The Book of Margery Kempe | Study Guide

Margery Kempe

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The Book of Margery Kempe | Book 1, Chapters 56–67 | Summary

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Summary

Margery Kempe suffered a series of illnesses after her return to Lynn (Chapter 56), some of which developed into chronic complaints and eight years of severe pain. A new monk arrived at the King's Lynn Priory and prohibited Kempe from receiving Communion in the chapel (Chapter 57), forcing her to receive the sacrament in the town's main church instead. Every Good Friday, Kempe was moved even beyond her usual weeping and screaming by the thought of Christ's Passion and death. Jesus promised (Chapter 58) to send Kempe a priest who would satisfy her craving for sacred readings and sermons. The new priest arrived, accompanied by his aged mother, and became a friend to Kempe, reading to her from various mystical texts for a period of seven to eight years and increasing his and Kempe's knowledge (Chapters 58–59). However, Kempe was troubled when she thought of the souls who were damned, and she herself was tempted with visions—thoughts of sex—from the Devil. God had punished her for doubts about what he was telling her about others' salvation and allowed the Devil to commune with her instead. Kempe changed her ways. She cared for the priest when he fell ill (Chapter 60). She made a journey to Norwich and prayed at the tomb of Richard Caister. On her return to Lynn, she found that the priest had recovered.

Back at Lynn, a friar famed for his preaching arrived (Chapter 61), but he quickly grew irritated by Kempe's loud and tearful responses to his sermons (Chapter 62). Those who tried to speak up on Kempe's behalf were shamed or silenced. In the midst of this public shunning, Jesus appeared to Kempe (Chapter 63) and reminded her that her suffering was a sign of divine favor (Chapter 64). He further reassured her of his love (Chapter 65) and commanded her to stop abstaining from meat, a common penitential sacrifice at the time (Chapter 66). One day, a "hideous fire and grievous" broke out in the parish church at Lynn, only to be quenched by a sudden snowstorm (Chapter 67). The townspeople credited Kempe's fervent prayers for helping stop the fire.

Analysis

Illiteracy was widespread among the medieval Christian laity, both in vernacular languages, such as English, and in Latin, the main ecclesiastical language. The Church accommodated these unlettered believers in several ways. For one thing, medieval churches were often richly decorated with statues, stained glass windows, and paintings. These artworks were designed to capture episodes from the Bible or the lives of the saints in a form that could be appreciated regardless of someone's reading ability. Prayer books, especially those for the wealthy, were often richly illustrated; in fact, several of the finest surviving illuminated manuscripts are books of hours, collections of prayers for various times of day. Orders of friars, still in existence today but now far less numerous in membership, traveled throughout Europe and preached in local churches, providing further opportunities for laypersons to hear the word of God analyzed and applied to daily life. Margery Kempe, who sought constant stimuli for her inward devotional life, attended sermons not only by parish priests but also by members of several such orders, including the Dominicans (whom she calls the "Friar Preachers"), the Augustinians, and the Carmelites.

From the view of the medieval church hierarchy, the limited flow of information through the written word was a feature to be exploited rather than a defect to be overcome. Because most people outside the clergy could not read, and because the members of the clergy themselves had sworn obedience to the pope, the prerogative of interpreting the Bible and other sacred texts was effectively limited to the clerical ranks. The Protestant Reformation, which began several decades after Kempe's death, would usher in a relative distrust of this hierarchy and a greater dependence on written texts. In fact, the Reformation leader Martin Luther (1483–1546) famously proclaimed the principle of sola scriptura, or reliance on scripture alone. It is hardly coincidental that such a movement came about at a time when literacy was on the rise and the technology of the printing press had been widely diffused throughout Europe. Once every household could have—and was encouraged to have—its own vernacular copy of the Bible, it became much easier to dismiss statues as popish idols rather than venerate them as devotional aids.

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