Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Margery Kempe Tells Her Story

Margery Kempe (in Rome, 7 October 1414)

In the account of her life that she says was completed in 1436, the English mystic and pilgrim Margery Kempe tells of her visit to Rome, where on 7 October 1414, she says she visits the "chamber that Saint Bridget died in" and then "kneeled on the stone on which our Lord appeared to Saint Bridget."

A page from the mid-fifteenth century
manuscript copy of Margery Kempe's
Boke (now BL Add. 61823) 
Margery Kempe's "autobiography," which includes this reference to Birgitta of Sweden, is compelling, challenging, at times deeply moving, sometimes hilarious, and, in the end, unforgettable, as is Kempe herself. 

But I found myself at a complete loss the first time a selection from Kempe was included in the Norton Anthology of British Literature some time in the late 80s or in the early 90s--so much at a loss, in fact, that although I wanted to include women writers in the survey course I was teaching, I freaked out and asked a friend who taught theology to do the brief selection from Kempe for me. She spent an hour talking to a room full of bored students about the "gift of tears," we all got through the period, and then we turned the page. 

But in the years since, I've taught Margery Kempe's book many times--not just a couple of short pages in the Norton anthology but her entire work. With each rereading and each group of students, I grew to love it--and Kempe herself--more and more. 

It horrified me--not to mention my students--when I realized in class one day that Kempe reminded me of my mother: absolutely impossible to deal with, completely unpredictable, a horror and an embarrassment to her fellow travelers, including her husband, always making a spectacle of herself (to use one of my mother's favorite phrases, invariably applied to someone else), and supremely confident in the correctness her own opinions, decisions, and pronouncements. Kempe is garrulous, attention-seeking, and funny, both repellent and endearing. 

Margery Brunham was born in the port city of Bishop's Lynn (now King's Lynn) in Norfolk about the year 1373. She married John Kempe when she was about twenty, and she tells us that she gives birth to fourteen children. (Though my students were always shocked that this mother wrote almost nothing about any of her children--they thought her children would--or should--be the focus of Kempe's life.)

After a terrible period of mental and physical collapse following the birth of her first child, she begins to experience a series of marvelous visions of Jesus, who sits on her bed and comforts her. Other visions follow--she is with St. Anne at the birth of the Virgin Mary, bustling about to take care of the newborn and then looking after her "until she was twelve years of age." She is with Mary in Bethlehem, finding "lodgings for her every night," begging for "fair white cloth and kerchiefs" in which to swaddle the infant Jesus, begging for food for the mother and child.

Margery Kempe negotiates with her husband to end their sex life (at first he refuses, threatening to rape her, but eventually, after she promises to pay his debts, he agrees), she is arrested and examined about her religious views, she undertakes pilgrimages (throughout England, to Rome, to St. James Compostela, to the Holy Land, to Germany), she composes her autobiography, she cares for her dying husband, and, by 1438, she is dead.

It's easy to regard Kempe's book as the rambling, disorganized reflections of a madwoman--as Lynn Staley notes, when the manuscript copy of Kempe's Book was first recovered and identified, "it was taken as a sort of verbal diary, narrated by a possibly hysterical, certainly emotional, woman." But in the intervening years, it has come to be recognized as carefully "authored," the "product of a shaping imagination."

Having read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, where the greatest of English storytellers creates a fictional version of himself as a genial boob, gullible, naive, and a terrible teller of stories, student-readers can see the way Margery Kempe also constructs a version of herself, whom she refers to in the third-person as "this creature." 

A page from Wynken de Worde's
1501 pamphlet of extracts from
Margery Kempe's Boke
Margery Kempe's Boke is widely regarded today as the first autobiography written in English, but that is not the way she saw her work.

Kempe identifies her "book" as a "treatise"--well, actually as "a short treatise" or a "little treatise." It can also be read as a confessio--like Augustine's Confessions, a literary and public revelation of what has been hidden--or an account of mystical revelations, or even a travelogue. 

Kempe's work survives in only one manuscript copy, from the mid-fifteenth century, that at one time belonged to the Carthusian monks of Mount Grace Priory (in Yorkshire). A seven-page extract was printed by Wynken de Worde in 1501 as A shorte treatyse of contemplacyon taught by our lorde Ihesu cryste, or taken out of the boke of Margerie Kempe of Lynn. It was reprinted by Henry Pepwell in 1521--at that time, Pepwell decided that Margery Kempe was a "devout anchoress." 

Those few pages were all that had ever come to light until 1934, when the manuscript was "discovered" by Lieutenant-Colonel W. Butler Bowdon among his family archives.

There is a great deal of wonderful critical commentary on Kempe and her book, but I love a comment one of my students, Jordan, made the last time I read this book for class: Margery Kempe's book is about "a lost soul that finds its way."

In yet another marvel of technology, the British Library has made available a digitized copy of the mid-fifteenth-century manuscript; you can access it by clicking here. There are two wonderful paperback editions--I've quoted from Lynne Staley, who has produced a Norton Critical Edition text of The Book of Margery Kempe. I also recommend B. A. Windeatt's Penguin edition (which I've used in class so many times that it's falling apart, but I can't bear to part with it). 

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