Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438) is known for dictating The Book of Margery Kempe, a work considered by some to be the first autobiography in the English language. This book chronicles, to some extent, her extensive pilgrimages to various holy sites in Europe and Asia, as well as her mystical conversations with God. She is honoured in the Anglican Communion.


Early life

She was born Margery Brunham in King's Lynn (then Bishop's Lynn), Norfolk, Kingdom of England. Her father, John Brunham, was a merchant in Lynn, five-time mayor, and Member of Parliament. His mercantile fortunes may have been negatively affected by downturns in the economy, especially in the wool trades, of the 1390s. The first record of her Brunham family is the mention of her grandfather, Ralph de Brunham in 1320 in the Red Register of Lynn. By 1340 he had joined the Parliament of Lynn[1]

Marriage and family

At the age of 20, Margery Brunham married a Norwich man named John Kempe. She had 14 children with him.

A vision

The narrative of Kempe's book begins just after her marriage, and relates the experience of her difficult first pregnancy. While delivering this child, she became gravely ill and feared for her life. She called for a priest to hear her confession, as she had a "secret sin" that had been weighing on her conscience for some time. The priest began to censure her before she could divulge this sin in its entirety, and then left. Fearing eternal damnation, she fell into a delusional state, where she describes seeing devils around her, and was considered a danger to herself and others. She was chained in a storeroom for six months, until, as she describes, Jesus sat down at her bedside, and asked her, "Daughter, why hast thou forsaken Me, and I forsook never thee?" She relates, at first, intending to become God's servant, but admits she could not "leave her pride nor her pompous array." Kempe undertook two domestic businesses—a brewery and a grain mill—both common home-based businesses for medieval women, both of which endured for a little while, then failed.

Though she tried to be more devout, she was tempted by sexual pleasures and social jealousy for some years. Eventually turning away from her vocational choices, Kempe dedicated herself completely to the spiritual calling that she felt her earlier vision required. Striving to live a life of commitment to God, Kempe negotiated a celibate marriage with her husband, and began to make pilgrimages around Europe and Asia to holy sites, including Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela. Her book consisted of her accounts related to these travels, although a final section includes a series of prayers. The spiritual focus of her book is on the mystical conversations she conducts with Christ for more than forty years.

From 1413 to 1420, Kempe also visited important sites and religious figures in England, including Philip Repyngdon, the Bishop of Lincoln; Henry Chichele, the Archbishop of Canterbury; and the mystic Julian of Norwich. Travelling to Rome in 1416, she stayed at the Venerable English College. Her thoughts concerning these trips and her revelatory experiences make up much of her book, but she also recounts persecution by civil and religious leaders. The last section of her book deals with a journey in the 1430s to Norway and the Holy Roman Empire, where she visited the relic Holy Blood of Wilsnack. Two different scribes wrote for Kempe, under her strict supervision.

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 among the more traditional holy exemplars of her time, such as Julian of Norwich, a member of a religious order. In describing her visit to Julian in Norwich, Kempe tells of their discussion of Kempe's visions and assessment as to their orthodoxy. They decided that because the visions led to charity, they were of the Holy Spirit.

Although Kempe has 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 appears. Her Book is revealed as a carefully constructed spiritual and social commentary. As Swanson (2003) explains, in the 1420s, Kempe began dictating her book to a scribe. After his death, she continued to work with another male scribe, to complete The Book of Margery Kempe. While Kempe began dictating her book, her husband John Kempe fell ill, and she returned to Lynn to be his nursemaid. Soon after, he and her son both died.[2] Her final travel was to Danzig with her daughter-in-law.[3]

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 could have had works read to her. There is some evidence that the Incendium Amoris by Richard Rolle influenced Margery Kempe; 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 Birgitta 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]. In his efforts to suppress heresy, Arundel had enacted laws that forbade allowing women to preach, for example.

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.[citation needed] 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."

In 1438, the year her book is known to have been completed, a Marguerite Kempe, who may have been Margery Kempe, was admitted to the Trinity Guild of Lynn.[citation needed] The last record of her is in the town of Lynn in 1438, and it is not positively known when and where she died.

Kempe's book was essentially lost for centuries until a manuscript (now British Library MS Additional 61823) was found by Hope Emily Allen in the private library of the Butler-Bowdon family in Lancashire in 1934. It has since been reprinted in numerous editions and inspired numerous spiritual seekers, as well as scholars trying to understand the role of women in the Middle Ages.

