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(Course Hero, 2019)
Course Hero. "The Book of Margery Kempe Study Guide." June 28, 2019. Accessed July 24, 2021. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Book-of-Margery-Kempe/.
Course Hero, "The Book of Margery Kempe Study Guide," June 28, 2019, accessed July 24, 2021, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Book-of-Margery-Kempe/.
The Book of Margery Kempe contains 99 chapters within two parts, Book 1 and Book 2. This guide groups chapters together for the purpose of summary and analysis.
Margery Kempe, or perhaps her scribe, introduces The Book of Margery Kempe as "a short treatise" designed to comfort sinners by reminding them of God's mercy. Kempe's life, the introduction continues, provides evidence of such mercy expressed through both outward wonders and inward visions. Having been blessed with these experiences but being unable to write, Kempe searched for a long time for someone who would be willing to copy down the book. Ultimately, as the book's existence attests, she succeeded.
In her early 20s Kemp suffered a prolonged physical and mental illness after a difficult first childbirth. Fearing she would die, she confessed her sins to a priest but omitted some sins for fear of being judged too harshly (Chapter 1). The illness intensified, and Kempe became violent, even suicidal at times. In the depths of her suffering, she witnessed a vision of Jesus, who comforted her and assured her of his love. Recovering soon after, she vowed to become God's servant (Chapter 2) but soon fell back into her worldly ways. Her business ventures—a mill and a brewery—failed, however, and the townsfolk of Lynn gossiped that Kempe was cursed by God.
After a particularly emotional vision of heaven, Kempe indicated her desires to live chastely, claiming that she found the idea of performing the "debt of matrimony" even more repulsive than eating or drinking "the ooze and the muck in the gutter." Meanwhile, the visions and bouts of weeping continued (Chapter 3), and Kempe persisted in her efforts to purify herself through fasting and prayer (Chapter 4). In this chapter, Kempe recalled being "tempted" by another man and ready to commit adultery. However, the man—whom she met in church—then indicated a lack of interest, despite his earlier words and advances. She thought God had forsaken her and led her to temptation. This feeling stayed with her for a year.
At church one winter, shortly before Christmas, Kempe beheld a particularly vivid vision in which Jesus forgave all her sins and commanded her to receive Communion every week (Chapter 5). In a subsequent vision, Kempe spiritually relived the infancy of Jesus Christ from the Nativity to the Flight into Egypt (Chapters 6–7). A third time, the Virgin Mary appeared to promise Kempe a place in heaven along with whomever she chose (Chapter 8). Kempe chose her priest, Master N., a decision evidently pleasing to God and the Blessed Virgin. She also indicated her intent to leave Master N. half her worldly goods, with God apportioning the other half among those considered worthy. With God's help, and perhaps seeking to emulate the Virgin Mary's example (Chapter 9), Kempe claimed she was able to "live chaste" (remain sexually abstinent) despite being a married woman. The townspeople, meanwhile, continued to mutter about Kempe, some seeing her as a saint and others believing the opposite. An accident underscored this divide. When "a stone which weighed three pounds, and a short end of a beam weighing six pounds" fell on Kempe so that "she thought her back was broken," she remained uninjured. Some believed it was a miracle, others did not; Jesus promised further incidents. Soon afterward, Kempe began her travels to various holy sites, going with her husband to York (Chapter 10).
The Book of Margery Kempe chronicles Margery Kempe's life. Though the book likely conveys Kempe's own words, it was not written by Kempe. It was dictated by Kempe to a scribe. Kempe refers to herself in the third person, sometimes calling herself a "creature." This decision has led most readers and critics to assume that Margery Kempe was illiterate, but in fact the extent of her literacy is not entirely clear. Charity Scott-Stokes (1999), in her biography of Kempe, points out that there would have been good reasons for Kempe to downplay whatever reading ability she had. The ability to read and write—especially in a woman—could be taken as evidence of a dangerous independence from Church teachings. Reading the Bible in particular would have been frowned upon for a laywoman, who was supposed to receive her Bible knowledge from readings and preaching at church. At a time when heretics were being burned with great enthusiasm, it might have been prudent for Kempe to present herself as "innocent" of literacy.
Nonetheless, it may be that if Kempe had some reading ability, she was not proficient enough to write the Book as it has been transmitted. By the time the Book was transcribed, a date given internally as 1436, Kempe had been tried for and acquitted of heresy multiple times, and the inquisitorial atmosphere of the English Church had lessened somewhat. Thus, Kempe would have had less to lose by putting her own story in writing. Most medieval Englishwomen (and, for that matter, men), however, were illiterate, and even in the relatively privileged merchant class to which Kempe belonged, literacy among women was the exception rather than the rule. Though estimates vary widely, most scholars agree that fewer than half—perhaps far fewer—of Kempe's female peers and contemporaries could read and write in English. The literacy rate in Latin, the language of academia and the clergy, was even lower.
Even in the first few chapters, Margery Kempe presents herself as a different breed of mystic from those commonly associated with the European Middle Ages. Like those of most medieval mystics who put their experiences to writing, Kempe's first religious experience began suddenly following a period of great personal trauma, and her visions were populated by images familiar from contemporary sacred art and literature. Unlike most mystics, however, Kempe did not "put aside worldly things" in any decisive, practical, or permanent way. She remained married, and though she "lived chaste" for long intervals, she ended up bearing John Kempe 13 more children. Later, as a widow, she seems to have joined the same merchant guild to which her husband belonged while he was alive. Overall, Kempe's experiences provide a fascinating view of a life lived between the secular world of family, commerce, and politics and the traditional mystic "habitat" of church, cloister, and convent.