Margery Kempe: Mad, Mystic, Human
Margery Kempe, a Medieval mystic, continues to be captivating to this day for her intense religious visions.
When we think of what life was like for Medieval European women, we tend to conceive of only three broad categories. The first is of classic, fairy-tale princesses. Delicate, beautiful, and locked away behind thick castle walls until handsome knights lay eyes on them. The second image is that of a peasant woman, toiling in fields and at home to ensure that her children survive harsh winters and even harsher lords. Finally, we might also imagine a third category: the religious woman. This spectrum is broader, allowing us to imagine both staunchly devout, silent sisters hidden within convents, and radical, educated visionaries like Hildegard of Bingen, whose legacies have shaped music, science, and medicine to this day.
All these popularly-held ideas of life for Medieval women contain a grain of truth that no doubt speaks to the general experience of many women across the expanse of Medieval Europe. Certain figures, however, captivate us because their lives defy our preconceived notions of the Medieval period. Few archetypes seem to fascinate as much as the mystic women who emerged all over Medieval Europe, particularly in the 13th to 15th centuries. From Saint Bridget of Sweden to Saint Catherine of Siena, we are gripped by the stories of women who had intense, ecstatic personal experiences with divinity long before the Protestant Reformation espoused personal relationships with God for all. One such mystic stands out for the richness of information we can learn from her life: Margery Kempe.
Margery Kempe left behind the first autobiography ever written in the English language. As a result, the events of her life are easily available to us, prompting many different viewpoints and analyses. For some, Margery was a proto-feminist figure, whose visions and close relationships with God offered her a level of agency that was not typically available for Medieval women. For others, Margery was the victim of a lifelong mental illness that plagued her with visions, delusions, and suffering. However, there is much more to Margery’s life than meets the eye, and she does not neatly fit into any of the popularly-held ideas of her.
In this article, we will look at common conceptions about Margery Kempe’s life and explore a more complex view that can bring us closer to her negotiations, worries, sadness, and joy, and ultimately to her full humanity.
Margery Kempe was born circa 1373 in Bishop’s Lyn, now King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England. The daughter of John Brunham, a well-off merchant, mayor, and Member of Parliament, Margery’s upbringing was unique. As Margery suggests herself in her autobiography, she was used to the finer things in life, wearing “gold pipes on her head”, and colored cloaks so that she was “herself the more worshiped”.
At age 20, Margery married John Kempe, and became pregnant with their first child soon after. For Margery, the birth of her son was a turning point, as she tells us she fell ill soon after. The symptoms of her illness were harrowing: terrifying visions of hell, of devils with mouths of flame, all telling her to forsake her religion and indeed, to forsake herself, for the devils wanted her dead. The visions she experienced brought her such distress that she was driven to harming herself, only stopped by her husband restraining her.
Margery’s illness went on for six months before she experienced a different vision entirely. As per her testimony, Jesus Christ appeared at the foot of her bed, and reprimanded her for abandoning her faith. After this event, she was immediately “calmed in her wits and reason”. Her life as a mystic had begun.
Despite her visions, Margery still tried her best to fit into normal Medieval society, launching two businesses, a mill and a brewery, which failed shortly after. These pitfalls turned her closer to religion, and she devoted herself entirely to worship and communication with God.
From then on, Margery’s life became even more eventful. She would go on to have 13 more pregnancies, undertake several pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, Germany, and Spain, be arrested for heresy and released twice, and gain the respect of several authoritative figures in the Church. Her travels, visions, and teachings also earned her a small group of followers, who were deeply interested in the ways the divine spoke through her.
Only in her final years did Margery sit down and dictate her life to two clerks, writing The Book of Margery Kempe in the process.
Margery’s Book is a richly detailed account of her life experience, and is the basis for the many different popular interpretations we have of her.
Anthony Bale, translator of a modern edition of The Book of Margery Kempe, has a keen awareness of the competing drivers that were ever-present in Margery’s life (video). For Bale, one of the core animating factors of Margery’s life was a tension between her position as a holy woman, and the pressure to live a normal life as a good wife, mother, and friend.
These tensions are at the heart of Margery’s life, and urge us to resist seeing her through only one category. As we learned earlier, Margery still attempted to build a career as a wealthy businesswoman even after having experienced her initial visions. In her own account, Margery says her early brewing attempts were prompted by the fact that she “would not be content with the goods that God had sent her […] but ever desired more and more.”
In her early years, we can see that Margery was as concerned about her lay life as her spiritual affairs, and it wasn’t until she had another vision of heavenly music that she “left the world” in favor of spirituality for good.
Despite this, Margery frequently refers to people around her being “wroth with her, for she would not hear or speak of worldly things as they did”. This betrays Margery’s deep understanding of the sacrifices she made to live a wholly spiritual life: losing friends, and alienating loved ones.
