The Book of Margery Kempe | Study Guide

Margery Kempe

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The Book of Margery Kempe | Context


Margery Kempe in the Mystical Tradition

The Book of Margery Kempe occupies a unique place in the mystical literature of medieval Europe. By the time Margery Kempe beheld her first visions, Europe was already in the process of what has sometimes been called a late-medieval religious awakening. The causes of this awakening are numerous, but the devastation brought by the Black Death (1347–51) is often cited as having spurred medieval Christians of all social stations to seek solace in their faith. The spread of this infectious and usually fatal disease brought home the inevitability of suffering and death, which visited high and low alike with no regard for rank or wealth. Convents, monasteries, and the cells of hermits and religious recluses served not merely as a form of physical refuge but as a means of focusing one's attention on the hereafter. Another cultural development contemporary with Kempe's life, the rise of the Danse Macabre—or "Dance of Death"—motif in art, underscores the role of mortality as a spur to religious reflection. Where the Dance of Death showed up in art, members of society, in all of their various stages of life, from children to the elderly, the impoverished to the pope, would be depicted as if in a parade being led by the dead to their inevitable demise.

Becoming a hermit or joining a formal religious community was the most usual way to "turn inward" in response to the precariousness of late-medieval life. Clergy and laypersons alike increasingly embraced mystical forms of religious devotion. The varieties of mystical practice, even within medieval Christendom, were diverse, but what Christian mystics had in common—and what Margery Kempe shows throughout her book—is the assertion that to experience God, one must in some way abandon oneself. Whereas mainstream medieval theology sought to know God through a systematic examination of scripture and religious dogma, mystics set aside the attempt to explain "what God is" and, instead, hoped to experience God directly. The anonymous Cloud of Unknowing, a prayer handbook whose author was roughly contemporary with Kempe, counsels the reader to do just this. "No man," says the Cloud's author, "can think of God himself ... [God] can be taken and held by love but not by thought."

Although mystical texts had been produced and translated since the early days of Christianity, late-medieval England had its own established tradition of mystical literature. Two of the best-known mystical authors of this era were Richard Rolle of Hampole (c. 1300–49) and Walter Hilton (c. 1340–96), both of whose works are mentioned indirectly in the The Book of Margery Kempe. Perhaps the finest exemplar of English mystical writing, the Revelations (or Showings) of Divine Love (1373) was written by Julian of Norwich (1342–after 1416), with whom Kempe visited personally to discuss her own experiences. Although Kempe, with her characteristic humility, never put herself on Julian's level, she clearly recognized the value of conferring with a fellow mystic who would take her visions and voices seriously.

Mystical works (often in English translation) from the Continent (mainland Europe outside the British Isles) were also avidly consumed by both clergy and laity in Kempe's England. The Stimulus Amoris (called in English "The Prickynge of Love"), to which Kempe alludes throughout the Book, was written by a late-13th-century Italian friar and translated (perhaps by Hilton) around 1380. It's worth recalling at this point that Kempe, by her own admission, could read neither in English nor in Latin. Thus, her repeated mention of mystical texts suggests not that she read them herself but that they were frequently cited by the priests and friars with whom she associated. Kempe heard of these books from multiple sources because they were part of the cultural fabric of medieval English Christianity.

In some ways Margery Kempe's life story stands out conspicuously from those of the priests, nuns, and anchorites (religious recluses) usually associated with Christian mysticism. In other ways, however, the struggles described in her Book belong to the mystical tradition. Though normally obedient to the teachings of the Catholic Church, Kempe allowed the inward voice of her consciousness to have the last word. She clashed with churchmen when their orders conflicted with what she believed God had directly commanded her to do. Moreover, though Kempe describes her visions extensively, she was ultimately less concerned with the sensory details than with the ultimately incommunicable nature of her experience. She repeatedly falls back on the language of inexpressibility, mentioning sounds too beautiful to describe in words and visions too sublime to capture on paper.

Religious Devotions in Late-Medieval England

The mystical visions reported in The Book of Margery Kempe are shaped and structured by the religious life in which Margery Kempe was immersed. Clear connections often appear between the content of Kempe's visions and the specific devotions and rituals in which she participated. Special devotions often commemorated the lives of locally renowned saints, and their feast days were often the occasion of public celebrations. A clear example of the connection between Kempe's outward devotional life and her mysticism comes in the account of her voyage to Italy, where she encountered a local custom of venerating statues of the Christ Child. These statues were swaddled in fine cloth and held and kissed as though they were actual infants. The ritual made an immediate impression on Kempe; several of her subsequent mystical experiences centered on the infancy of Jesus and maternity of the Virgin Mary.

