The Book of Margery Kempe | Study Guide

Margery Kempe

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The Book of Margery Kempe | Book 1, Chapters 11–25 | Summary

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Summary

One summer evening on the way home from York (Chapter 11), Kempe's husband asked her whether she would "common naturally" (have sex) with him to save his life. She answered no, to his irritation and disappointment. At this point they had been "chaste" for eight weeks during their travels. Eventually, after some discussion, the two compromised, with Margery acting on counsel from Jesus, who answered her prayers; Kempe agreed to pay her husband's debts and stop fasting on Fridays provided that he would not demand "the debt of matrimony" and allow her to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The next three chapters (Chapters 12–14) recount Kempe's ongoing activities, visions, and some minor miracles, during her travels. One of these is her ability to discern the sins of a monk she never met before, having received God's word of the man's sins. In Canterbury she was scorned and threatened with burning. In these visions Jesus continued to assure Kempe of the special place she had in his heart, and because "God is in thy soul," she was assured protection wherever she went. In another vision, God commanded her to visit Rome, the Holy Land, and Santiago de Compostela and to wear white clothing (Chapter 15). When questioned about funds for the trip, God promised to provide for her travels. Kempe realized that wearing white clothing would provoke criticism from her neighbors, who would accuse her of hypocrisy, but she was commanded to wear such clothing nonetheless, and she did, accepting ridicule as an act pleasing to God. With her husband's support, she sought permission of Philip, bishop of Lincoln, to don white garments and seal her chastity with a vow. Her request was denied. Later, accompanied by her husband, Kempe visited the archbishop of Canterbury (Chapter 16), reproaching him for "bad behavior of his household" and seeking permission to receive Communion every week. This request, unlike the previous, was granted.

At this point The Book of Margery Kempe jumps back to Kempe's childbearing years (Chapter 17), when God commanded her to travel to Norwich and visit the saintly vicar of Saint Stephen's Church. After confessing her sins to him, she then discussed with the vicar the contents of her religious visions. He assured her the visions were gifts from God, not ruses of the Devil, and referred her to Carmelite friar William Sowthfeld elsewhere in Norwich (Chapter 18). (Early Carmelites, in the 1100s, were male hermits who lived on Mount Carmel in Israel. They moved to Europe in the 1400s and became beggars, observing strict vows of poverty. By Kempe's time they had established convents in Europe, allowing nuns into their order.) Sowthfeld provided her further assurances concerning her visions, as did Julian of Norwich, an anchoress—female religious recluse—whom Kempe would visit later. A few short chapters follow. In one chapter (Chapter 19) Kempe reports her prophecy concerning the state of a woman's soul; in another (Chapter 20), a vision in which the Eucharist "shook and flickered" like a dove. Kempe, pregnant again, was vexed by not being a virgin and, therefore, not truly "chaste." But Jesus reassured her that his love toward married women was as great as toward maidens and widows (Chapter 21). He repeated the promise that she would go to heaven immediately upon her death, without first going to purgatory (Chapter 22).

A vicar seeking advice visited Kempe to ask for her prayers and to seek her opinion about leaving his parish. After consulting Christ, she advised the vicar to persevere and not leave (Chapter 23). Divinely inspired, she proceeded to make several predictions about the lives and deaths of those around her, and all came true. Kempe also attempted to use her spiritual knowledge to prevent her neighbors from being swindled by a suspicious young man (Chapter 24). Although her neighbors listened to her and refused to give alms to the man, the naive priest to whom Kempe dictated her book did not and was robbed of the silver he had loaned to the man, having been completely taken in by him. The priest regretted not heeding Kempe's counsel. When another "false rascal" approached the same priest with a breviary to sell, the priest followed Kempe's advice. Finally, Kempe settled a dispute, involving a font, between the parish church and one of its chapels (Chapter 25).

Analysis

The phrase "debt of matrimony" offers a clue to the nature of conjugal relations among people of Margery Kempe's place and time. According to canon law, sex was something spouses indeed "owed" each other. Thus, from the medieval perspective, it could be argued—and John Kempe seems to have argued—that Margery was not holding up her end of the bargain. This paradigm of indebtedness is certainly a far cry from the modern ethics of sexual consent. Still, it's worth pointing out that the "debt of matrimony" went both ways. For example, a husband could not leave his wife and become a monk unless she agreed to absolve him of his sexual "debt" to her, and a marriage could be annulled if either spouse were impotent. The inability to consummate the marriage was, canonically speaking, something akin to nonperformance of a contract.

In modern Western Christianity, vows of chastity are most commonly associated with nuns, but medieval Christian women could formalize a commitment to chastity or abstinence in different ways. Instead of becoming a nun, a woman could become an anchoress, someone who withdraws from the world by retiring to a monastic cell. (The term for the male equivalent, anchorite, is sometimes used regardless of gender.) These cells, or anchorholds, were small, simple rooms that allowed for the provision of food, water, and the Eucharist while minimizing interaction with outside society. This was the mode of life chosen by Julian of Norwich, whom Kempe visited in Chapter 18. Likely the most famous anchoress in the English-speaking world, Julian was herself a mystic and wrote of her visions in the book Revelations (or sometimes Shewings) of Divine Love. The text is notable not only as a major work of English mystical literature but also as the earliest extant English-language work penned by a woman.

Apart from nuns and anchoresses, medieval society also accorded particular respect to widows, who sometimes took special vows and donned the white garb that Kemp describes in Chapter 15. These women were expected to live as exemplars of piety but not necessarily to withdraw from secular life. In Belgium and the Netherlands especially, which Kempe visited multiple times in her various pilgrimages, there were also groups of lay religious people—called Beguines and Beghards—who took no formal vows but practiced sexual abstinence nonetheless. In light of these options, Kempe's search for formal affirmation of her decision to "live chaste" may still have been unusual, but it was hardly unheard of for a woman of her era.

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