The Book of Margery Kempe | Study Guide

Margery Kempe

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The Book of Margery Kempe | Book 1, Chapters 75–81 | Summary

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Summary

Now reputed to be "a right good woman," Margery Kempe was asked to visit and pray for a mother suffering from postpartum psychosis (Chapter 75)—a condition following giving birth, more severe than postpartum depression, in which a woman may have hallucinations, delusions, and mood swings. She did, and the woman recovered despite the grim expectations of her friends and family. Kempe's aging husband, meanwhile, suffered a head injury as the result of a bad fall (Chapter 76). He ended up requiring her constant care, especially after he "turned childish again" (lapsed into senility). Townspeople accused Kempe of responsibility for her husband's accident, claiming that if they had lived together, she could have prevented the fall. Kempe took on the duty of caring for her husband as a command from Jesus. Although the work interfered with her prayer and contemplation, she was not unhappy to do it. Chapter 77 flashes back to an earlier stage in Kempe's life, when she was first afflicted with the "wonderful cries" that so disturbed her neighbors. At that time she prayed unsuccessfully for God to "take these cryings from me." Because they were a sign of grace, God refused once again to do so.

Kempe next recalls a protracted mystical experience that took place on Palm Sunday in an unspecified year (Chapter 78). During a religious procession, Kempe imagined she was in Jerusalem, witnessing Jesus make his triumphal entry to the city a week before the Crucifixion. The reverie continues in Chapter 79, where Kempe witnessed a conversation in which Jesus, soon to be killed, promised his mother to return for her in glory. After this, Kempe watched the series of events known as the Passion (Chapter 80): Jesus ascended the Mount of Olives and prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before being arrested and brought before Pontius Pilate. Once condemned, Jesus was tied to a pillar and whipped and then forced to carry the cross to his place of execution, where he was nailed to the cross and left to die. Kempe commiserated with Mary over the slain body of Christ. After Jesus was buried (Chapter 81), Kempe waited sorrowfully with Mary until the following Sunday, when she participated in the joy of the Resurrection.

Analysis

Holy Week, as the week from Palm Sunday to Easter is known, is the high point of the Christian liturgical year, so it is not altogether surprising for Margery Kempe to have especially profound mystical experiences at this time. The events she recalls in Chapters 79–81 are found in all four Gospels, though Matthew and Luke provide the most substantial accounts. Several of the episodes in which Kempe imaginatively participated, such as the Scourging at the Pillar, were later incorporated into the set of Catholic Lenten devotions known as the Stations of the Cross. They were also common subjects for religious art and iconography throughout the Middle Ages. Kempe, however, seems to need very little pretext to call the Passion narrative to mind: the Holy Week devotions amplify an already latent tendency in her spiritual life and give it full, florid expression.

The anti-Semitism pervading Kempe's account of the Passion is sadly typical of medieval Christianity. The situational irony of having Mary, who was herself Jewish, decry the cruelty of the Jews toward her son was apparently lost on Kempe. It was lost, too, on the many others of Kempe's time and after, who slandered the Jewish people as "Christ-killers."

A final notable point in Kempe's visionary version of the Passion is her identification with Mary Magdalene. Revered as a saint, Mary Magdalene (often "the Magdalene") is mentioned in the Bible as a repentant sinner who later became fervently devoted to Jesus. A longstanding tradition associates her with the Mary who, elsewhere in the Gospels, washed Jesus's feet with her tears and anointed them with perfume, thereby symbolically preparing him for burial. Kempe, in stressing her connection to the Magdalene, may be expressing both her repentance of her sins and her lingering doubts about her worthiness.

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