The manuscript was copied, probably slightly before 1450, by someone who signed himself Salthows on the bottom portion of the final page, and contains annotations by four hands. Since the first page of the manuscript contains the rubric, "Liber Montis Gracie. This boke is of Mountegrace," it is likely that some of the annotations are the work of monks associated with the important Carthusian priory of Mount Grace in Yorkshire. Although the four readers largely concerned themselves with correcting mistakes or emending the manuscript for clarity, there are also remarks about the Book's substance. Two of these annotators are especially interesting, since their comments suggest ways in which the Book was read and why it was preserved.


Kempe is honored in the Church of England on November 9 and in the Episcopal Church (US) together with Richard Rolle and Walter Hilton on September 28.

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich was a fourteenth-century female mystic and anchoress, a religious person living secluded in a cell within a church.[4] According to her own accounts, Kempe visited Julian and stayed for several days; she was especially eager to obtain Julian's approval for the "very many holy speeches and converse with our Lord...also the many wonderful revelations, which she described to the anchoress to find out if there was any deception in them. For the anchoress was expert in such things and could give good advice."[5] Evidently, Julian approved of Kempe's revelations, or at least did not denounce them as false, giving Kempe her most credible source that her religiosity was genuine.[6] However, Julian does instruct and caution Kempe to "measure these experiences according to the worship they accrue to God and the profit to her fellow Christians."[7] Julian is also the one to justify and confirm that Kemp's tears are physical evidence of the Holy Spirit in soul.[7] At the end of their discussion, Julian finally encourages Kempe to "Set all your trust in God and fear not the language of the world."[7]


During the fourteenth century, the task of interpreting the Bible and God through the written Word was restricted to men, specifically ordained priests; to interpret God through the senses and the body became the domain of women, primarily women mystics, especially in the late Middle Ages.[8] Three classical ways in which mystics directly experience God: first, bodily visions, meaning to be aware with one's senses—sight, sound, or others; second, ghostly visions, such as spiritual visions and sayings directly imparted to the soul; and lastly, intellectual enlightenment, where her mind came into a new understanding of God.[9]


From the 790s it was stated as a universally acknowledged truth that women could not travel without coming into contact with men. For women vowed to a religious life, this was impermissible, therefore nuns had to abstain from pilgrimage. While women not vowed to religion faced the same implications, the religious woman was supposed to be aware of her weaknesses, and accept the resultant constraints.[10]

Both spouses had equal rights over each other's body, so neither was allowed to retire to religious life, take a vow of chastity, or go on a crusade or a pilgrimage without the willing consent of the other[11]

Kempe was motivated to make a pilgrimage by hearing or reading the English translation of St. Birgitta's Revelations. This work promotes the purchase of indulgences at holy sites; these were pieces of paper representing the pardoning by the Church of purgatorial time otherwise owed after death due to sins. Margery Kempe went on many pilgrimages and has been known to have purchased indulgences for friends, enemies, the souls trapped in Purgatory and herself.[12]

Editions of her book

  • Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe, 1436, Ed. W. Butler-Bowdon, with an Introduction by RW Chambers. London: Jonathan Cape, 1936.
  • Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Edited by Sanford Brown Meech, with prefatory note by Hope Emily Allen. EETS. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940.
  • Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Ed. Lynn Staley. TEAMS. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996.
  • Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe: A New Translation, Contexts and Criticism. Trans. and ed., Lynn Staley. New York: Norton, 2001.


  1. ^ Goodman, Anthony. Margery Kempe and Her World.
  2. ^ Phillips, Kim. "Margery Kempe and The Age of Woman", in A Companion to The Book of Margery Kempe. Ed. John Arnold and Kathleen Lewis. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer. 2004. 17-34.
  3. ^ Phillips, Kim. "Margery Kempe and the age of Woman." A Companion to The Book of Margery Kempe. Ed. John Arnold and Kathleen Lewis. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer. 2004. 17-34.
  4. ^ Roman, Christopher. Domestic Mysticism in Margery Kempe and Dame Julian of Norwich: The Transformation of Chrisian Spirituality in the Late Middle Ages. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press. 2005.
  5. ^ Julian of Norwich. Revalation of Love. Trans. John Skinner. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1996.
  6. ^ Hirsh, John C. The Revelations of Margery Kempe: Paramystical Practices in Late Medieval England.Leiden: E. J. Brill. 1989.
  7. ^ a b c Lochrie, Karma. Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1991.
  8. ^ Roman, Christopher. Domestic Mysticism in Margery Kempe and Dame Julian on Norwich: The Transformation of Christian Spirituality in the Late Middle Ages. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press. 2005.
  9. ^ Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Love. Trans. John Skinner. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1996.
  10. ^ Webb, Diana. "Freedom of movement? Women travellers in the Middle Ages"
  11. ^ Labarge, Margaret Wade. Women in Medieval Life
  12. ^ Webb, Diana. Medieval European Pilgrimage

