Kempe, Margery

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Margery Kempe was an English Christian mystic, known for her book written during the 1420s which she dictated to scribes, The Revelation of Divine Love, known today as the Book of Margery Kempe. This work is considered by some to be the first autobiography written in the English language. Her book chronicles her domestic tribulations, her visions, her religious experiences as well as her temptations to lechery, her travels, her trial for heresy, her extensive pilgrimages to holy sites in Europe and the Holy Land, as well as her mystical conversations with God. Kempe's book was lost for centuries, being known only from extracts. However, in 1934, a manuscript was found in the private library of the Butler- Bowdon family. It fell out of a cupboard when the family were looking for a ping-pong ball. The book has since been reprinted and translated in numerous editions.


Margery Kempe’s father was a merchant in Bishop’s (King’s) Lynn, a mayor of King’s Lynn and their Member of Parliament. At around 20 years of age, Margery married John Kempe, who became a King’s Lynn official in 1394. She loved fine clothes and good quality jewellery and was a failed business woman.


Margery and John had at least 14 children. Later, she decided to be celibate. Her husband said that it was his right according to 14th century marital law that her body was his, to do with as he pleased. Eventually, after much cajoling, weeping and wailing, Marjory Kempe got her wish, but her husband only agreed to a celibate marriage on three conditions: that they sleep in the same bed, that Marjory pay his debts and that Marjory made him a fish supper on Fridays. From this point Marjory gave herself over to a life of complete religious devotion.


Kempe believed that she was summoned to a greater intimacy with Christ as a result of multiple visions and experiences she had had as an adult. After the birth of her first child, Kempe went through a period of crisis for nearly eight months, perhaps due to postnatal depression or even mania as part of a bi-polar disorder. During her illness, Margery claims that she saw numerous devils and demons attacking her and commanding her to forsake her faith, her family, and her friends.


Kempe said that she had visitations and conversations with Jesus, Mary, God, and other religious figures and that she had visions of being an active participant during the birth and crucifixion of Christ.


She prayed, went to confession two or three times a day, prayed early and often each day in church. She wore a hair shirt and willingly suffered abuse from her community concerning her extreme forms of devotion. Kempe was also known throughout her community for her constant weeping as she begged Christ for mercy and forgiveness. Her loud wailing, sobbing, and writhing frightened and annoyed both the clergy and the laypeople.


Sometime around 1413, Kempe visited the female anchoress, Julian of Norwich, at her cell in Norwich. According to her own account, Kempe said that Julian approved of Kempe's revelations and gave Kempe reassurance that her strong religious belief was genuine and also confirmed that Kempe's tears were a physical evidence of the Holy Spirit in her soul.


Margery Kempe went on many pilgrimages and is known to have purchased indulgences for her friends, her enemies, the souls trapped in Purgatory and herself. In 1413, she left King’s Lynn and travelled to Norwich and prayed at Norwich Cathedral and then travelled to Great Yarmouth and prayed at an image of Our Lady Mary in St. Nicholas’ Church and then boarded a ship. She landed near Rotterdam and then travelled via Bologna, spent 13 weeks in Venice and then travelled to Jerusalem. She was in Jerusalem for three weeks and went to Bethlehem, Mount Zion, the burial places of Jesus and his mother, Mary. Finally, she went to the River Jordan and Bethany, where Martha, Mary and Lazarus had lived. She returned via Assisi, Rome and Middleburg to England, where she fell to her knees and kissed the ground giving thanks for her safe return.


Kempe also went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in 1417, travelling via Bristol and also visited holy sites in England and in Danzig now Gdańsk , Aachen etc. Kempe is honoured in the Church of England on 9th November, but she was never made a Roman Catholic saint.



The Book of Margery Kempe.