There is perhaps no clearer example of the tensions between normalcy and spirituality in Margery’s life than in her relationship with her husband. In her own words, Margery’s experiences resulted in a complete unwillingness to “commune fleshly with her husband”, meaning she had no desire to be intimate with him. Despite this, she was forced to negotiate to honor her “debt of matrimony”. In her words, “he would have his will and she obeyed”. It wasn’t until years and 14 pregnancies later that Margery bargained with her husband, promising to pay off all his debts if he allowed her to live “chastely” for the rest of her life.
The tensions present throughout Margery’s autobiography are a gateway into seeing her life in a more complex light. Margery’s transition from average laywoman to devoutly religious was by no means clear-cut, and was marked by constant choices, sacrifices, and negotiations along the way.
In the social context of medieval Europe, women were largely banned from any kind of religious leadership. Historians like Caroline Walker Bynum, have argued that the unique behaviors of devoutly religious medieval women, like Margery Kempe, helped them access a form of ecclesiastical power. Mystics like St. Bridget and St, Catherine were widely respected, lending credence to the idea that mysticism was a way through which Medieval women could exercise power and agency.
From the 12th century onwards, Medieval women were banned from speaking publicly on church matterns, and it was even considered dangerous for women to touch the Host or any religious artifacts during services. Despite this, Margery Kempe’s visionary experiences certainly garnered attention, and often from highly authoritative figures in the Church. Over the course of her travels, Margery was regularly invited to dine with Church leaders, including the Bishops of Lincoln and Leicester. In her own words, she reports that Lincoln clerks asked her “many hard questions, which she […] solved, so that her answers pleased the Bishop.”
In yet another anecdote, Margery tells us that she even changed the perspectives of some Leicester priests, who initially “spoke angrily to her”, but “afterwards she spoke so seriously of sin and misbehavior that they were in silence […] and pleased with her words.” This incident suggests that perhaps Margery’s religious practices did grant her some authority.
However, we cannot assume that Margery, and other Medieval mystic women, were unquestioningly respected in society. Throughout her life, Margery was regularly chided, mocked, or even accused of being a fraud because of her visions and bouts of uncontrollable, devotional crying. In her Book, Margery recalls a particularly intense episode of tearfulness during a pilgrimage, which caused several companions to say she “was a false hypocrite, and falsely deceived the people, and threatened her to be burnt.”
More seriously, Margery’s ecstatic experiences and visions were at times construed as a threat. At least twice throughout her life, Margery was arrested for heresy, and subsequently let go. She tells us of a particularly harrowing experience with the Mayor of Leicester, who accused her of being a “false strumpet, a false Lollard, a false deceiver of the people” and sought to arrest her. Thankfully, Margery explains, “he asked many questions, to which she answered so readily and reasonably that he could get no case against her.”
Margery’s Book shows us that her mysticism was as much as source of power and respect as it was a source of ridicule and ostracism, and the clear presence of competing viewpoints towards her, from different sectors of society, illustrates a world far Medieval women far more diverse than we tend to imagine.
Yet another popular vision of Margery Kempe looks at her through the lens of mental illness. As Lucy Johnston explores, Margery Kempe’s sudden onset of visions after childbirth indicate that she may have been suffering from what we would now call postnatal psychosis. When faced with her own accounts of uncontrollable sobbing, as well as a refusal to eat meat, other scholars have offered alternative diagnoses, including depression and disordered eating. These interpretations of Margery’s life can be compelling, especially because they help us gain a deeper vision of how mental conditions are understood radically differently across cultural and temporal lines.
The issue with posthumous diagnosis, however, is that it often robs its subject of their own interpretation of their experience. In Margery’s case, she draws a very clear distinction between what she conceives of as her “illness”, which involves extremely frightening visions of hell, with the messages she receives from God. Through her interpretation, she was not ill throughout her mystic life. Though her bouts of devotional crying often caused her discomfort, a religious vision had cured her illness, according to her own view.
In another chapter, Margery also briefly tells us that she went to visit a neighbor’s wife who had gone “insane” as an act of charity, and found that her neighbor’s wife was miraculously normal during the hours she spent with her. Medieval society considered several things to be symptomatic of “insanity”, but based on Margery’s testimony, receiving religious visions was not one of them.
It is worth noting that though Margery did seem to believe she had fallen ill after the birth of her child, neither she nor the rest of society around her believed she remained ill even though her visions of Christ would only grow more intense as her life went on. Perhaps, then, the lens of modern mental illness is a useful tool, but only a small piece in piecing together the puzzle of Margery’s real experience of her life.
Margery Kempe continues to fascinate and inspire popular culture. From podcasts to poems to novels, Margery’s life has become a springboard through which artists have explored divinity, desire, freedom, sexuality, mental illness, and more. Despite this, when we talk about Margery, we seem to focus on a single facet, rather than seeing what this inspiration tells us: the reason Margery prompts so many different ideas is because her life contained and was informed by them all.
When thinking about the way we write and tell history, Margery’s life shows us the ongoing tension and dialogues that any human being goes through in the complex process of living. In this way, Margery’s life invites us to extend a wider vision into our historical narratives across the board, creating more diverse popular narratives of Medieval women.