The Book of Margery Kempe

Kempe's significance

Part of Margery Kempe's significance lies in the autobiographical nature of her book; it is the best insight available of a female, middle class experience in the Middle Ages. Kempe is unusual when compared to contemporaneous holy women, such as Julian of Norwich, because she was a laywoman. Although Kempe has sometimes been depicted as an "oddity" or a "madwoman," recent scholarship on vernacular theologies and popular practices of piety suggest she was not as odd as she might appear. Her Book is revealed as a carefully constructed spiritual and social commentary. Some have suggested that her book is written as fiction and a form of artistry, implying that she intentionally "attempts to create a social reality and to examine that reality in relation to a single individual." By focusing on a single person's experience, Staley suggests, Margery is able to explore the aspects of the society in which she lived in a realistic way. The suggestion that Kempe wrote her book as a work of fiction is supported by the fact that she regards herself as "this creature" throughout the text, dissociating her from her work.[11] Although this is considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language, there is also evidence that Kempe may have written her book not entirely about herself or to precisely document her personal experiences, but as a work which explores the experience of one person and which sheds light on life in an English Christian society.

Her autobiography begins with "the onset of her spiritual quest, her recovery from the ghostly aftermath of her first child-bearing" (Swanson, 2003, p. 142). There is no firm evidence that Margery Kempe could read or write, but Leyser notes how religious culture was informed by texts. She had such works read to her as the Incendium Amoris by Richard Rolle; Walter Hilton has been cited as another possible influence on Kempe. Among other books that Kempe had read to her were, repeatedly, the Revelationes of Bridget of Sweden and her pilgrimages were related to those of that married saint, who had had eight children.

Kempe and her Book are significant because they express the tension in late medieval England between institutional orthodoxy and increasingly public modes of religious dissent, especially those of the Lollards.[12] Throughout her spiritual career, Kempe was challenged by both church and civil authorities on her adherence to the teachings of the institutional Church. The Bishop of Lincoln and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, were involved in trials of her allegedly teaching and preaching on scripture and faith in public, and wearing white clothes (interpreted as hypocrisy on the part of a married woman). Kempe proved her orthodoxy in each case. In his efforts to suppress heresy, Arundel had enacted laws that forbade allowing women to preach.

In the 15th century, a pamphlet was published which represented Kempe as an anchoress, and which stripped from her "Book" any potential heterodoxical thought and dissenting behaviour. Because of this, later scholars believed that she was a vowed religious holy woman like Julian of Norwich. They were surprised to encounter the psychologically and spiritually complex woman revealed in the original text of the "Book."


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