Kempe was not only unusually devout for a layperson of her time but also was unusually involved in the sacramental life of the Church. In her day Christians were required to be "houseled"—that is, receive Communion—once a year during the Easter season, a practice codified in canon law at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and commonly known as the Easter Duty. Receiving Communion once a week, as most modern Catholics do, was highly unusual at the time. In fact, Kempe had to seek the express approval of a bishop to be houseled as often as she wished. Similarly, the Church's advocacy of frequent confession—usually taken to mean monthly or weekly—is a fairly modern development, often associated with Pope Pius XII (in office 1939–58) and the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65. Kempe, who sometimes confessed her sins to a priest multiple times per day, would have been an extreme outlier by both medieval and modern standards.

The existence of the Easter Duty points to another feature of Christianity both medieval and contemporary: the status of Easter as a special high point of the year. In the modern secular West, it is easy to get the impression that Christmas is the most prominent holiday in Christianity. However, according to tradition, Easter is the true apex of the liturgical calendar. The week leading up to Easter, known as Holy Week, was a period of elaborate ritual devotions, including a procession on Palm Sunday and a special liturgy on Maundy Thursday (sometimes called Holy Thursday). These Holy Week commemorations were especially cherished by Kempe, who even in Ordinary Time—the liturgical off-season that includes Sundays and days that do not belong to particular holidays—was frequently moved to tearful reflection on the Passion of Christ. The Passion refers to the suffering Christ endured during the last days of his life, from the Last Supper to his death.

One protracted form of religious devotion was the pilgrimage, a visit to a holy site. Within England alone, numerous shrines and churches served as destinations for religious pilgrims. English writer Geoffrey Chaucer's (c. 1342–1400) Canterbury Tales (1387–1400), written about the time Margery Kempe was first experiencing her mystical visions, attests to the popularity of Canterbury as one such destination. The sites often contained relics, objects of both curiosity and veneration that helped draw pilgrims to the site. These were typically physical remains or personal effects of saints associated with the site, but the attraction could also consist of physical traces of a miracle that had occurred there. International pilgrimages were more expensive and more dangerous, and far fewer women undertook such journeys. Favored sites for English pilgrims were the Holy Land (Jerusalem and its environs), Rome (the seat of the Church), and the Shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. For a medieval Englishwoman to visit one of these sites was rare enough, but to visit all three—as Kempe did—was exceptional.

Women's Roles in Kempe's England

Travel was not the only area in which Margery Kempe flouted the norms of medieval English womanhood. In youth and again in old age, Kempe seems to have led a fairly normal life for an upper- middle-class woman of her time and place. She grew up in her father's household, married relatively young (at about 20 or a little earlier), and proceeded to assist her husband in his business of brewing and milling. She did not, evidently, learn to read, though most people in her era didn't, either. At one point—again hardly unusual for a woman of her station—Kempe effectively took charge of the family business, setting up her own brewery and her own grinding mill. Decades later, when her husband, then in his 60s, suffered a bad fall, Kempe remained home to care for him. Years after his death, Kempe was listed as a member of the Trinity Guild, the same Lynn-based merchant guild to which her late husband had belonged. Thus, she seems to have lived out her last years as a highly "respectable" figure in Lynn society.

In between, however, Kempe was hardly a typical English bourgeoise. Throughout her travels she spoke candidly with anyone who would listen about her mystical experiences and the divine love they signified. Kempe also was willing to admonish those who swore or blasphemed, exhorting them to mend their wicked ways. In modern times, those unsympathetic to a Margery Kempe-like figure might call her a religious fanatic or perhaps a busybody. Her medieval contemporaries made similar accusations, suggesting it was not a woman's place to publicly correct others. Underlying the frank sexism of this opinion was biblical support for the view that women should not be allowed to preach or "exercise authority over a man" (1 Timothy 2:12; Saint Paul (c. 4 BCE–62 CE) is credited as the writer). This, and Saint Paul's other writings on female submissiveness, made Kempe's public actions not only unpopular among the clergy but perhaps even dangerous, because to deny the authority of Saint Paul could be construed as heresy. Kempe defended herself by claiming she was not really preaching—that is, she was not appearing in a pulpit or delivering formal sermons.

Saint Paul, however, was hardly the only source of views on female submissiveness in the early and medieval Church. Saint Jerome (c. 347–c. 419), whose Latin translation of the Bible was used throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes depicted women as dangerous temptresses—the occasion or cause of sin for men rather than human beings in their own right. When he did write about women's spiritual needs, Jerome reinforced the early Christian idea that virginity was preferable to the married life, an attitude that caused devout married women such as Kempe no small amount of anxiety. Kempe's writings, however, undermine the presumed dichotomy between purehearted virgins and worldly wives. Her dialogue with God regarding her ailing husband suggests that caring for a family and a household can be a devotional act in itself, and her spiritual betrothal to Jesus suggests that marriage does not limit one's relationship with God.

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