Further reading

  • Arnold, John and Katherine Lewis. A Companion to the Book of Margery Kempe, Woodbridge Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 1994.
  • Bhattacharji, Santha. God Is An Earthquake: The Spirituality of Margery Kempe, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997.
  • Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern.
  • Glenn, Cheryl. “Popular Literacy in the Middle Ages: The Book of Margery Kempe.” In Popular Literacy: Studies in Cultural Practices and Poetics, ed. John Trimbur. (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001).
  • Leyser, H. (2003). "Women and the word of God", In D. Wood (ed.). Women and Religion in Medieval England. Oxford: Oxbow. pp 32–45. ISBN 1-84217-098-8
  • Lochrie, Karma. “The Book of Margery Kempe: The Marginal Woman’s Quest for Literary Authority”, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 16 (1986): 33–55.
  • Staley, Lynn. ""Margery Kempe's Dissenting Fictions", in D. Wood (ed.). Women and Religion in Medieval England, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994. ISBN 1-84217-098-8
  • Swanson, R. (2003). "Will the real Margery Kempe please stand up!", In D. Wood (ed.). Women and Religion in Medieval England, Oxford: Oxbow. pp 141–65 ISBN 1-84217-098-8
  • Watt, Diane, Secretaries of God. Cambridge UK: D. S. Brewer, 1997.
  • Watt, Diane, Medieval Women's Writing. Cambridge UK: Polity, 2007.
  • Witalisz, Wladislaw, "Authority and the Female Voice in Middle English Mystical Writings: Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe," in: Homo Narrans: Texts and Essays in Honor of Jerome Klinkowitz, ed. Zygmunt Mazur and Richard Utz (Cracow: Jagiellonian University Press, 2004), pp 207–18.

External links

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  • Margery Kempe — (* ca. 1373 in King s Lynn, (England); † nach 1438) ist eine englische Mystikerin und Visionärin, die für ihre mittelenglische Schrift The Book of Margery Kempe bekannt ist, ein Werk das von manchen als die erste Autobiographie in der englischen… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Margery Kempe — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Kempe. Margery Kempe (vers 1373 vers 1436 ou après 1438) est une mystique anglaise, auteur du Book of Margery Kempe, considéré par certains critiques comme la première autobiographie de langue anglaise. Sommaire… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • KEMPE (M.) — KEMPE MARGERY (1373 env. env. 1440) Mystique anglaise, connue par le récit de sa vie, qu’elle a dicté à deux secrétaires différents (et en deux temps). Le manuscrit de Margery Kempe, dont des morceaux choisis avaient paru en 1901 à Londres sous… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • Kempe — ist eine Burg in Sachsen, siehe Burg Kempe der Familiennamen folgender Personen: Alfred Kempe (1849−1922), britischer Mathematiker Andreas Kempe (1622–1689), schwedischer Philosoph und Philologe Antje Kempe (* 1963), deutsche Leichtathletin… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Margery — ist ein weiblicher Vorname. Inhaltsverzeichnis 1 Herkunft und Bedeutung 2 Namensträgerinnen 3 Künstlername 4 Siehe auch …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Kempe, Margery — (ca. 1373–ca. 1440)    Margery Kempe was born into a prosperous middleclass family in the Norfolk port of King’s Lynn in ca. 1373. She was the daughter of John Brunham or Burnham, an influential burgess of Lynn who served, according to extant… …   Encyclopedia of medieval literature

  • Kempe, Margery — (c. 1373–c. 1433)    Mystic.    Kempe was born Margery Burnham, the daughter of the Mayor of Bishop’s Lynne, England. She married John Kempe and was the mother of fourteen children. She is remembered for her Book of Margery Kempe in which she… …   Who’s Who in Christianity

  • Kempe, Margery — born с 1373 died с 1440 English mystic. She had 14 children before beginning a series of pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, Germany, and Spain in 1414. Apparently illiterate, she dictated her autobiography, Book of Margery Kempe, describing her… …   Universalium

  • Kempe, Margery — ( 1373– 1440). Mística inglesa. Tuvo 14 hijos antes de comenzar en 1414 una serie de peregrinajes a Jerusalén, Roma, Alemania y España. Aparentemente analfabeta, Kempe dictó su autobiografía, Book of Margery Kempe [El libro de Margary Kempe], en… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Kempe — Cette page d’homonymie répertorie les différents sujets et articles partageant un même nom. Patronymes Alfred Kempe, mathématicien anglais. Carl Kempe, joueur de tennis suédois. Christophe Kempe, joueur de handball français. Fritz Kempe,… …   Wikipédia en Français

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