The Book of Margery Kempe | Study Guide

Margery Kempe

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The Book of Margery Kempe | Summary



Book 1

In the longer of the two volumes that make up The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery Kempe describes the mystical experiences she suddenly began having as a young woman. Following the birth of her first child, Kempe suffered a long and severe illness, toward the end of which she had a vision of Jesus Christ reassuring and comforting her. More visions followed, deepening Kempe's faith and leading her to embark on a program of prayer, penitence, and self-denial. Fearful of being tricked by the Devil, Kempe consulted various spiritual authorities about the trustworthiness of her visions. She came to believe they truly were messages from God. Her religious experiences caused her to weep, and later on to scream and sometimes writhe on the floor, for extended time periods and in public places. Her behavior disturbed others, both unnamed clergy and laypersons, and invited cruelty toward her. These manifestations of her faith and others' reactions to them continued for years.

In one vision Jesus commanded Kempe to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which she did despite the considerable dangers and difficulties involved. Her behavior caused fellow pilgrims to treat her poorly, at times leaving her on her own in foreign places. On the way back, she stayed in Rome rather than return directly to England. Here, as elsewhere on the pilgrimage, Kempe was largely dependent on the kindness of strangers, but she continued to give whatever she could spare to charity. Finally arriving back in England after two years, Kempe found herself under suspicion of heresy, a charge against which she defended herself before multiple secular and church authorities. Only after several such delays did she make it home to Lynn.

Kempe's neighbors, no more charitable than before, continued to complain about her weeping and crying at prayers, and her friends quietly suggested she leave town. Paying them as little mind as she could, Kempe instead associated with priests who prayed with her and read to her from mystical texts. In her visions during this period, Kempe contemplated the nature of forgiveness and damnation, struggling to understand (as many have since) how a merciful God could consign any of his creatures to eternal suffering. A destructive fire in Lynn was miraculously quenched, bolstering Kempe's reputation among the townspeople. Over time, Kempe's fellow townsfolk reluctantly came to see her as a holy woman to be sought out in times of personal crisis. In one particularly touching episode, Kempe visited and consoled a young woman undergoing a postpartum illness similar to the one she experienced many years earlier. Having been given up for mad, the woman recovered under Kempe's care, to the astonishment of friends and family.

At this point John Kempe was over 60 years old and had become somewhat frail. He suffered a bad fall, and Kempe—at Jesus's bidding—devoted herself to caring for her husband, whose ailments included senility. Subsequent chapters in Book 1 relate miscellaneous visions and miracles, including an episode spanning several chapters in which Kempe witnessed the Passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus as if she were there herself. A short synopsis of the Book's authorship and origins closes the volume.

Book 2

The much shorter Book 2 appends some information about Kempe's later years. The main narrative episode is a pilgrimage to the Continent, undertaken following the death of one of Kempe's adult sons. Sites visited include Danzig (now Gdańsk), Aachen, and the small German town of Wilsnack. Returning by way of London, Kempe found herself the subject of petty gossip about her religious habits, which she endured with her characteristic patience. The book closes with a long prayer entreating Jesus for mercy.

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