her pilgrimage" at least out of Lincoln. She now embarked upon her great adventure: a pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem.

She passed through Constance, where they were busily preparing for the council that would meet there during the coming year, reached Rome, and visited all of the shrines and viewed all of the relics that the city had to offer. She wept often and long, and seems to have been inwardly pleased at the attention this sign of her special status attracted. One might suppose that this was the result, in some complex psychological way, of the long imprisonment and deep isolation she experienced during her period of madness, but this is a modern point of view that might be quite inappropriate for the circumstances of her times. This was an age in which spectacular demonstrations of personal piety were relatively common, for whatever reason. Juliana of Norwich had walled herself into a small tower to isolate herself by brute physical means from the outside world. Although she was generally available for conversation and consultation with visitors and received meals through a slot in the wall, her contemporaries saw no contradictions in these arrangements. Flagellants formed long processions in which they marched along in pairs with one person whipping his companion and, after a period of rest, exchanging places with him (or her) and continuing the dreary rehearsal of Jesus' way to the cross. Although such pious demonstrations required considerable secular planning and management, and although the participants were often moved to such penance during public festivals in which they formed a major attraction, again their contemporaries found little fault with these displays.

This is perhaps overstating the case. It could not have escaped the notice of many that such displays were often carried out without ecclesiastical sanction or direction. In fact, such manifestations of personal piety implied that the individual lacked a conviction that the sacraments and the established Church provided sufficient means of salvation or avenues for penance. That being the case, those prone to public displays often opened themselves to the suspicion that their dissatisfaction with the Church may have gone deeper, perhaps as far deep as actual heresy.

Margery gives no indication that she recognized that many observers of her transports may have had serious misgivings of her orthodoxy. She seemed blithely unaware that she was traveling alone through a world teeming with Beguines and Beghards, Friends of God, Spiritual Franciscans, Lollards, Hussites, and others for whom the execution block and stake were never far away. She did know, and it bothered her greatly, that many people suspected that she was merely putting on a show to draw attention to herself. Then, too, there was always the possibility, although she would scarcely admit this to herself, that the God who was such a close friend of hers was merely one of those deceits by which Satan snares the souls of the unwary and gullible, and drags them off to Hell.

This may have been what drove her to the sanctuaries and shrines. Since ecclesiastical authorities would not reassure her and accord her official license to wear white and weep, she may have hoped that, in one of these holy places, before a crowd of on- lookers, God would mark her in the sight of all with some unmistakable sign of His grace.

Or it may simply have been that, once having tasted it, she enjoyed the adventure of travel and the excitement of new things to see. In any event, her tour of the Holy Land seems merely to have whetted her appetite. Much of her book is the story of her travels to various English shrines, to Santiago de Compostella in Galicia, and to distant Danzig. Finally, God suggested to her that it might be time to slow down. She returned to Lynn, hired a lady who could write by dictation, and settled down to record her life and preserve for future generations how extraordinary that life had been.

I have heard it said that autobiographies provide a very poor reflection of the times in which their authors lived, if only because the writers of autobiographies are eccentrics. res ipse loquitur. On the other hand, one must admit that the eccentrics are rarely boring.


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

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