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(Course Hero, 2019)
Course Hero. "The Book of Margery Kempe Study Guide." June 28, 2019. Accessed September 20, 2020. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Book-of-Margery-Kempe/.
Course Hero, "The Book of Margery Kempe Study Guide," June 28, 2019, accessed September 20, 2020, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Book-of-Margery-Kempe/.
Here begins a short treatise and a comfortable for sinful wretches.
The Book of Margery Kempe begins with a statement of purpose, which was part of the original Proemio, or preface. The text is meant to be comfortable, or comforting, to Christians who have sinned and fear God's wrath. Kempe proposes to dispel any doubts concerning God's mercy by showing how that mercy has operated in her own life. In essence, she tells "sinful wretches" that if God loved her enough to send her visions and miracles, God will look on them with the same loving regard.
In an early mystical episode, Kempe hears a beautiful melody she understands to be the song of the blessed in heaven. Merry in this sense means not just "cheerful or jolly," as in Merry Christmas or merrymaking. Rather, in its medieval use, the word captures the full range of happiness. The belief that she will join in the happiness of heaven is a sustaining force for Kempe, and the thought of losing this joy is her greatest fear.
Forsooth I had rather see you being slain than we should turn again to our uncleanness.
Kempe scolds her husband for insinuating they should resume having sex after they have "lived chaste" for the past eight weeks. Kempe's desire for virginal purity clashes with what Christians of the time would have understood as her obligation or "debt" as a wife. The conflict was apparently ongoing, as Kempe bore a total of 14 children. Later in The Book of Margery Kempe she will seek reassurance that Jesus loves her as much as he would if she were a virgin.
I would you were enclosed in a house of stone so no man could speak with you.
One remarkable feature of The Book of Margery Kempe is the profound discomfort her presence elicits from many of her neighbors. It is understandable that people who went to church with Kempe would have had their patience tested. She weeps, screams, and occasionally falls to the floor during prayers. In the Middle Ages, as now, this sort of scene is not what most people would expect to encounter during Mass.
Nonetheless, the different reactions to Kempe's dramatic devotional style are revealing. Some who witness her behavior react as this monk does—in essence telling Kempe to be quiet and stop acting out. He doesn't believe she has divine inspiration coursing through her. Others, likely a minority, take Kempe at her word when she claims to be seized with the irrepressible spirit of God.
Set all your trust in God and fear not the language of the world ... The more ... shame and reproof ... the greater ... your merit in the sight of God.
The famous anchoress—or female religious recluse—Julian of Norwich counsels Kempe not to be dismayed by the many people who misunderstand and despise her. This advice, similar to that found in the scriptures, may have been especially meaningful for Kempe, coming from Julian, a fellow mystic. Julian was no doubt aware of the uphill struggle for credibility facing any medieval woman who would dare to claim divine inspiration.
Kempe relays the words of Jesus as she heard them spoken to her in a mystical episode. Like many religious believers seeking to cultivate a close relationship with God, Kempe struggles frequently with a sense of her own unworthiness. In this vision, Jesus uses the analogy of a marriage to explain how the human soul is ennobled and purified by its union with God. No matter how humble a maiden may be, he says, she becomes a great lady if she marries a great lord. What the soul becomes—what it "would be"—depends on God's grace rather than human merit.
Kempe relays Jesus's words to her. Throughout her time in Rome, Kempe faced many difficulties, including a language barrier between herself and local residents. She received considerable charity in the form of money, clothes, and food and drink, all of which Kempe saw as divinely "ordained" blessings. She obeyed Jesus's command to "study for no goods," meaning not to worry about where she would obtain meals, money, and so forth. In fact, Kempe took this injunction so seriously as to give away much of the money she did receive, leaving herself in frequent poverty despite her many benefactors.
I preach not, sir, I go in no pulpit. I use but communication and good words, and that will I do while I live.
Kempe spoke often and enthusiastically about the love of God and was not shy about exhorting people to repent of their sins and change their ways. Her outspokenness posed a problem for some of her contemporaries but not merely because they did not like what she had to say. In his First Letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 2:12), Saint Paul expressly prohibits women from "preaching," and to some medieval Englishmen, Kempe's activities either crossed this line or came dangerously close. The exact scope of the prohibitions remains a matter of lively debate in many modern Christian denominations.
If you will, Lord, that I cease from weeping ... take me out of this world. What should I do therein unless I might profit?
This quotation hints at the purpose Kempe ascribes to her frequent weeping and, by extension, her crying aloud during prayer. Her sorrows, she indicates here, are a "profit" to her soul and thus a means of participating in God's plan of salvation. Therefore, even though many criticize her for uncontrollable weeping spells, she does not want God to stop sending them.
Lord, for alle thi wowndys smert, drawe al the lofe of myn hert into thyn hert.
Kempe repeats this rhyme as Jesus's direct words to her. It literally translates as "Lord, for all your wounds' pain, draw my heart's love into thine." Though not a particularly brilliant poem, the couplet captures a major idea of medieval Christian devotion: by reflecting on the pain Jesus suffered during the Passion and Crucifixion, the faithful would be drawn to a deeper love of him. Jesus's suffering is a favored devotional theme throughout The Book of Margery Kempe, an idea constantly present in Kempe's inward religious life.
Lord, why will you give me such crying so that the people wonder on me because of it?
This passage appears after the quotation from Book 1, Chapter 57, but precedes it chronologically. It deals with Kempe's reaction to her "first wonderful cries"—the first fits of weeping and crying aloud she received from God. Here, Kempe records her early doubts as to whether the cries were a gift or a curse. By the time she recorded them in Chapter 57, she had decided they were a gift.
For in anything, daughter, that you might do on earth you might no better please me than to suffer me to speak to you in your soul.
Again, Kempe relays Jesus's words. He reassures her of the power of contemplative prayer, a form of worship in which the participant attempts to cultivate an inner stillness and allow God to speak. This kind of prayer can be contrasted with formulaic prayers, such as the Hail Mary or the Lord's Prayer, which are recited aloud. Early in her spiritual life, Kempe was heavily reliant on formulaic prayer, but in her conversations with Jesus she was gradually weaned away from it. This turn from formulaic devotions to the contemplative life is characteristic of medieval mysticism.
By this book many a man shall be turned to me and believe therein.
Kempe uses Jesus's words to her to claim she and her scribes received divine sanction to write her life story, not just as an entertaining tale but for the salvation of souls. Kempe, though not exactly bashful, grappled throughout the period described in the The Book of Margery Kempe with the feeling of being unworthy of God's love and attention. Here, Jesus leaves no room for doubt: the Book must be written, not because it will record Margery's life but because it will attest to Jesus's mercy.
From another mystical experience, Kempe relays Jesus's rhetorical question as she heard him speak it to her. Jesus reassured Kempe of his presence and protection constantly throughout the 40 years of her recorded visions. Yet, many people were willing to line up against Kempe, either to ridicule her for her piety or to attempt to charge her with heresy. The point of the question is that none of this opposition really mattered, so long as God was on Kempe's side.
This is the refrain of the long prayer found at the end of The Book of Margery Kempe. The list of people for whom Kempe asks mercy is comprehensive, from the crowned heads of Europe to thieves and adulterers. Reading over this prayer as he wrote it out, the 15th-century scribe who copied the Book could not help but add his own "Jhesu mercy" as a sort of coda to the text.