The Book of Margery Kempe | Study Guide

Margery Kempe

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Margery Kempe | Biography

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Chronology

Almost all information about Margery Kempe's life comes from The Book of Margery Kempe itself. Because the Book is not presented in strict chronological order, scholars have had to piece together the different episodes that Kempe narrates into a time line of approximate dates. The people and places to which Kempe alludes serve as signposts to tell where in her story each chapter of the Book belongs. Charity Scott Stokes, in her article "Margery Kempe: Her Life and the Early History of Her Book" (1999), provides an extensive chronology supported by contextual evidence. Modern critical editions, such as Norton's version, The Book of Margery Kempe (2000), also offer some help in this regard.

Secular Years

Margery Kempe was born Margery Brunham about 1373 in the English port city of Lynn. Her father, John Brunham, was a prosperous merchant and leading political figure in the city, serving several terms as mayor and six terms as a member of Parliament. Though much is known about the Brunhams, little can be said about Margery's early years. Around 1393, Margery married John Kempe, a brewer who came from an established, though less prominent, Lynn family. The Book describes Margery's efforts, early in her married life, to set up her own brewery and flour mill, businesses whose failures she construes as chastisement from God.

Mysticism and Travel

Also reported in the Book is the first of Kempe's mystical experiences, which began in early adulthood. One formative vision occurred following the sickness and trauma that accompanied the birth of her first child. Kempe speaks not only of being bodily ill during this time but also of losing her "wits" for the better part of a year after childbirth. When she recovered, she rejoined Lynn society but became increasingly isolated as the visions continued and her devotional practices—frequent penance combined with uncontrollable outbursts of weeping—intensified. Though she desired to "live chaste," as she phrases it, she bore 13 more children.

In 1413, the year her father died, Kempe undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land—Jerusalem—stopping in Rome before returning to England approximately two years later. Upon her arrival, she faced charges of heresy and was interrogated by several ecclesiastical and secular authorities. Ultimately, she acquitted herself and resumed her rich but controversial devotional life, wearing white in recognition of her spiritual betrothal to Jesus Christ.

After an illness, Kempe embarked on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain in 1417 and then returned to England, where she visited various holy sites. When she came back to Lynn, she developed a chronic illness that for much of the next eight years effectively foreclosed the possibility of long-distance travel. Instead, she devoted herself to worship and charitable acts in her hometown. Information for the remainder of the 1420s and early 1430s is scarce, although the death of John Kempe has been dated to 1431 with reasonable confidence. By this time, at least a partial draft of the Book had been written.

Margery Kempe's last major voyage took place from 1433 to 1434, when she accompanied her widowed daughter-in-law back to her home of Danzig, Germany. From there, Kempe visited pilgrimage sites in Wilsnack and Aachen before returning to Lynn later in 1434.

Death and Legacy

The biographical material in the Book ends at this point, but the town records of Lynn suggest Kempe was still alive in 1438, when a woman of her name became a member of the merchants' guild. She is thought to have died in 1440, though no conclusive evidence supports this date. Kempe's Book provides a great deal of information and insight about life in 15th-century England, especially about religious tolerance and the treatment of women.

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