The Book of Margery Kempe
We have been reading one of the most extraordinary Christian books of all time. Margery Kempe was a woman from Bishop’s (now King’s) Lynn in Norfolk and lived in the early 1400s. After suffering a depressive illness following childbirth and a succession of business failures, she had a significant conversion experience and then began an amazing ‘life with God.’ At the end of her life she told her story and it was written down – the earliest surviving autobiography in English. More incredibly still the book was almost entirely lost until 1934, when a 15th century manuscript of it was discovered. This perhaps accounts for why she is much less famous than she should be but the prophecy towards its end – ‘by this book many a man shall be turned to me and believe’ – may yet come true as it is now in print with Penguin.
Margery Kempe’s book is an exhilarating, if sometimes confusing, rollercoaster of medieval Catholicism with Toronto-blessing style Pentecostalism. In fact many of the experiences she describes are ones that have been criticised as being ‘new’ and not traditional Christianity within the last three decades – and yet here they are, in 1414. Margery has words of knowledge, converses extensively with the Lord, has times of seemingly endless weeping, hears divine music, smells heavenly aromas, sees a myriad of tiny angels, feels fire, and after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land develops a practice of ‘roaring’ in church. Unsurprisingly, some of this made her very unpopular with people who knew her and many who didn’t which, at the time of the Lollards, meant that her life was often in danger. Often she was blocked from attending a church due to the disturbances that would result and there is a fascinating description of the results of trying NOT to roar.
Several times, others around her ‘catch the Fire’ too. Whilst dictating the story to her scribe, Margery experiences ‘many holy tears and much weeping, and often there came a flame of fire about her breast…’ while the scribe ‘could sometimes not keep himself from weeping.’ Thomas Marchale was ‘utterly moved’ with tears as ‘our Lord visited his heart with grace;’ out in the fields, he wept and fell down. One of the priests who banned her from his church was reading the Gospel at Mass when ‘our Lord also visited him….with such grace and such devotion…that he wept amazingly.’ As a result, the priest understands that grace is about God’s will not human judgement.
The 21st Century Protestant may struggle with Pentecostal experiences so intermingled with late-medieval Catholicism, but there are other examples of this and we should remember that denominations are not God’s idea. Margery talks to Jesus and Mary, who she venerates as the Mother of God. The mass and confession are pivotal moments for her, and she does honour at the tomb of saints; occasionally, saints speak to her. She declares her belief in trans-substantiation, being often hauled up in front of bishops and archbishops.
Her story is a great read because it also includes moments of high drama and even comedy. A personal favourite is the time when she is hauled in front of the archbishop of York, with various clerics pressing for her to be burnt as a heretic. The archbishop says, ‘I hear it said that you are a very wicked woman.’ Confident in God’s approval, she replies to the powerful prelate, ‘I also hear it said that you are a wicked man. And if you are as wicked as people say, you will never get to heaven, unless you amend while you are here.’ The archbishop is completely undone and can only respond, ‘Why…what do people say about me?’
On another occasion when her activities are heavily criticised she responds, ‘Sir, I don’t care, so long as God is pleased with it.’ It is impossible not to like a woman with such an attitude! I’m sure medieval experts will be able to identify some similar behaviours in others – Hugh of Lincoln was known for weeping and there are some related behaviours in various European and British figures.
What has she got to do with the Land of Pilgrims and Prophets, though – after all, she was from Norfolk? Margery Kempe’s influence spread into Lincolnshire; when in trouble in Leicester she receives help from a Boston man who says ‘in Boston this woman is held to be a holy woman and a blessed woman.’ Later she travels through Lincolnshire and meets its bishop, who is convinced by her. At Lincoln she suffered ‘much scorn and many annoying words’ but answered wisely to people were astonished. When the lawyers asked her where her knowledge came from, she replied ‘From the Holy Ghost.’