Margery Kempe is an entertaining woman, a strong woman, a clear-minded woman, but you’ve got to sympathise with the travelling companions who, as she criss-crosses Europe, try at every turn to dump her and flee on to a bit of peace and quiet. For Margery not only weeps, sobs and beats her breast with great passion at every religious opportunity, she also has the habit of arriving at the court of an important man, a bishop say, and immediately denouncing it as a haven of wordly sin. That’s when she’ not making deals with her husband to leave her alone in bed, in return for which she’ll pay off his debts.
Yet there’s also a blunt honesty in her discourse – as recorded by the scribe who wrote it down to become what is arguably the first autobiography in English – that feels as though it might be typical of her medieval times. And you can’t but admire her single-minded strength of character. I started reading her “booke”, that autobiography, wondering how long I’d stick with it, but she’s such a strong presence its almost as enveloping as a good novel.
Margery was born in the prosperous wool port of King’s Lynn (then Bishop’s Lynn) in about 1373, the daughter of one of its leading burgher, but after the birth of her first child suffered what sounds very like post-partum psychosis, that leads to her going mad – “she pitilessly tore the skin on her body near her heart with her nails, for she had no other implement, and she would have done something worse, except that she was tied up and forcibly restrained both day and night”. (p. 42)
Eventually, starting at around age 40, after having had 14 children, she took to a life a pilgrimage, touring all of the great European pilgrimage routes, going to Jerusalem, Rome (where she spent quite a lot of time) and Spain. Yet she gives frustrating little detail of this – only the occasional side comments hints at the difficulties of her journeys, as in this report from her old-age journey, with her daughter-in-law, to Germany: “When they were outside the towns, her companions took off their clothes and, sitting about naked, picked themselves for vermin … This creature [she always so refers to herself in the third person] was afraid to take off her clothes as her fellows did, and therefore, through mixing with them, she caught some of their vermin and was dreadfully bitten and stung both day and night…” (p. 281, Penguin, 1994.)
All of this is a spiritual journey, for her. She’s very medieval in this of course- it is God that gives her strength and passion and support – yet from the perspective of today it is clear this is one tough cookie. When she visits the archbishop of Canterbury: “there were many of the Archbishop’s clerks and other heedless men, both squires and yeomen, who swore many great oaths and spoke many thoughtless words, and this creature boldly rebuked them and said they would be damned unless they left off their swearing and the other sins they practiced”. (p. 71)
She only ever speaks of one of her children, an unnamed son “involved in business as a merchant and sailing overseas, whom she desired to draw away from the perils of this wretched and unstable world … so much so that he fled and company, and would not gladly meet her.”
As befits such a character, she’s got an excellent website setting out her life and times, and the complete text of the book.
As so often is the case, the survival of her story was a pure stroke of luck. The ODNB explains:
Only one manuscript survives, now in the British Library (Add. MS 61823), and previously in the possession of the Butler-Bowdon family of Lancashire. It was copied about 1450 by an East Anglian scribe named Salthows, and later in the century was owned by the Yorkshire Carthusian priory of Mount Grace. Until the manuscript was identified by Hope Emily Allen in 1934, Kempe’s Book was known only from excerpts printed by Wynkyn de Worde c.1501, and by Henry Pepwell in 1521 …
You wonder how many other such formidable middle-aged women pilgrims were trudging around Europe whose stories haven’t been preserved. (For it was a time of recorded strong women – Margery meets Julian of Norwich, shows signs of having been inspired by St Bridget of Sweden , St Elizabeth of Hungary and Mary of Oignies.