The Book of Margery Kempe | Study Guide

Margery Kempe

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The Book of Margery Kempe | Book 1, Chapters 26–30 | Summary

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Summary

The next several chapters recount a high point of Margery Kempe's spiritual autobiography: her journey to the Holy Land. The pilgrimage was something on which she and her husband compromised, with Margery paying off outstanding debts, from her own dowry, to fellow parishioners. Kempe then sailed, unaccompanied by her husband, to the Netherlands (Chapter 26). Her companions on the pilgrimage soon grew annoyed at her incessant weeping and talk of God's love, but she reminded them that God is "as great a lord here as in England." However, as tensions rose and Kempe's disruptive behavior continued, the other pilgrims confiscated Kempe's money and wanted her to leave the group, but she was permitted to go as far as Constance (in Germany) with them. She was treated shabbily on the way, as some of the other travelers offended her by cutting the hem of her gown and kicking her out of their lodgings.

When the group arrived at Constance, Kempe sought out an English friar, a papal legate, to whom she could confess her sins (Chapter 27). She also explained the trouble she had been having with her companions. The friar accompanied her to dinner with the other pilgrims, hoping to broker some kind of peace within the group, but the others told the friar to take Kempe away. With the friar's help, and that of a few others, Kempe continued on her journey apart from the original group. With the help of William Wever, an old man whom the legate had found as a guide, Kempe made her way to Bologna (in Italy), where she was treated well. The Italians seemed to be more tolerant, or understanding, of her eccentric behavior. When her former traveling companions heard that she had reached Bologna safely—and before they did—they permitted her to rejoin them, "provided she not speak of the Gospel where we are ... [and] sit still and make merry, as we do, both at meat and at supper." She consented and then proceeded with them to Venice, the point of embarkation for the Holy Land. Kempe was able to receive Communion and impress the nuns with her visions. However, after 13 weeks in Venice, Kempe broke the promise she had made to the group—to refrain from weeping and talking about God at dinner—and began eating alone. When Kempe fell ill, the maidservant hired to accompany her proved unhelpful and aloof, having been influenced by those who resented Kempe.

In Venice the English pilgrims had spent months trying to arrange their passage to the Holy Land (Chapter 28) for themselves but not for Kempe, who had to make separate arrangements. On her own, she booked passage on the same ship. While at prayer, Kempe heard God's voice warning her not to travel on that ship, assigning her to another vessel. When she told some of the other pilgrims, they abandoned their plans and sailed on the same ship as she did. Aboard the ship, the others continued with their cruel pranks, hiding Kempe's clothes and stealing her bedding. When they landed, Kempe forgave them and hoped they would forgive her. They then made their way to Jerusalem, where Kempe was so overjoyed that she nearly fell off the donkey she was riding.

When she visited Calvary, she was so overcome that "she fell down because she could not stand or kneel, and rolled and wrested with her body ... and cried with a loud voice as though her heart would have burst asunder." She was similarly moved when seeing other sights, and the crying and "roaring" continued throughout the pilgrimage and on her return home. She visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other sacred sites (Chapter 29), where she was moved to weep and scream. Her English companions continued to snub her (Chapter 30) and refused to allow her to accompany them on a trip to the River Jordan. However, she went anyway. When they refused to help her up Mount Quarentyne, she found a local man to help her. After three weeks in Jerusalem, the group left for Rome. God promised Kempe she would be safe. When the pilgrims returned to Venice, they again refused to travel with her. In Venice she met the "broken-backed man," called Richard, whom she believed she had been destined to encounter so that he could lead her safely to Rome. On the way, the people she encountered treated her with understanding and compassion.

Analysis

Pilgrimages in medieval Europe were big business, strikingly comparable in some respects to the modern tourism industry. At heavily trafficked ports, such as Venice, specialized shipping companies would sell passage aboard pilgrim galleys—oar-propelled ships that effectively served as long-distance ferries to the Levant, the countries along the Mediterranean's eastern shore. Upon the travelers' arrival there, guides provided tours, and the caretakers of sacred sites often charged admission fees to the faithful and the curious. Passage, room and board, and the aforementioned fees made this a pursuit available mainly people who were well-to-do.

This is not to say, however, that pilgrimages were vacations; apart from their serious religious purpose, these journeys were dangerous and inconvenient. Making a pilgrimage from England to Jerusalem in the 15th century meant braving rough seas, risking robbery and assault, and traveling many miles on foot. In most stops along the way, English pilgrims would also have faced a language barrier, though some major stopping points such as Rome had hostels or other facilities that catered specifically to English visitors. To lessen the dangers and discomforts of transcontinental travel, pilgrims typically made the journey in groups, as Margery Kempe attempted to do on her 1413–15 trip to Jerusalem and Rome.

At domestic shrines, such as Canterbury and Hailes, women made up a substantial minority of the pilgrims. Medieval Englishwomen, however, seldom made international pilgrimages that involved an ocean crossing. Apart from safety concerns, women—both nuns and laywomen—faced derisive and sexist comments from their male counterparts, who often characterized them as mere sightseers burdening the rest of the party. As she often indicates in The Book of Margery Kempe, Kempe was not a person who could be intimidated by mere scornful words, though her English fellow pilgrims evidently did everything they could to make her feel unwelcome. Even if she had had more pleasant traveling companions, Kempe would have been remarkable for the mere fact of making a journey to Jerusalem, to say nothing of the two other international pilgrimages she undertook later in her life.

It is interesting to note, too, that Kempe's traveling companions, as seen from her perspective, represented a nasty group. As religious pilgrims, they seemed uninterested—at best—in Kempe's visions and annoyed by her passionate outbursts, which disturbed their dinners. In fact, even clerics among the group participated in tormenting Kempe and exposing her to danger. All in all, Kempe's commentary on these pilgrims says much about their dispositions toward those whose religious fervor manifested in unusual ways. Kempe uses her experiences of exclusion to distinguish herself in her account and mark her spiritual devotion as outstanding to God.

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