All that is known of Margery Kempe's life is recorded in her single work The Book of Margery Kempe. Her book records her spiritual experience and is the first "autobiographical" work in the English language. As Margery herself was illiterate she had at least two scribes who wrote down her revelations.

Margery Kempe was born into a wealthy family of King's Lynn, Norfolk, c. 1373. In 1393 she married and lived what she later called a life of pride and worldliness. She had her first vision after the birth of her first child when she was in her early twenties. All in all Margery Kempe gave birth to fourteen children and ran first a corn mill and then a brewery. When both businesses failed she took this - apart from the first vision - as another sign of God to enter a spiritual way of life. It was not until 1413 that she succeeded in persuading her husband to agree to a vow of chastity in front of the bishop of Lincoln. After that she set out on pilgrimages first throughout England, then to Jerusalem, and after that to different places in Europe (Santiago di Compostella, Aachen, Danzig, Zirikzee, to mention just a few). She reports that her fellow pilgrims insulted and threatened her because of her hysterical weeping and constant praying as well as for her habit of being completely dressed in white, which was regarded as shocking by a lot of orthodox people as Margery was a married woman.

The situation of spiritual women in 14th century England was not as liberal as in other parts of Europe. Women who chose to live a life of chastity and prayer were supposed to withdraw from public life to live as recluses, and to bough to a  fixed set of rules as can be found in works like the Ancrene Wisse and the Hali Maidenhed. Because of her very extrovert behaviour Margery was tried several times for heresy and blasphemy, even though some clerics of high standing accepted her and even regarded her as a holy woman who had received the gift of tears by God himself. In 1415 Margery Kempe visited the only other known medieval English woman mystic and writer, Julian of Norwich. Margery Kempe died after 1438.

As The Book of Margery Kempe is quite unusual in style and language patterns it has been the subject of passionate discussion for many years if  it can be labelled as a mystical writing at all.


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Margery Kempe