The Book of Margery Kempe | Study Guide

Margery Kempe

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The Book of Margery Kempe | Book 1, Chapters 43–55 | Summary

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Summary

Accompanied by the young English priest, Margery Kempe arrived safely in Norwich, despite dangerous storms at sea (Chapter 43). She visited the vicar of Saint Stephen's Church, Richard Caister, the renowned holy man of the era, and told him of her travels. After he remarked on how she could "be so merry," she went to see an anchorite who asked what she had done with the child she had borne abroad, having heard rumors of such. Kempe said she that she had done nothing to cause her to have a child and asked for permission to dress in white. He refused, and God then told her not to be led by this man.

Her decision to wear white met with predictable opposition among the English, but Jesus sent her signs (Chapter 44) that he willed her to dress in white, and she had a new set of garments made. Her husband came to Norwich to meet her, and the two returned to Lynn. Kempe then became violently ill and, thinking she was near death, prayed to see the shrine of Saint James in Spain (Santiago de Compostela) before she died. Her sickness subsided, yet she was subjected to the same abuse. People spat on her because they thought she might have the "falling evil" (epilepsy) as her crying and writhing might have indicated: "her body, turning from the one side to the other ... all blue and livid like the color of lead." Some people "scorned her and said that she howled as if she were a dog." Determined to go to Santiago de Compostela, Kempe discovered benefactors who had provided funds for the journey, and she traveled to Bristol to await a ship to Spain. In Bristol she repaid Richard, the broken-backed man who had helped her reach Rome.

She was delayed in Bristol (Chapter 45). Her sobbing and screaming attracted some sympathizers, among them Thomas Marchale, who also began crying and screaming to atone for his sins and provided some money for her journey. After Kempe was mistakenly summoned to him, the bishop of Worcester invited her to dinner, asked for her prayers, and gave her money for her journey. She reached Spain and returned soon after.

Upon her return to England, Kempe attempted to continue her pilgrimage—with Thomas Marchale (Chapter 46)—but was interrupted in Leicester, where she was arrested and interrogated by the mayor's men. The jailer, however, was kind to her and took her to his own home so as not to have her imprisoned with men. She was then interrogated by the earl of Leicester (Chapter 47), who threatened to rape her. When she told him that her speech came directly from Jesus, he released her to the jailer and had her supporters imprisoned. Although determined to have her imprisoned as a heretic, the authorities found no evidence with which to convict her. When a storm hit Leicester, the townspeople claimed it was because Kempe and her supporters were jailed. Although the supporters were then freed and the storm stopped, Kemp remained imprisoned.

A group of local churchmen convened a court (Chapter 48) and interrogated Kempe about her religious beliefs, which they found not at all heretical. The abbot of Leicester (that is, of Leicester Abbey) sympathized with Kempe in her persecution (Chapter 49) and treated her well, writing to the bishop of Lincoln on her behalf. She then visited the bishop, who told the mayor of Leicester to stop harassing her, an order the mayor reluctantly obeyed.

Kempe next visited the city of York, where she remained for 14 days, conversing with the learned priests at York Minster (Chapters 50–51). Here, too, however, she had enemies among the clergy, who tried to have her banished from the city or imprisoned as a heretic. She was brought before the archbishop of York (Chapter 52), who reprimanded her for her unusual clothes and odd behavior but could not find any weightier charges.

She made her way through several more Yorkshire towns, where townspeople jeered at and harassed her (Chapter 53). Soon after she was arrested by the duke of Bedford's men, and the archbishop visited personally to put a stop to the repeated trials and imprisonments (Chapter 54). She was stopped once more on her way back to Lynn but released after the archbishop's orders were invoked (Chapter 55).

Analysis

Contrary to what readers might expect, Margery Kempe faced more trouble at home in England than she did crossing and recrossing continental Europe and the Mediterranean. To understand why churchmen and civic authorities in so many jurisdictions wanted to arrest Kempe, it helps to understand why they found her suspicious. By and large, Kempe's accusers charged her with being a Lollard, a member of the proto-Protestant group founded by John Wycliffe (c. 1330–84) in the late 14th century. Lollards believed scripture and preaching were at the heart of Christian practice as opposed to the Catholic emphasis on transubstantiation, which regarded eating and drinking consecrated bread and wine as the way to receive Christ. Deemed heretics by the established Church, the Lollards were persecuted intermittently throughout Kempe's childhood. In 1407 the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, wrote a treatise in condemnation of Lollardy and, three years later, authorized a widespread campaign to root out and suppress Lollards. Heresy was in those days a capital crime, punishable by burning at the stake—a fate that Kempe reports having been threatened with multiple times in these chapters. Anti-Lollard sentiment was at its most intense in England, but it did not stop there: the Council of Constance, an international meeting of church leaders convened in 1414, ordered Wycliffe's remains to be dug up and scattered.

The Lollard panic also sheds light on some of the seemingly unusual questions that Kempe was asked at her trials. Repeatedly, Kempe's adversaries seem eager to trap Kempe into admitting she is literate—and in particular, that she has read the Bible in English. "Wycliffe's Bible," not coincidentally the first complete English version of the Bible, was deemed a heretical text by the mainstream Church, which continued to rely on the Vulgate (in Latin). Laypeople who read the Bible in the vernacular, it was argued, could easily fall into theological error without priests to interpret it for them, developing a dangerous independence from Church teachings. Only in 1611, with the publication of the King James Version—or Authorized Version—of the Bible, did the stigma associated with reading the Bible in English vanish entirely. By then, however, England had long since cut ties with the Catholic Church.

Fueled by this moral panic, an overeager prosecution could easily have jumped from "Kempe is literate" to "Kempe is a Lollard," with gruesome consequences for Kempe herself. Kempe's knowledge of this danger makes it difficult to establish just what degree of literacy, if any, she had. With many priests and a surprising number of laypeople ready to lead her to the scaffold, Kempe would have been wise to hide any reading ability she did possess.

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